Celebration Dinner for Julia

(By David Ross)

Although there are thousands of published photos of Julia Child, I think the one I chose best fits the image of what Julia Child meant to me-a kind, gentle lady who loved being in her kitchen. She may have cooked fancy food, but she wasn’t fancy. And while she used the finest and sharpest German steel kitchen knives, she hung them next to the plastic spatulas on particle board that lined the walls of her small kitchen. That same kitchen now resides in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.

I never personally met Julia Child. Yet, like so many of us, I counted Julia as one of my friends. Someone with whom I would feel comfortable with relishing in the joys of a fresh, salt-of-the-sea, Quilicene oyster from Puget Sound baked until it was just warmed-through and swimming in a sea of garlic.

I can hear Julia’s hearty, almost gutterall, Smith College laugh as we toast with our finest every day tumblers filled with vintage Krug champagne and wish one another good health, good cooking and good food throughout the new year.

Julia welcomed us into her kitchen and we returned the favor every time we clarified butter or whipped farm-fresh eggs into a light and fluffy meringue for the baked Alaska.

Julia smiled and laughed when she told us not to be afraid of the evil, prehistoric looking monkfish. “He’ll be good in a Bouillabaisse,” she proclaimed.

In 2004, Julia left us, but I don’t see the loss as a particularly sad one. Rather, I
have a sense of celebration for a life that brought the idea of gourmet French cooking into the homes of America.

While I won’t ever have the chance to actually cook dinner with Julia, I do have the opportunity to fête her legacy by preparing a banquet celebrating her life.

Julia made cooking fussy French food fun and simple, demystifying the edicts of Escoffiér. She let us know that it was alright if the soufflé fell or the chicken dropped on the floor. Cooking should first of all be fun with the added bonus of allowing you to share the immense pleasure and satisfaction.

Julia thought that cooking was like a gift box to be opened with anticipation for what lay ahead — the joy in a recipe for the perfect omelet or the perfect loaf of French bread (hard crust and pillowy dough with lots of air holes inside). Whatever pratfalls happened during the cooking process simply added to the fun. Dan Ackroyd’s portrayal of Julia cutting up a chicken will undoubtedly go down as one of the funniest moments on Saturday Night Live, and Julia became one of Dan’s greatest fans. She was never above having a laugh in the kitchen, particularly at her own expense.

While writers will dedicate pages to penning the definitive biography of Julia’s life, it really needs only a few paragraphs to give one a sense of how Julia impacted our culture and then became a brightly colored thread in the fabric of America’s tastes.

Julia was a friend we met every Saturday morning. We would sit down in front of our black and white television, notepad in hand, while Julia gave us a spirited lecture on the various cuts of lamb, using a whole carcass thrown up on the countertop – gristle, fat, bone, meat and all – to great theatrical effect as she cut the poor beast down into roasts, chops, steaks and stew meat.

Julia would then go on to prepare a lavish boned, rolled and stuffed breast of lamb or a whole leg of lamb “studded with 40 cloves of garlic.” Garlic, argh, American’s would rant, that stinky little onion the French eat. I venture to say that Julia was largely responsible for the tons and tons of garlic found in today’s American diet.

While living in France, Julia set out to publish a French cookbook suited to American tastes with her co-authors and friends Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle.

After nearly ten years of laboring over every teaspoon of vanilla in a cake recipe, testing and re-testing to find the exact oven temperature for roasting partridge, being turned down by more than one publisher, Julia and her friends swayed Judith Smith who convinced her boss, Alfred Knopf, to publish “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.”

Groaning like a well-fed Grandfather, at 684 pages “Mastering The Art of French Cooking,” is now in it’s 40th edition and still selling strong at $40 a copy.

I’ve always felt I could relate to Julia. Her breakthrough into the new world of television came in the second half of her life on February 11, 1963 in the studios of WGBH in Boston on the show “The French Chef.” Like Julia, I did not find my way into cooking on live television until my early forties.

With the support of her husband Paul, her lifelong love and best friend, Julia set off to chart a course revolutionizing cooking on television. And, as they say, “the rest is history.”

What drives us to spend hours picking pin bones out of a salmon with tweezers or stirring clarified butter into the perfect hollandaise sauce? It is an ambition driven by the need to create something that gives others pleasure.

Julia seemed to be the type of person who would share a bittersweet chocolate soufflé drowned in crème anglaise, swirl a sweet German Gerwurtztraminer in her wine goblet and then giggle wildly, diving her fork into the billowing tower of warm, gooey chocolate.

And you don’t have to wait for a special occasion or holiday to indulge in the same dishes that brought Julia so much pleasure.

She wouldn’t wait for one day in December to carve up the biggest goose she could find, stuffed with roasted chestnuts and a forcemeat made from the goose liver and innards.

If Julia knew I was planning a dinner to celebrate her life, I suspect she would have been quite satisfied with a simple menu rather than a groaning board of say 50 dishes. But it would have to be a menu of some of her favorite dishes, and only the freshest, finest ingredients would do.

Duck liver, caviar, persimmon pudding, roast ribs of beef and crowns of pork loin fitted with frilly paper caps on each bone might appear on a cold winter evening for our feast. But while those dishes might be within the restaurant budget of a 4-star chef, I’m going to go back to dishes that Julia’s adoring fans can easily afford and prepare – dishes that speak to Julia’s ability to bring the joy of cooking dishes formerly found only in finest dining rooms into our homes.

Rather than just list recipes lifted out of one of Julia’s many cookbooks, I thought a more gracious way to celebrate Julia’s life would be to put together a menu with some of her recipes, a few of my own recipes, and a recipe from one of France’s greatest chefs, owing to the fact that Julia got her start in food courtesy of the French.

Julia often talked about her love of fresh oysters in their au naturel “raw” form.

For the life of me I cannot understand why anyone wouldn’t like an oyster. Oysters give us pearls, and who would turn up any creature who can produce expensive jewelry?

Imagine you are walking on the beach. The surf is barely coming up to your toes, the wind whispering off the Pacific. Now take a fresh Kumamoto, A Japanese variety of oyster harvested in the Northwest, and suck it down. Dream of what the sea should taste and smell like: fresh and a bit salty but not “fishy.”

That is how to savor the taste of a fresh oyster and that is why Julia more than likely would have scores of fresh oysters and fine champagne to open for Christmas dinner. She’d probably serve the oysters on a bed of crushed ice with some cocktail sauce and wedges of lemon. To satisfy those who must dip everything in sauce, Julia would have probably baked the oysters on the half shell just to the point of being warmed through. She probably would have laced the oysters with some bread crumbs, fresh herbs and lots of garlic.

In “The Way to Cook,” Julia elaborated on her absolute distaste for any shucked oysters sold in a jar, “I have tried several sources of shucked oysters and I find they have a quite strong off taste – almost of iodine, probably from preserving chemicals. I don’t like them and do not use them.”

That is just one remark that demonstrates her matter of fact opinions when it came to food. And clearly, Julia wanted us to buy live, fresh oysters still in their shells and for us to shuck them at home just before serving.

For dinner I faced a daunting task – present one main entrée that would define and celebrate the life of Julia Child. Now how can anyone even attempt to do that?

Through all the shows, the written pieces, the cookbooks, my thought was that Julia liked all kinds of foods from around the world and wouldn’t turn up her nose at anything that was placed on the plate in front of her. In one interview with Larry King on CNN, I remember Julia saying that she liked a good “In’n Out Burger!”

I thought about doing a whole filet mignon napped in a buttery sauce Bernaise accented by tarragon. Maybe I should do that big roast goose, served with poached Anjou pear halves filled with Ligonberry preserves. You know, a sort of Scandanavian theme.

But remembering that Julia’s cooking roots were more Paris than Stockholm, the goose stayed in the freezer. Maybe we should do something vegetarian for Julia? I laughed that one off pretty quick because I remember Julia would often wield her chef’s knife while railing and arguing against the vegetarian brigade. She’d rather have a thick, juicy, Kansas City strip steak swimming in Maitre’d hotel butter than three, overcooked, limp green beans.

I know – we’ll do something with a turkey. I seem to remember a whole, deboned turkey that I saw Julia do on one television show with her cherished friend Jacques Pepin.

Julia dedicated exactly 7 ½ pages to the subject of roasting turkeys in “The Way to Cook.” She included recipes for a traditional whole roast turkey, “The Re-assembled Roast Turkey,” a “Boned and re-formed turkey breast,” a “Broil-Roasted, Butterflied Turkey,” and finally, “Laid-back Turkey.”

What I love about Julia’s cookbooks are the clear color photos of instructions. She painstakingly showed me how to remove the backbone for my “Re-assembled” turkey. Then she went on, like an experienced surgeon teaching an intern, how to remove the leg and thigh, de-bone the thigh, then truss and sew the thigh and leg back into shape.

On it went through trussing the wings to the breast, mounding the breast over a mountain of stuffing, roasting, then “re-assembling” the turkey and finally, carving each specific part of the bird.

Her instruction were meticulous and you simply got hungry reading through them.

Since this high school biology experiment was untested, I decided that I wouldn’t go to the expense of purchasing an “heirloom” breed of turkey. You know, those big-feathered birds that once roamed the meadows of New England and found themselves the victims of the Thanksgiving table of the Pilgrims. Better to start my turkey surgery with an average patient.

A 14lb. frozen turkey who probably spent its life in the dark would suffice. Should the procedure fail, I would have no worries that I had eviscerated a special turkey.

My kitchen table became the “operating table” for the first steps in the procedure. I really don’t have room in my 10 x 12 kitchen to splay out a 30 pound turkey and remove nearly all its guts and bones.

Remember to remove any giblet or sauce packets from the cavity of the turkey. Legend has it that the number one question to the “Butterball” turkey hotline is to inquire as to where one can find the turkey giblets. In fact, one novice turkey cook apparently left the plastic bag of giblets inside the turkey, only to sense a disgusting stench wafting through the kitchen about an hour into the roasting of the bird. After a frantic call to the turkey operators it was determined the turkey cook had left the giblets inside the bird, the plastic had melted, and the disgusting smell of plastic and baked heart was what was permeating the kitchen.

I covered the table with towels, laptop computer to the side so as to have easy access to record my thoughts as the procedure took place. The actual deboning turkey surgery only took about 45 minutes.

Moving on to the stuffing, Julia provided Cornbread, Sage and Sausage Stuffing, Sausage and Crouton Stuffing, Mushroom Duxelles Stuffing, Ham and Bread, Rice and Giblet, Prune and Apple with Sausage and finally, I’m stuffed myself just thinking about it, Prune and Liver Paté Stuffing to accompany a Goose or Duck. Whew!

Now in my family we always add chicken stock to our stuffing to keep it moist. Julia didn’t call for stock in the sausage stuffing, so I started to worry that the stuffing would be too dry.

She didn’t say how much sage to use in the stuffing, or whether it was dry or chopped fresh. Since I love the peppery flavor of fresh sage, I used about 4 tbsp. of chopped fresh sage leaves. But I also supplemented that with about 2 tablespoons of dried poultry seasoning, that wonderfully fragrant blend of dried sage, dried marjoram, thyme and oregano.

There, now that was enough tinkering with the master’s stuffing recipe. Any more little additions just wouldn’t make for an authentic Julia Child stuffed turkey.

I found that Julia wasn’t always precise with her recipes, a trait that I later found she shared with one of France’s finest chefs. Pros may be able to “feel” the right amount of herbs to put in the stuffing, but home cooks need the assurance of exact measurements.

Suprisingly, the recipe for stuffing was about 5 times what I needed to rest the turkey on. (It’s kind of sad to see how small a de-boned 14 pound turkey is.) Since I’ve just removed the backbone, a bit of the lower ribs and the thigh bone, I’d probably removed nearly half the bird’s weight.

I forgot to season the inside of the thighs with salt and pepper and sage before tying it up. Since, as with the stuffing, Julia didn’t specify what kind of sage, I used fresh chopped sage leaves to season the second thigh. Julia also didn’t specify what kind of oil to use to rub over the turkey, so I used olive oil.

And since I still wasn’t convinced that one could have a good result with stuffing without stock or lots of melted butter, I put the remaining stuffing in a bowl, poured in 2 cups of chicken stock and scooped it into a casserole dish.

Nor did Julia talk about basting during roasting. No drizzling with butter. No basting with pan juices. Nothing. I would have to resist my natural inclinations for basting all meats that I roast. I hope Julia was right and that our turkey would turn out golden brown.

I also didn’t totally trust Julia’s directions for roasting the turkey. She recommended 2 hours for the breast and merely 1 ¼ hours for the legs/deboned thighs. A small amount of time I thought. Since my Mother roasted her birds what seemed like all day, I thought I better fall back on the time tested method of stabbing a thermometer into the turkey and waiting until it reached 165º. At that stage the turkey is definitely done.

At the two-hour mark of cooking, the internal temperature of the bird was just under 150º, a sure sign that if we ate dinner now we would get some sort of horrific strain of avian stomach flu. At this point, my bird was pale and limp. It would take another hour before he was golden and his breast brimming with pride.

I ended up putting the baked stuffing on a platter since I couldn’t lift the whole lot, turkey, turkey drumsticks, and stuffing, out of the roasting pan in one big scoop.

So I sort of sculpted a mound of stuffing on a serving platter and then plopped the breast on top of the stuffing and stuck the legs in from the sides. It actually did look pretty much like the pretty photo in “The Way to Cook.”

While not a fan of dark turkey meat, the drumstick and thigh proved to be the tastiest, moistest part of the turkey.

The stuffing was moist; even without the stock I was sure had to be added.

The stuffing got even better in succeeding days after being baked and re-baked, especially those crusty little bits of toasted stuffing that stick to the sides of the casserole dish on day four – now those are the best parts.

Since we seem to always have to have some type of cranberry dish to accompany our Christmas dinner, I decided on Julia’s simple recipe for “Cranberry Chutney.” It proved to be the absolute star of the test dinner.

The idea of serving cranberry with turkey is that the tangy, acidic taste of the berries counter-balance the rich flavors of turkey.

Chutneys are different from traditional cranberry sauce because they have a bit of onion and some other spices added, sort of like a thick, chunky jam.

While Julia listed that the recipe “makes about 1 quart,” her calculations were off. The recipe made nearly twice that much chutney, nearly 2 quarts of the relish.

The only change I made to the recipe was to add about 1 cup of orange juice to thin things out a bit. Certainly that wouldn’t have doubled the recipe. But that is the nature of why we came to love Julia Child and her kitchen.

She listed seasonings in a group, not separately listed in the order they are used. She wasn’t always right with cooking times or with final quantities, but I think in her world, cooking wasn’t black and white nor was it always precise. Cooking was an adventure – finding the right tastes and textures to suit your personal tastes. Julia simply provided the map and you drove down the path to find your own way.

During cooking the Julia’s chutney turned a ruby-garnet shade of red so intense I had never seen something so perfectly created for the Christmas table.

Now it was on to the potatoes and I thought another perfect way to pay homage to Julia would be to do a potato dish from one of France’s finest Michelin-starred chefs.

She was always interested in the classical French method of cooking and how she could bring that back home, and France’s classically trained chefs provided her with much of her education.

Joel Robuchon is one of France’s most decorated chefs. While Chef Robuchon isn’t as infamous as Paul Bocuse or Alain Ducasse, he is just as talented. And although Chef Robuchon appears on television and has published cookbooks like his contemporaries, he seems to prefer to spend more time in the kitchen than in front of the camera.

What is surprising is the dish that Chef Robuchon is most famous for is a simple puree of russet potatoes, a double-mashed potato if you will. One wouldn’t think that 4-Michelin stars were won on potatoes, but the fact that every fine dining restaurant and steakhouse in America now serves some version of Chef Robuchon’s puree is testament to the popularity of the dish.

Next up on the dinner menu would have to be some sort of green vegetable.

Brussels sprouts really aren’t anybody’s favorite, but somehow we still buy tons of the little dickens. It’s like I can hear the voice of the Jolly Green Giant tapping me on the shoulder and saying “eat your brussels sprouts David or you won’t get any ice cream for dessert.”

Not to worry, Julia has plenty of recipes for brussels sprouts in “The Way to Cook.” In fact, this is the only cookbook I’ve seen that dedicates 3 pages and 7 different Brussels Sprouts recipes.

Even with a vegetable so many people turned their noses at, Julia never wavered. She was an unfailing supporter of even the most hated of foods. She wanted us to taste everything and to discover the subtleties of something others told us was bad.

Since I wasn’t going to stuff a goose with the chestnuts I bought, and I knew Julia loved chestnuts, I decided on her recipe for “Brussels Sprouts with Braised Chestnuts.”

Her commentary in her recipes was often humorous and inspired us to test the recipe just to see if the joke was on us. For example, in the Brussels Sprouts recipe, Julia called us to “cut one open and eat it, to be sure, it should be cooked through but still have a slight crunch.” That was her way of coaxing us over the fence to the land of Brussels Sprouts delight.

The menu was almost complete but would need one final, sweet, crowning glory to add to the great feast we had just eaten.

I imagined if Julia were in the kitchen she would wield one of her tacky plastic spatula’s high over head and proclaim, “start making the hard sauce for the pudding!”

I adore any type of dark, English-style pudding – chock full of dried fruits and liquored up with gallons of stiff brandy or rum. A good old-fashioned dessert would provide the ultimate ode to Julia this evening.

For those of you who don’t understand why our British friends call desserts “pudding,” heres the scoop. While in America, we seem to associate “pudding” with Bill Cosby and Jell-O, in England the term pudding was used for anything that was steamed in a dish or bag. These usually involved suet and could be either sweet (plum pudding) or savory (steak and kidney pudding). Over time the term became a catch-all for dessert, although the savory puddings are still a favorite.

In any case, I thought we’d bake the popular English Sticky Toffee Pudding with Rum Raisin Sauce.

Sticky Toffee Pudding is a dark cake that gets most of its flavor from reconstituted dried dates. The dates add moisture and color to the cake.

About halfway through the baking process, some caramel sauce is spooned over the cake. As the cake finishes in the oven, the caramel turns to the “sticky toffee” candy type stage. Once the cake is inverted after baking, the “sticky toffee” is on the bottom.

I took some of the caramel sauce and doused it with brandy and golden raisins to make a rum raisin sauce that I poured over slices of the cake.

A final garnish of cool vanilla ice cream and a sprig of mint would be the last dish in my Celebration Dinner for Julia.

Over the course of three weeks, I had tasted, tested, sautéed, seared, stewed, stirred and sipped dozens of Julia’s classic recipes in order to come up with my final menu of dishes.

Weeks were spent developing each dish so that the end result would please every guest. Golden raisins had to be used for the rum raisin sauce because they are sweeter and plumper than dark raisins. We didn’t need extra stock for the stuffing because covering it with the boned turkey breast would keep the stuffing from drying out. Every detail had been looked over. And that, my friends (and Julia), is I think a befitting tribute to an American icon. A few short words, written out of love and appreciation, to a treasured friend who brought so much joy.

When I sat down to taste my creations (and re-creations), I thought about what Julia meant to me.

Each word I wrote, each bite I took, limned a picture of what it must have been like at the dinner table with Paul and Julia and their families and friends.

I realized that Julia is still with us, and not just in “spirit.” Her books, her television shows, even the “Saturday Night Live” parody of Julia butchering that poor, limp chicken, will live with us forever.

In her later years it became apparent that time had passed Julia by. She had developed a sort of hunch and shuffled her feet in the tiny little kitchen of her Connecticut home.

Her knife skills weren’t as acute and she mainly sat to the side while other cooks prepared the dishes. Julia’s task was to offer to place a dirty muffin pan in the sink or to offer a clean spatula to stir the cake batter. It was almost as if some young, eager television producer had propped Julia up on a stool, displaying her as a kitchen prop while some trendy celebrity chef seared foie gras and poached white peaches.

But in spite of the effects of time on her body, her soul was still pure Julia – warm, friendly and compassionate – with a twinkle in her eye and a taste for a good sticky bun or Southern fried chicken with cream gravy. The voice still fluttered in those high C tones and the verve for food was still strong.

I think Julia herself realized it was time to take a rest from nearly 50 years at the stove. It was time for the champion to go out while she was still pretty much at the top of her game. Time for others to carry the torch that will light another generation of American cooks.

Julia retreated back to her childhood home of California, living out her final days in a retirement community in Santa Barbara. She still made an occasional appearance at awards dinners given in her honor and the occasional interview on “Today” or “Good Morning America,” but the best of the television days were over.

I suspect that Julia would want us to celebrate her life rather than weep over her passing. Her memory, the smells, tastes, the joy and the “art” she brought to us, lives on in her cookbooks and the boxed sets of tapes from her numerous PBS television shows.

People often ask me, as a “television” cook myself, who I admire the most. Which celebrity or personality do I admire and which one do I aspire to be the most. What show, what network, do I like?

Every time, without wavering, I give one simple answer. I tell them it was Julia. No one ever blazed the same trail that Julia trod for the way we cook. And no one today has the same influence on the simple art of teaching us how to cook. You see, for me that is what is most important. While it certainly is important to get ratings and shares for the advertisers, and a bit of charm and a model’s profile doesn’t hurt, it really isn’t about the “schtick” is it? It’s about teaching us how to cook, how to enjoy and how to love food and cooking. And that’s what Julia gave us.

I don’t aspire to be like any other cook. Like most people, I am at my best when I am myself. And that I suppose is the greatest lesson I learned from Julia.

Take some time and prepare your own celebration dinner for Julia.

It doesn’t really matter if they are my dishes or a potato recipe from a Michelin 4-star French chef. It really doesn’t matter if they are Julia’s recipes.

What does matter is that we feast on foods and recipes that are born out of tradition and love. I have a sense that is the way Julia would want us to celebrate her life.

I wish you a prosperous 2005.

And, to my special friend: thank you, dear Julia.

Re-assembled Roast Turkey with Sausage Stuffing

Sticky Toffee Pudding with Rum Raisin Sauve and Vanilla Ice Cream

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