These two volumes of “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” have been sitting on my dining room table for five days. They have been staring at me. I have stacked and restacked and shoved the books aside. Sadly, my son had even ripped out one of the pages. I bought them 15 years ago at a musty bookstore on the Upper West Side -- one of those places that feels like you're walking into a Paul Auster novel. I've flipped through them over the years but I've never cooked out of them. As I stare back at these books I realize that in many ways Julia Child’s "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" was my family’s Bible. I grew up in Berkeley in the Seventies and our church was our kitchen and my parents worshipped kick ass legs of lamb and beautiful iles flotantes. I pick up Volume One and begin to read the forward.
“This is a book for the servantless American cook who can be unconcerned on occasion with budgets, waistlines, time schedules, children’s meals, the parent-chauffeur-den-mother syndrome, or anything else which might interfere with the enjoyment of producing something wonderful to eat.”
Number one, I don’t know anyone with a servant. I guess that’s what a private chef is. I don’t have one. Number two, food is not budgeted in my house. We don’t indulge in family vacations but when it comes to food: organic organic organic. Which is of course expensive expensive expensive. As for my waistline, I drink some wine, eat lots of butter. Or maybe it’s that I eat some butter, drink lots of wine. Either way I eat/drink fat. As for children’s meals? I believe my children should eat everything we’re eating. Nothing hidden or dumbed down or mellowed out. When I get to the den mother thing I pause. I’ve never heard my current existence called a “syndrome” before. Yeah I’ve got two kids that I’ve got to schlep around all day and I like to think they don't interfere in my cooking a good meal. But the honest truth is that they totally do. I cook three meals a day but there is very little variety.
I close Volume One and then reopen it to see which random recipe appears. It opens to a dirty page clearly spattered with grease and full of holes. I close the book and open it again. Same page. Crazy. Maybe if it's that dirty and that used it's just that good. Gigot. Leg of lamb. I’ve got my first recipe.
I want two more recipes. Maybe a side dish for the lamb and a dessert. I realize that I have a drawer full of summer squash from our CSA box that is getting old. I find a squash recipe. Now I flip through and find a custard that sounds very much like the custard recipe I've done many times from Julia Child's "The Way to Cook." After taking on the lamb I need a recipe that isn't intimidating so this works. My menu is complete.
- Gigot de Pre-Sale Roti a la Moutarde (Herbal Mustard Coating on Roast Lamb, p. 335 vol. one).
- Courgettes Sautees a la Provencale (Zucchini Sauteed in Olive Oil with Garlic and Parsley, p. 365 vol. two).
- Creme Renversee au Caramel (Caramel Custard, Unmolded - Warm or Cold, p. 610 vol. one).
When I leave the house on Saturday morning all I know is that I need a six-pound leg of lamb and some eggs for the custard. I drop my daughter off at a birthday party and head with my 2-year old son to the butcher.
I get to the counter and the butcher tells me they’re out of leg of lamb. I stand there and look at him like he’s crazy. I wasn’t prepared for this. "Are you sure?" I ask. So he asks his boss who says, “Yeah, there are a few legs in that big white bucket in the back with all the other extra parts.” So the butcher goes to get the leg from the bucket filled with the random body parts. Yum, yum. $7 a pound with the bone in. Eight pounds is the smallest. I can't for the life of me remember what did Julia said. How many pounds? Bone in? Out? Old scrap okay? Trimmed? I have no clue.
FIRST LESSON: BRING THE COOKBOOK WITH YOU TO THE MARKET.
I pay for the lamb and some beautiful local eggs. $63 later (!!!!) I am ready to go home. The leg of lamb is so big that the butcher suggests I throw it over my shoulder to lug it to the car. Instead I propose putting it in my son’s lap in the stroller so that he can gnaw on it a bit. The butcher stares at me blankly. Okay. I leave to pick up my daughter, rush home and I realize I have a big problem.
The problem is my lovely son. He is two years old and an unbelievably energetic guy. He barely takes naps and my husband is out of town until late in the afternoon. Normally, if I choose to cook something complicated while he is still awake I either need him strapped into his chair (which lasts ten minutes if I'm lucky) or I spend the whole time avoiding catastrophe. He likes to grab chef knives off the counter and throw them to the ground like he's spearing fish. And almost every week he manages to get a hold of a box of cereal and spray its contents all over the kitchen. Saturday isn't any different. He went right for the Rice Crispies.
Julia says that the lamb tastes better if you put on the glaze and leave it to marinate for a few hours so I have to do that at the very least. I lock my son in his room for a quiet time with his Legos and a sticker book. For 2 hours. Please don't report me to child services.
I open the package from the butcher and I realize this leg needs a whole lot of help. I need to give it a major trim. I'm rushing. It's not perfect but I try to trim the fat down to an acceptable amount.
LESSON TWO: HAVE THE BUTCHER TRIM THE LAMB FOR YOU. WATCH THEM SO YOU CAN LEARN AND DO IT THE NEXT TIME FOR YOURSELF.
I have my very helpful six-year old daughter pick rosemary and thyme from the garden to which we add Grey Poupon mustard, soy sauce, garlic, rosemary, thyme, powdered ginger and olive oil.
Julia doesn't say to season the lamb with salt and pepper. I do anyway. I'm starting to get confused by this recipe. It seems deceptively simple. I paint on the mustard glaze and throw the lamb back into the refrigerator.
LESSON THREE: NO NEED TO BE SO PARANOID ABOUT MEAT. LEAVE IT OUT AN HOUR OR SO WHILE IT'S MARINATING SO THAT IT IS AT ROOM TEMPERATURE WHEN YOU START COOKING IT. OTHERWISE YOU'RE JUST ADDING ON LOTS OF COOKING TIME.
On to the Creme Renversee. My daughter and I get so excited when we open the carton of eggs from Soul Food Farms in Vacaville. There's one super cool blue egg. I promise her that I won't use the blue egg for the custard. It must be saved forever.
I start making the caramel that will line the baking dish. My daughter watches from a safe distance.
But she gets too fidgety so I have to scare her away from the stove by saying the caramel could literally burn her face off if it spilled on her. Extreme parenting.
LESSON FOUR: NO MATTER HOW CAREFULLY YOU PLAN THINGS, SOMEONE WILL ALWAYS DESPERATELY NEED YOUR ATTENTION WHILE YOU'RE MAKING THE CARAMEL.
As I swirl the caramel around I hear my daughter shrieking something from the other room. I yell back, "I can't help you now. I can't leave the caramel. Give me a minute." She continues to yell something imperceptible. "Oh my god, I can't leave the caramel," I yell back. She runs into the kitchen. "Momma, my nose is bleeding so much." Not just a little. It's gushing all down her shirt and onto the floor. I attempt to address both issues. I run to my daughter with fresh tissues and then back to the caramel to see how it's progressing. Finally I bring my daughter over to see the caramel. I hold a kleenex to her nose with one hand and tilt the caramel pan with the other.
We try to scrape off every luscious drop of carmel into the dish. I warm the milk and vanilla bean and slowly pour it over the whisked eggs and sugar. It is strained and ready to be baked. I pour the custard into the caramel-lined dish, place it in the water bath and it goes into the oven.
I check out the condition of the summer squash. Oh my god, look at the gnarly zucchini.
I peel and blanch the summer squash. Now they look much better.
I'm sweating. I haven't stopped moving for 3 hours. I remind myself to breathe. It's just food.
The custard comes out of the oven. Julia says that if you stick a knife in, it should come out clean. My knife is not quite clean but I always like to undercook things a touch. We'll see.
My daughter has taken on her own cooking project. She is squeezing the juice out of 25 meyer lemons into various bowls. She is planning on making lemonade. My son sounds perfectly content through the monitor so I continue. Time for a cup of coffee.
My husband arrives home after driving all day. I'm not very nice to come home to on this particular day. I'm very focused. I'm all business. The oven is cranking. It's time to throw in this huge hunk of meat. Again I'm feeling like the recipe is too simple. Oh well. In goes the lamb. Custard is done. Squash is blanched. My husband is now giving my son the attention he needs. I can finally sit down and read the details of the recipes. Holy shit. I discover that I did this reading of the details thing about 5 hours too late.
LESSON FIVE: READ, READ AGAIN AND THEN READ FOR A THIRD TIME EVERY JULIA CHILD RECIPE BEFORE YOU START COOKING.
LESSON SIX: DON'T IGNORE THE WORD VARIATION PRINTED DIRECTLY ABOVE A RECIPE. INSTEAD, REFER BACK TO THE MASTER RECIPE AND THEN READ THE VARIATION.
Now I see why the recipe seemed so simple. I was only reading the variation. I have skipped about 10 steps. I should have started the oven at 450 and then brought the temperature down to 350. I was supposed to place the lamb on a bed of vegetables. That's why the glaze is burning as it hits the bottom of the roasting pan. I have to put something in that's moist. I quickly cut up a sweet onion and some celery and scatter it around. Then I dump a bit of chicken stock into the bottom of the pan to soften up the burning glaze. The kitchen smells outrageously good. Now I just have to wait and see.
Two hours into the cooking time the temperature of the inside of the lamb is still at 125 degrees. Julia says take it out between 145 and 150 degrees for medium rare. And that it should take about 1 1/4 hours.
I realize that there are a few issues. I put the lamb into the oven cold, my lamb is eight pounds instead of six pounds, the oven didn't start out hot enough, and there is a big bone in the leg.
So now I'm lost and that means I have to call my grandmother. She just knows these things. She asks for the details and then says, "It sounds to me like the lamb has been in long enough. But why don't you talk your father." He calls back after 5 minutes to say, "Take it out." And then I ask my mom how to make a sauce.
LESSON SEVEN: LISTEN TO YOUR MOM, DAD AND GRANDMOTHER WHEN THEY TELL YOU TO TAKE THE LAMB OUT.
But I didn't take it out immediately. I leave it in another 15 minutes and move on to the sauce.
I'm unable to find Julia's details on how to make a sauce so I take my mom's advice. Here's what she said to do. Remove some fat from the drippings. Add a little flour to what remains in the pan. Cook off the flour flavor. Add some wine and stock. Reduce. Taste for seasoning. It's way good.
Meanwhile, I finish off the squash Provencale. I sautee an onion and then add the squash on high heat until nicely browned. During the final 30 seconds I add salt, pepper, garlic and parsley.
Time to carve. The lamb is definitely not cooked perfectly. But it's not overdone. There is still some pink in there. I'm so hungry.
Finally, we eat. My husband, daughter and I sit down, but it's taken so long that my son has already been asleep for two hours. He will have to read about this grand experiment in a couple of years.
It's good. It's really, really good. I can't stop exclaiming, "Wow. This is so good. So good. Isn't this good?" But it really is delicious.
It's my daughter's bedtime so I decide to let her unveil the custard:
Whoops, it cracked. I took it out of the oven too soon. The inserted knife should have come out clean when I tested it. "It's still beautiful," says my daughter.
LESSON EIGHT: WHEN USING JULIA'S COOKBOOKS TRUST THAT ALL THE INFORMATION IS THERE.
As I write this a few days later my son is asleep and I'm able to calmly flip through the lamb section. I can smell the musty pages. I can see the previous owner's work in all the smudges. I wonder what Julie Powell's book looked like by the end of her year. The history of all her cooking splattered on the pages. Look what I learned in one night. Imagine a year living with these recipes.
Now, without the pressure of cooking, I very easily find the details on how to make a sauce. Julia even advises you to have a warm gravy boat ready. I'm not sure I'll ever be that kind of den mother. But I do think Julia would be very proud of me for improvising and calling my parents.
P.S.: Check out what my kids had the next night. Acini di pepe pasta with cherry tomatoes, pine nuts, peas and kick ass lamb. We still have four pounds of lamb left in our fridge.