Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Finding my way around a whisk, thanks to Julia


It is the spring of 1987. Newly divorced, I sat in a Chicago apartment contemplating that evening's exciting repast of Lean Cuisine Chicken — for the umpteenth time. Yummers.

I knew I was in trouble when the dog food started to look more appealing. This didn't quite rise to the level of Saul falling off his horse on the way to Damascus. But you could say I underwent something of an epicurean epiphany. I could do better, I thought, than yet another frozen meal out of a box. There must be a better way.

I could learn to cook. And so I did, experimenting with different kinds of fowl, spices, marinades.

There is no question that I am not worthy to carry Julia Child's spatula. But there is one thing I share with the genius behind the codex of the kitchen, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, who would have turned 100 this week. And it is this: Wine is an essential component in the preparation of any recipe. It also comes in handy as an ingredient.

Until I discovered what one is supposed to do with a whisk (so that's what it's for), my entire culinary experience pretty much began and ended with tossing a steak on the grill, fixing a cocktail, flipping the steak, having another cocktail, then eating said steak.

But discovering that in addition to consuming food, it is important to cook it first, my world opened up to the charms of oregano, basil, thyme, cilantro, soy sauce, teriyaki sauce, sesame sauce — and did I mention wine?

I started buying cookbooks. Julia was a great help.

And she still is, especially with Saturday reruns of her now historic series on PBS, as well as shows with her partner in creme fraiche, Jacques Pepin.

Julia Child influenced millions of people around the world with the idea that the kitchen did not have to be an intimidating place of mystery and failure. There are plenty of other rooms in the house for that.

Purely by necessity, I do a fair amount of the cooking. The Bombshell of the Balkans, who certainly knows her way around a food processor and is a terrific chef, often arrives home later than I do.

We are avid readers of the food section and comb through cooking magazines for new things to try out. And often it seems I feel the towering presence of Julia Child looking over my shoulder. WWJD?

There are a few things I will never attempt, especially any recipe involving green peas, which is the single most horrible, dreadful, hideous, loathsome, disgusting vegetable known to mankind. The green pea is a crime against gastronomy. I should mention here that I hate green peas.

I also veer away from concoctions that require ingredients like puree of yak, or exotic spices from countries that don't have a sanitation system. Call me biased. And an awful lot of snooty food experts think I can pop into Publix and pick up a pound of Burkina Faso truffles.

That's one of the lasting charms of Julia and Jacques. Despite their world-class reputations for being among the most elite of gourmet chefs, they made cooking accessible to the average klutz fumbling around the kitchen. And even more importantly, fun, too.

The hidden message to any Julia and Jacques recipe is simple. You can do this. It's not that hard. Even if it's French. That's why God created wine.

Some people find cooking a chore. I find it a respite.

After a hard day of insulting politicians, coming up with new names for the Glazer tots and trying to remember the difference between a comma and a semicolon, the kitchen can be a refuge. It's just me and that slab of meat. Let's get ready to ragout.

I've learned from Julia and Jacques to put the time in to prep the kitchen, setting out all the ingredients I'll need, chopping whatever needs to be chopped and making sure I have plenty of wine.

Julia and Jacques have a technique to mince garlic by smashing it with a huge knife. I won't even try this since I am more accident prone than Evel Knievel and have no interest in discovering where the term blood orange originated.

I've had plenty of kitchen disasters, and some surprising triumphs. But thanks to Julia and Jacques I've never lost the joy of the challenge to try something different.

After all, what can possibly go wrong if you have enough wine on hand?

To Julia — Merci and bon appetit. That's French, you know. I've mastered that much, at least.


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