Cooking For Others: Julia & The Servantless Quarter-Life Cook
EVENT: Julie & Julia Supper Club
VENUE: Phoebe’s Apartment, Flatiron
PARTY SIZE: 10
TYPE: Celebratory Foodie Feast
MENU: Heirloom Tomato Bruschetta; Boeuf Bourguignon; Asparagus with Tarragon Vinaigrette; Organic New Potatoes with Butter and Chives; Reine de Saba (Chocolate Almond Cake)
When Julie & Julia opened last weekend nationwide, you could almost hear the mock multi-octave “Bon Appetit” echoing through the Union Square farmers’ market. Though the media positioned the film as every self-declared foodie’s wet dream and, in the process, did its best to make me sick of it before the opening credits even began, I would have felt hypocritical had I failed to buy my Saturday night ticket and stake out a seat middle row center, two hours in advance.
Truth be told, I couldn’t wait. But my justification also had a lot to do with having agreed to host a Julia Child-themed dinner for my friend Wendy’s monthly Supper Club. So Sunday afternoon a group of ten food-obsessed friends, including a girl who actually worked with Ephron during the shoot, got together to go see the movie while I slaved away trying to master Julia’s cinematic dishes in time for their arrival.
That morning, I had made the obligatory pilgrimage to Barnes and Noble to get my very own copy of JC’s bible only to discover that the single copy still left on the island of Manhattan was all the way on the Upper West Side. I decided to leave my shopping list, and menu by extension, to my limited knowledge of French cooking and let the worldwide web fill in the rest when I got home. Wendy seemed a little wary of this plan, but soon we were filling baskets with multi-colored heirloom tomatoes for the mouth-watering bruschetta Powell makes in the film and asking the butcher to hand over 5 pounds of Bourguignon-worthy beef chuck.
The one thing still left up in the air was dessert. I remembered seeing a recipe in Bon Appetit for the chocolate-almond cake Julie and her husband had lovingly smeared across one another’s face in the movie and figured if it was that good, I had to make it.
Before this cake, I had actually never tried one of Julia’s recipes. Somehow since moving to my fourth-floor walk-up I had always relegated her recipes to the portion of my cookbook shelf left for dishes too impractical and time-consuming to summon on a regular basis. After all, the average servantless American housewife of 1961 was someone with considerably more time on her hands, not to mention space. When I had the leisure to turn down shortcuts and begin a project, then I would finally get out her book.
Five hours, and four mixing bowls later, my beef and cake were ready for the crowd. Even though I had retold my tale of almond cake anxiety over dinner, my pulse still raced as the supper club members took their first bite of dessert. I heard a dull “mmm” across the coffee table, and then my friend Alan exclaimed: “wow, Phoebe, you really are a terrible baker.” I could taste a hint of sarcasm, but took a bite myself just to make sure. The cake was delicious.
It was probably the proudest culinary moment my small kitchen has seen. I realize now that there’s probably some happy medium that we servantless quarter-life cooks can derive from Child’s teachings: we can trade the mortar and pestle for other less cumbersome, more useful electronic devices (mainly, my cuisinart mini-prep), cut the occasional corner or, better, choose accessible recipes that don’t lead us outside our basic abilities. But at the end of the day, should we choose to make a perfect Reine de Saba, there’s someone there with the gusto to show us how, even if it does take 25 minutes to beat the eggs.
When the time is right for Julia, the sky is the limit, or at least, my ten-foot kitchen ceilings are. And if Julie Powell can cook through her entire book of complicated cakes and confections, then with this blog as my witness, so can I. That is, if my copy ever comes in the mail.
From my kitchen, where I am nursing a Julia Child-induced baker’s elbow, to yours,
Phoebe, THE QUARTER-LIFE COOK
Heirloom Tomato Bruschetta
Makes 10-12 pieces
In the film, Julie Powell fixes her husband (pre-blog) a plate of tomato bruschetta that just makes your mouth water. Her trick: frying the bread into crispy olive oil-saturated bliss. As delicious as this looked, it didn’t really seem like an efficient technique when tackling appetizers for 10. Below are two versions for preparing the bread, my way and Julie’s.
4 heirloom tomatoes (preferably multi-colored), seeded and roughly chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
2 tbsp chopped basil
½ tbsp balsamic vinegar
1 tsp sugar
¼ tsp crushed red pepper flakes
1 rustic loaf of country or Italian bread, cut into ¾ inch slices and halved
Combine tomatoes, garlic, basil, balsamic, sugar, and a glug of olive oil in a medium mixing bowl. Season with salt and red pepper. Set aside to marinate.
Coat a large skillet with a thin layer of olive oil. Get the oil nice and hot, and add the bread (in batches if necessary, you can fit about 4 at a time). Cook on both sides until lightly browned and toasty. Add additional oil and repeat for the remaining slices.
Preheat the oven to broil (you can also use a flat bed toaster if you have one).
Arrange the bread slices on a cookie sheet. Brush both sides with olive oil. Toast in the oven for a few minutes per side, until golden brown and crisp. Allow to cool enough to handle, the rub each slice with a raw clove of garlic to infuse it with flavor.
Using a slotted spoon (you don’t want the bread to get too soggy), top each slice with a generous amount of the tomato mixture.
Since we quarter-lifers today don’t necessarily have as much time or space as the average American home cook of Julia’s era, I mixed and matched her techniques with a simplified version of this dish in Ina Garten’s Barefoot Contessa Cookbook. The ingredient ratios were also adjusted to fit my crowd of 10.
12 ounces cured bacon, diced
5lbs chuck beef, cut into 2 inch cubes
2lbs carrots, peeled and sliced into 1 inch pieces
3 Vidalia onions, diced
4 tbsp flour
1 bottle red wine (Cote du Rhone)
1 quart beef stock
2 tbsp tomato paste
4 cloves garlic, pushed through a press
1 tbsp fresh thyme leaves
1 bay leaf
3 tbsp unsalted butter
2lbs button mushrooms, stems trimmed and quartered
2lbs frozen pearl onions
Preheat oven to 450 degrees.
In a large Dutch oven, sauté the bacon in 1 tbsp of olive oil until brown and crispy, about 3 to 5 minutes. Remove the bacon with a slotted spoon to a plate.
Pat the beef dry with paper towels—this is the major Julia-ism that defines the perfection of this dish. If the meat is not dry, it will not brown properly. When the oil is very hot, add the beef in batches, making sure not to crowd the pan. Brown the beef on all sides and remove to the plate with the bacon. Repeat until all the beef is browned.
Pour out about half of the oil in the pot. Add the onions and carrots and sauté until brown and slightly caramelized, about 5 minutes. Add the beef and bacon back to the pan and season generously with salt and pepper. Sprinkle 3 tablespoons of flour over the meat, and toss until the beef is evenly coated. Place the pot uncovered in the oven for 4 minutes. Remove, toss the meat to redistribute, and return to the oven for another 4 minutes. (This was one key step in Julia’s recipe that made the meat increasingly brown and crispy).
Turn the oven back down to 325 degrees, and place the pot over a medium flame. Add the wine and enough stock to barely cover the meat. Stir in the tomato paste, garlic, thyme, and bay leaf. Taste for seasoning, and add any extra salt as necessary. Turn the flame to high, and bring the mixture to a simmer. Cover the pot and place it in the oven for about 2 ½ hours, or until the meat is fork tender.
While the meat is cooking, sauté the mushrooms in 1 tablespoon of butter until browned and tender. Set aside.
When the beef is ready, remove to the stove-top over a medium flame. Sprinkle 1 tablespoon of flour over the stew and stir in 2 tablespoons of butter. (This will thicken the stew and save you the trouble of straining the mixture and simmering it aggressively in a separate pan as Julia does). Add the frozen onions and the mushrooms and bring the mixture to a boil. Simmer for 10 to 15 minutes, until the stew has thickened slightly and the flavors have intensified. Taste for seasoning and add salt and pepper as necessary.
Serve the meat with a large piece of torn crusty baguette, buttery potatoes with herbs, and a light, vinegary vegetable like the asparagus below.
Asparagus with Tarragon Vinaigrette
Makes 4 servings (I doubled it for this party)
I improvised this dish using my newfound Julia technique of tying the asparagus into bundles, and finished it with a tried and true tarragon vinaigrette I often use with simply prepared vegetables.
1 tbsp Dijon mustard
1 tbsp white vinegar
1 tbsp tarragon
¼ cup olive oil
Bring a large pot of salted water to boil. Wash the asparagus and separate into two bundles. Tie each bundle together with a piece of kitchen twine. Once secure, chop off the bottom inch of the asparagus. When the water has come to a rolling bowl, place the bundles in the pot. Blanch the asparagus until bright green and barely tender, about 2-5 minutes depending on the size of the asparagus. Be careful not to over cook.
Remove the bundles to an ice bath, or rinse under cold water in a colander until cool. Arrange on a plate or platter. Sprinkle with salt.
Meanwhile, combine the mustard, vinegar, tarragon and salt in a small bowl. Gently pour the olive oil in a thin stream into the mixture while whisking briskly with a whisk or fork. When the mixture is fully emulsified, pour the vinaigrette over the asparagus.
Serve at room temperature as a light side dish.
Bring a large pot of heavily salted water to boil. Add the potatoes (whole or halved) to the water and cook until a knife easily slips in and out. Remove to a colander and rinse under cold water to stop the cooking. When cool enough to handle, cut the potatoes in half, and toss with the butter, chives, and a generous sprinkle of salt. Taste for seasoning, and serve warm or at room temperature.
Reine de Saba (Chocolate Almond Cake)
Makes 1 cake, about 8 servings
This cake was featured in the August issue of Bon Appetit as the recommended dessert for a Julia & Julia dinner party. I also learned that it was one of the cast’s favorite Julia creations on set, if Amy Adams smearing the chocolate confection all over her face was any indication.
You can follow the recipe here, as I made very few alterations.
One thing to note: I do not own an electric mixer, nor do I possess the strength of Julia Child in my gangly 5’7’’ frame. It took me 30 minutes to get the egg whites to form soft peaks, and I almost gave up several times along the way. If you don’t want to wake up the next morning with baker’s elbow and a sink full of dirty dishes (this recipe requires 4 bowls), then I would choose another dessert from the book. That said, if you follow the directions exactly, the results are foolproof. Take it from a baking novice like me.