Sunday, September 6, 2009

Not Just Childs' Play: Tackling Cooking with Julia

In light of the Julia-mania going on recently, the time seemed ripe to throw a Julia Child-inspired dinner party.

Three cooks, three courses, and three recipes... with only one requirement: each recipe must come from one of Julia Child's own cookbooks. Period. No modifications, no substitutions, no straying from the gospel of Julia.

With Julia's prolific career as a cookbook author and chef, our choices for potential recipes seemed endless, from the much-publicized 524 recipes in her classic 1961 debut effort, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, to any number of recipes from her modern-day collaborations with other cooks, like Jacques Pepin.

We thought to ourselves: how hard could it be, right? Julia's reputation was built upon making French cooking accessible to American cooks. The woman was trying to teach American housewives to cook French food during an era when the closest thing to herbes-de-provence at the local Piggly Wiggly was curly parsley and mustard was just "yeller," certainly not deee-jon.

Yet, google Julia Childs' recipes, and all you will see is blog after blog about cooking disasters, burnt bourguignonne, and fallen souffles. Hmmm... sounds like a premise for a movie blockbuster, right? Perhaps, one starring Meryl Streep and Amy Adams...

Undaunted by the negative attitude swirling in the blogosphere, we designed our game plan for our dinner party. Our Julia Child menu included:

The hors d'oeuvres:

*Stuffed Mushrooms, made with a saute of minced mushrooms, onions, heavy cream, aged swiss cheese, and parsley (seem so simple and down-to-earth, right?); and

*Croque Madames, France's upgraded equivalent to the American grilled cheese sandwich. Only the French could make a slice of toast so decadent, draped with a tantalizingly thin slice of ham, and topped with a sauce of creamy bechamel. Although gruyere can easily be found in any gourmet cheese aisle nowadays, we followed Julia's instructions and grated some aged swiss into the sauce.

* To accompany the above, what could be better than a glass of Veuve Cliquot Ponsardin, a true champagne from Reims, France to whet our appetites for the rest of the meal!

The entree:

*Classic Beef Bourguignonne, chunks of beef simmered in red wine with bacon, pearl onions, and a handful of aromatic herbs. (Or, what AMB would call "Heaven!!!")

* Such richness is best served with a simple side dish. We recommend petite potatoes in colors reminiscent of flag of France (fingerling, blue, and red bliss);

*Don't forget copious amounts of French red wine and celebratory toasts to the chef!

Then, when you are about to faint from the brilliance of the Woman (or perhaps fall into a food coma)... you get to the finale, the dessert:

Once you see the dense slices of Reines de Saba (Julia's Queen of Sheba cake), you undoubtedly will MAKE room in your stomach. This rich almond and chocolate cake is served best, of course, avec un cafe au lait.

So, it was with visions of such dishes floating through our heads that we all departed to our separate kitchens to cook with plans to re-group for the dinner party. Oh, we learned! We at AMB would caution you: Julia and her recipes are not meant to be tackled alone. You are going to need a support group to address the questions and allay some of the doubts that inevitably come up along the way.

For instance, early on in the process, the first innocuous question arose about the Reine de Saba. Julia instructs you to "pulverize" the almonds. A very creative description, but it makes you wonder: exactly what does she mean by "pulverize?"

How exactly does a strict recipe-follower translate Julia's instructions into today's technologically exacting terms? To pulverize: do you pulse the almonds for 30 seconds in your food processor? On what setting?

Or, are you going to have to buy the nuclear-sized mortar and pestle that her sweetheart, Paul Child, bequeathed to her when she was embarking on her culinary journey at Le Cordon Bleu? Moreover, would YOUR sweetheart know even what a mortar and pestle is? All this contemplation, just to be able to prep the almonds properly?!

Or maybe, you are the one, who thinks her recipe seems so simple that you are guaranteed success.

Humming "La Marseillaise," you brush the mushrooms in melted butter. Things are moving along swimmingly until you add the heavy cream to your mushroom mixture. Julia says to let it "thicken," but you realize that she fails to elaborate anything else. Is she thinking maybe five minutes enough or ten of "thickening?" How thick does this mushroom stuffing need to be exactly? Julia does not say....

Panic sets in, as you realize there are a wide range of possible interpretations inherent in Julia's recipes. You re-read her recipe again and again, looking for clues into the woman's psyche.... which, of course, puts you behind schedule and leads to a tragic-but-classic, multi-tasking pitfall, a cheese grater mishap with your thumb. Ouch, Julia!

Or, perhaps, you are the one who is two and a half hours deep and up to your elbows in simmering beef bourguignonne, when you are suddenly frozen by the realization that she never told you to add salt to the meat... AT ALL, EVER.

You bitterly recall how you spent a beautiful Saturday morning painstakingly peeling exactly 24 (and not one more!) miniscule pearl onions for the dish, just as Julia instructs. So, what exactly do you do now without her guidance on the matter? Season to taste? Do you dare to defy Julia and her recipe?

With the heat emanating from the stove, your grated thumb bleeding profusely, and the pulverized almonds sticking to the chocolate running down your leg... perhaps you begin to think, "Screw Julia! And her recipe!" and "Was the woman a masochist?!" She begins each recipe by telling you exactly what to do... And YOU DO! You hang on her every word, each participial phrase... like it is your lifeline. But then it happens, you're midway through the recipe or almost at the finish line - and she abandons you. There is nothing regarding how to pulverize almonds, how long to let cream thicken, or how to properly salt the beef.

Well, we at AMB would like to suggest that maybe THAT is part and parcel of Julia's gift to us. The woman was a chef and a mentor for aspiring cooks everywhere. She DOES want you to master the art of French cooking - but she realizes it is YOU in your kitchen, not her.

Ultimately, even with her as a guide... you are going to have to do some of the cooking yourself. You need to experience cooking food on your own (albeit, with a small support group) in order to develop some decent judgment about food.

If you talk to the surgeon general or any molecular gastronomist, cooking seems to be the new science. That said, in many important ways, cooking is still an art. So, look at it this way: Julia maybe is just giving you a little shove. She's telling you that you need to TASTE your food, add something of your own to it, give it a little love, and see if it just doesn't melt in your mouth in the end.... like butter. Even if you do stray from her recipes a bit for your Julia-inspired dinner party, we think Julia would still be proud.

Have fun and, of course, as she would say Boooohn Appateeeet!

Thursday, August 20, 2009

The Locavore's Dilemma: Is Local the new Organic?

YES- it's true! It seems like "local" has become the new "organic," and, regardless of your food philosophy, it is exciting to see exactly how fast the movement has already spread.

Just read The Omnivore's Dilemma, by Michael Pollan, apparently the bible of the locavore, farm-to-table movement, and you may realize that organic may not be enough any more!

Particularly in the deep South, where the warm weather and the growing season can span into late November, eating local seems to come naturally.

Even metropolitan areas can be home to an urban farmscape with heritage chickens and Nigerian dwarf goats... and their even dwarfier kids. (These particular Nigerian dwarf babies, born in the Old Fourth Ward, are around a week and a half old!)

If Atlanta's restaurant tables are any indication, the new obsession with all things local, seasonal, and sustainable is only bound to get bigger. Granted, traditional Southern cooking has always embraced ingredients that could be grown in your average backyard garden, but the new farm-to-table movement is far from being about the typical "meat and three" plate. Farming has gone fine-dining...

Chefs make obvious benefactors for local farmers and numerous chefs have taken to hosting farm-focused events. For example:

*Parish Restaurant in the Poncey Highlands has been sponsoring a Friday Farmer's Series with a Farmer's Menu that changes weekly.

*Eschewing Escoffier, Bacchanalia's prix fixe menu also recently featured Georgia-grown field peas and pole beans (not haricot verts) with its crispy veal sweetbreads and an entree of local berkshire pork loin and pork belly.

*Also, are we crazy to think that Bacchanalia's new sister restaurant, very aptly named Abattoir, is an inside reference to Pollan? (See Chapter 12 of The Omnivore's Dilemma, Slaughter: In a Glass Abattoir. Mere coincidence?) Not only does its menu feature finds from local farms, the interior decor is oddly reminiscent of an old farmhouse, straight out of American Gothic.

No doubt about it, getting fresh, seasonal vegetables from local farmers (especially farmers that you know) is more satisfying than bagging some plain-jane zucchini from the Kroger around the corner.

The brilliant colors of the pattypan squash from AMB's favorite local growers, Joaquin and Jessica Lara of Above & Beyond Farms, inspired this experiment with stuffed summer squash!

Based on the theory that really good food is about 50% visual and 50% flavor...

First, we hollowed out some pattypans, halved a few grape tomatoes, and slathered everything in some good olive oil.

A healthy sprinkling of kosher salt, some cumin, lemon thyme, and a few grinds of pepper... and the veggies were ready for oven roasting.

Once the tomatoes start wrinkling up and become slightly caramelized, stuff the pattypans with some Indian-inspired vegetable biryani (or whatever else your bouche desires)...
The final result? A feast for the King of Lilliput or, more realistically, a great side dish with a roasted chicken. Washed down with a glass of Sauvignon Blanc, the stuffed pattypans offered just a few small bites of locally-grown goodness, but we can report that the gratification that came from supporting a local farmer lasted much longer!

(To prove that anyone can farm- the heirloom "cerise orange" cherry tomatoes, pictured above, are from AMB's own "vegetable garden," composed of a bunch of knee-high containers on a condo patio in the heart of the Old Fourth Ward!)

Sunday, July 19, 2009

The Summer of Spain

Food inspiration can come from anywhere in the world...

And this summer has been officially dubbed the Summer of Spain! That means experimenting with fresh, fresh tomatoes, piles of olive-poached tuna, spicy chorizo, and simmering skillets of saffron-scented paella, of course!

Tapas, in its many guises, has become a commonplace style of eating at many restaurants in Atlanta. Over the years, the concept of tapas has extended well-beyond all things Spanish and it seems like a small portion of ANY dish can somehow become "tapas" at restaurants.

So, we suggest you go back to the homeland, Espagna itself, for inspiration for a tapas and paella party!

To have a Spanish fiesta a la casa, Atlantans can take advantage of some of the great ingredients that are available locally:

*Consider heading deep into Dekalb County to wander through the vast aisles of the international pantry that is the Dekalb Farmers Market to get some authentic tastes of Spain, such as Ferrer romesco sauce and saffron.
*Scour the Saturday green market at Studioplex from 9 AM until 1-ish for some freshest off-the vine, heirloom tomatoes around from local organic farmers and Nigerian goat herders, Joaquin and Jessica Lara of Above & Beyond Farms in Canton, GA. Then, head to the stand of Candler Park bakers and sandwich-makers, The Mercantile, who have also set up shop at Studioplex to sell crusty loaves of French bread that are perfect for making your own heirloom tomato sandwich on the spot! Bring your own salt shaker-- and you've got the ingredients for a perfect summer sandwich.

*If you need to stay intown, you can still stock up on jars of Ortiz Spanish tuna in olive oil and grab some vacuum-packed artichokes at the Whole Foods Market off Ponce to get some authentic flair without having to poach a single thistle.
(And trust us-- Chicken-of-the-Sea just WILL NOT do if you're trying for an authentic transatlantic experience!)
* A thick wedge of Manchego cheese, among others, and some thinly-sliced charcuterie will go a
long way to round out your tapas fest AND will keep your friends smiling while the saffron is simmering...

*For those paella perfectionists out there- splurge a little and go to Star Provisions to worship at the altar of chorizo. We think it has the perfect subtle smoky paprika aroma that comes out when you allow it to sizzle and burn a little in the paella pan before adding the liquid to the rice. Notably, the gourmet deluxe storefront for all things for foodstuffs is another creation of our biggest chef-couple crush ever, Anne Quatrano and Clifford Harrison-- which directly connects to their original, superluxe restaurant, Bacchanalia.

Those who are wise to the ways of tapas know to sip and nibble on the snacks but save some space for the paella. We like having a classic combination of chorizo, littleneck clams, and prawns (preferably the head-on kind, baby!)!
Also, there is no doubt that paella is meant to be eaten immediately!!! If you're not hearing gasps of "Hot! Good! Ouch!" while it is being consumed- you have either waited too long to serve it or you have invited the wrong people!

So, pour yourself a refreshing glass of sangria, maybe made from some red table wine from the Penedes region of Spain, peruse our pics, and find your own inspiration!
Recipes are coming, but really... you know how to halve a tomato and top it with tuna, right? So feel free to get started and don't forget to share some of your own recipes! Hasta luego, amigos!