Friday, August 28, 2009

Chez Panisse's Birthday

My father just updated his facebook status to wish Chez Panisse a happy 38th birthday. Which seems a bit surprising, since I remember a time when Chez Panisse didn't exist. Do the math: I'm older than I think am, maybe even than I act.

But I'll hasten to add that I only barely remember those days. I was very young. My vague memories include:
  • Sharing a dish of melon and prosciutto in 6th grade with a friend (the one who played Julia Child in our school video). She had insisted you couldn't eat ham and melon together, but was won over (come to think of it, she ended up an exchange student in Bra, Italy, then the future home of Slow Food). See how much the world has changed? Who would think twice about prosciutto and melon today?
  • Getting (on very lucky occasions) to eat a dish of crème anglaise upstairs after school. It was served in a footed metal dish. It's still one of my very favorite things, but now (on very lucky occasions) I like having it in a glass.
  • Working five days a week at lunch the summer I was 11. I still remember the humiliation of having a waitress bring back a plate of artichokes mayonnaise, telling me it looked a little 'funky'. To this day, I eat artichokes with butter.
What a time and place to grow up--I was one very lucky kid.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Julie and Julia and Me

I finally saw Julie and Julia a few nights ago. And I loved it--both halves. I expected to find the character/time shifts jolting, and to wish we could stay in 1950s Paris the whole time. Instead, when it shifted from Paris to Queens, I wasn't ready to go, and when it shifted from Queens back to Paris, I wanted to spend just a few more minutes above the pizzeria.

While I never read Julie Powell's blog, I am halfway through the book. I understand the notion that perhaps she wasn't serious about the food--there is a definite feeling that she's just checking off recipes. Like some travelers who go to Paris wanting only to have seen the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe, and Notre Dame. Aspic? Check. Oeufs en cocotte? Check. Homard Thermidor? Check. In fact, it occurs to me that part of the problem is that readers expect Julie and Julia to be a food book. The fact that she'd never eaten an egg before starting her project should probably tip us off.

But I don't think the blog/book was a gimmick. She titled the blog perfectly: The Julie/Julia Project. It feels like a project. Like someone who needed to instill discipline in her life. I certainly understand the desire/need of imposing a schedule on oneself. What I cannot fathom is actually soldiering on; of preparing 524 recipes in one year while working full time. And writing about it.

While we all seem to admire Julia's can-do attitude, many find Julie whiny and self-involved. To me it seems the difference of eras. Julia did, after all, live through the Depression and World War II--I imagine that puts things in a different perspective than the one Julie knows. Or the one I know, come to think of it. Expecting a woman born in the 1970s (or 1960s) to be like one born in the teens seems a little pointless. It doesn't surprise me that Julie spends more time examining her life in excessive detail than Julia would have. As a person who likes reading about people, both stories interest me.

A few random thoughts that came to me during the movie (all self-involved, since, after all, I was born in the 1960s):

I wonder how many other people teared up at the opening? It's just the colors, that car, the clothes. And imagine what it must have been like to taste such food for the very first time. I'm pretty sure I should have had that life.

Towards the end of the movie I remembered that when I turned 30, I celebrated by making Boeuf Bourguignon for 4, from Julia Child's The Way to Cook. The pot was new (to me) and had a strange finish that imparted a horrible chemical taste to the stew--it was inedible, and we had to throw it away. And, while it wasn't raining that night, it was snowing heavily--usually a sure way to cancel Portland dinner plans. But the friends came, and, luckily, I'd made two pots of the stew, so our dinner party was a success.

I'd completely forgotten about Dan Akroyd's Julia Child spoof, apparently made in 1978? Well. When I was in 6th grade, in 1973 or 74, I had to do a video project for HP. HP was short for 'High potential'. It's what they used to call the kids now known (here in Portland, at least) as 'Talented and Gifted'. Back then I guess they expected us to do something with our gifts. I wonder what they'd call us all now if they could see us. FP (failed potential)? SU (serious underachievers)?

Anyway. My friend and I performed a Julia Child skit. Again, this was 4 or 5 years BEFORE Dan Akroyd's. The idea was Julia and Child (my taller friend got to be Julia, I was Child). We stirred up a batch of chocolate chip cookies, dropping whole (uncracked) eggs into the batter and stirring it up. Our particular genius was that after spooning the horrid looking concoction onto a cookie sheet, we stuck it into our pretend oven. One minute later we pulled out an identical baking sheet, with homemade chocolate chip cookies on it. We both already knew that the key to a good grade was in handing out cookies.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Summer Pudding

We had a huge summer pudding at Grace's graduation and good-bye party. I planned on following David Lebovitz's recipe, and started there. But summer pudding is the kind of dessert that requires some improvisation, and invites using what you have. I happen to have lots of red currants, and so they figured heavily in my pudding.

I'm one of those people who loves seeds. It's a lucky thing, because I'm also one of those people who likes making her life easier. Liking seeds is so much less work that trying to remove them from everything! Blackberry and raspberry seeds are so small I don't even notice them. And tomato seeds, well, how could you not love trying to split them between your front teeth? Red currant seeds are admittedly more substantial, but I like their textural addition to a dessert.

I started with 4 loaves of Ken's pain rustique. I would have used their pain de mie, but, sadly, Ken's only sells that to restaurants.

Since I was making the summer pudding on a Friday, I missed the berries at the farmers markets. But I'm lucky to live in Portland, and to have a local grocery store--New Seasons--that carries a broad selection of local produce. I picked up raspberries, marionberries, and boysenberries at the store (8 pints all together). Back at home, I got some currants--two gallon bags--out of the freezer.

At this point, I gave up on following the recipe. I put all the berries into a big pot, warmed them with sugar to taste. Meanwhile, I sliced the bread, removing the crusts. This, by the way, is a completely foreign activity to me. I've never removed bread crusts, even for my children when they were little. It was, instead, always a point of honor for me, raising kids who ate bread crusts.

When the berries had released their juices, I ladled a bit into my biggest rectangular baking pans. A layer of sliced bread followed, and then more berries. I finished mine with a layer of berries. Not because I planned it that way--it would have been neater ending with a bread layer. But I ran out of bread first, so more berries went on top.

The fun part with summer pudding is weighing it down. I covered the pan tightly with plastic wrap, and then set another rectangular pan--one that was a tad smaller, so it would settle into the bottom pan--on top.

On my way down to the basement refrigerator, I stopped in the pantry to grab all the cans of tomatoes I had (5) and a few stray cans of tuna. These got nestled into the top pan, and the whole affair went into the refrigerator to rest until the party the next night.

It's maybe not obvious that summer pudding is a rich dessert. It's just fruit and bread, after all--like toast and jam. Perhaps 'rich' isn't the right word. Summer pudding is an intense dessert---the mingling berry perfumes settle into the slices of bread, and each bite bursts with them. So a small square with a dollop of whipped cream is all you need.

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