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

I Never Was Good at Math

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“One of the things I loved about French cooking was the way that basic themes could be made in a seemingly infinite number of variations—scalloped potatoes, say, could be done with milk and cheese, with carrots and cream, with beef stock and cheese, with onions and tomatoes, and so on and on. I wanted to try them all, and did.” – Julia Child

So…have you looked at a calendar lately? We’re officially halfway from the day I began this journey to the end of my one-year deadline. I’m exactly one-half through the allotted time. With four-fifths of the recipes yet to make. Hm…I’m no expert when it comes to fractions, but somehow, that equation doesn’t add up. *gulp* Am I worried? Nah. Will I finish? Yes. But it won’t be pretty.

A stomach bug has made its way through our house over the past week, striking first my husband and finally wreaking its havoc on me. There were moments when just the thought of food made me want to gag, so lots of chicken noodle soup and dry toast has been consumed around here lately. With my internal clock loudly ticking down the days left in this challenge, I knew I couldn’t lie curled up in the fetal position for long, so I summoned my energy and headed to the kitchen to knock out some recipes.

Scalloped potatoes...or are they?

The menu was Roti de Porc Poele (casserole-roasted pork) with Tomates Grillees au Four (whole baked tomatoes) and Gratin de Pommes de Terre Provencal (scalloped potatoes with onions, tomatoes, anchovies, herbs and garlic). I started with the potatoes, sauteing sliced onions in a bit of olive oil and folded in some sliced PSJ tomatoes and salt. Meanwhile, I made a paste of mashed garlic, anchovies, seasonings and olive oil in a small bowl. (Note to self: when feeling ill, avoid anchovies.) I buttered a baking dish, then spread the onion/tomato mixture on the bottom, covered with a layer of sliced potatoes (that I actually had leftover from when I made these potatoes for my party last weekend). On top of the potatoes I spread the paste mixture, then topped it all with shredded Swiss and a sprinkling of olive oil. (In actuality, I was suppposed to repeat this process another time, but because I halved the recipe I didn’t have enough ingredients to do so. Ah, well.) I set the potatoes aside and moved on to the meat.

Julia calls for a tenderloin, but I found loin steaks for a more affordable price, and since I was making a smaller portion for only two people, I went this route. I dried the loin with paper towels, and seared them in olive oil in an oven-safe pan until they were lightly browned on all sides. I removed them to a side dish, then tossed in a sliced carrot and onion and an herb bouquet and let them cook in the remaining oil, adding more when the fat had mostly cooked away.

Next stop: oven

I sprinkled the meat with salt and pepper, and added the steaks back into the pan. Covering with a lid, I put the pan into a 325 degree oven and let the meat cook for about 30 minutes, basting it with its juices every ten minutes or so. When they were finished, I pulled the pan out of the oven, cranked the heat up to 400 for the potatoes and tomatoes, and removed the meat to a side plate (throwing away the remaining herb bouquet).

While the potatoes cooked for about a half-hour, I washed two large tomatoes and removed the stems with my handy tool, sprinkling salt and pepper into the hole left behind. I smeared the outsides with olive oil and set them stem side down in a baking dish. When the potatoes came out of the oven, the tomatoes went in for 10 minutes. Just enough time to make the sauce for the pork.

I added a quarter-cup of vermouth to the pan and simmered for a few minutes, mashing the carrots and onions into the juices. I boiled the liquid, and set it aside. When the timer sounded, I brought the tomatoes out of the oven and dinner was ready. And history was made.

This was the first time I had ever made a Julia Child meal where I didn’t like a single thing on my plate.

All oiled up and heading to the oven

Granted, it could have been because I wasn’t feeling 100%…but Ben had the same reaction, and he seemed to be feeling fine. For starters, the pork was really dry. It was cooked all the way through, but not very enjoyable. In fact, the best part about the pork was the mashed carrots in the sauce. And even they weren’t that great. The tomatoes weren’t at all what I expected – but then again, I don’t know what I expected from a baked tomato. I guess I thought something magical would have happened in the baking process, making it soft and shriveled and delightful, but it wasn’t. It was just a hot, salty, peppery, oily raw tomato. And don’t even get me started on the potatoes. I mean, the potatoes themselves were alright, I guess. But it’s not fair to call them scalloped potatoes when there was no cream involved (that’s what I call false advertising!). They were more like roasted potato slices with yucky fish paste and mushy tomatoes. But I guess if we called them that, A.) nobody would eat them and B.) a name that long wouldn’t fit on a menu. So there you have it.

The best part about this meal? When Ben came out of the kitchen carrying a Totino’s party pizza. Hey, don’t judge – when it comes to cooking, it’s survival of the fittest. I wish I had better news, but it is what it is. At times like these, I like to give myself a brief customer satisfaction survey that goes a little something like this:

Pork loin, baked tomato and scalloped potatoes

1.) How was your experience? Unsatisfactory
2.) What was your favorite part of the meal?
The end.
3.) What was your least favorite part of the meal?
The beginning and middle.
4.) What could we do next time to improve your experience? Next time, I’ll try using an actual pork tenderloin. I’ll try baking smaller tomatoes – maybe their large size didn’t allow them to cook in the allotted time? And I’ll skip the potatoes altogether.
5.) If you could be any dessert, what would you be and why? A gingerbread cookie, because I’m sweet and spicy! *snap!* (No, this final question obviously has nothing to do with the actual cooking experience, but what can I say? I like to end on a positive note.)

Let’s look at the bright side – that’s 3 recipes I knocked out! Add those to the 1/5 I’ve already finished, and that’s got to bring me up to, like …*counting on fingers*… one-fifth-and-three-kajillionths of the way through the severalmany recipes in MTAOFC, right? Even though I wasn’t a fan of the food, I think Julia would be proud. Unless she hates me for not liking her cooking. But since it was really my cooking, I think I’m in the clear.

Feeling a little fractionally challenged…
– Jessica

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