Last night I got home and was faced with a quandary, what to make for dinner. The classic response to this is a battle royale where we struggle to figure out what the other person wants to eat, we compare what we have in the pantry and fridge and if we’re very lucky we can make something that if it isn’t what anyone really wanted, does at least dispel hunger for a while longer.
Last night I arrived home and looked in the freezer. I had previously used my FoodSaver system to secure/freeze a giant blister pack of chicken breasts, two at a time per bag and they were mocking me in the freezer. “Oh whatever will you do with us!? Try as you might, it’ll be either minimally acceptable or barely edible!” and it struck me that I had a copy of “Mastering the Art of French Cooking”, AKA, THE GREAT BOOK. (The Holy Bible is the Good Book, whereas the MAFC is THE GREAT BOOK. Accept that cookbooks > bibles and you’ll go far in understanding me!) So I grabbed the blessed tome of tasty and looked through the table of contents. Ever since becoming acceptably proficient in making Boeuf Bourguignon I’ve been itching to try more from THE GREAT BOOK. I discovered that what I had was 4 frozen “Supremes”, or so the French call them, and there was an entire section devoted to them in the MAFC. I opened the first recipe “Supremes De Volaille A Blanc” and looked over the plan. I had nearly every ingredient on hand. On the sheer thrill of trying something from the MAFC I thought about a side-dish that I could make and remembered that two days ago I had watched an episode of French Cooking (yes, the B&W one, Julia herself, soldiering on, and yes, on our HDTV) where she featured potatoes as the theme. She had prepared Gratin Dauphinois and watching her became a clip-meme that was bounding around in my head since I saw it. I decided that I would look it up, found it, again had a good number of the ingredients already on-hand and that became side #1. As I pondered over the MAFC it struck me that I had a main course, a side-dish featuring potatoes, but no vegetable! (I don’t regard potato as a vegetable, I regard it rightly, as a pillar of cuisine, I’m Irish, deal with it.) I then scanned the MAFC and briefly chuckled at my hubris, that I would take on not one but three untried recipes singlehandedly. For the vegetable side I selected Carottes A La Concierge. I marked the three recipes using slips of paper (I need a set of five bookmarks to just keep in THE GREAT BOOK itself I think) and had a list of things I needed to get at the market. I was able to acquire the ingredients for this hubristic cavalcade for just under $20, which was just about all I had left in my food budget.
Once I returned from the market with my supplies I got down to thinking about something I need more experience in, which is kitchen timing. Which dish do you start with? How do you manage mise-en-place with hot components, and how can you work three MAFC recipes with a kitchen as woefully tiny as mine? I enlisted a friend in vegetation disassembly but once I had everything I was pretty much on my own. Let it be clear, I was on my own by design, many offered to help but working with the MAFC is a one-man-one-book-one-sharp-knife deal. I started the Dauphinois first, since it needed to bake for at least half an hour in a blazing box at 400 degrees. I then got the ‘Carottes’ dish off the ground and started both it’s primary section and it’s attendant sauce and finally worked on the Supremes, and their attendant sauce.
The first thing that occurred to me as I promptly botched the prep for the Dauphinois was that Julia’s two pounds of potatoes is kind of a winking joke. There was no way that two pounds of potatoes were going to actually come together properly, it’s actually about 1 pound 12 ounces that you need. Julia’s estimations aren’t wrong, for her tools they were probably just right, but for me and mine, yikes. I was able to salvage the botched prep on the Dauphinois and then the first durable lesson popped out at me, that dogmatically following these recipes would be an utter disaster. If you want to cook French properly, you have to follow Julia’s suggestions on her video programs and cook by the seat of your pants, the recipe as a rough guide, not a scaffolding or a plug-and-play situation as I originally approached them as. Along with the potato oddity the instruction that a supreme should be able to cook to done in a 400 degree oven in 6 minutes from raw was dangerously off. I was really concerned about this because the 6 minutes passed and my probe thermometer showed an internal temperature of 108 degrees for the Supremes. I sat there thinking about why I read “6 minutes, maybe a moment more” when my common sense is screaming “try 14 ya dumbass! Yer gonna kill someone with raw chicken!” and then it struck me like a ton of bricks. Julia Child, and the MAFC was written when Supremes were of a certain size. Yes kids, we have witnessed a definite manipulation of CHICKEN. My Supremes were 3 times bigger than Julia’s! Each! So armed with my probe thermometer I let the Supremes go for nearly 17 minutes, checking every few minutes until they got to 150. I knew they would coast all the way to done at 160 and I knew that they were rendered “safe” at 140.
As the Supremes coasted and rested I was able to turn my attention to the sauces. Once I got them whipped into shape I pulled out the Dauphinois and looked down and into the casserole dish I had prepped them in. I couldn’t face them if they were as I feared, goopy and overdone or raw vegetal nasty underdone. I was absolutely convinced that the Dauphinois was an utter loss. I reached in, grabbed them, and pulled them out. As I set it down on the counter I peered in, steeling myself for the absolute worst. Well, as it turns out, they came out perfectly. They were not goopy, nor were they underdone. I reflected on the Dauphinois, it wasn’t difficult to throw together and the recipe is deliriously (and thankfully) resistant to botching, even if you utterly botch the prep! With one success under my belt for the night I covered the Dauphinois and got back to everything else. I added the egg/cream thickener to the ‘Carottes’ and what was a dingy speckled thin mess became a mustard colored dingy speckled thin mess. I let it simmer for a long while and in the end I figured this would be my failure. I poured the sauce onto the ‘Carottes’ and covered it all up and let it rest.
All in all I was facing plating and presentation, the Dauphinois was a great surprise, and I could handle the failure of the ‘Carottes’ if the Supremes worked. As everyone congregated I uncovered the Supremes and started to plate them each out, 1 Supreme per person. I got out the forks and I showed off all that I had done. The sauces sensed my foreboding and thickened magically and when I uncovered the ‘Carottes’ dish, they were PERFECT. Everyone dug in and in the end I had a lot of clean plates and very happy diners.
I must admit that I did not suffer for my hubris, and now I have experience in these particular dishes I now feel more at home in the MAFC than ever. I find myself itching to try other recipes in the MAFC, and a part of me would love to whip up something for my folks in Rock Hill when we go on vacation.
Which brings me to another thing I’ve discovered. There is a kind of magic in cooking. It’s a feeling I haven’t felt since my early years at SUNY Buffalo. Watching the loom of the kitchen work, all the ingredients coming together, the amazement at the complexity of some of these dishes and the utter surprise when they are successes feels a lot like hacking away, writing code in whatever programming language, and creating something. That I think is the same rush that painters feel when their work is done, when a sculptor chips the last bit of marble off, when a thing is created, new, and it was all your doing that made it happen. I also firmly believe that the loom of the kitchen cannot operate properly unless emotions are also present in the room, and all of them too, hope, compassion, love, rage, will, avarice, and fear. It’s why I could never cook like this on a timer, for money, I could never be a professional chef. I care too much, I think. It’s also a kind of therapy I think, definitely a giant batch of crack for a Cancer such as myself to cook this way. There is something utterly delightful and perfectly wonderful in creating truly amazing dishes. The MAFC may be a doorway for me to find my Art.
Only time will tell.