Friday, January 24, 2014

In which I, too, cook with Julia

Everyone came out of the movie (Julie & Julia) marveling at being "so hungry ... just starving." We went out to eat at our new favorite local restaurant, a Middle Eastern/Mediterranean place that specializes in lamb-stuffed grape leaves, fried kibbeh, shish kebabs, and baklava. And Turkish coffee, which is the closest I get to cardamom. By itself cardamom is $14 a jar at the grocery store.

The next day I took out my French Chef Cookbook -- I don't have the actual opus, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, though I promise I will soon -- thinking I might find a nice simple chicken recipe, quick to prepare on a hot summer day.

I found it. The first recipe in the book is for Supremes de volaille a blanc, chicken breasts poached in butter with wine and cream sauce. In the movie Amy Adams says, in a voice over as Julie Powell, that when you cook along with Julia Child, you cook with butter. And butter. And more butter. She's right, and what is odd is that it must be the butter and cream that make the dish. That, and the cooking of the meat just a point, just to the point of perfect doneness. Not that I got there, but I came pretty close. Those two factors must be the source of the flavor. Otherwise, they were just chicken breasts.

You begin with 4 supremes, half chicken breasts taken from a 2 to 3 pound chicken. In the 1960s, when Julia was buying provisions to cook on television, I suspect these were fairly small pieces of meat. Today, chickens are raised to mature as fast as possible with breasts as big as possible -- I seem to recall my brothers, who work in the wholesale meat business, telling stories of chickens ready for market 6 weeks after being hatched, and of their breasts being so big that the birds can't stand, but topple over from the weight. What manufacturers want, ideally, is an egg that just hatches fast growing, no maintenance breast meat, and they've nearly gotten their wish it seems. Not that they are some sort of bad guys. This is what consumers want, too.

Anyway, I bought the usual skinless boneless chicken breasts, modern, large, and lumpy, and I bought enough for a family of five. Already I was anticipating having to quarrel with Julia over her cooking time for these supremes. Six minutes in a 400 F oven, after a brief "roll" in hot butter? I don't think so.

You rub the meat with drops of lemon juice, some salt, and white pepper. Then, you heat 4 Tablespoons of butter in a heavy casserole until it foams, and quickly roll the breasts in the butter. Lay a circle of wax paper over the meat, cover the casserole, and put it in a preheated 400 degree oven.

This is the first time I did actually cut a piece of wax paper to fit a pot, and use it according to directions. I am not sure what good it does. Logic would suggest it helps steam the meat by acting as a much more close fitting lid than the pot lid can be.

Julia advises checking the meat for doneness after 6 minutes, and giving the breasts a minute or two more if they feel "soft and squashy" to your fingertip. For my part, I go in terror of undercooked meat, and so don't trust any old fingertip but must cut even supremes open at their thickest part to see if they are done. And I don't trust "carryover heat" to finish the job, either. All told, my 21st century supremes needed 16 minutes to finish, not six.

Upon removing the chicken to a warm platter, address yourself to making the sauce. Simply boil up the juices until they begin to thicken and reduce, and then pour in successively 1/4 cup stock, 1/4 cup wine, and finally 1 cup heavy cream. Boil and reduce away -- that's the cream reducing in the photo above. I must admit I cheated when it came to the stock and the wine. On hand, I had neither stock (not even canned broth), nor port, Madeira, or vermouth. I used the dregs of a bottle of an interesting but inexpensive white Rioja, and no stock at all.

But the cream -- ah yes, the cream. There it is. Add the last few drops of lemon juice to it, plus something green -- Julia says parsley, I had fresh tarragon -- and taste a spoonful, just like a professional, just like the characters in the movie. When you watch people tasting things in food movies, you might be skeptical there in the dark and think, for heaven's sake, how different and revelatory and sublime can it be? My cream sauce was not sublime but it was very good, and revelatory in a small way. After all, these were just chicken breasts, but my goodness, my goodness, yes, there is a way to do this right.

(Our wine for dinner was another grocery store selection, a bottom-shelf sauvignon blanc from Gallo's own Barefoot Cellars.)

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