Tonight, I took the advice of my two favorite cookbook writers: Nigella Lawson (whom I've loved for years) and Julia Child (with whom I am rapidly becoming acquainted). I made amuse-gueule au roquefort (cold roquefort cheese balls, or in my case, cold regular blue cheese balls), poulet rotis (roast chicken) and double potato mash. A delightful meal, I must say, and as buttery as can be. The cheese balls were one of those antiquated on-a-toothpick type hors d'oeuvres that have gone out of style based on their pasty appearance, but are really one of the most decadent, tasty appetizers you will ever have. The double potato mash was based on Nigella's recipe, but simpler--just potatoes, sweet potato, salt, and butter. But the piece de resistance (French, French, and more French) was the bird. It was a revelation.
Chicken, French or American, is chicken. (That was the revelation.)
The main thing that seems to differentiate French chicken a la Julia Child from your standard Barefoot Contessa chicken is the fact that French chicken is a lot more work. There's basting and turning and basting again. There's trussing. Of course, American chickens are sometimes trussed, too, but with French chicken the trussing seems paramount. You see, if you're like me and you don't read the whole recipe before going to the grocery store and you buy a chicken but not a trussing needle or twine, you end up just tucking the wing tips under the bird and letting the legs splay out as they will. Which seems fine, if there's no stuffing, which in this case there wasn't.
The problem is, if you don't truss the bird, you can't turn it on its side, which Julia seems to think is important. And if you don't turn it on its side... well, I'm not really sure what happens. Because our chicken turned out beautifully (I say our chicken because Ian was the orchestrator in the birdie's preparation--he pulled out the innards and buttered the cavity, all the icky sticky work that I'm sometimes too squeamish to handle). It was brown and moist (almost 20 minutes before Julia's estimated cooking time--possibly because of the cast iron skillet I cooked it in rather than a roasting pan, possibly because tastes have changed regarding the tenderness of chicken). It was... chicken. With butter. Tasty, but nothing spectacular. I suspect "spectacular" will come when I try out the stuffings. Next time.
Today I made my first Julia Child-style French omelette and started my first kitchen fire. Don't worry--everyone and everything is fine. There's a little scorch mark on the lid that I used to suffocate the fire. Apparently, I need to clean the black catcher things under the heating elements more often. Superheat them, add spattering butter, and you've got yourself a fire. Thank goodness I'm having a calm, level-headed day.
Back to the omelette. I made l'omelette brouillee, or scrambled omelette, which sort of turned into l'omelette roulee, or rolled omelette, because I blanked out on the omelette process in the heat of the moment and had to improvise. I would call my result a brown-butter omelette, because the heat was so high my butter browned in seconds, and the outside of the omelette was more brown than yellow--perhaps a bit firmer than Julia would like, but with a custardy center, so I did something right. Either way, it was delicious. Seasoned with salt and pepper, with a few chives snipped in (I had them leftover from potage parmentier and I hate to let fresh herbs go to waste.)
Omelette-making is fast and furious. 20-30 seconds, and that sucker's done. High heat, which I'd never really used for eggs--I usually take mine scrambled, low and slow until they resemble a cream sauce, no extra fat necessary. But that isn't the French way, apparently, though the results taste very French to me. I see the point, though. The high heat creates a nice exterior to your omelette--much more aesthetically pleasing than a heap of scrambled eggs--while the center stays creamy. It's nothing like an omelette at Denny's. Nothing like anything I've eaten at a restaurant, ever. It doesn't require loads of ham and cheddar cheese and all the extras restaurants throw in. It's a more pure expression of the egg, which I'm learning is a much more delicious protein than I gave it credit for.
The incredible, edible egg--but not rubbery. Who woulda thunk it?
Last night, I made the first recipe in the first chapter of Julia Child's cookbook: potage parmentier (leek and potato soup). I also made what she calls French dressing, which is not the thick orange stuff found in the grocery stores but rather a light red wine vinaigrette.
Julia says that potage parmentier is "simplicity itself to make" and you know what? She's right. If you have a food mill. Which I do. But those are the kind of sweeping statements that can make a body worry. "Simplicity" can often mean "nightmare"--depending on which chef you choose. So my confidence in Julia, at this point, is high. As long as I have the proper tools.
Our dinner last night was very simple, and as much as we could manage, very French. We walked down to the grocery store with our green bags to pick up most of the ingredients--we had potatoes and lettuce on hand, but not much else--and though it was a Safeway and not a lovely outdoor market, we perused the produce and bought our food fresh. Or as fresh as grocery stores allow. Our meal was simple (that's the word of the day): potage parmentier, a green salad, a pear, a green apple, and cheese. The cheese was, regrettably, not French. It was an amazing English cheddar (Ian's not too fond of Brie). The salad was a little much--the red onion was strong enough to burn the hair out of your nose--but next time, I'll soak the onion in water before serving, to leach away some of the acids. Generally speaking, very French and very yummy.
Not very elegant.
You see, this lovely meal was consumed on the couch, in front of the TV (while watching Julie and Julia followed by Ratatouille--we were in a very Frenchie gourmet mood). Too much cheese was consumed. There was burping involved. The wine was all wrong--syrah when we should have had a pinot grigio or something equally light, but we already had the syrah--and there were no napkins or fancy cutlery or anything like that. I'm sure Julia would have been appalled. Or maybe not. She did like Costco hot dogs. (That's not mentioned in Mastering the Art of French Cooking--you'll have to go to the Cooking with Amy blog archives for that).
All in all, an excellent introduction to French cooking. Next weekend, perhaps a roast chicken and a vegetable dish (un poulet rotis et des legumes--this book is good for my language skills, too).
I finally bought a copy of Julia Child's (and Simone Beck's and Louisette Bertholle's) Mastering the Art of French Cooking. I was avoiding it, if only to avoid a cliche. I've read Julie Powell's Julie & Julia twice, most of The Julie/Julia Project online, and Julia Child's memoir, My Life in France. I've seen the film Julie & Julia at least eight times--it's sitting in my DVD case right now. I really really really wanted to grab this book off the shelves and commit the next year of my life to mastering the art of French cooking. I'm a copycat, I know. And for that very reason, I didn't purchase the book. Until today.
I did mention, earlier in this blog, that I have a lot in common with Julia Child. I am tall--not quite her Amazonian 6'2", but pushing 6'0". Today, however (without referring back to the old post), I don't know exactly what I have in common with her at all. Except the height. And curly hair, though hers was more a product of the salon than of genetics. And I look darn good in pearls. I think what I meant before was that I was searching for something to do with my life--something reliable, tangible, tactile--and I found it in some way through cooking. I think I meant that I was married to a lovely man and that my physical location in life was dictated by his job.
I admit these things do not make me just like Julia.
I, for one, don't live in Paris, France. I live in Pullman, Washington. No one will be writing romantic poems about Pullman. No one flocks here for anything more cultural than the Lentil Festival, early each fall. And they don't really flock for that either. We have no monuments, no individual culture--not much to recommend us. No one will write a book about the art of Pullmanite cooking.
I also don't exactly have nothing to do with my life. I am a writer, pursuing a higher degree in fiction. Granted, it's not something you can put your hands in, knead, mold, chop. But it's a greater influence in my life than cooking, to be sure. It's a greater occupier of my time. If I had to choose between cooking and writing, writing would win the day.
But--cooking is a lovely diversion. It is a great way to entertain, though I have not yet acquired the exact social graces I desire, and do not live in such a formal society as existed when Julia Child penned her masterpiece. I do not wish to gain twenty pounds by cramming 500+ butter-filled recipes into a year, but I do wish to learn to be a better cook and a better hostess. I've got my basic red-and-white checkered cookbook. I've got Nigella Lawson's How to Be a Domestic Goddess. And now I have Mastering the Art of French Cooking.
Tonight: Potage Parmentier. That's leek and potato soup, the first recipe in the book. I figure it's as good a place to start as any. And I'm taking Julia's advice right from the first line of chapter one: "An excellent lunch or light supper need be no more than a good soup, a salad, cheese and fruit." Add a glass of wine to that and it sounds like a lovely evening.
I've lost the will to cook. I've been puttering around the kitchen, looking for the easiest thing. I've been making burgers. Plain rice. Canned soup. Blah blah blah.
Part of this is from dieting. When you're dieting, you're limited. When you're limited, you're bored. So I'm bored. And I'm tired. And I just don't feel like cooking.
But my husband makes me cook anyway.
Like yesterday. We made a middle eastern potato something. I didn't eat it. I had nachos instead. My excuse? Superbowl Sunday, though we didn't watch the Superbowl. I put it on the TV for about a minute, just for show. Then I watched the Ace of Cakes marathon. But I didn't get up and make a cake. I just watched other people do it.
Ian liked the potato thing though. It had saffron in it. Coriander. Turmeric. Onion, potatoes. That kind of thing. It was very yellow. So was my nacho cheese.