August 2012


Today is a special day. It marks a couple of momentous events in our collective history as citizens of this planet. Both of them are relevant to me, and maybe more than one will be relevant to you.

First, today marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Julia Child. Here’s where I could say that she left an indelible mark on my culinary engagement from the time I was a young person, seeing her on Public Television every day when I ran home from school to catch reruns of her program. I’m not going to say that, because it simply isn’t true.

What she did, though, is open up the pathway for acceptance of French cooking techniques into today’s modern kitchen, and bridged the gap from the ’50s model of Campbell’s soup and green bean casserole/church basement cookbooks to recipes that instill pride in both kitchen skills and quality of life. Her recipes and effervescent personality in the kitchen gave life to the housewives stuck at home, injected life into the grocery industry, and opened doors of the curious nature of the home cook who wanted nothing more than to perfect a dish that was outside the realm of what was considered a normal dinner.

Cookbooks, television shows, and countless dinner parties later, her influence can be seen in restaurants as well. Escoffier envisioned the brigade system in restaurants over 100 years ago, but it was the dishes of Julia Child that brought French culinary technique once again to the masses.

She did it with such zest. Her television appearances outside of the French Chef kitchen found her paired with David Letterman, whom she traded barbs with, playfully chiding him for his lack of an adventurous palate when a hamburger was transformed to a tartare au gratin thanks to a faulty heating element. Later in life, she shared a Public Television kitchen with Jacques Pepin, a similarly regarded French chef, and countless glasses of wine. The Julia Child I became engaged and enamored with was one enjoying her later years with glee, keeping a watchful eye over food while sipping on a cabernet. The aspect of a meal prepared for health rather than flavor was not frowned upon, but seen as a noisome bother. The reality of cooking in Julia Child’s kitchen was to use fresh ingredients, and blend flavors, aromas, and fill your kitchen and home with love.

***

The second event is equally as personal to me. My best friend Andy and his wife (also named Julia), this morning, welcomed their son to the world. There has been nothing more exciting for them in their young marriage than to anticipate the welcome of a child into all of our lives. It has been such a pleasure to see how they’ve grown as a couple from the first time I met her as his special lady, to their engagement, and by standing up at their wedding and promising to foster their relationship and marriage with support and care.

As a gift for their baby shower, I got them a pasta maker. I realize that everyone needs diapers. Everyone needs a stroller. The huge amount of love and support from their respective families, from the look of their registry, looked to have provided most of that for them. I started to think about my relationship with Andy and how food has played a huge part. We’ve known each other since middle school, and cooked with each other for just as long. We had a project in 7th grade geography where we made sushi together, and in high school, we made an instructional video for his French class on how to make crepes.

When I went through culinary school, we lived together. I’d bring home steaks, skate wing, potatoes. Every day, a giant takeout container would come back from my kitchen to our house. We’d experiment together on flavors, pore over recipes and techniques from my cookbooks, and watch cooking shows together. He’d ask questions, I’d try to answer them using what I’d learned at school, and our relationship with food and with each other was strengthened through the medium of cooking.

When we get together now, we always cook. It made sense to me to give the pasta maker as a gift. To use it properly, it takes patience, time, and multiple sets of hands. The finished product is one that you share with your family. Through the process of making pasta, and cooking together, you bring those with whom you work and teach closer together.

The way I phrased it when I picked it out, “Kid’s gotta eat”, may have been a little brusque, but it’s true. I hope that the best gifts I know how to give are ones that can be shared with family. I see that Andy’s great loves are family and cooking. I envision a kitchen filled with giggles, tiny, floured handprints on every surface. And I smile.

Congratulations, Andy and Julia. Happy Birthday, Henry.

The day before, I’d started a no knead bread recipe, as it’s the easiest bread that I can make that doesn’t test my patience. I’d gotten some sunflower seeds from work, and added a little bit of pumpkinseed oil to the mix. The bit of sugar from the oil and seeds, in addition to the perfect bread rising temperature inside the apartment, leavened the bread to more than double size faster than anticipated. Into the oven on the hot day it went, as did a flatbread with caramelized onions and chickpea flour. A little tomato sauce topped the flatbread, and it was set aside for cutting into wedges after cooling.

***

Another thing I’d started the night before was the dessert. A big hit with everyone, and one again something that requires surprisingly little technical effort, is a profiterole. I made a choux pastry with eggs, flour, water, and butter. Half of it was given the sweet treatment, to be served with cherries reduced in a bottle of Coca Cola. To the other half, I added grated cheddar for savory gougeres. As the time ticked closer to service, I realized that cherries and cream puffs wouldn’t be enough, so I set out with a recipe for a simple semifreddo, semifrozen ice cream. No churning needed.

I didn’t want anything too complex. All I wanted was something that would be light and complimentary. The recipe was simple enough. Whipped Cream, Whipped egg yolks with sugar and vanilla, and whipped egg whites. Fold them together, and freeze in a mold. Slice and serve when set, after about three hours.

Let me pause for a moment to let you in on a couple of key points. I have a hand blender, which works well for 95 percent of the things for which I use it. It purees my sauces, makes smoothies, and whips cream exquisitely. What it positively does not do well is whip egg whites. This is due to a couple factors: 1) Human Error. PROTIP- When you are whipping egg whites, you cannot stop. You cannot add sugar at the wrong moment, or they won’t set. You shouldn’t use a glass bowl, for they don’t have sides that promote the egg whites creeping up the sides as you whip, falling into soft or stiff peaks. You can’t have even a tiny hint of egg yolk in there, or they won’t whip. Did I know any of this before I began?

No. This is why my first attempt failed. This is why I don’t enjoy patisserie. Try again? Okay. This time, (Ugh) by hand.

After looking up the best way to whip egg whites, (use a wire bulb whisk), I cleaned and dried my bowl, and separated five more egg whites into my bowl. I added a splash of white vinegar as recommended, as I didn’t have any cream of tartar lying around. I whipped. Slowly at first, and then gradually with more speed until my arm was about to fall off.

In the kitchen, this is when having a mom around comes in handy.

“Mom, my arm is about to fall off!” I yelped from the kitchen.

“Okay, just let me know when you want to switch,” she replied calmly from the couch, not missing a word in the book.

At this point, about five minutes in, my forearms felt like, to use a comparison of Olympic size, the arms of a tired kayaker. It was starting to be downright unpleasant.

In comes mom to bat cleanup. Why is it that moms can accomplish things with far more accuracy and precision than we can? The difficult things. Like whipping egg whites. Two minutes, and she had it to stiff peaks. We folded in the remainder of the sugar, and then incorporated all our parts together for the resulting semifreddo, which was then put into the freezer.

When the last of our party finally arrived after delays at the airport, my lady, her mom, her aunt, and our traveling companion from Martha’s Vineyard, we were ready with dinner. The bread was still fresh from the oven, the chickpea flatbread had cooled and was dressed with the tomato sauce, the caprese salad was attractively arranged on the service platter, and the soup, finally chilled, was ladled into tiny espresso cups and garnished with sungold tomatoes and a parsley oil float ringing a single leaf of Italian parsley procured from the neighbor’s plant.

Bottles of wine were opened, hugs exchanged, and we were able to finally relax in each other’s company, ready for a fulfilling week of excursions, museums, food, family, and friendships both old and new.

This week has been a whirlwind of activity. I’ve had some great meals, and certainly done some things that have I’ve been personally impressed with in the kitchen. Things in the kitchen come about because of a desire and a need to come up with something that will taste good and also feed a crowd.

As I mentioned in my last post, two mothers came to town this last Wednesday. My mom came down for the day from Madison to Chicago, and in preparation, she called up and asked what she could bring.

“I have some wonderful vegetables from my garden, including three beautiful Cherokee Purple tomatoes that you gave me. I could bring those, and some fresh mozzarella, and some sweet corn, and some…”

The list went on. She ended up bringing down all the above, as well as fresh chard from her garden, which I used in a frittata this morning, some herbs that I made into oils, some beautiful edible nasturtiums, and a lovely little basil plant. The hit, of course, were her tomatoes.

A couple of months ago, through the G.E.E.E. project at Hyde Park Art Center, we picked up a few red solo cup tomato plants, and sent one home with my sister for my mom to transplant in her garden. Planting it in her garden, she recently harvested the first bounty of three gigantic tomatoes from the plant. Where ours have languished in the off and on heat from the summer, her transplants have flourished and provided us with a fresh and delicious caprese salad that we enjoyed on her visit.

As she sliced into the tomatoes, I heard a gasp. I ran over to see if she had cut herself, as she’s used to knives much less sharp than those in my kitchen (her words, not mine). No, it wasn’t that. Looking at the first slice of tomato was a glorious sight. I marveled as slice after slice peeled off from the fruit, and I snacked on the top, sweet and juicy like a tomato should be.

We cooked in the kitchen for a couple hours. She paused to read a little bit, and joined me in shucking a dozen ears of corn that she had brought down from a friend’s local farmstand. The day was hot, in the 90s as it had been all week, and as we had a few hours to kill before the rest of our party came over, I figured I’d have some time to make a chilled sweet corn soup.

Good sweet corn is one of the best things you can have during the summertime. From the first time this season that I had a sweet corn broth this summer on Martha’s Vineyard, I wanted to continue celebrating the simple flavor of the season with little complication.

Rather than boil the corn and serve it on the cob, I sliced the kernels off the cobs, and then simmered the cobs themselves for 45 minutes in water. In a separate pan, I put some onions in to sweat with a bit of salt and pepper, and added a splash or two of white wine to bring out the aromas.

When the cob broth was producing a fragrance of its own, I removed the cobs and threw twelve ears worth of kernels into the pot. After a minute or two, really all the cooking that corn needed, I pureed it, and then strained out the matter directly over the onions.

I checked the clock. About two hours until everyone arrived. Reserving the corn matter for a later dish of fritters, I turned the heat of the large stockpot to high, and did the quick reduction method between two pots. After the giant ball of steam died down from the first transfer, I pureed then strained the now floral broth back into the sizzling saucepan and let it reduce for about twenty minutes until it was ready for a mounting of butter and addition of salt and pepper.

Tasting it when it was warm, I got a sweet, candylike flavor, but I also got the simple flavor of buttered popcorn. I poured it into a vessel to chill and let it sit in the fridge until the remainder of our dining party arrived.