julia child, mastering the art of french cooking, julie powell, french cuisine

A Series of Unfortunate Events

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“…this Julia who walked into a cooking school in France – no longer a spring chicken herself, but with an unquenchable fire in her that she herself didn’t quite understand.  That’s the Julia I’m striving toward, the Julia that I hope someday to be like.” – Julie Powell

When I was in college, I joined a burgeoning archery team taught by an olympic coach at a local gym. When we were really showing some promise, he took us to an indoor archery range to test our skills.  Everything was going well and we were all having a great time. And then it was my turn. I took careful aim, pulled back the arrow and let it fly…and the weirdest thing happened. Between each hay bale target was a hairline-wide metal frame to hold them in place. My arrow struck that tiny bit of metal and ricocheted off – not just once, but several times. At first it was kind of funny – what were the odds?? – but when one arrow came launching back and people had to jump out of the way…well, that’s when I decided that maybe archery wasn’t for me. Fluke things – no, fluke life-threatening things – tend to happen to me, and I’m not sure why.

I bet you’re wondering what this story has to do with cooking.

Last night, I had a plan. Because I’m a little behind on my recipes, I thought I’d grab this project by the horns and knock out several recipes at once. Rather than make one entree and a couple of sides, I had this brilliant idea to make three different entrees (which Ben and I could split) and two sides plus a sauce…SIX recipes!! Ah! Ah! Ah! (Sesame Street anyone?) So the menu for last night looked a little something like this:

Now, granted, I realize this seems like a Dinner: Impossible mission, but I really felt confident that I could handle it. After all, once the vegetables were prepared, they were pretty much on their own for the duration of their cooking time, and the meats weren’t too involved. If I got home at 6:00, I’d have plenty of time to work my way through the list of dishes. So really, this should be no problem.

I encountered my first minor setback on the way home from work, when I got sidetracked by entering a ping-pong tournament (don’t ask), and didn’t get home until around 9:00. No matter! Dinner would be a snap!

I started with the veal – I sauteed some diced onion in vermouth with tarragon and beef stock, then browned one piece of veal on both sides. I removed the meat to a separate plate, then added butter to the sauce in the pan. One dish done! This was going to be a breeze.

Slicing potatoes

I realized at this point I should probably get the veggies started so they could be cooking while I finished the meat (that’s called multi-tasking), so I sliced some carrots and onions and dropped them into a pan with olive oil and simmered them on the stove. Then I sliced a couple of baking potatoes, smeared butter on the bottom of a baking pan, and created layers of potato slices, salt/pepper, grated Swiss cheese and butter dots. I topped the whole thing with some whipping cream and put it over the stove to bring to a simmer.

I then turned my attention to the steak, heating oil and butter in a pan until the buttery foam disappeared and added a beautiful piece of sirloin to the pan. At this point, I checked the carrots and realized that they were beginning to brown (a Julia no-no), so I turned down the heat and added a clove of mashed garlic and some flour.

Potatoes, cheese and cream go into the oven

Meanwhile, I flipped the meat to the other side and started working on the Bearnaise sauce. Seemed easy enough – I mixed wine vinegar, vermouth, minced onions, and tarragon/salt/pepper in a small sauce pan and brought it to a boil on the stove. (Here I put my potatoes into a 300 degree oven for about 45 minutes, which freed up one of my burners – so far, so good!) Next, I beat some eggs in a bowl to add to the vinegar/wine mixture for the Bearnaise sauce, and strained them into the sauce pan. I was a little leery…any time you add eggs to a hot pan, it’s only logical that the eggs will either fry or scramble, so I couldn’t quite picture how this was going to turn out. But I put my trust in Julia and sallied forth.

Next, I took the sirloin out of the pan and set it on a plate out of the way and added some vermouth to the meat pan to deglaze the juices for the final addition to the Bearnaise sauce. I must have been in a little bit of a rush at this point, because while stirring the juices in the pan, I accidentally sloshed a little over the side, and…well, when working with alcohol and an open flame, one must be very careful because…

*sigh*

I set the pan on fire.

Moments after being engulfed in flames...

I guess the juices spilling over the side of the pan were ignited by the open flame on my gas stove, and the flame followed the juice up and into the pan, and there it was. A big ball of flames. I did the only thing I could think of – I called for Ben to bring the camera, turned off the burner and kept stirring. I figured it would just burn off the alcohol, which would be a good thing. Right?

Ben got there in time to witness my pan flambe, but the fire went out before he could snap a picture, so he stood by to be sure I had everything under control. (Note to self: purchase fire extinguisher.) Since the fire was out and the sauce wasn’t scorched (whew!), I turned the burner back on and went back about my business. I had a few things to pull together yet, so I had just asked Ben to lend a hand and give the sauce a stir when I turned my back and heard

“KABOOM!”

come from my stove – like a gun shot. I jumped and ducked, then looked back and could not believe my eyes.

Oh, dear...

For whatever reason, the juices in the pan had literally exploded, with enough force to lift the pan off the stovetop, and the eruption of Linda Blair proportions had literally covered the room in sauce splatters. The floor was sprayed with brown spots, reaching to the far corners of the room. My poor husband (and Ellie, who had been sniffing around the kitchen moments before) were covered in grease, and the cabinets, walls, and…are you ready for this?…CEILING were sprayed with juice. I raced to the stovetop and turned off all the burners before anything else could happen, then hurried Ben to the bathroom to wash the grease off his face. Miraculously, he wasn’t burned (thank goodness he wears glasses), and Ellie was only a little dirty (she and Gracie took turns washing the steak juice out of her fur). Once we knew all family members were safe and sound, we went back to survey the damage.

Messy Jessie strikes again.

It took a mop, a ladder, a load of laundry and a roll of paper towels to clean the majority of the mess. We had never seen anything like it. All Ben could say over and over again was, “Doesn’t Julia warn about this happening??” (she doesn’t) and we kept muttering how lucky we were that nobody was hurt. Imagine if I had been leaning down to pull the potatoes out of the oven and that explosion had happened…boy, this cooking stuff is a dangerous business.

Bernaise sauce...scrambled eggs...whatever!

With the majority of the mess behind us, we looked at each other and shrugged. “Back to cooking!” Ben announced, and so I went back to it (although I will say, I was done with that steak sauce). In all of the commotion, we did lose the carrots – they were burnt to a crisp – and the Bearnaise sauce looked like a pan of scrambled eggs. Not to be deterred, I added the last few ingredients – cold butter, then melted butter, and finally the contents of the meat pan – and mixed it enough to wear it looked less like scrambled eggs and more like corn meal. Having no idea what Bearnaise sauce was supposed to look like, I called it good and moved on with the last dish of the meal.

The chicken, luckily, was extremely easy. I rolled a seasoned chicken breast in flour, then browned both sides in a pan of clarified butter. Finally, a mixture of clarified butter and lemon juice was drizzled over the top, and I was done.

I pulled the potatoes out of the oven (honestly, they probably should have cooked longer, but in all the excitement of the fire and the stovetop explosion and whatnot, I lost track of the time and frankly just wanted to be done for the night). I cut the veal and the chicken in half and put each piece on two plates. The steak was much bigger than I had planned, so I sliced small pieces and added them to the plates as well. A scoop of potatoes and the veal and Bearnaise sauces on the side finished the plate and we were finally ready to eat.

L-R: Veal, Sirloin, Chicken, Potatoes

At this point, I was starving, so I’m not sure how accurate my description of these dishes can be, but I must say…everything on our plate was delicious. I tried the potatoes first, and was amazed by how tasty they were. Don’t tell Julia Child, but when we make potatoes au gratin, they come from a box. These were SO much better, and so easy to make! If you’re intimidated by the thought of following a Julia Child recipe, I highly recommend you tackle this one. Anyone can do it, and it tastes great. We won’t be buying boxed potatoes au gratin anymore.

Next I tried the chicken, which really surprised me. I don’t know if it was the coating of flour that made the difference, but the chicken was extremely tender and moist. It tasted great, which surprised me because all that was on it was butter and a little bit of lemon juice, but I guess sometimes simplicity is best. Ben usually makes baked chicken – I think I’ll use this method from now on. And you should, too.

The steak was PERFECT. I was so happy – it was cooked perfectly on my first try (I usually have to take it out of the pan, cut into it to check its doneness, then put it back on the stove for a few more minutes). I must be getting pretty good at this cooking thing! I overcame my objections and gave the Bearnaise sauce a try – and was really surprised to learn that I loved it! It added a little extra zip to the meat without overpowering its natural flavors. I saved those leftovers for the weekend.

The veal was good, but not my favorite. I think I’m just not a big veal fan. The meat seems tough and a little stringy and I’d rather put those calories towards the steak. But the brown tarragon sauce was pretty good – Ben’s favorite so far. I think it was the tarragon that did it. It was nice to use an herb other than thyme for a change.

All in all, this was a terrific meal. While it sounds like a ridiculous amount of food, it was actually just right – the veal patty and chicken breast pieces were small, and the steak could be cut to size, so I’d say (with the exception of a few small crises) that this cooking plan worked well. When all was said and done, I was able to knock out five recipes (yee haw!), all of which I would make again.

Tonight we’re heading to a belated New Year party, and I think my kitchen could use a rest (not to mention a final cleaning) before I return to the stove. But I’ve got lots of good stuff planned for the weekend…crepes, desserts, soup, leg of lamb. Rev up your tastebuds, because the party is just getting started.

Meanwhile, anyone know how to get steak juice off a popcorn ceiling?

Happy Friday!
– Jessica

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