Cooking like Julia Child

Inspired by Julia Child, this delicate fish stew combines classic cooking methods and ingredients.

Blue Kitchen
Tarragon and French technique flavor this fish stew inspired by Julia Child's Sole Food Stew from 'The Way to Cook.'

In celebration of the 100th anniversary of Julia Child’s birth on Aug. 15, is inviting bloggers to cook one of her recipes, post it, and share the link on Facebook and Twitter with the hashtag #CookForJulia. Here is Blue Kitchen's contribution.

Each generation stands on the shoulders of the one before it. Our children use our experience and our knowledge as a foundation to see further than we can. To see things in a way that we can’t.

The same is true in cooking. In looking at some of Julia Child’s cookbooks, it’s easy to see them as a little old-fashioned, right down to the recipes. Chicken Marengo. Ham Steaks with Cream and Mushrooms. But home cooking is only where it is today because we stood on her shoulders. 

We’ve cooked many things either from one of her cookbooks or in some way inspired by her cooking. Usually, we’ve relied on her seminal "Mastering the Art of French Cooking." For this recipe, though, I turned to "The Way to Cook."

First published in 1989, "The Way to Cook" isn’t just a collection of recipes – it does what the title promises, demonstrating a number of basic cooking techniques via master recipes. Julia then offers variations on the basic recipes and encourages readers to experiment with their own ideas. It’s not a French cookbook, but French technique is at the heart of the way Julia cooked, and it flows through the recipes here. And that’s fine with me. As much as Marion and I enjoy exploring the many cuisines in the world – both in restaurants and in our own kitchen – I am always struck by how the French unerringly choose just the right mix of ingredients and combine them with the perfect techniques to create not culinary fireworks, but something subtle, complex and sublime.

The book being 23 years old now, some of the recipes do feel a little dated. But some – like this one for a delicate, tarragon-seasoned fish stew – are timeless. As I began cooking it, sweating leeks, carrots, celery and onion in butter, the kitchen (and gradually, the entire apartment) filled with heavenly, French-accented aromas.

Regular readers here know that my recipes tend to fall into the quick and easy category. Real ingredients and real cooking, but dishes that more often than not, come together pretty quickly. And even those that require long cooking usually don’t call for much hands-on time in the kitchen.

This recipe is easy. No single step is in any way difficult or daunting. But there are lots of them, at least compared to my usual approach. From the time I started prepping vegetables until I ladled the finished stew into bowls, I was actively doing something. And as with just about all French cooking, every step, every ingredient is necessary. The very last ingredient in it is an egg yolk blended into sour cream. Even though I had already prepped it, I was skeptical that it was needed. The stew was smelling delicious already. But as I adjusted the seasonings as the recipe called for at this point – ”Carefully taste and correct seasonings” is how Julia put it – it wasn’t quite right. The egg yolk and sour cream brought it all together. The sour cream gave it a tangy richness; the egg yolk added a silky texture to the sauce. Now it was ready.

Fish Stew with White Wine and Tarragon
Serves 2 generously as dinner, 3 as a light lunch

Julia made this with sole and charmingly called it Sole Food Stew. I couldn’t get fresh sole and substituted halibut. Any firm-fleshed, mild white fish will work.

1 medium tomato
 1 carrot, peeled and sliced
 1 leek, white and pale green parts only, halved lengthwise and sliced
 1 celery stalk, preferably with leaves, sliced (leaves chopped)
 1 medium onion, sliced
 1-1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter
 1 generous teaspoon chopped fresh tarragon leaves (or 1/2 teaspoon dried)
 1-1/4 cup chardonnay, plus 1 tablespoon (or other dry white wine)
 3/4 cup chicken broth (preferably unsalted – see Kitchen Notes)
 1/2 cup water
 salt and freshly ground pepper
 1/2 tablespoon cornstarch
 1/2 pound halibut sliced into bite-sized pieces
 1 egg yolk
 1/2 cup sour cream (I used Breakstone reduced fat)

Blanch the tomato. Drop tomato into a medium pot of water to a boil. After 10 seconds, remove with a strainer and set aside to cool. You need the tomato near the end of the recipe, so during a break in the action, core and peel it, scoop out the seeds using your fingers and gently squeeze out any liquid from the tomato. Then dice the tomato; you should have about 3/4 cup.

Melt butter in a large, heavy pot or Dutch oven over low to medium flame. Add carrot, leek, celery and onion and toss to coat with butter. Cover pot and sweat vegetables for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Do not allow to brown; reduce heat if necessary.

Add tarragon, 1-1/4 cup wine, broth and water. Season with salt and pepper and simmer uncovered for 5 minutes. Remove from heat. Combine cornstarch and remaining tablespoon of white wine in a small bowl, stirring until cornstarch is completely dissolved. Slowly drizzle 1/2 cup of heated broth/wine mixture into cornstarch and wine, stirring constantly to keep it from forming clumps. Blend back into pot and simmer over low heat for 2 minutes. Fold in fish and tomato and bring to a simmer. Taste and adjust seasonings.

Meanwhile, mix egg yolk and sour cream in a medium bowl. Slowly drizzle 1/2 cup of heated broth/wine mixture into it, stirring to combine. Gently fold into pot. Ladle stew into shallow soup plates and serve with a crusty bread.

Kitchen Notes

Choose your chicken broth. Store-bought broth options have been improving greatly. You can now pick from organic, free range, low fat, fat-free or several combinations thereof. But until recently, your sodium choices were full salt bomb or reduced sodium (which was still pretty salty). Now, though, unsalted broth is showing up on supermarkets shelves everywhere. This is the best option, giving you complete control of the amount of salt in dishes. Of course, if you make your own chicken stock, that’s even better.

Related post on Blue Kitchen: Skate Meunière with Browned Butter and Capers

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