Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Julia Child's 100 and feeling extraordinary

Julia Child was born 100 years ago today. I felt I should write a little something because her life, it seems to me, was pretty awesome. It was all about personality and joy - my kind of living. Quite a few of my friends often tell me they think about me when her name pops up. Surely it's because like me, she studied at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris. However, I hope they also think of me because like her, I am a woman with dreams and a passion for the delicious things in life.

She worked for the OSS during WWII and was stationed in present day Sri Lanka. There she met the love of her life, Paul Child, whose position with the US Foreign Service took them to Paris after the war. Paris exposed her to fine cuisine and she became one of the most famous chefs in the world and a standard to which chefs are still measured.

The Julia Child biographies I've read highlight her cheerfulness and drive. When I think of her, I think of the ambition that every woman should have to be extraordinary. Almost two years ago, I turned to my husband and asked him if he thought I was extraordinary. What I meant was whether or not he thought I was more interesting and fulfilled than an average 30-year old wife and mother. He said yes, or course, but I wasn't convinced of it myself. Thus the decision to attend culinary school, toddler in tow, and face not only a career change but also embark on a journey that would waken a new part of me. This adventure would fulfill a personal dream and also challenge the assumption than the average 30-year-old wife and mother can't realize her aspirations because such a plan could affect a family in so many ways. Lucky for me, my husband and I saw how this experience would benefit our family rather than affect it negatively.

Julia was a great chef who changed the course of cooking in the US for the better. I admire this aspect of her life, of course, but for me, the most inspiring element of her life was her ability to make decisions (though often radical) that allowed her to savor and appreciate the things in life that made her truly happy. Cooking and eating bring many of us happiness, but an inherent joy for life is the stuff that takes you that next step to feeling extraordinary.

In celebration of her life, I made my boys Le Cordon Bleu Paris' Creme Dubarry (Cream of Cauliflower). It was heart-warming and delicious - much like Julia Child's (and my) life.

Creme Dubarry with heart-shaped croutons

Here's the recipe. 

leek (white part)
salt & pepper
chicken stock

Thickening agent for soup:
egg yolks (optional)

white bread

Cut leeks lengthwise, then in half moons and sweat in butter. Add a pinch of salt and cook at low heat until almost translucent. Add cauliflower florets and stir - avoid browning. Add a bit of chicken stock to help the leek and cauliflower cook and absorb flavors. Add two tablespoons of flour and stir. Once the flour is cooked (without letting it brown), add enough chicken stock to submerge vegetables. Add a bit more salt, and cover pot. Once cauliflower is cooked through, blend soup and strain (optional). 

In a separate bowl, whisk cream, two egg yolks, salt and pepper together. Return blended soup to cooking pot, and slowly add cream mixture to thicken the soup. Season to taste.

Cut white bread into desired shapes and toast in an oven. Optional: dip a corner of the toasted croutons in olive oil and dip into finely chopped parsley for color.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

The climax and a little dolce

After waking your taste buds with a little antipasto lovin' and a nicely paired wine, your mouth, body, and soul are left wanting more. Thus enters the climax of the meal - the main course. If done correctly, it can be the defining moment of an evening, and it's success can either make or break your decision to return to a restaurant.

Usually a protein, vegetable, and a carbohydrate make up a main course, but these rules can be bent, especially when a meal consists of multiple dishes, such as those at the fine Tuscan restaurants we visited this summer. 

For me, the gold medal of main dishes went to the cannelloni filled with shredded beef and topped with cream of artichoke. The guinea fowl and pancetta-wrapped french green beans came a close second, and how can I leave out the glorious linguine with white truffles? 

Cannelloni filled with shredded beef and topped with cream of artichoke
These beauties were part of a divine meal we had at Ristoro di Lamole, a lovely establishment at the top of the Tuscan hills. Just when the winding road from Chianti to Lamole seems to be unable to offer views that are any more beautiful, this restaurant appears. If you didn't know any better, you would probably not give the place a second thought and drive on. Thankfully, the villa we rented was in Lamole, and the owner of the villa recommended the place as a must - she was right.
Guinea fowl and pancetta-wrapped french green beans
Linguine with white truffles and fresh crushed pepper
I learned to appreciate medium rare beef at culinary school and this is now my preferred way to enjoy a steak.
Apparently the Tuscans agree.
Tuscan white beans and sausage
Finishing off our sinfully delicious meals, we had our share of gelato, including chocolate and pistachio scoops from the famous Gelateria Perche no! in Florence (the place is aptly named "why not" in Italian). We also sampled some very refined versions of Italian classics, such as tiramisu and panna cotta, and they will forever hold a special place in my gluttonous heart. How can I describe my happiness in words? I'll let you discover what I mean when you travel to Tuscany and have a few scoops, spoon-fulls, and fork-fulls of your own. Some things are better left unsaid.

My all-time favorite Italian dessert - the Tiramisu.
This one in Lamole was one of the best I've had because the  mascarpone was just right.
Gorgeous panna cotta with strawberries.
A chocolate lava cake that was quite simply to die for.
As our family celebration continued, so did our seemingly insatiable appetite for good food. Lucky for us, Tuscany was the place to be. We resorted to unbuttoning our top buttons and using wine as an elixir to help digestion and thus make room for the grande finale of the Italian meal. We gluttons turned to the dessert menu as a drug that would take us to that moment during a good meal when you feel total bliss. A spiritual moment, really, for those of us whose religion involves praising the subtlety of a well-made dolce.

And thus I bring my Tuscan food entries to an end. It was an unforgettable vacation not only for the culinary genius of this part of the world, but because our family came together to celebrate love and the good things in life. It just so happened that some of the most special moments took place around a dinner table. Doesn't it often happen that way?