Lessons From Julia Child's French-Style Cooking

By Jennifer LaRue Huget
Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Much as I love food, I've never had much interest in exploring the iconic cookbook "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" by Julia Child, Louisette Bertholle and Simone Beck. Just the thought of it hardened my arteries.

But the release this week of the film "Julie & Julia," which is in part about Julie Powell, who devoted a year to cooking her way through the daunting first volume of the 1961 classic, inspired me to look closer. As a nutrition writer, I wondered whether Child's approach to cooking was all that bad for you, after all.

My first impressions were mixed. The demonstrations of various ways of cutting vegetables are instructive and might apply equally to healthful crudites or to cream-laden vegetable casseroles. The sauce vinaigrette recipe makes the simplest of salad dressings, a useful tool in any cook's kit. Ditto for the omelet, which Child constructs with just eggs, salt and pepper, a bit of butter in a pan, and a fork; cheese and sauce are optional.

Beyond that, though, I found little that I would actually want to cook -- or eat. So accustomed am I to grilling lean meat and fish, serving vegetables raw or lightly stir-fried, and shunning rich sauces that most of the book's recipes strike me as kind of gross, frankly. Bifteck Hache a la Lyonnaise (ground beef with onions and herbs) sounds benign, but it calls for adding butter, beef suet, beef marrow or fresh pork fat to the meat mixture and for topping the cooked meat off with a butter sauce. Child's signature Gigot de Pre-Sale Roti (roast leg of lamb) has one brush the lamb with rendered fresh pork or beef fat before roasting.

Of the first volume's 684 pages, 115 are devoted to vegetables -- and 18 of those to potatoes, rice and, oddly, chestnuts. (Red meat gets 128 pages, while desserts get just 88.) Preparations, alas, are much as I expected: Almost all involve butter, and most also feature cream or cheese. Even the cucumber isn't spared: In Julia Child's world, cukes are baked in casserole dishes with Mornay sauce, butter and Swiss cheese.

And though the introduction to that chapter pledges that the "French objective is to produce a cooked green vegetable so green, fresh-tasting, and full of flavor that it really can be served as a separate course," the recipe for Epinards en Surprise, or Spinach Hidden Under a Giant Crepe, seems to belie that respect. The dish is described as "an amusing presentation; the spinach is heaped in a serving dish and a large French pancake is spread over it, hiding it completely." But not before Swiss cheese and cream are added.

Of course, "Mastering the Art" doesn't care what I think of it. Whether people actually use it much anymore or not, its place in American culinary history remains solid. Child was, of course, the first to make classic French cuisine accessible to ordinary Americans, demystifying it and showing how it might work in our own kitchens. Her introduction to the book clearly says it's aimed at cooks "who can be unconcerned on occasion with . . . waistlines."

Kirk Bachmann is vice president of academic affairs for the North American branches of the famed Cordon Bleu cooking school, at whose original Paris branch Child studied. He insists that while Child's approach to cooking may appear to focus on fat, in fact it's all about technique. As she learned at Le Cordon Bleu, Child concentrates on teaching culinary techniques and the fundamental skills of French cooking. "People get hung up on the recipes: 'Is there butter? Are there eggs?' " Bachmann notes. But the basic techniques explained in those recipes, he says, "can apply to any cuisine in the world."

Cutting carrots into a julienne, for instance, produces slim, uniform pieces that look attractive and cook evenly. Whether you then douse them in sauce is up to you.

The technique is in keeping with French cooking's emphasis on "eating with the eyes," Bachmann says. "We teach how to cook a julienned carrot so it can be the main vegetable on a plate. It's important that they look consistent, they look good and they're all the same. They have the same flavor profile, the same feel when they enter your mouth."

Similarly, braising meat is a way of coaxing the richest, deepest taste out of a cut of meat that doesn't have much fat to flavor it. "Mastering the Art" shows how to sear the meat to add color to its exterior and then to simmer it for a long time, allowing flavor to develop. "It doesn't need butter or heavy ingredients," Bachmann says, noting that mastering the technique allows a cook to shop for leaner, and thus more healthful, meats.

Yes, "butter is an easy way to get flavor into a dish," Bachmann allows. But if a cook sticks to Child's basic cooking techniques, it's okay to substitute yogurt in a cream sauce or olive oil when braising beef, although other seasonings may need to be tweaked to accommodate the substitution.

French cooking has in many ways moved beyond the approach represented in Child's book. In "cuisine classique," Bachmann explains, "heavy sauces were created to mask foods that were going bad. The sauce was the focus of the plate." Through the centuries, French cuisine has moved from those heavy, rot-covering sauces to dishes based on roux (flour-and-butter sauces) and, later, reductions (thickened meat stock) to a strong focus on locally grown foods and on the main ingredient itself: the salmon, not the sauce. "The heavy sauces of yesteryear have become a bit passe," Bachmann says.

Whether those heavy sauces in fact pose much of a health risk remains uncertain. The "French paradox," in which it was observed in the early 1990s that French people stayed slimmer and were less likely to die of heart disease than Americans, despite the former's high intake of fat, has not turned out to be much of a mystery, Bachmann says. Instead, it's now believed that the French consume fewer calories overall than we do and burn more through greater physical activity such as walking, both of which contribute to their better cardiovascular health. We've also learned that consuming dietary cholesterol (as in egg yolks) in moderation doesn't necessarily elevate levels of "bad" cholesterol in the blood (though saturated fat, as in cream, cheese and many cuts of red meat, clearly does). And many nutrition experts now say that eating small quantities of really satisfying, lightly processed foods (even if that means more fat and calories per bite) may be better for us than pigging out on processed and packaged foods. (Think: a few slices of full-fat cheese instead of a jar of Cheez Whiz.)

So what to make of "Mastering the Art"? Well, there's this: At the end of her year-long experiment, Julie Powell noted that she'd gained some weight, but she wasn't willing to attribute that solely to Julia Child's cuisine -- especially since her skinny husband remained skinny throughout, despite eating his wife's French food.

As for Julia Child herself, nobody would accuse her of having been skinny (not that she was fat, either). But she lived to within a whisker of her 92nd birthday. And, by all accounts, she enjoyed just about every minute.

Bon app├ętit, indeed.

Check out Tuesday's Checkup blog post, in which Jennifer attempts to chop an onion, Julia Child-style. Subscribe to the Lean & Fit newsletter by going to http://www.washingtonpost.com and searching for "newsletters."

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