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Recipes and Stories

15 August 2019: An Old Dog Relearning Old Tricks

A Quick Sauté of Beef is done in less than tweny minutes, start to finish.


I am having to relearn how to cook on an electric range, and the one on which I am learning is working my nerves.


Crowded into the end of our apartment's galley kitchen, the thermostat of its large front burner is defective and will suddenly make it surge to high heat when it's set anywhere between high and medium-low. From medium-low to low, it practically turns itself off and is barely warm.


That can be fixed, but the undercabinet microwave that hovers a mere thirteen inches above the cooking surfaces (five inches less than standard upper cabinet height) cannot.


Tall pots won't fit on the back and if there's anything on a front burner, that has to be moved before even low pots can be moved at the back. Since the large front burner is unreliable, less than half the cooking surface is really usable, and slow simmers (the one really good property of an electric range) have to be done on a small front burner in a pot that's almost too small for it.


Suddenly, I'm getting a sharp, unpleasant reminder of what it feels like to be a complete novice in the kitchen: Browning things without scorching them has become a challenge; rice that's uniformly fluffy and separate and not half-grainy-half-mushy is unpredictable.


The good things are that water comes to a rolling boil in half the time it took on the old gas range from our last place and I get really intense heat for a stir-fry or sauté. Oh, and the oven works reasonably well, but then who wants to be baking or broiling in this weather?


What all that means is that, while I'm relearning how to manage electric heat and wait for the necessary repairs on that front heat source, we're eating a lot of pasta, quick sautés, and stir-fries with so-so rice.


That relearning ought, in theory, to be simple: after all, I learned to cook on an electric range and have used one for more than half my life. But while I've never put much stock in that old saying about how an old dog can't learn new tricks, I'm finding out that it really is hard for this old dog to relearn old tricks, especially on equipment that has such added challenges built-in.


But what can one do? We still have to eat and even if we could afford a steady diet of restaurant food, that would be tedious at best.


Fortunately, sautéing is a perfect cooking method for hot weather. It's simple, fast, and requires no special skill from the cook. Sure, tossing the food as a professional chef does requires the mastery of a technique that takes practice and finesse, but, after all, there's nothing that says a home cook needs to master something that was developed by line cooks in a hurry. Steady flipping with a spoon or spatula will most of the time do the job nearly as well.


A Quick Sauté of Beef for Two


It seems appropriate, on the indomitable Julia Child's birthday, to celebrate her memory with a quick sauté of beef inspired by her recipe from The Way to Cook. The basic technique is the same regardless of the kind of protein, whether it's red meat or poultry, so you also use it for chunks of chicken or pork loin or tenderloin. It's done start to finish in less than twenty minutes, including the back-prep.


Because this is fairly rich, serve it with steamed potatoes and simple green vegetable or salad.


Serves 2


12 ounces beef filet tips, sirloin tips, or rib eye, cut into 1½-inch cubes

2 tablespoons minced shallot

3-4 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into chunks

1 tablespoon olive oil

Salt and whole black pepper in a mill

½ cup dry white wine or dry white vermouth

½ cup beef broth

1 tablespoon cream

1 tablespoon minced flat leaf parsley


1. Wrap the meat with several layers of paper towels, gently pressing to dry it. Unwrap it and heat 1 tablespoon of the butter and the oil in a 10-inch skillet or sauté pan over medium heat. Add the beef, raise the heat to medium high, and brown it well on all sides, about 3 minutes tossing it often. Remove the meat to a plate with a slotted spoon or spatula and season lightly with salt and pepper.


2. Return the pan to medium heat, add the shallot, and sauté until golden, about 2 minutes. Add the wine to the pan and deglaze it, stirring and scraping the bottom to loosen any cooking residue. Let it cook until its aroma is no longer alcoholic and add the broth. Bring it to a boil and let the liquid boil until it's reduce by a little more than half its original volume. Whisk in any juices that have accumulated in the plate holding the meat.


3. Whisk in the cream and let it thicken slightly, then take the pan from the heat and whisk in 2-3 tablespoons of butter a few bits at a time. Return the beef to the pan, add half the parsley, and gently toss until the meat is coated. Divide the beef among two warm serving plates, spoon the sauce over it and sprinkle it with the remaining parsley.

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26 September 2013: A French Apple Tart

A Free-Form Apple Tart is a simple pastry to master, but it never fails to impress.
For those on my Facebook author’s page who asked for the recipe, here’s the free-form apple tart that’s pictured there. This was the first apple pie I ever made after I was grown and had my own kitchen. It’s from the first Julia Child cookbook I owned, From Julia Child’s Kitchen (1975), and it has been my standard apple pie ever since. Read More 
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9 August 2012: The Art of the Omelet

The Perfect French Omelet, where "butter and eggs go to be elevated to art."
On the eve of what would have been her 100th birthday, the indomitable, inimitable Julia Child has been on the minds of a lot American cooks, whether they knew her or not. There are many things that resonate with her memory, but for me, nothing speaks more plainly of everything that she taught and believed in than a classic French omelet. Read More 
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22 May 2011_History in the Hands of Clever Reporters

One of the vagaries of having published a cookbook that involves a famous historical figure is that one will eventually have to talk to reporters about that figure.

Now, having worked as a journalist myself, let me quickly say that I have every respect for those whose job it is to pave our glutted information highway. Our society is inordinately curious about celebrity, down to the most tediously boring detail of their lives, and someone, I suppose, has to satisfy that curiosity.

Witness the recently published private correspondence between Julia Child and her friend Avis DeVoto, which has been my bedtime reading over the last few weeks. At best, about a quarter of these letters are interesting to cooks and culinary historians, chronicling as they do Child’s growth as a cook and teacher and the development of her masterpiece, Mastering the Art of French Cooking. The rest of it is, even for historians, about as interesting as watching paint peel.

Is what Mrs. Child thought of Joe McCarthy and J. Edgar Hoover really important? Not really, no. But because she was famous, someone thinks it ought to be.

Well, regardless of that, the historian who compiled and edited these letters at the very least maintained a healthy respect not only for both these women’s privacy but also for the truth. Unhappily, not all journalists take that much care.

For many of them, being clever, it seems, is more important than being factual.

Recently, because of my work as recipe developer for Dining at Monticello, a collection of essays and recipes that chronicle the food culture at Thomas Jefferson’s beloved home, I spoke on the subject at a nearby public library.

The following day, the local paper published an on-line video about the event that was introduced by a young woman who reported that Jefferson was not only a founding father and author of the Declaration of Independence, he was “also a very good cook.”

Clearly she did not hear my lecture, and subscribed to the time-honored Southern theory that facts should never be allowed to interfere with a good line.

Now, Jefferson was a lot of things, but he was no cook. Those were, in fact, just about the first words out of my mouth that evening. Yes, he’s an almost iconic figure in American culinary history, right up there with Mrs. Child, but unlike that lady, it is not because he mastered the art of French cooking—or, for that matter, any other kind.

He didn’t even know how to cook in theory, and never so much as lifted a pan, turned a spit, or cracked an egg. Jefferson was a gentleman farmer, and men like that simply didn’t do such things back then. Oh, to be sure, there were male cooks, even in the kitchen at Monticello, but he wasn’t one of them.

What set Jefferson apart for us was not his active participation but his catholic curiosity. While he was not the only man in his position to care about the quality of his table, he was the only one who cared enough to find out how a thing was done, and to copy out that how for those whose job it was to actually do it.

Unfortunately, he knew so little of actual culinary practice that he would often get the method hopelessly wrong. Luckily, his cousin (and daughter’s sister-in-law), Mary Randolph had a knowledge of cookery that went well beyond theoretical. She made sense out of Jefferson’s culinary scribbles in her lovely cookbook, The Virginia House-wife, published just two years before Jefferson died.

Were it not for Mrs. Randolph, my job translating the recipes that survive in Jefferson’s hand would have been a challenge. One can only imagine the hilarity with which that lady would have met our intrepid reporter’s pronouncement.

Well, what else could I do but follow Mrs. Randolph’s lead, laugh it off, and head back to the kitchen, where I happened to have some fresh, locally grown shiitake mushrooms and a pint of premium 40 % milkfat cream from a local organic dairy.

While it was not the season for the common field mushrooms that Mrs. Randolph used, nor are shiitake found in Virginia, even among the horticultural curiosities at Monticello, I still looked to her exquisitely simple recipe for inspiration.

Stewed Mushrooms.

Gather grown mushrooms, but such as are young enough to have red gills; cut off the part of the stem which grew in the earth, wash them carefully and take the skin from the top; put them into a stew-pan with some salt, but no water, stew them till tender, and thicken them with a spoonful of butter mixed with one of brown flour; red wine may be added, but the flavour of the mushroom is too delicious to require aid from any thing.

— Mary Randolph, The Virginia House-wife, 1824.

It was the perfect foil for misunderstood history, but it wasn’t, unfortunately, the perfect recipe for wood mushrooms like shiitake. In keeping with the spirit of her cooking, Jefferson’s fondness for French style, and perhaps because I’ve been reading about Julia Child, I instead got out a sauté pan and made

Sautéed Shiitake Mushrooms with Cream
Serves 4

¾ pound Shiitake mushrooms
¼ cup minced shallot
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 tablespoon olive oil
Salt and whole black pepper in a peppermill
¼ cup heavy cream
4 thick slices buttered and toasted baguette

1. Clean the shiitake, cut off their tough stems and thickly slice them.
2. Put the shallot, butter, and olive oil in a sauté pan over medium heat and sauté, tossing often, until golden, about 5 minutes.
3. Raise the heat to medium high and add the shiitake, quickly tossing them so that they evenly absorb the butter. Like most mushrooms, they will immediately suck up the butter, but after they’re thoroughly heated, will release it once more into the pan. Sauté, tossing almost constantly, until they are wilted and coloring, about 4 minutes.
4. Splash in the cream and let it lightly thickened, about a minute more. Season liberally with salt and pepper, turn off the heat, and immediately pour them over the buttered toast. Read More 
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