The only real stumbling block is fear of failure. In cooking you've got to have a “What the hell?” attitude.
~ Julia Child
It was my Saturday afternoon ritual. Make a sandwich. Grab a cold drink. Go to my room. Shut the door. Turn on the TV -- a little black and while model. Change the channel to our local PBS station. Settle back into my black bean bag chair. And wait for that jaunty theme music.
I was twelve years old.
And Julia Child was my idol.
It was French Chef time.
Life itself is the proper binge.
~ Julia Child
I don’t know where I got my intense, passionate, almost obsessive love of cooking. My paternal Grandma was a damn good cook; my maternal Nana wasn’t bad. My mom cooked, but it wasn't her passion.
But me -- I not only inherited the cooking gene from my ancestors, I got bit by the culinary bug as well. My earliest memory is of my four-year-old self being lifted up to take a look at the Thanksgiving turkey roasting in the oven.
And I did time with a couple of kids cookbooks -- pouring over the Betty Crocker Cookbook for Boys and Girls like it was the Magna Carta, devising menus and mentally tinkering with recipes.
For some reason, my mother had a subscription to Bon Appétit magazine. Every month when the latest issue arrived in the mailbox, it spent about two days on the family room coffee table, then disappeared into my room. I cut recipes out like a girl possessed, treating them as lovingly as I did my pin-up poster boys from Tiger Beat. I’m not sure what I was thinking, as at that point in my life (and my family’s taste buds), there was no way I would be making 40 Cloves of Garlic Chicken, but I had the recipe. Just in case.
I don’t remember what brought me to my Saturday afternoons with Julia. Chances are I read about the programming lineup in TV Guide and just tuned in one day. Instantly hooked.
I watched Julia, with her non-intimidating style and deceptive skill, move ‘round her TV kitchen and create dishes the likes of which I’d never seen before in my home kitchen. Salade niçoise. Chocolate Mousse. Veal Prince Orloff. Which, of course, I knew about, thanks to a favorite episode of the Mary Tyler Moore Show.
Never use water unless you have to! I'm going to use vermouth!
~ Julia Child
So imagine my delight when under the Christmas tree in December ‘77, I found this.
Between that and the other fab book I received that year (Scarlett Fever - The Ultimate Pictorial Treasury of Gone With the Wind) I spent all of the 25th and most of the 26th reading until my eyes grew heavy with exhaustion.
As I read though my new treasure, my mind pondered all the possibilities. What would be the first thing I would make under Julia’s guidance and following her directions... which recipe would be the one that I would use as my jumping off point into the world of serious cooking.
The answer soon became apparent: French onion soup.
Onion soup sustains. The process of making it is somewhat like the process of learning to love. It requires commitment, extraordinary effort, time, and will make you cry.
~ Ronni Lundy
The recipe looked simple enough. Not many ingredients to bog down a new cook. Nothing too unusual to intimidate. And it was something that everyone in my immediate family might dig.
And so I began a ritual that I would continue to this day. I’ve been making Julia’s French onion soup for thirty years. Happily. When I was single and living on my own, it was my family’s traditional Christmas Eve dinner -- everyone would come to whatever hovel I was living in at the time for soup, salad, wine and conversation after the Christmas Eve church service. These days, I make it when the air turns cool and the palette craves a bit of familiar sophistication.
My cooking technique has improved over the years, as have the tools of my trade. And I think the soup I make now reflects the maturity of its creator. But honestly, there was something so perfectly delicious about those first batches of soup my idealistic teenage hands made. I infused the hearty melange with my youthful enthusiasm and zest. It in turn gave me confidence and a sense of self not known before. I wooed men with my soup. I cared for ailing friends with my soup. I helped to ease the grieving process of loved ones with my soup.
I've done a bit of reading over the years about Julia and her life and accomplishments. The most interesting tidbit -- and the one I shall remember always -- was what she had for her last meal the night before she passed away.
French onion soup.
Julia’s Soupe à l'oignon, pretty much as is, The French Chef Cookbook
3 Tb. butter
1 Tb. olive oil
1 1/2 lbs. or about 6 cups thinly sliced yellow onions
1 t. salt
1/2 t. sugar
3 Tb. flour
6 cups organic beef broth
1 c. red wine
1 bay leaf
1/2 t. rubbed sage
salt & pepper
Melt the butter with the oil in a dutch oven and add the sliced onions and stir up to coat. Cover pan and cook over moderately low heat until translucent, about 15-20 minutes, stirring occasionally. Uncover pan, turn up heat to medium-high and add salt and sugar. Sugar, by caramelizing, helps onions to brown. Stirring frequently, cook for another 20-30 minutes until the onions are deep brown and jam-like. Meanwhile, heat broth to a simmer in a separate pan.
Lower heat to moderate and add flour to onions. Cook for about 2 minutes, stirring continuously, to brown the flour. Remove from heat and whisk in one cup of the hot broth. Add the rest of the broth, wine, bay leaf and sage, and bring to a simmer. Simmer for 30-40 minutes, seasoning to taste with salt and pepper.
Soupe à l'oignon gratinée (which really is the only way to eat it)
1 1/2 c. grated Gruyère/Emmentaler/Baby Swiss and Parmesan cheese, mixed
Cut bread into slices about 1 inch thick, paint lightly with olive oil and arrange in one layer on baking sheet. Place in middle of preheated 325-degree oven for 15-20 minutes until beginning to brown lightly; turn and brown lightly on other side for 15-20 minutes. These are called croûtes.
Ladle soup into heat-proof bowls and top with a couple of the croûtes and grated cheese. Broil until bubbly on top. Serve.
Warning: hot melted cheese is akin to culinary napalm -- if not careful, you could burn the hell out of the inside of your mouth and render your taste buds helpless for a short period of time. Eat wisely. It’s worth it.
Dining with one's friends and beloved family is certainly one of life's primal and most innocent delights, one that is both soul-satisfying and eternal.
~ Julia Child