Today would have been Julia Child's 100th birthday.
I felt a stomach-churning mix of excitement, fear and lots of other emotions when I recently cracked the spine of her “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” to throw a Julia-themed pot luck in honor of her centennial.
I figured if anyone should be by my side during an experiment in French cuisine, it's Julia. After all, her lasting legacy of joyously teaching even the most neophyte cooks to create fine French cuisine is undeniable. She lives on in our kitchens more than 50 years after her most famous cookbook was published in 1961.
With Julia's lilting voice in my mind, I started scouring recipes, reading books and watching online videos of her TV shows to figure out what to make.
Julia made me feel like I could do anything, even cook things I'd never even dreamed of cooking. It appeared that my pot luck friends felt the same way.
As they started to RSVP to the dinner, which required that each guest make something based on or using one of Julia's recipes, many included plans for the dishes they'd make: Tomatoes provencal. Chocolate mousse. Tarte au citron et aux amandes (Lemon-Almond Tart). Gnocchi mornay.
These dishes were fancy stuff, dishes I knew many of them had never considered attempting.
I asked Katherine Newell Smith about how Julia makes everyone's fear of French cooking seem to disappear. Newell Smith is past international president and past Washington, D.C., chapter president of the Les Dames d'Escoffier International, a global women's food group of which Julia was a member.
“She just has this ‘don't worry about it' attitude,” said Newell Smith, who knew Julia, though not well. “She always makes you feel like you are the only one who will see it if something bad happens.”
That's exactly how I felt as I read the fancy French names of recipes and went to the grocery store to buy ingredients.
As the big day approached, I was afraid that my glorious turn as host of the Julia potluck might turn into one of the really bad scenes from “Julie & Julia,” the movie based on the book by a blogger who cooked every recipe in Julia's seminal volume over a year.
That's because while it's exciting, cooking in the style of Julia Child is not simple. There's lots of steps; sometimes unclear, wordy cooking instructions; and mysterious names for what turn out to be everyday ingredients.
But I soldiered on.
Two of the three dishes I chose were, as my husband might say, “outside my wheelhouse.”
I'd never cooked a roast, but I chose to use Julia's Marinade Sèche to brine a pork shoulder from TD Niche Pork in Elk Creek, Neb., and then cook the meat slowly in the oven.
I'm no good at baking, but I chose to make a pâte brisée tart crust for the first time ever, and turn it into a Pissaladière Niçoise tart filled with a mixture of caramelized onions, sliced kalamata olives and anchovy.
The only dish I knew was a sure bet was my third choice, a beet, blood orange and rocket salad that Julia made with chef Alice Waters in an episode of “Cooking with Master Chefs.” I thought my vegetarian friends would love it.
The morning of the pot luck, I got up early.
I thought about Newell Smith's description of Julia as I began preparations.
“Julia is like your favorite, really patient aunt who stops in and teaches you how to make coq au vin,” she'd told me. “She makes it seem as though you know what you're doing. She makes you believe you can do this, and that's why she wrote ‘Mastering the Art of French Cooking' the way she did.”
I started cooking at 11 a.m. the morning of the dinner. I roasted beets, made vinaigrette, sliced and de-seeded oranges. I learned that “rocket” is just another name for arugula.
I carefully measured ingredients for the tart crust, crumbled together dry ingredients and chunks of cold butter with my fingers and watched in a state of semi-awe as I drizzled in cold water and the dough actually came together in a ball that looked like it was supposed to.
An hour later, I rolled those crusts out and prebaked them while my onions caramelized. The golden yellow crusts in springform pans didn't look perfect, but I knew Julia would forgive me.
A half-hour before the guests were to arrive, around 5 p.m., I searched through “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” for instructions on how to cook the pork, and not coming up with something that assured me the pork wouldn't come out under- or overdone, I turned to Mark Bittman's “How to Cook Everything.” I relied on his recipe for braised pork with white wine.
Everything was in order when guests began to arrive, impressive dishes in tow. As dinnertime rolled around. I put together the orange and beet salad and pulled what looked to be a perfectly cooked pork shoulder from the oven and sat it next to my tarts, which also — amazingly, to be honest — looked great.
Everyone gathered in our dining room around an impressive, Julia-inspired spread. The group pulled this one off beautifully, and as we went around the circle, drinking wine and introducing our dishes in bad French, I felt like this was just how Julia would have wanted it: Friends at a party enjoying drink with food they may not have realized they could make but did, with her help.
As she'd have put it herself, bon appétit.
And from us to her, happy birthday.
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