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Cooking like Julia Child

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Blue Kitchen

(Read caption) Tarragon and French technique flavor this fish stew inspired by Julia Child's Sole Food Stew from 'The Way to Cook.'

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In celebration of the 100th anniversary of Julia Child’s birth on Aug. 15, PBS.org is inviting bloggers to cook one of her recipes, post it, and share the link on Facebook and Twitter with the hashtag #CookForJulia. Here is Blue Kitchen's contribution.

Each generation stands on the shoulders of the one before it. Our children use our experience and our knowledge as a foundation to see further than we can. To see things in a way that we can’t.

The same is true in cooking. In looking at some of Julia Child’s cookbooks, it’s easy to see them as a little old-fashioned, right down to the recipes. Chicken Marengo. Ham Steaks with Cream and Mushrooms. But home cooking is only where it is today because we stood on her shoulders. 

We’ve cooked many things either from one of her cookbooks or in some way inspired by her cooking. Usually, we’ve relied on her seminal "Mastering the Art of French Cooking." For this recipe, though, I turned to "The Way to Cook."

First published in 1989, "The Way to Cook" isn’t just a collection of recipes – it does what the title promises, demonstrating a number of basic cooking techniques via master recipes. Julia then offers variations on the basic recipes and encourages readers to experiment with their own ideas. It’s not a French cookbook, but French technique is at the heart of the way Julia cooked, and it flows through the recipes here. And that’s fine with me. As much as Marion and I enjoy exploring the many cuisines in the world – both in restaurants and in our own kitchen – I am always struck by how the French unerringly choose just the right mix of ingredients and combine them with the perfect techniques to create not culinary fireworks, but something subtle, complex and sublime.

The book being 23 years old now, some of the recipes do feel a little dated. But some – like this one for a delicate, tarragon-seasoned fish stew – are timeless. As I began cooking it, sweating leeks, carrots, celery and onion in butter, the kitchen (and gradually, the entire apartment) filled with heavenly, French-accented aromas.

Regular readers here know that my recipes tend to fall into the quick and easy category. Real ingredients and real cooking, but dishes that more often than not, come together pretty quickly. And even those that require long cooking usually don’t call for much hands-on time in the kitchen.

This recipe is easy. No single step is in any way difficult or daunting. But there are lots of them, at least compared to my usual approach. From the time I started prepping vegetables until I ladled the finished stew into bowls, I was actively doing something. And as with just about all French cooking, every step, every ingredient is necessary. The very last ingredient in it is an egg yolk blended into sour cream. Even though I had already prepped it, I was skeptical that it was needed. The stew was smelling delicious already. But as I adjusted the seasonings as the recipe called for at this point – ”Carefully taste and correct seasonings” is how Julia put it – it wasn’t quite right. The egg yolk and sour cream brought it all together. The sour cream gave it a tangy richness; the egg yolk added a silky texture to the sauce. Now it was ready.

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