Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Julia’s 100th Birthday And A Stunning Admission

Today is the 100th anniversary of Julia Child's birth. How exciting! Well, maybe not so much for HER, but for those of us who love her. It’s particularly interesting when you consider that Mastering the Art of French Cooking wasn’t published until Julia was 50 years old! 

Let's start the celebration with this wonderful PBS-produced video of Julia's cooking (and philosophy of life):

My two favorite lines –
“Bring on the roasted potatoes!” (I’m pretty sure the next line is "Bring on the boar’s head!")
“Freshness is essential. That makes all the difference.”
All across the country there will be dinners, tribute menus and many events in Julia’s honor. I was thinking about how to commemorate her in the most fitting way. Should I cook a many-coursed fancy meal straight out of Mastering? Should I buy some lobsters and have my way with them à la Julia?

No, I decided the best way to remember her was to try something new that I had always been a bit leery of and to challenge myself…culinarily speaking. (There were no zip lines or parachutes involved.)

I’m going to admit something that may shock you, but it’s all with the aim of learning (and maybe teaching others) a new skill. Maybe you share this same secret and maybe this will encourage YOU on a new path.

WHATEVER am I talking about?!! Well, in ALL my cooking years, including cooking school, teaching, working, I have NEVER…

WAIT, I really wonder what you think I’m going to say…hold that thought and tell me later.  

As I was saying…in ALL my cooking years, including cooking school, teaching, working…whatever…I have NEVER…

Wait for it!...

…used a mandolin. NEVER. I have never owned one, I have never even TRIED one. I HAVE admired them from afar, but never close up and personal. A bit ago, Food52 had an offer for a mandolin that caught my eye. It was made of heavy duty plastic with the usual sharp-as-a-razor blade (actually blades). I thought it was really time that I get one. (I didn’t actually buy it from Food52. I got it MUCH cheaper from Amazon.)   

The mandolin arrived and I opened it up and looked at it carefully. It WAS a little scary and the directions were a little unclear.

I put it away until I could devote adequate time to it and every time I thought about using it, I said, oh it’s just faster to grab my knife and slice whatever it is by hand. That was…OVER TWO YEARS AGO!!!

And by the way, 2 months after I bought it, Katie Lee (Joel, at one time) was using a mandolin on the old Early Show on CBS. She told Harry it was the greatest thing ever and he said oh no, it’s way too dangerous for me. She FORCED him to use it and guess what? About 2 seconds later, Harry sliced open his hand and was rushed off the air to the emergency room. That didn’t give me any added confidence about using my new purchase.

But recently I was thinking about Julia and her fearlessness and I found a recipe that I wanted to try that would be perfect for my mandolin. I saw several different versions of Tomato Phyllo Tarts. Each recipe had something to recommend it, but they all featured paper thin (and perfect) slices of tomatoes. I decided to add zucchini as well, to give me something else to practice on. I tweaked and refashioned the recipe a bit and I’ll share it next time.

Back to the mandolin… again I took it out of the box (very gingerly). I opened the directions. After I got my Japanese dictionary out, I was good to go. Actually they were in English (kind of).

I started with the zucchini, NOT using the finger guard when the piece was fairly long.

It did take me a minute to figure out how to adjust the size of each slice. When you twist the green knob in the middle of the back, it loosens the ridged platform of the mandolin. The looser the screw is, the thicker the slice. Conversely, as you tighten it, the slice gets thinner. There is no gauge or way of keeping track how thick you make it, but I guess you use the first few slices to tell.

This is the back of the mandolin.

This is the screw you tighten or loosen to change the size of your slices.
When I got close to the end, I speared the zucchini on the finger guard and continued. It worked beautifully – the mandolin itself AND the finger guard. 

I ended up with thin slices of zucchini that I really don’t think I could have made with my knife. They certainly wouldn’t have been as evenly-sized or equally thin.

I moved on to the tomatoes. Again a triumph of uniformity…and ease.

Oh my! Where has this mandolin been all my life? (in the box…on a shelf…)

I moved on to onions. There were beautiful….although I didn’t like them on the final tart. I’m leaving them out of the recipe, even though they were a lot of fun to slice.

This was what I learned from my sessions with the mandolin: 
Don’t even take it out of the box until you can give it your complete attention. 
Read the directions completely, even though they may not make sense until you’ve sliced your first vegetable. 
Most importantly, focus…and concentrate. Go slow and don’t take your eyes off what you’re doing. (Lack of focus is probably what has caused 90% of my kitchen accidents.)
This was the final product I made in honor of Julia’s centennial birthday. I'll show you the details with the recipe. 

I think Julia would have approved, even though I didn’t see one mention of a mandolin in either volume of Mastering. (The 75th anniversary edition of Joy mentions a mandolin for slicing potatoes.)

Next time - the recipe for my mandolin-ed Tomato Phyllo Tart.


Sheila said...

I have an XO one or something like that. I love it! Makes making potato gratin a breeze. Even if you only make it once a year - its STILL worth it. Just remember what Mr. Bobby Flay says… There's always more potatoes - but you only have so many fingers. Its good advice.

The Short (dis)Order Cook said...

Hmmmm....I have a mandolin my mother bought me at a Pampered Chef party. It was handy when I lived in my tiny first apartment and had no space or money for a food processor. You make me feel guilty though for the general thoughtlessness I used it with. I feel as if I should be more serious with it now.

Abandoned By Wolves said...

Some people have similar issues with "real" chef's knives.

I once offered my sister the use of my 8 inch Victorinox while we were in the kitchen (so she could help slice some veggies I was working on for dinner),and you'd have thought I tried to give her a live cobra. All that razor sharp steel gave her the willies.So she'd been whacking away at stuff for 20 years with crappy old paring and 6 inch K Mart knives she "borrowed" from our parents' kitchen drawers when she first moved out on her own...even when she was cooking for her husband and 3 children! She was amazed when her klutzy older brother went through 4 onions in 3 minutes without turning a hair - she thought that was something reserved for professional chefs.

Sadly, while you solved your issues with your mandolin, my sister still can't bring herself to use a real chef's knife. I love her anyway.

Sue said...

Hiya Sheila,
That's SO true about the potatoes. I'm excited to use it for that.

I love MR.(!!!) Bobby Flay's saying. Ain't it the truth??

I know you have a dare devil streak and love to run wild on your horsie, but PLEASE take care in the kitchen. Always pay attention. Think of me over your shoulder wincing if you don't take it slow and steady.

Doesn't Sissie know that a dull knife is tons more dangerous than a sharp one??? It's much easier to cut yourself while hacking at something than simply slipping it easily through the item.

I'm very pleased with myself and my mandolin, but it will never take the place of a good knife. I can live without a mandolin (and have for decades, because I was such a scaredy cat). But a knife-less life? Never!

Emily said...

I've always been afraid of mandolins. I really want one now! I've never sliced tomatoes so beautifully.

Sue said...

Just be REALLY careful. You need your fingers for those beautiful chocolates.