Learning to cook the Julia Child way

Bored with her job, a young New Yorker devotes a year to making meals from 'Mastering the Art of French Cooking'

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Like many who come to New York City seeking fame and fortune, Julie Powell found only cheap pizza, overpriced housing, and a monotonous office job.

She works for the organization in charge of developing the World Trade Center site - a job that might sound intriguing except that her role has involved fielding ideas for the design competition, no matter how amateur or how mundane.

The design competition for the WTC was recently awarded to Daniel Libeskind, one of the world's leading architects. But it was, by law, an open competition, which means that anyone and everyone could compete - and Ms. Powell had to dutifully listen to every caller, make a note of the idea, and file it away.

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Feeling creatively stymied, Powell searched for a project to enrich her life. Then she came across a 35-year-old copy of Julia Child's "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" (written with Louisette Bertholle and Simone Beck, Alfred A. Knopf, 684 pp., $40).

Why not give the book a test run, she thought, to see if a lowly office worker with little to no cooking skills can become an accomplished cook.

Every day since then, after taking the subway home, she has made a meal from this culinary classic. And she documents her travails on a web log or "blog" - an online diary. Now, hundreds of readers visit her site to see if her nightly forays become food for her husband or a meal for the cats, and to read her harangue on aspic.

"I chose Child's book because I enjoy her writing and attitude to life," says Powell. "She's a populist who believes that you can eat well without spending a lot of money - even if you're living in Ohio in 1962, where all you can get is iceberg lettuce."

That Powell can bond with Ms. Child is remarkable considering that this cookbook first came out in 1961, long before Powell was born. In fact, for Powell's generation, Child is less of a celebrity chef than a pop-culture icon - that woman with the funny voice who accidentally chops off her fingers in a "Saturday Night Live" skit.

At first, Powell flipped through the book, choosing recipes at random. Then she realized it doesn't work that way. "It's set up like a cooking class. You start with a simple technique and then build on it until it becomes more elaborate."

What was first hard becomes easy, both with patience and practice. "The first time you do a certain dish there's too many steps, and it's really frustrating," she says. "But eventually everything - for instance, peeling tomatoes - becomes easier. That's right. I peel tomatoes!"

"I think it's delightful that someone is doing all these recipes," says Judith Jones, editor of "Mastering the Art of French Cooking."

"French [cooking] is the backbone of Western cuisine, and it has rules," says Ms. Jones, "so if you really want to learn to cook well, this is the place to start. I don't think there has really been a book to surpass it."

Jones isn't alone in her opinion. When Child's book first came out, culinary giant James Beard commented: "I only wish I had written it myself." Today, chefs still hail the cookbook as one of the most influential of the 20th century.

Diversifying dinner

Powell's husband, Eric, is elated that his wife took on this project. The couple had fallen into a rut of eating alternate dinners of Mexican food, Cajun, and pasta. Mr. Powell rounded out the weekly menu with a couple of dishes: London broil, chicken, and a pork chop dish. "We were recycling the same things," he says. "Now we never eat the same thing twice."

But there is one thing that both Powells would rather never eat again - aspic. A jelly made from naturally reduced beef juices, Jones describes it as "absolutely heavenly." But to Powell, it can be described in a word - nasty.

"You know the slime layer that is on the end of a brick of Spam? That's aspic," she says. But, she adds, her cats love it.

Powell also says certain parts of the book, written before her mother married, seem a little dated. Child's rice-cooking techniques seem lengthy, and Powell attributes this to the type of rice available at the time. And there are other quirks that let you know the book was written in the '60s: Rice is called a vegetable, and cooking times can be slightly excessive.

Dated techniques

"You really don't need to cook green beans for close to an hour," says Powell.

A former cook and now a web designer in Texas, Hannah Levbarg is a fan of Powell's online diary. "I can completely relate to what she is writing," she says. "For me, it's partly a vicarious experience with cooking, but it's also a break from all the lifestyle gurus like Martha Stewart."

Now halfway through the book, Powell says she probably won't finish every recipe, but she is giving herself a year to see how far she gets. "It's really about expanding myself," she says, "seeing if I can make my way through it.

"And in the end, I'm going to end up a really good cook."

Open-faced Omelet Garnished With Onions, Peppers, Tomatoes, and Ham Pipérade

This is a Basque specialty, and quick to make if the pipérade mixture has been prepared in advance. As the omelet is not folded, and is served in its cooking vessel, it is not a disaster if it sticks a little on the bottom. You may therefore cook the eggs in a low, glazed pottery dish, or a fancy skillet.

HAM AND PIPÉRADE MIXTURE
8 to 12 strips of ham 1/4 inch thick and about 2-by-3 inches across
2 tablespoons olive oil or butter
1/2 cup thinly sliced yellow onions
1/2 cup thinly sliced green or red bell peppers
Salt and pepper to taste
1/2 clove mashed garlic
Speck of cayenne pepper
2 or 3 firm, ripe red tomatoes, peeled, seeded, juiced, and sliced
Salt and pepper to taste

OMELET
1-1/2 tablespoons olive oil or butter
8 to 10 eggs beaten lightly with 1/4 teaspoon salt and pinch of pepper
2 to 3 tablespoons minced parsley or mixed fresh green herbs

In an 8- to 9-inch enameled skillet, brown the ham slices lightly on both sides in hot oil or butter. Set them aside, and reheat just before using them at the end of the recipe.

In the same oil or butter in which you browned the ham, cook the onions and peppers slowly, covering the skillet, until they are tender but not browned. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Stir in the garlic and bell peppers. Lay the tomatoes over the onions and sprinkle with salt. Cover and cook slowly for 5 minutes. Uncover, raise heat, and boil for a few minutes, shaking the pan occasionally until the juice from the tomatoes has almost entirely evaporated. Season to taste and reheat just before using.

In an 11- to 12-inch serving skillet or shallow, fireproof serving dish, heat the oil or butter. When very hot, pour in the eggs. Stir rapidly with a large fork until the eggs have just set into a creamy mass. Remove from heat and spread the hot pipérade over them, mixing a bit of it delicately into the eggs. Lay the warm ham strips over the pipérade. Sprinkle with the herbs and serve immediately. Serves 4 to 6.

- From 'Mastering the Art of French Cooking'

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