Life's too short to eat bad food - Me

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic - Arthur C. Clarke

Friday, August 17, 2012

The Way To Cook - Part One

This is the story of how I found Julia, how she saved me from despair and showed me the Way. The Way to Cook (Jacques was there at the beginning as well, but it's not his 100th).

As with so many important chapters of my life, it starts with a redhead. In this case a red haired nursing student at Bowling Green named Lisa. I met her at a party at the house she shared with my good Law School friend (and friend to this day) Kelley. I would have accepted Kelley's invite without knowing that she had five housemates. I'm sure I would have had a good time even if all five women weren't hot. I certainly could have had a good time even if the redheaded one hadn't shown some interest in me. But my drive home would've been quite different if I hadn't spent most of the night, and until breakfast time, showing Lisa how comfortable the seats in my new car were when fully reclined.

I wanted to see her again, and believe it or not I was reaching a stage of maturity where I did not want her to think me a cad. On the other hand, when it came to asking a girl on a date the word chicken comes to mind. I spent the drive back to Toledo trying tome come up with a plan that worked despite my cowardice. So I invited her to my place for dinner on a double date with Kelley and her boyfriend. I don't remember much about what I cooked (probably steak) but the dinner must have been a success - Lisa and I dated for almost two years.

I do remember I made soup. My first try. From scratch.

A disaster.

I had played with food at home and I had cooked in restaurants -more than just fast food, but all by corporate formula. I didn't know how to cook. I didn't know that there is a difference between reading a recipe and reading a recipe.

My only cookbook, a gift from Mom when I headed off to the Midwest, was a 1976 edition of The Better Homes and Gardens New Cookbook. I am not sure if I had even looked at it prior to this. There it was on page 626 - Vegetable-Beef Soup (the recipe is reprinted below). I could do this. I had most of the stuff on hand. I could skip the limas and go for some other veg. I had no idea what beef shin was, or where to find it, but I knew that Kroger had stew meat and that should work.

Everything went in to the pot and I let it simmer until it was time to serve. Everyone was seated, the wine poured, and I uncovered the pot. A bog of broccoli particles buried under at thick slick of fat. I dubbed it Dagobah Swamp Soup and served it. It tasted good – it just looked horrible. They enjoyed. I was embarrassed.

Obviously this taught me several important lessons, among them:

1. Cooking meat in a liquid will exude an amount of fat that must be removed by some method prior to serving.
2. Broccoli works fine in a puréed soup, but otherwise breaks into tiny particles. Stick to firm vegetables in soup.
3. It's a really, really good idea to read - really, really read - the recipe.

But I also learned another lesson; one that I later found was espoused by Julia: 

Maybe the cat has fallen into the stew, or the lettuce has frozen, or the cake has collapsed. Eh bien, tant pis. Usually one's cooking is better than one thinks it is. And if the food is truly vile, then the cook must simply grit her teeth and bear it with a smile, and learn from her mistakes.

I was not about to let this happen again. I knew that I had to teach myself to cook. At time the only real choice was learning from books. Where to start?  This was 1981 – a different era for cooking. Mall bookstores proved unhelpful.  Then as a today, the staff at local bookstores is versed in the location of books, not in their content. It was singularly unhelpful.

At the suggestion of one of my law school professors I turned it to a local used bookstore (sadly it no longer exists) that she said was known for its cookbook collection. I asked the nice lady at the desk for recommendations, not for a cookbook, but for a book that would teach me to cook.

She sold me three: Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Vol.1 by Julia, and both La Technique and La Methode by Jacques. Thus I began my journey into the world of cooking. By the way, these photos are of the original books. They survived the fire in 1994. If you look closely you can see the soot stains on them.

I will not say that I pulled a Julie Powell and cooked my way through all of Mastering.. Neither did I cut and chop my way through the works of Jacques Pepin. But, I did make my way picking and choosing through all three volumes.

Look at what these volumes provided. In Julia's work there were lengthy detailed descriptions of the dishes; how to prepare them and even why to prepare them.  Pepin’s works were the owner’s manual with page after page of wonderfully photographed pictures. I practice dmy way until I became proficient at tasks, some that do not come into play very often (boning a chicken).  I learned that cooking is a serious art if one wants to be successful at it.

When I felt sufficiently competent to show off my new skills I invited the same three people over for another dinner. The menu consisted of Julia's bouef bourguignon and a salad with vinaigrette.  I also made baguettes.

With the assistance of friends I was referred to a local butcher for the meat and slab bacon with rind. He recommended chuck for the beef, a suggestion I still embrace. Then as now the onions were frozen. I got the wine at a wine store where the owner took great pains to recommend an appropriate one both for cooking and drinking. I followed the directions to the letter.

The bread was not Julia’s. Mastering Vol. 1 famously lacked a bread recipe¹ and it wasn't until later that I purchased Vol. 2. It was inserted in Vol. 2 at the request of Mastering’s editor Judith Jones².  The new biography of Julia confirms this³. [This entire paragraph appears in this form solely so I can play with footnotes.]

So I used Jacques’ recipe from La Technique. I lacked a mixer, but I had a married friend with one. At his wife’s suggestion I mixed the dough at their place, and then brought it home for rising, shaping and baking. But, reading Jacques’ recipe also was an eye opener as to the importance of knowing your ingredients. Consider his introduction:

Through all of the bread-making techniques that follow, we will use all-purpose, unbleached flour. To measure out the flour, scoop a cup directly from the flour bag. This produces a fairly tightly packed cup and three generous cups will amount to 1 pound of flour. The moisture in the flour varies from season to season. Humidity will be absorbed by the flour in the summer and water should be decreased in the recipe. Vice versa in winter.

Even today many people don’t think about such things when cooking.

Dinner was a rousing success. My dedication to preparing the meal together with the result really impressed the babes. It has made me a chick magnet since.

My journey through the world of food began and I have never looked back.

To celebrate my love of cooking on the occasion of her 100th birthday, I decided to recreate that first Julia inspired meal – this time for my wife and daughters.

I made a few changes. I now prefer to make such dishes a day ahead. I did so, adding the onions and mushrooms the next day. The wine – well, we will talk about that another time.

As for the bread, I used Julia’s Vol. 2 recipe. I had forgotten how much I enjoy making bread totally by hand.

The meal itself was wonderful and all enjoyed - I can still impress the babes. Julia and Jacques have taught me well and continue to inspire me. Part Two will delve into their individual influences on my cooking.

For now, Happy 100th Julia, and bon appétit.

Vegetable-Beef Soup

3 pounds beef shank
1 1-pint 2-ounce can tomato juice
1/3 cup chopped onion
4 tsp salt
2 tsp Worcestershire sauce
1/4 tsp chili powder
2 bay leaves
1 1 pound can (2 cups) tomatoes
1 cup diced celery
1 8 3/4-ounce can whole kernel corn
1 cup sliced carrots
1 cup diced potatoes
1 10-ounce package frozen limas

Combine meat, tomato juice, onion, seasonings and 6 cups water in soup kettle. Cover and simmer 2 hours. Cut meat from bones in large cubes; strain broth and skim off excess fat. Add meat and vegetables; cover and simmer 1 hour. Serves 8 Better Homes and Gardens New Cookbook, 1976

Footnotes (to prove I still can): 

¹Noël Riley Fitch, Appetite for Life (Bantam Doubleday 1997) 325-6 
²Judith Jones, The Tenth Muse: My Life in Food (Alfred A. Knopf 2007) 83-4 
³Bob Spitz, Dearie (Alfred A. Knopf 2012) 381-2

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Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
- Arthur C. Clarke

Life's too short to eat bad food -