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It had been a while since I’d had pasta. An almost daily staple in my diet for most of my life, I pretty much stopped making it when I became more adventurous in the kitchen. A year ago I promised myself to really learn how to cook. Not just a handful of dishes which I’d learn to cook to perfection but a wide repertoire culled from a variety of cuisines around the globe. I began with French food, as I assumed that French techniques were the foundation of much of Western cuisine. I was instantly enamored with it and my love for Italian food fell by the wayside.
What you see on this blog, however, is a small sampling of what I have been cooking. I’ve been dabbling in the foods of Thailand, China, the Middle East. I love all sorts of food, but because I really wanted to learn how to cook French food, I made it the focus of my blog.
Yet lately I have missed pasta and the limitless choices it offers at dinner. I have missed gnocchi, and crespelle, and creamy risottos. By immersing myself completely in the world of cooking and food, I have come to yearn not for the standard Italian American fare that was a staple in my diet for so many years but the real stuff, the authentic tastes specific to the various regions of Italy and almost unknown outside them.
Enter The Essentials of Italian Cooking by Marcella Hazan, the Julia Child of Italian Cooking. This book is considered a classic for its truly authentic recipes and exploration of the regions of Italy, which each have their own culinary dialect. Though I have a collection of books on Italian cooking, this is the book I now turn to when I feel like cooking Italian. If I could only have one book on this simple yet wonderful cuisine, this would be the one.
This recipe is by no means complicated, but it is one of my favorites when I want the soothing comfort of a creamy pasta. I like to serve the sauce over a broader noodle like pappardelle or fettuccine
Mushroom, Ham, and Cream Sauce
Adapted from the Essentials of Italian Cooking by Marcella Hazan
Serves 6-8 people
3/4 pound cremini mushrooms, cleaned and sliced
3 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons shallot or onion, chopped fine
freshly ground black pepper
6 ounces boiled unsmoked ham, cut into narrow julienne strips
6 tablespoons heavy whipping cream
For tossing the pasta:
2 tablespoons butter
6 tablespoons heavy whipping cream
1/2 cup freshly grated parmigiano-reggiano cheese
1) Put the shallot in a large skillet with butter and cook over medium heat until it becomes golden. Turn up the heat to high and add mushrooms. Do not crowd the pan; cook in batches if necessary. Cook the mushrooms until they have soaked up all the butter. Turn the heat down to low and add salt and pepper. Turn mushrooms over 2 or 3 times.
2) As soon as the mushrooms release their liquid, turn the heat up high and boil the liquid away, stirring frequently.
3) Turn the heat down to medium and cook the ham for about 1 minute. Add the cream and cook just long enough for it to become reduced and slightly thickened. Taste and correct salt and pepper.
4) Put the butter and cream for tossing the pasta into another pot and heat over low. When the butter melts, stir the butter and cream together. Transfer cooked pasta to the pot and toss to coat. Add half the mushroom sauce, tossing again. Add the 1/2 cup grated Parmesan, toss again and turn off heat. Pour the remainder of the mushroom sauce over the pasta and serve at once, with extra cheese on the side.
I am convinced that to be a true foodie, you have to be the obsessive sort. I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t aware of this–at least in the dim recesses of my mind. It’s all because of Walter.
Walter was my Dad’s best friend while I was growing up. He was a cabinet maker who ran his own business by day. After work, he would come home and make dinner for his wife and kids. He was a great cook, and he enjoyed cooking very much. Doubtlessly, he enjoyed eating even more. Walter knew everything there was to know about food and he knew all the best places to get it. Every Saturday he drove thirty kilometers into the city from his home in the suburbs and spent hours going from shop to shop, acquiring his favorite sausages and cuts of meats and raw milk cheeses from Quebec. He was a man after my own heart, that Walter.
I, too, am similarly obsessed. I have sat in gridlocked bridge traffic for a croissant from Thomas Haas, spent hours walking around Paris looking for Poliâne, the world famous boulangerie. Ask me specifics about the art and architecture of the great European cities I have visited, I may draw a blank. But I can recount in excruciating detail what I ate there.
So it’s no surprise that since I have started cooking from Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking that I have been cooking from it compulsively. Now, I had this cookbook before all this hullabaloo about the Julie and Julia movie. It was the first book I bought when I decided I wanted to become a food writer and get serious about cooking. The idea of cooking from it, however, was intimidating enough that it sat on my bookshelf, gathering dust, until I joined some food bloggers in a MtAoFC challenge. Everything I have made turned out better than I expected, and though I haven’t made anything terribly complicated, what I have made has been absolutely delicious.
This Sauté de Boeuf à la Parisienne from MtAoFC Volume I is a fine choice if you need an impressive dish in a hurry. It calls for beef filet; the tenderloin butt and the tail of the beef are often used. It can be cooked in advance but requires care when reheating so as not to overcook the meat.
Sauté de Boeuf à la Parisienne
for 6 people
1/2 pound fresh mushrooms
2 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon good cooking oil
3 tablespoons minced shallots
1/4 teaspoon salt
pinch of pepper
2 1/2 pounds filet of beef
2 tablespoons butter and 1 tablespoon cooking oil, more if needed
1/4 cup Madeira or dry white vermouth
3/4 cup beef stock
1 cup whipping cream
2 tablespoons cornstarch blended with 1 tablespoon of the cream
salt and pepper
2 tablespoons softened butter
1) Sauté the mushrooms in the first amount given of butter and oil for about five minutes, or until lightly browned. Stir in the shallots and cook for a minute longer. Season the mushrooms and scrape them into a side dish.
2) Trim off the surrounding fat and filament from the beef and cut into 2-ounce pieces, about 2 inches across and 1/2-inch thick. Dry thoroughly on paper towels.
3) Place butter and oil in the skillet and set over moderately high heat. When the butter foam begins to subside, sauté the beef, a few pieces at a time, for 2-3 minutes on each side to brown the exterior but keep the interior rosy red. Set the beef on a side dish and discard the fat.
4) Pour the wine and stock into the skillet and boil it down rapidly, scraping up the coagulated cooking juices, until liquid is reduced to about 1/3 cup. Beat in the cream, then the cornstarch mixture. Simmer a minute. Add the mushrooms and simmer a minute more. The sauce should be lightly thickened. Correct seasonings.
5) Season the beef lightly with salt and pepper and return it to the skillet along with any juices which may have escaped. Baste the beef with the sauce and mushrooms, or transfer everything to a serving casserole.
6) When you are ready to serve, cover the skillet or casserole and heat to below the simmer for 3-4 minutes, being very careful not to overdo it or the pieces of filet will be well done rather than rare. Off heat and just before serving, tilt casserole, add butter to sauce a bit at a time while basting the meat until the butter has absorbed. Decorate with parsley and serve at once.
Those of you who have been reading my blog for the last week know that I am cooking with Julia these days and that all of my posts will be focused on recipes from Mastering the Art of French Cooking–at least until the release of the long-anticipated movie Julie & Julia.
Now I have a confession to make. Despite the fact that I own more cookbooks than I would want to count, have stacks and stacks of back issues of cooking magazines like Gourmet and Bon Appetit, and binders overflowing with recipes that I have printed off the Internet, MTAOFC was not a part of my library until a couple of months ago. I have other cookbooks by Julia, other books on French cooking. So why was I missing a classic that started a revolution in home cooking when it first came out in 1961?
I have no real answer except that it was always a book that seemed intimidating to me. Until my first trip to Paris, I had focused on Italian cooking, not French. I am also most attracted to cookbooks with glossy, mouth-watering pictures; Julia’s book with its illustrations and strange recipe layout would just make things more complicated than they needed to be, I reasoned. And wasn’t French cooking already too complicated? Who has the time to spent the whole day making puff pastry and wrapping it around a duck?
Which brings me back to Julie & Julia. Before it became a movie, it was a book; a memoir written by Julie Powell, who cooked her way through all 524 recipes in MTAOFC within the space of a year. There has been widespread criticism of Julie Powell in foodie circles for some of her opinions, her writing style and penchant for cursing, which is really too bad. Because when you come right down to it, what she did was an astonishing feat.
Many of the recipes in MTAOFC are complicated. They do take time. Very few people have the time or inclination to cook this way anymore. Putting together a dinner party from this cookbook can take a good couple of days from your life. Julie Powell did this on a daily basis–after coming home from a dead-end secretarial job.
Now this is not to say that every recipe is difficult. Once I started cooking from this book, I realized how accessible a lot of the recipes are. Julia Child walks you through everything in such detail that you cannot fail as long as you follow her instructions. Although I have not yet attempted an aspic or a Canard en Croûte, there are many recipes that don’t take a lot of time. In fact, I put a little dinner together for myself the other night that took no more than half an hour to make: Steak au Poivre, mushrooms in Medeira sauce, and Tomates à la Provençale. It was all so delicious that I wondered why I had waited so long to get this culinary masterpiece.
Julia Child’s Steak au Poivre
Pepper Steak with Brandy Sauce
Serves 4-6 people
2 tablespons mixed or white peppercorns
2 to 2 1/2 lbs. steak
1 tablespoon butter
2 tablespoons shallots or green onions
1/2 cup stock
1/3 cup cognac
3-4 tablespoons softened butter
1) Place the peppercorms in a mixing bowl and crush them roughly with a pestle or the bottom of a bottle.
2) Dry the steaks on paper towels. Rub and press the crushed peppercorns into both sides of the meat. Cover with waxed paper. Let stand for at least half an hour; 2 or 3 hours are even better, so the flavor of the pepper will penetrate the meat.
3) Sauté the steak in hot oil and butter 3-4 minutes on each side. Remove to a hot platter and season with salt.
4) For the sauce: pour the fat out of the skillet. Add the butter and shallots and cook slowly for a minute. Pour in the stock and boil down rapidly over high heat while scraping up the coagulated cooking juices. Then add the cognac and boil rapidly for a minute or two to evaporate its alcohol. Off heat, swirl in the butter a half-tablespoon at a time.