In our busy culture where dinner can range from microwaved green stuff to a plate of mashed potatoes to nothing, we sometimes wonder if the old-fashioned picture of a family eating dinner together will soon melt away for good … or has it already?
Using my own family as guinea pigs, with the passed-down cookbook “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” by Julia Child in hand (and inspired by the 2009 film “Julie & Julia”), I single-handedly attempted to create some time-consuming meals and bring a busy family together. I – a mere high-schooler who can basically bake lemon bars, spaghetti and pancakes – went on a culinary quest. Risking kitchen fires, meltdowns and family strife, I ran into this project head on!
I chose these recipes because they were some of the most popular from the book, and not knowing what I was really getting myself into.
I started with Potage Parmentier (potato and leek soup); it seemed fairly cheap and easy. And it would be, for someone who knew that if you throw chopped up wet leeks and some potatoes in hot oil, the oil will splatter, not only on you, but on your walls, your stove and your kitchen floor. It took me about an hour to prep the soup of nine ingredients. I peeled and chopped the potatoes, was educated on the proper cleaning of leeks by a very helpful website, cleaned the leeks, cut the leeks, realized I absolutely detest the smell of leeks, chopped up parsley and squeezed a lemon. I began by heating some oil in a pan and figured it was about time to slide in the vegetables, when oil splashed in my face and clung to every surface in a 5-foot radius. After my mom heard my screams of, “Oh Golly!,” “Ahh! Hot oil!!” and “HELP me somebody!!” she came to my aid and rescued me by taking the pan off the burner and turning it off. After that, things went pretty smoothly. I added some water and let it simmer for a while, then blended it and added cream, salt and lemon juice, and it was ready. As I sipped my soup, I realized that years ago, Child made this same soup for dinner one day just like I had today, and I felt connected to her in some uncanny distant way. Now, this was not just a writing project but a voyage to the past, to go back into Child’s kitchen and feel what she felt while cooking her masterpieces.
Despite persistent scrubbing, my hands still smelled like leeks the next day … and the day after that.
Next, I made Child’s Floating Islands. I picked this recipe simply because I liked the name. When my sister saw what I was making, she asked me why the heck I was making an island for a cooking project. This dessert is fluffy and creamy. With a mere dozen eggs, you, too, can make it! Yeah, that’s right – 12 eggs. Well, six yolks and 12 whites to be more specific. There are three elements to the collaborative dessert, crème anglaise, meringue and homemade caramel sauce. Not expecting it to take 3½ hours, I started at 7:30 on a school night. Going to bed at 11 p.m. and waking up 30 minutes late the next morning were worth it though, because Child’s Floating Islands are so very good! The crème is a mixture of six egg yolks, sugar, hot milk, a little vanilla, a pinch of salt and, of course, butter. The yolks must be whipped into a frenzy with the sugar, then adding hot milk, bringing it to a simmer, and then adding the other goodies. Quick, right? Wrong. The yolks would not be brought to “the simmer” no matter what I tried. Finally, after about 30 minutes of my mom and I taking turns slowly whisking, it simmered. But maybe I should not be complaining because once the crème was done, it was liquid sunset: warm, sugary and creamy. Not that I taste-tested it multiple times or anything. I threw that in the fridge and got to work on the meringue. For my first meringue, it came out beautifully. I whipped and whipped some more until the shiny sugar peaks popped up with the mixer, then turned it in to a powdered sugar-coated pan and placed it in the oven. I felt the pride of a peacock when I lifted it out of the oven 35 minutes later. The caramel sauce was a bit of a challenge, and I’m still not sure I did it right, but whatever, it was scrumptious. Sugar, water, a splash of cream and a hunk of butter blended together to make the sauce that was drizzled over the “islands” of meringue in the sea of crème. I got tingly chills, the kind that I only get from things like listening to Susan Boyle singing “Auld Lang Syne” or seeing Army heroes returning home.
I sat on my kitchen floor at 10:45 p.m. and ate the islands while basking in my newfound confidence as a chef, knowing I had just made Child proud.
Did you know that “a casserole,” as Child said, can cost as much as $100! Apparently this special dish, a Dutch oven-type of thing, is what you “must” use to make Boeuf Bourguignon, which is technically glorified beef stew. This demanding stew calls for a pound of bacon, three pounds of stew beef and three cups of beef stock, oil, an onion, 20 small onions (whatever those are), a bottle of red wine and some seasoning and herbs. Clearly, it is not for vegetarians, or for high school journalists who have to fund their own experiments. But hey, why not give it a shot? Well before I do, I’m going to have to break the bank and actually buy a casserole pot/oven thing.
I found a 3-quart casserole for $25 at Big Lots – oh goodie!
I took the smoky flavor out of the bacon by blanching it and then fried it. Happy that I had an excuse to eat some bacon, I bit into it and then realized why blanching bacon is not common practice. It was gross. I then cut up the beef and browned it. This is honestly the most raw meat I’ve ever touched. I usually have my mom do the dirty work, but since this was my project, it was my bloody meat. I was happily chopping up vegetables and sautéing them in a frying pan when disaster struck. As my perky little orange carrot pieces sizzled away, sparks flew out from the bottom of the pan and shot up into the air. Screaming for my mother, I realized that the coil on our electric stove had a melty and burned up spot. When my mom came to the rescue once again, she shrieked and realized that our freak explosive stove coil had blown a hole right through her favorite nonstick pan … oops. But at least the carrots were now ready to go into the brand new orange casserole. Forgetting that I was only doing a half recipe, I poured a whole bottle of wine in, not realizing until it was going into the oven with an herb bouquet (made by yours truly). This resulted in a longer cooking time, so dinner was a tad late. Ah, what is a mere hour for a culinary masterpiece? When it came out of the oven, cooked pearl onions and butter-sautéed mushrooms were thrown in and it was ready. It wasn’t too bad, except for the strong taste of cooked wine. But at the end of the day, I realized why people don’t cook this stuff anymore, like for real, who has the time to wait three hours for dinner? It was decided unanimously by the family to throw out the recipe.
Some things I learned:
Potage – I learned what “simmer” means and figured out my blender is a rather cool hunk of metal. Clean leeks only with gloves on!
Floating Islands – Meringue is a beautiful thing and worth every egg white used.
Boeuf Bourguignon – Remember, if you cut the recipe in half, don’t pour in a whole bottle of wine. Just make beef stew … seriously.
This experience has given me a few notches in my belt as far as cooking with hot oil, meringue and spark-spraying stove coils. I loved it. It made me warm inside to cook for my family. The sensation came as I saw their faces light up upon sinking their teeth into meringue and sipping potage. Though we all gained a few pounds from Julia Child’s dishes, I couldn’t have felt closer to what she might have felt as a chef.
Sabina Mogavero is a freshman at Pioneer High School.