In a used bookstore in 2003, I bought a first-edition copy of Julia Child’s “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.” It was, and remains, in perfect condition. At the time I now realize, my buying it was aspirational. I liked the idea of having it, more than I did actually cooking from it.
I’ve always loved to cook. I’ve spent entire weekends putting on elaborate multi-course dinner parties. I would get some recipes from magazines like Bon Appetit, or the much loved, but now gone, Gourmet. But really I would get most of my recipes online. Back then, Epicurious.com was just coming into its own.
It was always then, much like it is now, easier to Google something and get exactly what you want, rather than having to crack a 600-page book and mess with an index or table of contents. So, on my shelf Julia Child stayed.
Fast-forward a decade and a half. By then, I had lived in Napa for 10 years. I was lucky enough to be an acquaintance of Margrit Mondavi and dined with her many times at the Robert Mondavi Winery, as well as in her home on Wappo Hill. Margrit would often talk about Julia Child, her graciousness, her humor, her lack of pretense. Child was over six feet tall, and Margrit said she brought in a special bed for Child when she spent the night on Wappo Hill.
Margrit often told a story about a time when she was on a panel at a conference with Child. Someone asked Child what she would have done had she not discovered French cuisine. Without hesitation, in her birdlike Brahmin accent, she said, “I probably would have married a banker and become an alcoholic!” We would always laugh when she told that story because, Margrit said, it was so characteristic of Child’s wit.
At some point though, I put it together. Child’s cookbook and her little cooking show, in 1963, and Robert Mondavi’s opening a hospitality-focused winery in 1966, were earthquakes in the American food world. The depth and variety of food and wine we now enjoy in the Napa Valley are just continuous aftershocks of those groundbreaking events, over time emanating out through the rest of the country, and the world.
Once I realized that, I remembered that I had the book that started it all on my bookshelf. I pulled it down and cracked it open. What first struck me was the dedication, which was not to Paul Child, her wonderful husband who encouraged her to cook, as you would expect. Rather, it reads:
“To La Belle France, whose peasants, fishermen, housewives, and princes—not to mention her chefs—through generations of inventive and loving concentration have created one of the world’s great arts.”
I love her sense of reverence in that statement. And I, having traveled and eaten in France as well, completely agree. The splendor of French cuisine as we’ve come to know it, is the accumulation of centuries of experimentation and practice by a whole people. It is a Gallic shared reality and an immense source of their, sometimes excessive, pride.
Most striking and observant to me in her dedication, is the elevation of cuisine to a “great art.” Painters, sculptors and musicians all have their acolytes and museums. But why not chefs? Isn’t what they do just as, if not more, important?
Can you eat a painting? Bronze is impalatable. Music may nourish your soul, but does it nourish your body? Cooking is a great art. And just as the French have done painting, sculpture and music better than anybody, so have they done food. They set the bar for what is great in the world. We all look to them for what we should eat.
It’s no mistake, therefore, that the best restaurant in the Napa Valley is called The French Laundry.
Filled with warmth from her dedication, I sat down on the bed in my guest room, which doubles as an overstuffed library, and turned to the table of contents. My heart sank. The chapter on sauces alone is more than 50 pages. The one on vegetables is more than 100 pages. There is so much you can do with poultry that it has a chapter all its own, separate from meat. I began to feel overwhelmed. Where does one begin? I put the book back on the shelf.
Some time later, I began to get curious. What if I just take one ingredient, and see what Julia has to say about it? I started with carrots and found carottes glacėes or, simply, glazed carrots. I read the recipe a couple of times and realized it was incredibly simple. You peel and chop the carrots and put them into a saucepan. Then add sugar, salt, butter and beef stock and simmer it down for about 40 minutes.
The result was a pot of sweet, unctuous, bright orange carrots in a shiny brown glaze that when paired with a steak, mashed potatoes and a great Cabernet, is a perfect Saturday night meal. I’ve made them so many times now I simply call them Julia’s Carrots.
Though, it hasn’t always been perfect. I’ve learned from experience that if you let it go too long, the glaze can dry up and the carrots can burn. But if you cut the heat too soon, and the glaze won’t come together and you’ll taste beef stock, butter and sugar, not a syrupy glaze. It’s all about timing, and you have to pay attention.
Knowing how simple, and delicious, Juila’s Carrots were, I got a little more ambitious. Few dishes are more iconic of French cuisine than Soupe á L’Oignon, or French Onion Soup, so I gave that a go.
Again, I realized after making it once that it is actually very simple. Essentially, you caramelize many coarsely chopped onions until they are a rich dark brown. The onions become a base to which you add beef stock. Once you’ve added the stock, you then simmer the soup uncovered, reducing it until it thickens.
Like the carrots, you have to watch the onions as well. I ruined a Teflon pot because I had the heat too high and wasn’t tossing the onions enough. Also, you don’t want to add too much butter, because it will delay, or even prevent, the onions from browning.
In the cookbook, she calls for only two quarts of beef stock. She says this will serve 6 to 8, which I found was inadequate. The “lion” bowls — white porcelain bowls with two lions heads poking out the sides, which the soup is traditionally served in — only hold two cups. If the soup reduces, as it should when done right, the maximum one is going to get from 2 quarts is 3 bowls. So in my recipe I call for 3 quarts of stock rather than 2.
Also, the volume of the onions reduces by three quarters when you cook them. The more onions you have, the richer the soup becomes, so I used 4 pounds of onions in my soup, rather than the 1 ½ she calls for. It may seem like a lot at first, but you will see that once they reduce, it’s going to make for a better soup.
The soup is finished by floating a slice of a toasted baguette on top and adding a mound of grated cheese. You then put it under the broiler until the cheese melts, oozing over the sides of the bowl. She calls for Swiss only because that is what one had available in an American grocery store in 1963. I prefer Gruyere, if you can find it.
I am no longer intimidated by Juila Child. While her recipes may contain a lot of steps, once you get the hang of them and understand the goal, you can make the recipe your own. At their essence, they’re all pretty simple. They just require careful reading, patience, and lots of butter.
1 ½ lbs carrots 1 ½ cups beef stock 1 Tbsp. sugar 6 Tbsp. butter ½ tsp. salt Parsley
Peel the carrots and chop them into a half to one inch length. Try in your chopping to get them to be an equivalent mass of carrot, even if the diameter is different. Thicker carrots should be shorter, and thinner carrots should be longer.
Put the carrots in a medium sized saucepan. Add the other ingredients, except the parsley, on top. Turn heat to medium high. As the butter melts, stir the carrots to get the butter to coat them thoroughly. You want to stir it often to make sure all the carrots get coated. The liquid should simmer. About 25 minutes in, taste a carrot. If it is too crunchy, leave it. You want the carrots to be soft, but not mushy. At 30 minutes, watch it closely because if you let it go too long, all the glaze will evaporate and it will burn. Taste again. Once there is little glaze left in the pan, and the carrots are shiny, you’re done.
Serve, sprinkled with chopped parsley, as a side to a filet of beef and mashed potatoes.
French Onion Soup
Serves 4 to 6
4 lbs. onions
5 Tbsp. butter
5 Tbsp. flour
3 quarts beef stock
1 cup white wine or vermouth
2 Tsp. salt
1 baguette, sliced and toasted
1 cup Swiss or Gruyere cheese per bowl
Chop off the stem and the root of the onions. Peel off the dry outer skin and cut each in half. Then slice them with the curve, not against, so that you get strips.
Melt the butter in a large stock pot over medium high heat. Add the onions and stir them so they get coated by the butter. It will take close to 45 minutes for all the onions to brown, depending on how hot your stove is. Watch it carefully and toss the onions every so often to make sure they don’t burn.
Once all the onions have browned, sprinkle in the flour and stir. Allow it to cook for 3 minutes. The onions should be gelatinous and look like marmalade.
While the onions are browning, boil the stock in another pot. Once the onions are done, pour the stock in with the onions. Then add the wine and salt. Lightly boil for another 20 to 30 minutes uncovered. It should be thick.
When the soup is done, fill a bowl and float a baguette slice or two on top. Then top it with the cheese and put it under the broiler until all the cheese melts.
John Henry Martin is hungry. If you tried this recipe, email him to tell him about it at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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