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Recipes for the Perplexed: Julia Child

I have deadlines out the wazoo, so this week instead of deep thoughts on cooking I share with you my kitchen heroine. The person who is most responsible for giving me the tools to actually cook edible food.

Yep. Julia.

It’s not because I watched her in my impressionable childhood (I remember watching her massacre French bread once while home sick with a fever and I was sure I was hallucinating). Or because she was such a formidable French chef.

It’s because Julia Child had so much fun in the kitchen and cared about doing it right. I was somebody who was too scared to even enter the kitchen with culinary intent, and Julia gave me a road map to making hearty, good food.

My well-worn cooking Bible...
My well-worn cooking Bible…

For a meditation on what cooking means, and how the celebrity of cooking has changed our perceptions of the kitchen, check out this long and thoughtful essay in the New York Times by Michael Pollan. He describes the singular appeal of Julia Child’s perspective on home cooking, for women who were looking for meaning in and out of the kitchen:

“It was a gratifying, even ennobling sort of work, engaging both the mind and the muscles. You didn’t do it to please a husband or impress guests; you did it to please yourself. No one cooking on television today gives the impression that they enjoy the actual work quite as much as Julia Child did. In this, she strikes me as a more liberated figure than many of the women who have followed her on television.”

Today I cooked lamb chops for the guys, using the recipe in this loved-to-death cookbook, and I thought I’d recommend it to you if you are still learning techniques. As she says, a roast is a roast, and a saute is a saute. Once you’ve got the hang of a technique and make it yours, you’ve expanded your cooking repetoire forever.

So if you too are still a student of the kitchen, I strongly recommend you start here, with this masterwork of Julia Child: The Way To Cook. Bon appetit :)

Recipes for the Perplexed: Thanksgiving

So, Thanksgiving.

Yey. Oy. Yey.

I am, I must confess, completely uninterested in food by now, having cooked and eaten SO MUCH OF IT in the last few days. But I will share with you my After Action report as promised…

My marvelous (and culinarily-gifted) husband did the carnivorous heavy lifting, and made two legs of lamb and a 16.5 pound turkey without even breaking a sweat. He put the lamb on the rotisserie and the turkey into this amazing Turkenator thing we have, that fries the bird with infrared light instead of oil. It is a wonder to behold, and the turkey always comes out great.

With him doing all of that outside (and roasting my sweet potatoes to boot!) I was left with the sides and the set up. We had 18 people this year so we needed to set up a second table in the living room. Once I got all that going, I made some plain dishes for people in my family who can’t have gluten, dairy, or wheat products, and then some food with a little spice for dietary-limited folks who still wanted to experiment.

I found this recipe from Pioneer Woman, beautiful brussels sprouts, and they came out great. Highly recommend this simple and tasty little roast veggie combo…I used extra sweet potatoes instead of squash and it totally worked.

And then my wonderful friends and family arrived and came bearing culinary gifts from around the world…corn succotash, wild rice with dried cherries, Moroccan-spiced and Ethiopian squash (and my brother- and sister-in-law grew the squash too!), insane corn stuffing, home-made hummus, and so much more.

We celebrated and enjoyed and it was a great time. The culinary magic was collective…we all contributed, with wine, salad, chocolate from Mexico, or delicious grapes on the vine. And I’ve been eating this bounty for days and days. Wow.

So how did I do this without losing my mind? I kind of did lose it here and there but I held it together mostly and it all worked out. Here are three tips for you to consider:

(1) Ask for help. My family is awesome…they leap to help, with side dishes, washing dishes, serving, you name it. I am not shy in the least to admit my shortcomings (and lo, they are many), and it makes for a happier holiday when everybody can pitch in and make it something really wonderful. Definitely enlist your kids for help. Unless you enjoy the heck out of this, don’t think you have to make holiday perfection happen all alone.

(2) Make time your friend. I used to shop, cook and serve holiday meals in 1 day. Sick. You can do this, but why? You don’t have to start weeks in advance, but if possible, use the weekend before any major celebration meal, and do some groundwork to get the party started.

The weekend before Thanksgiving this year, we headed out to Costco, got all the veggies and the meats and the drinks too.

Thanksgiving 2015. It begins...
Thanksgiving 2015. And so it begins…

I had one more supplemental shop to make for more perishable items during the week, and that was it. I prepped veggies at night, got the tablecloths etc. ready, a little each night. So when I started going hardcore on Thursday morning all I had to do was activate the sides, etc.

(3) Try to enjoy the process. Heh…I should take my own advice. I still get stressed to the nu-nus when I attempt this at home. But I am learning to let go of the outcome and trust that love and family kindness will prevail. Trust is the key…and hey, what’s the worst that can happen? If your holiday meal is truly epic in its badness, you will have stories to tell for years to come! But…if you follow #1 and #2 above, the chances of a culinary wipeout are tiny. Do not be afraid.

So ask for help, plan in advance, enjoy the process and don’t pressure yourself on the outcome. Everything I’ve learned so far about adulting, I get to practice in the kitchen :)

Recipes for the Perplexed: Beginnings

I never learned to cook from my mom, and there my culinary troubles began.

I didn’t want to learn, and she didn’t want especially to teach me, I don’t think. My mother is Hungarian, and she knows all kinds of culinary magic: Chicken Paprikash, nokedli (little dumplings in broth), crepes with poppy seed filling, and túrós tészta, a pasta dish made with egg noodles, sour cream, and sugar.

The only dish I learned to make was the túrós tészta, and I will give you the recipe now, though I warn you that when my mother made this for a group of my friends once, they hated it and one kid actually threw up. I think it is absolute deliciousness, but I also don’t think it is suited to an American taste:

 

My Mother’s túrós tészta

1 package egg noodles

sour cream

cottage cheese

white sugar

 

Boil water and cook noodles according to the directions.

Drain.

While still piping hot, put noodles up in a bowl. Add a dollop of cottage cheese and a dollop of sour cream to the top, and sprinkle sugar over everything. My mother would serve it just like that, and the diner would mix it up themselves. The resulting concoction is creamy, sweet as a dessert, and incredibly filling and satisfying on a winter’s night. Try it at your own risk :)

American food, she did her best, but it was a challenge. So (like many folks in that generation, immigrant kids or not) we got steak and overcooked hot dogs, and chewy spaghetti with greyish canned peas. It worked, I grew up, but it was not a gourmet experience.  I think my mother was much more intent on me getting somewhere in life using my brain and not my kitchen abilities…

She tried her best to feed us American style, though. Saucy Susan was a big thing at my house, a sweet orange glaze that went on all meat products. My mother also had a habit of adding canned pineapple sections to things and proclaiming them “Hawaiian.” She used to make Hawaiian beef tongue often, and it was enthusiastically received at home. So I gotta tell you, the culinary standards were not standard, and I didn’t do much to learn what my mother did know. I pretty much avoided the kitchen altogether.

Fast forward to my current life, where I am the mom and I have a house of kids to feed every night. I don’t make them Hungarian dishes…I tried goulash once, and it didn’t go over very well.

But what I do try to go for is that warm satisfied feeling I used to get from my mom’s noodles, or my grandma’s perfect palacsinta stuffed with poppy seeds or chestnut puree. That happy, homey feeling. My goal with this cooking stuff is to see if I can conjure that feeling on a regular basis.

Maybe not every night…maybe pizza delivery plays a bigger role in my kitchen repertoire than I want to admit LOL. And during deadlines, my menu often devolves to Deadline Chicken, pizza and eggs (see last week’s post).

But coming together to eat something made special for you, even if that something is little baby hotdogs wrapped in flaky pastry blankets, makes a person feel safe, creates a loving circle of family. Dang that is corny. But it is all so true. And sometimes it’s like the little girl I was is sitting at the table with us, as we eat little hotdogs and talk about soccer teams and trumpet practice.

And that is kind of magical right there.

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