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A toast to life, to food, to family . . . to Julia Child

JANET K. KEELER  (photo, food styling)   |   Times
Boeuf Bourguignon was the first recipe made by Julia Child on her PBS cooking show The French Chef. It’s a day-long effort, but with a big, flavorful payoff.

JANET K. KEELER (photo, food styling) | Times Boeuf Bourguignon was the first recipe made by Julia Child on her PBS cooking show The French Chef. It’s a day-long effort, but with a big, flavorful payoff.


Times Food Critic

It's a goofy parlor game, from the wimpier half of Truth or Dare: With which famous person, living or dead, would you most like to share a meal? My answer doesn't require complex weighing of pros and cons ("John Lennon vs. Gandhi, both vegetarians, but Lennon might be more fun."). Mine is simple. It's Julia Child.

Why? She was a 6-foot-2, trilling-voiced late bloomer who even her husband once called "wildly emotional" and "an extremely sloppy thinker." But she was a plucky enthusiast, an intrepid explorer and a woman of prodigious appetite.

In her final years, living in Santa Barbara, Calif., she discovered La Super-Rica Taqueria — a dump, I tell you — and fell in love with its down-market chorizo tacos, thick gorditas and stuffed pasillas.

She loved food. Not in a Rachael Ray-yummo way. She made mistakes but she didn't cut corners. She was prone to saying things like, "Remember, if you are alone in the kitchen, who is going to see you?" But this meant you could just rinse off a rogue chicken breast that had slipped off the counter, not substitute powdered hollandaise for your own. Her French bread recipe drags on for more than 10 pages, with diagrams and descriptions as complex as the electrical wiring on the space shuttle.

But I don't just love her for her lifelong commitment to demystifying French cooking without dumbing it down. I love her because of her Cinderella story. She's Rocky Balboa, she's Seabiscuit, she's the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team. She once confided to her sister-in-law, "To think it has taken me 40 years to find my true passion."

She had the longest-running TV cooking series ever. She was 50 years old when it started. She was nearly that old when she and Simone Beck wrote the seminal Mastering the Art of French Cooking, which legendary New York Times food editor and critic Craig Claiborne once said "may be the finest volume on French cooking ever published in English."

She wasn't French, she didn't have a face for television and her laugh could make dogs howl. Nonetheless, she was a lusty, life-affirming superstar. And as with so many Julia Child fans, my happiness for her successes seems personal. She's mine somehow. But before she was mine, she was my mom's.

• • •

My mother was an 18-year-old college freshman when she came by family life the hard way. Despite the odds, she rose to the challenge, washing cloth diapers in a ringer washer, breast-feeding in a tiny powder room when her husband's fraternity brothers stayed too long on poker night. It shames me now to think of all the things this young mother gracefully did without (no Diaper Genie? no baby monitor?).

The sticky part was mealtime. She was raised to eat well, mostly Midwestern restaurant fare with prime rib night and Manhattans with extra cherries. But her earliest attempts at dinner live on in infamy: gelatin molds with suspicious chunks suspended in their murk, casseroles rife with cream of mushroom soup, a birthday cake in a meatloaf pan with seven-minute icing that needed way more minutes.

My family moved to Northern California during the Summer of Love, hippie culture quickly permeating our little apartment. Along with it came 10-pound loaves of brown bread baked in coffee cans, alfalfa sprouts and granolas filled with flax seed, dates and other things to keep you regular. But somewhere along the line, my mom started drifting over to the television set, with its jury-rigged bunny ears, after Sesame Street and Mister Rogers' Neighborhood were over.

On PBS's The French Chef, she watched this horsey woman make dishes with sexy names: boeuf bourguignon, cassoulet, charlotte Malakoff with ladyfingers. And she was inspired. Deeply suspicious at first, we all came around. At age 6 I could deftly cut the hairy choke from my artichaut au beurre citron or plunge a small spoon into the cap of a souffle to see the cloud of steam escape.

For my mother, it was confidence building, this talent we were all wowed by. Part alchemist, part snake charmer, her mad skills prompted my little brother to exclaim proudly, "Mom's a good cooker!"

Julia Child led my whole family to the dinner table, a place we spent many of our happiest hours, where conversation spun out languorously like the ribbon of a perfect creme anglaise. I never knew Julia, but she has always had an honored place at my table.

Laura Reiley can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Her blog, the Mouth of Tampa Bay, is at

Boeuf Bourguignon a la Julia Child

For the stew:

6 ounces bacon, in one solid chunk

1 tablespoon olive oil

3 pounds lean stewing beef, cut into
2-inch cubes

1 onion, peeled and sliced

1 carrot, peeled and sliced

1 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon pepper, freshly ground

2 tablespoons flour

3 cups red wine (a full bodied wine like Bordeaux or Burgundy or Chianti)

2 to 3 cups beef stock

1 tablespoon tomato paste

2 garlic cloves, mashed (you may choose to add more)

1 sprig thyme (or 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme)

1 bay leaf

For the braised onions:

18 to 24 white pearl onions, peeled

1 1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil

1/2 cup beef stock

Salt and fresh ground pepper

1 bay leaf

1 sprig thyme

2 sprigs parsley

For the sauteed mushrooms:

1 pound mushrooms, quartered

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 tablespoon olive oil

First prepare the bacon: Cut off the rind and reserve. Cut the bacon into lardons about 1/4 inch thick and 1 1/2 inches long.

Simmer the rind and the lardons for 10 minutes in 1 1/2 quarts of water. Drain and dry the lardons and rind and reserve.

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Put the tablespoon of olive oil in a large (9 to 10 inches wide, 3 inches deep) fireproof casserole and warm over moderate heat.

Saute the lardons for 2 to 3 minutes to brown lightly. Remove to a side dish with a slotted spoon. Dry off the pieces of beef and saute them, a few at a time in the hot oil/bacon fat until nicely browned on all sides.

Once browned, remove to the side plate with the bacon. In same oil/fat, saute the onion and the carrot until softened. Pour off the fat and return the lardons and the beef to the casserole with the onion and carrots.

Toss the contents of the casserole with the salt and pepper and sprinkle with the flour. Set the uncovered casserole in the oven for 4 minutes. Toss the contents of the casserole again and return to the hot oven for 4 more minutes.

Now, lower the heat to 325 degrees and remove the casserole from the oven. Add the wine and enough stock so that the meat is barely covered. Add the tomato paste, the garlic and herbs and the bacon rind.

Bring to a simmer on the top of the stove.

Cover and place in the oven, adjusting the heat so that the liquid simmers very slowly for about 3 hours. The meat is done when a fork pierces it easily.

While the meat is cooking, prepare the onions and mushrooms and set them aside.

For the onions, if using frozen, make sure they are defrosted and drained.

Heat the butter and oil in a large skillet and add the onions to the skillet.

Saute over medium heat for about 10 minutes, rolling the onions about so they brown as evenly as possible without breaking apart.

Pour in the stock, season to taste, add the herbs and cover.

Simmer over low heat for about 40 to 50 minutes until the onions are perfectly tender but retain their shape and the liquid has mostly evaporated. Remove the herbs and set the onions aside.

For the mushrooms, heat the butter and oil over high heat in a large skillet. As soon as the foam begins to subside, add the mushrooms and toss and shake the pan for about 5 minutes. As soon as they have browned lightly, remove from heat.

To finish stew: When the meat is tender, remove the casserole from oven and empty contents into a colander set over a saucepan.

Return the beef mixture to the pot.

Distribute the mushrooms and onions over the meat.

You should have about 2 1/2 cups of sauce, thick enough to coat a spoon lightly. If the sauce is too thick, add a few tablespoons of stock. If sauce is too thin, boil down to reduce to the right consistency.

Taste for seasoning. Pour the sauce over the meat and vegetables. If you are serving immediately, place the covered casserole over medium-low heat and simmer 2 to 3 minutes.

Serve in the casserole or
on a warm platter surrounded by noodles, potatoes or rice and garnished with fresh parsley.

If serving later or the next day, allow the casserole to cool and place covered casserole in the refrigerator. Twenty minutes prior to serving, place over medium-low heat and simmer very slowly for 10 minutes, occasionally basting the meat and vegetables with
the sauce.

Serves 6.

Source: Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child (Knopf, 1961)

A toast to life, to food, to family . . . to Julia Child 08/04/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, August 5, 2009 11:33am]
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