Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Bless You, Julia Child

I like finding really useful things at estate sales.  And since I enjoy cooking, few things are more useful to me than the colorful vintage Pyrex bowls and casserole dishes I’ve found at estate sales over the last few months.

There are a lot of Pyrex bowls out there, and they usually aren’t exactly cheap.  The multicolored set of stacking mixing bowls I found were, and are, good for everything from whipping egg whites for meringue to making a double batch of chocolate chip cookies.
Even more versatile are the casserole dishes, some of which are large enough to double as mixing bowls. These thick glass containers with clear removable tops are from a day before almost everything was disposable. The original owner bought them assuming they would last for years, and her assumption was correct.

Looking at my set of nesting blue and white Pyrex dishes this evening reminded me that tomorrow, August 15th, would have been the 100th birthday of Julia Child.  The Internet is full of people who’ve been cooking their way through Mastering the Art of French Cooking (which she wrote with Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle), adapting her recipes, sharing her legacy (and some are probably trying to mimic her voice).The largest blue Pyrex casserole dish in my cupboard is just the right size for soaking two pounds of sauerkraut when I make my own version of one of Mrs. Child’s recipes: Choucroute.

We first encountered choucroute on a trip to Paris a few years ago (she wrote dreamily).  Our Paris hotel was right around the corner from where Paul and Julia Child lived after World War II.  We took the high-speed train from Paris to the Alsace and back, marveling at how efficient the service was.  We ate dinner in Paris at the legendary Brasserie Lipp.  I ordered a basic poulet roti, but The Man of the House  -- who is much more adventurous than I – ordered something else that looked good on the menu, but which we’d never heard of.  He pointed at the menu listing for the attentive waiter.
“Choucroute,” the waiter said.  (He pronounced it something like "sha-kroot.")  “Very good, monsieur.” 

Choucroute turned out to be a savory casserole from the Alsace of ham hocks, sausages and sauerkraut (that wasn’t sour!) and indeed it was very good.   Apparently choucroute is what the French call sauerkraut, or sauerkraut is what the Germans call choucroute.  The Alsace is influenced by both cultures.  Whatever its origin, choucroute made my roast chicken seem rather dull by comparison. 

When we got back home to the States, I made sure I looked for a recipe for choucroute on the Internet and the first one I spotted was Julia Child’s.   As I perused Mrs. Child’s version of the dish and compared it with others, it became immediately apparent that one of the reasons the casserole is so good is that it is loaded with fat.  Julia’s recipe calls for an assortment of meats, bacon, and “butter or pork fat.”  Her friend Jacques Pepin’s recipe uses baby back ribs, hot dogs, Polish kielbasa and “duck or goose fat” served with boiled potatoes on the side. 

There's leeway in other aspects of the recipe as well.  Some sources say that Choucroute Garnie is made with white wine and a bouquet garni of herbs, peppercorns and juniper berries, or if you don't have juniper berries, some straight gin.  Choucroute Royale is made with Champagne instead of white wine. Some recipes use chicken stock and a small amount of white wine; some omit the stock and just add the whole bottle of wine.

I decided to create a version of choucroute that would preserve most of the basic flavors while reducing the amount of saturated fats. Given that any recipe that calls for ham hocks and sausages can’t really be considered “low fat,” I guess my version is “lower fat."  I don't keep juniper berries or gin around the house, so I omit those.  French chefs are divided over whether the recipe contains celery;  I like celery, carrots and onion together, so I use all three. And I add a little garlic just for good measure.   


This is a good recipe for cooler weather, when you can afford to keep the oven on for almost 5 hours straight. 

n  2 pounds good-quality sauerkraut
n  1/2 cup sliced carrots
n  ½ cup sliced celery
n  1 1/2 cups sliced onions
n  1 clove garlic, minced
n  2T. olive oil, butter, or a combination (not margarine)
n  1 bay leaf
n  1 cup white wine
n  3 cups chicken stock
n  Additional salt and pepper to taste
n  One large or two smaller ham hocks, with lots of meat on them
n  A few additional pieces of meat; for example, pork chops, smoked pork loin, ham or sausages.  The amount of meat you add should reflect the number of people you’ll be serving and how much room there is in the container you cook it in.  Read the recipe through first, look at the size of your casserole dish or Dutch oven, count your guests and use your best judgment.  The point is that the meat should be pretty much buried in the sauerkraut while it braises. 

Preheat oven to 325 degrees.  Drain the sauerkraut and soak it in cold water for 15 minutes.   (This is where my blue Pyrex bowl comes in handy).  Remove it from the water, drain it again and squeeze as much of the liquid out of it as you can.  (This is easiest if you squeeze it a couple of handfuls at a time.)

Cook the carrots, celery and onions in olive oil or butter in a large, heavy covered casserole dish or Dutch oven over medium-low heat on the stove for 10 minutes.  (Don’t let them get brown.)   Stir in the sauerkraut, making sure the strands are pulled apart, and continue cooking another 5-10 minutes. 

Pour in the wine and the chicken stock and add the bay leaf. Cover the casserole dish and set it in the middle of preheated oven. Cook slowly for 3 ½ hours.  Add a few sprigs of parsley, chopped, if you have them.  Brown the assorted meats in skillet.  Bury them in the casserole while the sauerkraut is still braising.  Continue to simmer the choucroute in oven for at least another 1 to 1 ½ hours. (Total cooking time is 4 ½ to 5 hours.)

Remove the bay leaf and serve the choucroute with potatoes (boiled or mashed) and a good crusty French bread.  If you're so inclined, you can also serve the rest of the bottle of white wine that you didn't use in the recipe.

Come to think of it, my own copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking came from an estate sale too. 

Monday, August 13, 2012

(Almost) Everything Old Is New Again

One of the best things about going to an estate sale is that I never know what I'm going to find.  At most sales, I can count on finding some old magazines, reasonably priced, to look through and bring home. 

One of the most surprising things I've found in recent months was a big stack of back issues of The Illustrated London News from 1924-25.  They were in the estate of a Hollywood filmmaker who had been a pioneer in 3-D films.  And as soon as I opened the magazines, it was obvious why he'd bought them: each issue contained an anaglyph (3-D image) and an advertisement for readers to obtain a pair of 3-D glasses.  Tucked inside one of the magazines was a small envelope containing one red and one green lens -- part of the response to the original owner's request for the 3-D glasses.

Anaglyphs had been around since the mid-1800s, I discovered, but The Illustrated London News was a pioneer in printing them for the general public's use.  The anaglyphs in the magazines are interesting -- a large photo of tennis action at Wimbledon, an ad for the Ethophone V Broadcast Receiver, and much more.  But it's the news coverage of the day that really intrigues me, because it seems so contemporary.  For example, a story on the continuing violence in Syria:

The October 31, 1925 issue stated somberly:  "The unfortunate events in Syria have aroused much feeling."  

On a lighter note, a June 28, 1924 headline read:  "Championships to Decide Britain's Olympic Team" with a full-page spread of pictures including one of Mr. H. M. Abrahams (so ably portrayed by Ben Cross in the film Chariots of Fire).

Many of the issues covered the doings of the British monarchy. The magazine paid particular interest to the pretty young woman who (although they didn't know it at the time) would one day be queen when her husband Albert Frederick Arthur George (Bertie) ascended the throne:

"With her charming smile, [she] has a very gracious manner of performing the public duties that fall to her lot, and she is popular wherever she goes." 

Some of The Illustrated London News stories, however, cover one-of-a-kind events.  For example, the 1924 British Empire Exhibition at Wembley featured a statue of the Prince of Wales made entirely of butter:

"The model is the work of...sculptors to the Canadian Government Commission.  No less than 2 1/2 tons of butter was used, and the model is kept in condition by a special refrigerating plant, worked by two mechanics, who have to study the pressure of the atmosphere continually.  When the Prince of Wales paid an unofficial visit to this exhibit, he remarked jokingly that he thought his legs were too fat." 

Okay, to be fair, the Exhibition was much more than that.  It was aimed at bringing all the nations ruled by Great Britain together, so they could get to know one another better, and cost 12 million pounds to put on.  The BBC Archive has a recording of the Prince of Wales (later Edward VIII) and his father, George V, opening the 1924 Exhibition at Wembley: 


(Still, I wonder what they did with all that butter after the Exhibition was over?)