A Menu and a Lesson, Inspired By Julia

Admired and remembered as much for her wonderful writing, wit, and charm as for her passion for cooking, eating, and teaching Americans the art of French cuisine, Julia Child wrote in her memoir, My Life In France,  “One of the secrets, and pleasures, of cooking is to learn to correct something if it goes awry; and one of the lessons is to grin and bear it if it cannot be fixed.”

I learned this lesson last Saturday during a small three-course dinner party we hosted.
Paying early homage to what would have been Julia Child’s centennial birthday today, I’d decided on a French theme: mini cheese soufflés, followed by poisson en papillote (snapper steamed in a parchment pouch that’s been sealed airtight with egg whites) and the grand finale, a tribute to the French flag (but not a French dessert): a seasonal red, white, and blue cobbler of raspberries, white peaches, and blueberries topped with a brown-butter biscuit.

It was a steamy, soupy August Saturday in New York City, but that didn’t stop me from serving three dishes that required having the oven on, full blast. Unlike most people I know, I love the challenge and the excuse to experiment with new recipes when I entertain. I’ve successfully served this fish countless times for dinner, but never as part of a multicourse dinner party with more complicated logistics (My hubris and complacency would be my downfall.) Pouffy was the theme of the night, the science of steam working its magic in the dramatic flair of the soufflé and the parchment pouches inflated to nearly bursting.

I had assembled and sealed the fish and vegetables in parchment several hours ahead of time and placed the pouches in the fridge. Basking in the glow of a successful soufflé and in hostess mode, I’d forgotten my mental checklist and made two critical errors: Placed straight from the fridge into the oven, the pouches required extra baking time to compensate for their contents’ super-refrigerated states. And I should have ripped open one portion to check doneness (snapper should be opaque and flaky) before serving.

It wasn’t until everyone was seated at the table digging into their unwrapped meals that I realized, to my dismay, that the fish was undercooked. Despite insistence from my guests that the fish, purchased from Whole Foods, was surely sushi-grade and safely edible at any degree of doneness, back into the oven everything went, an inelegant, communal mix of plated dishes.

There’s nothing like an excellent rosé—and good company—to smooth over a cooking debacle and an unscheduled intermission between appetizer and entrée courses. Bryn and Louis had brought a wonderful bottle of 2011 Clos Beylesse from Provence, which we happily sipped while we waited.

The standout of the meal was this cheese soufflé recipe published in The Wall Street Journal. It’s airy, savory, and flawlessly designed (I followed the recipe exactly, ending up with four extra soufflés to enjoy as leftovers. (You can reheat soufflé; it will puff up again when reheated—just not as dramatically the second time around.)

Overall, it turned out to be a well-conceived and executable menu; each course had just the right balance of prep-ahead and last-minute elements. Thanks to the laid-back nature and good humor of my guests, it was a successful meal and evening. Heed Julia’s advice, and embrace cooking’s curveballs. Bon appetit!

How to Cook Fish in Parchment (below recipe serves 4 people).

Feel free to use these measurements as a rough guideline –in my experience it is not critical to use exact proportions of ingredients for the mushroom and tomato fillings. You may prefer to serve more or less of each vegetable per portion, and the size of fish filets can be easily modified to accommodate smaller or bigger appetites. Just bear in mind that differently sized fish portions and thicknesses will cook at different rates, so make a note of the bigger/ thicker portion and test it for doneness before unveiling and serving the rest. If serving the fish as part of a multicourse meal (particularly if you’re serving a first course that contains something filling like cheese), I’d advise reducing the portions of fish and vegetables.

Fish and Garnish:
4 4-ounce filets (snapper, striped bass, or substitute any other firm-fleshed fish)
4 sprigs of thyme
White wine (enough for 4 splashes, at least ¼ cup in total)
Parchment paper
1 egg white, beaten

Optional garnish:
1 small carrot, julienne
½ stalk celery, julienne
Fresh chives, cut into same length as carrot and celery above

Technically speaking, julienne is thin strips cut no larger than 2mm x 7 cm, but in my experience, most guests are delighted by any garnishing effort put forth, so don’t fuss too much about perfection.

Mushroom “Duxelles” (a dry mushroom stuffing used in French cooking):
12 ounces white button mushrooms, cleaned and minced finely by hand (Alternatively, you can pulse in a food processor, but avoid pureeing them.)
1 shallot, minced
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
Juice of 1 lemon
Salt and pepper to taste

Tomato Stuffing (my modified version of what in traditional French cooking is called “concassée”):
4 medium ripe tomatoes
2 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
1 pinch of sugar (if tomatoes are underripe)
Salt and pepper to taste

1. Adjust the rack to the center of the oven. Preheat oven to 450 degrees.

2. Prepare mushrooms:
a. Melt the butter in a medium saucepan or sauté pan. Over moderate heat, sauté the minced shallots until they soften and become translucent.
b. Add the chopped mushrooms and lemon juice to the shallots over low heat, stirring occasionally, until there is no liquid left in the pan. When liquid is completely evaporated, adjust seasoning. While mushrooms are cooking, proceed with the tomato prep instructions below.

3. Prepare tomatoes.
a. In a medium pot or dutch oven, bring to boil enough water to bathe the tomatoes.
b. Using a paring knife, cut a small “x” into the skin of each tomato.
c. Plunge the tomatoes in boiling water for about 30 seconds, then immerse them in an ice water bath or under cold running water in a colander. The shock of the cold water will make the skin pucker, and the skin will peel off easily with a paring knife.
d. Cut the tomatoes in half and squeeze out the seeds.
e. In a medium saucepan, melt 1 tablespoon of butter. Add the crushed garlic cloves.
f. Coarsely chop the tomatoes, and add them to the butter-garlic mixture.
g. Stew the tomatoes over low heat until all liquid has evaporated. If using underripe tomatoes, add the pinch of sugar.
h. Remove the garlic cloves and season to taste with salt and pepper.

4. If using garnish: sauté julienne of carrots and celery in 1 teaspoon of butter over low heat for just a few minutes until slightly softened.

5. Tear off or cut four pieces of parchment (at least 11 x 17 inches) and fold in half lengthwise (resulting in four folded pieces with dimensions 11 x 8 ½ inches, the 11-inch side formed by the crease. Optional: with scissors, round the open edges of the parchment to create an oval.

6. Open all four pieces of parchment, like a book, with the point of the crease upside-down and facing the counter. Spoon mushroom duxelles in a neat pile toward the center of each inner fold but allowing room to place a tomato-sauce pile alongside it, dividing the mixture evenly between all four parchment papers. Repeat this process with the tomato sauce, placing a scoopful right next to each mushroom pile. Place a fish filet on top of each mushroom-tomato bed. Arrange the optional sautéed julienned carrots, celery and chives decoratively on top of the fish. Top each with a sprig of thyme, and a splash of white wine.

7. Using a pastry brush, paint the edges of the parchment paper with the egg white to form a seal (like an envelope). Join the corresponding egg white–painted edges so that the parchment pouch fully envelopes the fish and vegetables in an airtight package. Repeat the process, painting the newly-joined edges with a 1-inch border of egg white and fold the previously sealed edges over the egg white border. This is to ensure that the pouch is sealed airtight.

8. Place the pouches on a cookie sheet and into the preheated oven. The fish is usually cooked in 10-12 minutes, depending on the thickness of the fish. Don’t forget to check doneness of one fish portion before removing the rest of the pouches from the oven.

Raspberry, White Peach and Blueberry Cobbler with Cornmeal Brown Butter Biscuits (slightly adapted from Mustards Grill cookbook by Cindy Pawlcyn)

For the dinner party, I divided the fruit and baked it in 6 individual portions (in ovenproof 8-ounce fluted pie dishes) rather than making one large cobbler. I followed the recipe’s original instructions for a 2 ½-inch biscuit, but my personal preference is a greater ratio of fruit to biscuit (I think a 1 ½-inch or 2-inch diameter biscuit would be perfect.) Leftover scraps of biscuit dough can be rerolled, frozen and baked for future desserts (this biscuit is great with vanilla ice cream alone.) Or, if you prefer a smaller biscuit but don’t want to have leftover dough, simply halve the biscuit recipe.

Cornmeal Biscuits:
5 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 ¼ cups all-purpose flour
¼ cup cornmeal
2 tablespoons sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
¼ teaspoon salt
½ cup heavy cream
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 large egg yolks

Filling:
2 large white (or yellow) peaches, peeled and sliced ½ inch thick
1 cup fresh raspberries
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
2 tablespoons cornstarch
½ cup sugar
½ fresh blueberries
1 egg, scrambled (for the egg wash)
1 teaspoon water
Granulated sugar for sprinkling on biscuits

Vanilla ice cream for serving

1. To make the biscuits, in a small sauté pan, melt the butter over medium-high heat for 5 to 7 minutes, until brown and very fragrant. Transfer the butter to a heatproof container and freeze for about 45 minutes, until hard.

2. In the meantime, combine the flour, cornmeal, sugar, baking powder, and salt in a bowl or in an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment.

3. When the butter is hard, cut it into cubes and add it to the dry ingredients (to loosen the butter, dip the container into hot water.) With a pastry cutter, a fork, or the mixer on low speed, cut the butter into the dry ingredients until the mixture resembles a coarse meal.

4. Using a fork, stir together the cream, vanilla, and yolks together in a small bowl, then stir the mixture into the dry ingredients, mixing only until a rough dough forms.

5. Turn the dough onto a lightly floured work surface. Knead it gently six to eight folds (in thirds, like a letter). Do not overwork the dough or the biscuits will be tough. Roll out the dough ½-inch thick.

6. Using a 1 ½-inch, 2-inch, or 2 ½-inch biscuit cutter, cut out six biscuits. Reroll scraps as necessary and freeze any extra biscuit rounds for future baking.

7. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. To make the filling toss together the peaches, raspberries, lemon juice, cornstarch, and ½ cup of sugar in a large mixing bowl. To assemble the cobbler, spread the mixed fruit evenly in a 9x9x2- inch baking pan (or if using individual pie dishes, divide the fruit evenly among these.) Scatter the blueberries on top. Arrange the biscuits on top, brush with egg wash, and sprinkle with sugar.

8. Bake the cobbler for about 35 minutes if in a 9 x 9 x 2 -inch pan (about 20 minutes in individual portions), or until fruit is bubbly and the biscuits are golden brown and toothpick tender (smaller fruit portions and smaller biscuits will bake faster, so keep an early eye on baking progress.)

Serve warm with vanilla ice cream.

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