Friday, July 24, 2009

Julia and ME!

O.K., perhaps my Julia moment is a bit slight, but the horse is way out of the barn on this with Nora Ephron's forthcoming film (yay!) which weaves Julie Powell's ingenious Julie & Julia with Julia Child's My Life in France (complete with blog and twitter sites, no less), and I mean to pull-up and hop on. Here's my Julia confessional...

Photo by egg on stilts

I “met” the real Julia an easy twenty years ago while attending San Francisco’s Culinary Academy. My sweet crazy Southern friend Susan and I were trouble-making at the back of a demo room, like any self-respecting wayward clique, planted in a single isle separated from the main lower seating area/stage by a walkway.

Photo by Sean Ganann

We were having a good-old time, tittering on while occasionally glancing the chef’s way, when a grand inky shadow came over us, movie villain style. We gazed up to find Julia herself towering over us with a flute of champagne. She - rosy, backlit, fuzzy-haloed - winked and twinkle-smiled like the North star she was, and then, incredibly, lifted her glass to a stunned, betoqued us. Speechless, I think we tried to beam back. She operatically sighed, imperiously took in the rest of the room, and then instantly vanished like a very last warm gougère... poof!

Photo by C@rljones

You know those gauzy 70's posters of misted fields stocked with blurry white horses? This was one of those super-astral moments for me. Was Julia a foggy figment of wild, sleep-sucked times or did she, in fact, happen? She stood behind the other students so that no one else but our chef could see her. And he, uber-Frenchie Albert Tordjman, (who's become a friend), didn’t pause a moment to acknowledge or introduce the most famous chef in America (which I’ll always suspect was a bit of sour grapes re: the brilliant woman who so breezily co-opted his ultra-male culture). So really, just Susie and I were granted the vision; the Julia blessing; what I’ve naturally come to consider over the years as the passing of a toque, troublemaker to troublemaker.

Addendum: I sent this to Susie to confirm/deny my ever-loopy memory of things. Here are a few snippets from that exchange (she obviously needs to start her own blog):

Of course I remember Julia Child, she didn't look that blurry to me... you must have gotten to the champagne first. Secondly, I SPOKE to her and she answered AND smiled, she clearly was enamored of me too. She was my idol - when I got home that day I called everyone I knew.

Next... troublemaker?? Troublemaker... distracted maybe, there were about 35-40 good looking guys that knew how to cook, I was living in San Francisco and found out there was a way to eat and drink for a living, uh, it was a little bit more fun than I’d been having in Baton Rouge. No wonder we spent most of our time in the back of the class giggly and blurry.

By the way, you should definitely post this, the trailer to the movie is us! When the girl is at home cooking, and pours the bottle of wine and then drinks out of the bottle... something about that makes me think there's a nanny cam in my house. I want to play her - do you photoshop?

Susie & Me

And a final bit of Julia lore: Another friend of mine cooked for Julia Child (I believe at the Santa Fe Bar & Grill in Berkeley). After a bite of soup, apparently the great JC pulled a tiny rubber band from her mouth - which probably got there through a stock with carelessly added herb bunches. Mon Dieu! The entire staff began obsequiously swirling, naturalment, attempting to make the offending dish disappear. JC, laughing, would have none of it. She waved them all away trilling, "Nonsense, it happens!" Was the woman's every living moment a freaking life lesson?

Julie & Julia opens August 7th!

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Grilled White Nectarines, Lipstick Peppers, Soppressata, Fresh Ricotta, Basil, Rocolla & Lemon-Fennel-Chili Vinaigrette

It seemed a pretty eccentric pairing at first. I originally stumbled on it in Ana Sortun's provocative Spice, a book which ponders endless brilliant uses of Eastern Mediterranean herbs and spices. Yet after a few stumped moments it came perfectly clear to me that of course stone fruit and peppers belong together. They have all kinds of sisterly affinities: are sweet, summer-induced, and each take gorgeously to fire and smoke. I, as usual, take liberties with Sortun's original Grecian premise of Grilled Peaches and Peppers, pulling it more towards the Italian coast.

Summer's honey-fat white nectarines and skinny-walled lipstick peppers are landing en masse and something has to be done about it. I have a garlicy two-footer of Fra'Mani's Soppressata... I know, I know. I will make my own, a la Hank Shaw, the moment I land my grand restaurant kitchen - the one with the oversized walk ins, perfectly chilled meat cellars, and an organic garden outside the antiqued back door. For now I slice bought artisanal on our ancient meat slicer (and I don't mean the coveted hand-turned style, I mean old) and overlap the rosy, clove-infused rounds on a plate with Summer basil and rocolla tossed with lemon, fennel seeds and crushed chilies, all of which easily commune with said salame's gallant interior. I lay warm, charred nectarines & peppers into the rumble and finish with spoons of fresh ricotta and virgin oil vinaigrette, then silently thank chef Sortun for the sweet spark...

Grilled White Nectarines, Lipstick Peppers, Soppressata, Fresh Ricotta, Basil, Rocolla & Lemon-Fennel-Chili Vinaigrette (serves 4)

Lemon-Fennel-Chili Vinaigrette

1 lemon, fine zested and juiced for about 2 tablespoons of juice

1 teaspoon fennel seed, toasted and lightly crushed

1 small chili de Arbol, seeded and crumbled

Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

Whisk the lemon juice and zest in a small bowl. Add the fennel seed, chili, a pinch of salt and a grinding of pepper. Slowly whisk in the olive oil and taste for seasoning. Adjust if needed.

For the Nectarines and Peppers

2 ripe white nectarines (or other perfect stone fruit: peaches, apricots...)

1/2 pound Lipstick or other smallish, thin-skinned pepper like Gypsy

Olive oil

Sea salt & freshly ground pepper

Fire up your grill. Cut the nectarines in half and remove the pit. Toss with a good splash of olive oil, a pinch of salt and grinding of pepper and grill, cut side down, until marked and hot, about 3 to 5 minutes. Turn onto skin side and do the same. Remove and hold in a lightly covered bowl. Toss the whole peppers with a good splash of olive oil, a pinch of salt and grinding of pepper and grill, turning several times, to mark each side, until collapsing slightly, about 5 minutes. Add to the bowl with nectarines.

To Assemble

12 thin slices of soppressata, homemade or bought artisanal

1 cup rocolla, cleaned

1 cup basil leaves (a mix is nice if possible: opal and a green variety), cleaned

Lemon-fennel-chile vinaigrette

1 cup fresh ricotta, homemade or artisanal, Bellwether Farms is nice

Grilled nectarines and peppers

Cracked black pepper

Fan 3 slices of soppressata onto a plate, slightly overlapping. Toss the rocolla and basil with a splash of the vinaigrette. Place a handful (about 1/2 cup) into the center of the plate. Lay a warm nectarine half and several peppers into the greens. Drizzle with the juices which have collected in their bowl. Drop several spoonfuls of the ricotta onto the nectarines, peppers and the salami. Drizzle with a spoonful of the vinaigrette and finish with a good grinding of black pepper.