Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Too much anticipation leads to unrealistic expectations...

I saw the movie, I read the related books, I watched some old TV clips...and then I headed to the kitchen. Looking back, I can clearly see the errors that led to my disappointment, but my head was in the culinary clouds.

Let's start with the recipe: Julia Child's famous Boeuf Bourguignon. I studied the recipe—I mean really studied it—then shopped for all the ingredients. Next came the cooking. I've never followed a recipe more precisely. One of my worst faults is improvisation in the kitchen, but not on this day. Everything was measured, steps were in order, temps and times followed religiously. The kitchen smelled wonderful all afternoon—which is how long it took to prepare this classic—it can't be rushed.

Let me repeat something I knew, but thought did not apply to this particular culinary homage: if it looks like beef stew, and smells like beef stew, it's probably Beef Stew! And frankly, not the best beef stew I've ever eaten.

Looking back at the ingredients, I should have been more realistic. I expected the sauce to be very rich, and push the beef into taste euphoria. It was good, certainly tasty, but not over the top. I used the best burgundy Food Lion sells, and my meat was a good cut—much better than the usual hodge podge I use when making plain old beef stew, and I didn't rush the slow oven cooking.

When it comes right down to the bottom line, nobody knows more about turning beef scraps into a delicious stew than we Southerners, and my grandmother was obviously a culinary genius. You can add all the wine, fine mushrooms, and pearl onions you want, but it's not one bit better—maybe not even as good.

I think I picked the wrong JC recipe to obsess over.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Brandied Cherries

6 pint canning jars with 2 piece tops

6 lbs. Dark sweet cherries

1 cup sugar

1 cup water

One-fourth cup lemon juice

One and one-fourth cups brandy

Place jars in 200° oven until ready to use.

Wash and pit cherries.

Add jar lids to small saucepan of boiling water.

Combine sugar, water and lemon juice in large pan and bring to a boil. Add cherries, reduce heat and simmer until cherries are heated through. Remove from heat and add brandy.

Remove jars from oven and pack with drained cherries, dividing equally between jars. Add hot syrup, leaving one-fourth inch of head space. Remove air bubbles. Add boiled lids and rims to jars until barely tightened.

Place jars in boiling water bath, covering jars with two inches of water, and process for ten minutes. Remove jars, and cool, checking that all jars seal.

Brandied Peaches

2 pint canning jars with 2 piece lids

3 pounds firm peaches

3 cups sugar

3 cups water

One-half cup or more of brandy

Heat jars in oven at 200° until ready to use.

Remove peach peels, by making an 'x' in bottom of peach, place in boiling water for 1 minute, then shock in ice water. Remove peeling, and pit, and quarter peaches.

Bring 3 cups sugar and 3 cups water to boil in large pot. Add peaches and simmer only until peaches begin to soften.

Bring small sauce pan of water to boil, and add the lids (not the bands).

Remove jars from oven and fill with drained peaches.

Boil remaining syrup until it begins to thicken. Pour over peaches, dividing equally between jars. Fill jars with brandy, leaving one-fourth inch head space. Remove air bubbles.

Remove lids from hot water and place on jars. Add rims and just barely tighten. Place jars in pot on rack, cover by 2 inches with water and gently boil over medium heat for 20 minutes. Remove from water bath and cool. Jars should seal when cooling.

Annelle & Ball???

I've been waiting for the movie Julie & Julia for months. I read My Life in France and the Julie and Julia book, and have even been spending more time than I should perusing the recipes in Mastering the Art of French Cooking, comparing them to similar recipes that have made their way into my files.

I never think of making a French meal—my first thoughts always go to Tuscan Italian, which is so similar to our Southern fare. The more I read, the more I realize that the basic techniques Julia Child taught are common across the board. Whether you call it white gravy or bechamel, you still make it the same way! Coq au Vin, Pollo in Fricassea, or my Dad's best Camp Chicken made in the big cast iron skillet all share the same basic techniques, and vary only in a few ingredients.

With all my expectations, I was still unprepared for the affect the movie had on me. I walked out hungry for more 'Julia', wanting to connect with a 'Julia' of my own who loves the art of cuisine, loves to eat, and loves to cook. She was a woman who embraced the quirky changes of life, while never sacrificing her passions, and did it all with a good sense of humor and joie de vivre.

So, in honor of Julia's gusto and fearlessness, I took a step I've been toying with for several years. Last Saturday Amanda Wingfield of Patrick County and Melanie Barrow of the Henry County office of the Virginia Cooperative Extension joined forces to give a Canning Workshop in the new Spencer Penn Community Kitchen. The class was full and with our instructors, we had all the canning expertise anyone would ever need.

I can't tell you how timely this class felt. Mastering the Art of French Cooking was written for the American housewife, and was published at a time when cake mixes and TV dinners, time savers of every kind, had become the norm in the American kitchen. Julia reconnected people with real food, fresh food, and the art of cuisine.

It seems that we have been in a similar place, giving fast food way too much control over our eating habits. Now, we're realizing that for health reasons, cost reasons, esthetically pleasing taste reasons, we need to reconnect with our local farmers and gardeners, and the food preserving experiences of our mothers and grandmothers. It's worth the time and effort. And with the help of the classes led by these experienced food preservers who taught from the Bible of preserving, the Ball Blue Book Guide to Preserving Food, we can get back to the basics of really good, healthy, locally grown foods.

So, now I'm planning to 'can' my way through the 'Ball Blue Book'--well, maybe not entirely, but I'm looking forward to lots of creative experimentation.

Bon Appetit!