Monday, September 21, 2009

We Need To Cook.

“Mom, we need to cook.”

Were more inspiring, gratifying words ever spoken?

Darling Daughter (DD) and her darling friend (DF) indulged me this weekend, accompanying me to Julie & Julia, the movie based on the true story of an aspiring writer who, in a pique of resentment with her friends’ career successes, decides to tackle all 524 recipes in Julia Child’s opus, Mastering the Art of French Cooking Vol. 1.  Making her hastily-considered idea even whackier, Julie self-imposes a time limit of one year.  That’s right.  That's 524 recipes (many of them extraordinarily complicated) in 365 days.  In a cramped NYC studio apartment.  While working a full-time job.  Blogging all the while.  And ultimately, publishing her own book, Julie and Julia:  My Year of Cooking Dangerously.

Now that I’ve finally seen it, I'm embarrassed it took me so long to get there.

When I was growing up and learning to cook, Mom had an entire shelf of cookbooks I could thumb through and splatter on, including the venerable classics, The Joy of Cooking, with its endearing red ribbon bookmark and The Better Homes & Gardens Cookbook, with its recognizable red and white gingham cover.  There was also local favorite Charleston Receipts, which, just like an oven or a yard, appeared to be standard issue in every house on James Island.  And there was my very first cookbook, blandly titled Kids’ Cooking, which in fact, was my source for tuna salad.

I also could leaf through Mom’s older cookbooks, one with the titillating title, The Way To A Man’s Heart, which, if memory serves, included a recipe for a lettuce wedge with blue cheese dressing – the only type of salad a manly man would deign to eat.  Finally, of course, there was Julia Child’s master opus, Mastering The Art of French Cooking.

I used all Mom's books liberally – both for precise recipes and guided inspiration -- as I learned to simmer and bake and roast and saute.  All, that is, except Julia’s.

Julia’s was an overwhelming book, published in two volumes, each of which was 500-600 pages.  It was impractical, too; we had the paperback version, rendering each more similar to a chunky Michael Crichton novel than a reference book.  Is it possible it was thicker than it was wide?  I could hardly prop it open, much less flop it open.
Even more challenging for me, though, was that most recipes were so exotic I couldn’t even conceive of them, much less muster the ingredients.  This was in the mid 70s, when Parkay, not butter, graced most tables, garlic salt, not a garlic clove, was king, and well, who was to say that Cool Whip wasn't "real" whipped cream?

Even if, for example, I somehow managed to procure the three pounds of lean stewing beef and 24 tiny white onions needed for Julia’s legendary Boeuf Bourguignon, then what?  What about the "three cups of full-bodied young red wine" Julia ordained?  The Blue Nun Liebfraumilch our family kept on hand was clearly no substitute.

And beef aspic?  Really?  Who eats such things?  (Of course I read the recipe, but it was like reading a horror story.  I couldn’t put it down.)
Nevertheless, beef aspic and all, DD was enchanted by Julie & Julia.  I was inspired as well and before the lights went up, I determine to go directly to the bookstore to get my own copy of Mastering and immediately begin sauteeing the luscious mushrooms we'd seen in the movie.  (The phrase "food porn" comes to mind.)  Before I could get my own thoughts out, though, DD insisted that we had to go home and “cook something.”

"Mom, we need to cook."

Surprised, I tried to suppress my joy.  "What should we cook?" I asked.

"Something from that book," DD replied. "Something good.  Something like baked ziti."

DF quickly chimed in.  "I love baked ziti!  Do you have the recipe?"

Um.  Baked ziti?  French cuisine?  Julia Child?

You know.  That sounds perfect.  Let's cook.

DD's Baked Ziti (Without Yucky Ricotta)

This is an easy recipe, quickly assembled with any pre-made red sauce or marinara sauce.  I keep lots of homemade sauce in the freezer, though, with Italian sausage as my kids prefer.  Click here for the recipe.
½ box (about 8 ounces) ziti
2 ½ - 3 cups red sauce, heated
4 oz. fresh mozzarella cheese, cut in ½ cubes
½ - ¾ cup grated mozzarella, or grated Italian cheese mix (I used Sargento brand, which includes mozzarella, parmesan, provolone, asiago etc.)

Preheat oven to 350.  Spray an 8 x 8 baking dish with Pam. 

Cook ziti in a large pot of boiling water until almost done, or slightly chewy.  Drain well, and stir in sauce.  Stir in cubed cheese.  Pour into prepared baking dish and sprinkle grated cheese evenly over.  Bake until heated through and bubbling – about 20 minutes.
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