I own six cookbooks written by Julia Child. They range from her two-volume Mastering the Art of Fench Cooking (written with co-authors Simone Beck and Louise Bertholle), which launched her career as grande-dame of American cuisine during the 1960s, to her magisterial, photograph-filled The Way to Cook, which every bride should own.
What was wonderful about Julia was that she didn’t just pass on recipes; she taught technique. “The Way to Cook,” for example, would be worth its $39.95 list price for its tips on the cooking of green vegetables alone. Before my husband gave me “The Way to Cook” as a Christmas present after we’d been married for only a year, I struggled with two options for broccoli and green beans. I could cook them thoroughly, which meant that in the small pot I used, they ended up tasty but embarrassingly pallid and yellowed, like something you’d get at a cheap boarding-house. Or I could deliberately undercook the beans and broc, yielding something pretty, but also tough as cellulose and inedible–like those purely ornamental crunchy veggies you always get on the hotel banquet-room plate but never eat at rubber-chicken dinners. Julia offered the solution: blanching.
Here’s how Julia’s technique works: Fill up an 8-quart stock pot with water, plus 3 or 4 tablespoons of salt (to raise the boiling temperature–and don’t worry; it will salt your vegetables only mildly). Bring the water to a rolling boil over high heat, then dump in the chopped-up broccoli, green beans, or similar stuff. Cover the pot and bring the water back to a boil. Then take the lid off the pot and cook your vegetables till tender, which will take only a few minutes. Then dump everything into a colander over the sink. The combination of the extremely short cooking time (the high heat, the salt, the huge amount of water) and the maximum exposure to oxygen (the open pot) will leave your vegetables tender as butter but of a gorgeous emerald-green hue. You can either serve them immediately with butter and whatever or hold them until later for a more elaborate presentation (running them under cold tap water will preserve your greens’ fresh appearance). Julia’s technique also works well with tough leafy greens such as kale and collards. Through her book I discovered that I didn’t necessarily have to cook those for hours Southern-style in order to produce a tasty dish (greens and fatback are fine, but I like some variety). Just blanch the cut-up leaves a la Julia, then progress to your next cooking step: sauteeing them in butter and chopped garlic, for example.
So thank you, Julia! And it’s been nice to read, as I did in one of her obits, that Julia loathed those crunchy, undercooked hotel-banquet veggies as much as I do. She shared most of my other food-people loathings: granola-ism, vegetarianism, vegetarianism “except for fish and chicken,” nouvelle cuisine’s antipathy to butter and cream, and those fussy vertical food-arrangements on the plates at most chic restaurants these days. Julia didn’t go in for the culinary gene-splicing that’s all the rage among hip chefs: making sherbet out of chopped liver, spritzing the entree with ground-up Altoids, or turning, say, the cod soup into “foam.” She wouldn’t have cared for New York Times arch-foodie William Grimes’s dismay a few years ago that boorish Americans preferred to order steak at a restaurant rather than sea urchin. Julia Child’s idea of a perfect meal was a fine piece of red meat and a gin-based drink. It’s mine, too.
Julia Child was born in my own home town, Pasadena, California. Nestled against Southern California’s San Gabriel Mountains and blessed with December sunshine as dazzling as fairy dust, Pasadena was a winter resort for Midwest millionaires at the turn of the 20th century. The millionaires discovered closer, warmer vacation destinations, such as Palm Beach, Fla., the mansions they built in Pasadena mildewed, and the city by the time Julia Child was growing up (and certainly when I was growing up) had become resolutely middle-class. But it retained its classy, even snooty aura. It was this classy (although never snooty) self-confidence, coupled with a thoroughly middle-class practicality, that Julia brought to to all her ventures. She went to France with her husband during the 1950s and realized that it had the best cuisine on earth. She made it her mission to introduce other American women to the techniques of French cooking applied to America’s dazzling array of high-quality ingredients. She did this with energy and without pretension. She helped make American cuisine the best on earth–and today, it is, surpassing all but the very highest-level French efforts.
To say that I’ll miss Julia Child is an understatement. She was an American treasure. And whenever I smother in butter another bowlful of green beans blanched a la Julia, glistening and smaragdine, I’ll think of her, verdant forever.