Julia made a day in the kitchen an Old World adventure

August 15, 2004|By Dan Rodricks

MAYBE I'M wrong, and maybe I'm right, or maybe I'm just confused by all food fads that have come and gone, but I have a hunch that, minus the parsley potatoes and bread you're supposed to serve with the dish, Julia Child's coq au vin would be greatly appreciated in today's American dining room - despite being an old-school dish from a has-been nation that voted against George Bush's war in Iraq.

After all, my carb-counting friends, it begins with a 4-ounce chunk of bacon.

"Remove the rind," Julia's recipe, from the 1967 edition of Mastering the Art of French Cooking goes. "Cut the bacon into lardons (rectangles 1/4 -inch across and 1 inch long). Simmer for 10 minutes in two quarts of water. Rinse in cold water. Dry."

But then comes the next step.

The next step begins with six words that today seem like something from an ancient book of witchcraft: "Saute the bacon slowly in butter ... "

To most Americans - even the "Pork Fat Rules!" crowd - that probably sounds like suicide. No carbs, but fat-and-cholesterol poison.

"Saute the bacon slowly in butter ... "

It partly explains why classic French cuisine died a slow death in this country - too much trouble, too much time, or too fattening, or too, too ... French!

It's a shame, really, because I have never seen anyone anything but satisfied by smartly made coq au vin. It is Old World comfort food, and Julia Child was its champion.

For me, this particular dish, by Julia's recipe, marked a personal best - the best meal I ever prepared on the first try.

And it was because of the preciseness of the recipe - and the fear Julia Child had instilled in me (and many other amateur cooks) through a television screen.

Before that February day eight years ago, I wasn't much for following directions. I read cookbooks for ideas, tips and amusement (and, in the case of The Soprano's Family Cookbook, for the photograph of the Sicilian woman with the tomato), and I rarely followed recipes to their finish.

But for this particular event, a birthday celebration for four French-American in-laws, I asked myself: WWJD - What Would Julia Do?

And the answer was a classic French meal - seafood crepes, the coq au vin, apple tart for dessert - real old-school, all-day cooking, almost anachronistic in the age of everything-lean, nouvelle-cuisine.

The adventure began in a place Madame Child would have loved, Baltimore's historic Lexington Market, for a chunk of lean bacon, four pounds of cut-up chicken, three dozen baby onions and a pound of mushrooms - for the coq au vin.

I started cooking early on a Saturday morning, browning the bacon in butter, then removing the lardons to a dish.

Next, the recipe said, "Brown the chicken in the hot fat in a heavy, 10-inch casserole."

I thought about removing the skin from the chicken, but imagined Julia Child standing tall next to me in the kitchen, rolling pin at the ready should I veer from the recipe. I cooked the chicken until the skin was crisp.

"Season the chicken with 1/2 teaspoon salt, 1/8 teaspoon pepper and return the bacon to the casserole with the chicken," Julia continued. "Cover and cook slowly for 10 minutes, turning the chicken once."

Only once. Not twice or thrice. With Julia Child, doyenne of French cuisine in America, you didn't challenge directions, even when she wasn't present to watch you.

On television back in the day, Madame Child had a very nice way of being fierce as a school marm, politely demanding strict adherence to the rules. You didn't dare cheat on her.

Now it was time for the cognac.

Up until this point in my life, I had never set anything afire on the stove - either intentionally or by accident. Madame now wanted me to pour one-quarter cup of a flammable liquid onto the chicken. I had to work up some courage.

"Averting your face, ignite the cognac with a lighted match," the recipe said.

There was a pop and a woof, and a large purple-yellow flame. Children and dogs scampered. I was having one of those freaky Julia Child moments, where anything could happen - a potholder igniting, facial hair burning - and I started doing, for my own amusement (since everyone else had fled the kitchen), an imitation of Dan Akroyd imitating Julia Child:

"Not to worry! Not to worry! Merely shake the casserole from side to side until the flames subside!" And they did. The aromas in the kitchen now reached the borders of amazing.

I added the rest of the ingredients - three cups of young, red wine; two cups of chicken stock; half a tablespoon of tomato paste; two cloves of mashed garlic; a quarter of a teaspoon of thyme, and one bay leaf.

As the chicken simmered, there was a whole second half to the preparation of this dish - browning and braising the small onions for about 40 minutes; sauteing the mushrooms; removing the chicken from the casserole and reducing the liquid; correcting the seasoning, and discarding the bay leaf. You had to prepare a paste from three tablespoons of flour and two tablespoons of softened butter - more butter! - and mix it into the hot liquid until you had a sauce "thick enough to coat a spoon lightly."

I did as Julia Child instructed, down to the one-quarter teaspoon of thyme, until the coq au vin was finished and I was exhausted.

I have never created a meal more memorable for the delight it brought a room full of appreciative guests.

Dear Julia: Thanks for the memories.

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