Celebrate Child’s life with a ‘bon appetit’

Published 12:00 am Saturday, August 18, 2012

August 15th would have been Julia Child’s 100th birthday. She is being remembered in news articles and magazines, and in New Orleans many restaurants are doing tribute menus to her. A new book has come out about her by Bob Spitz called, Dearie. Julia called everyone and everything “Dearie,” even if it was someone she’d just met, or the person driving her taxi, or a machine. It was just an endearing part of her, Spitz says.

Those of us who love food know that Julia is the one who really changed things for the American woman in the way we eat and the way we live. She was a seemingly ordinary person who through talent, hard work, and the force of her personality launched something new in the world and changed the way we think about food.

Perhaps some of the things you do not know about her – she kept a diary her entire life—from the time she was 12 until she died; she also kept every story she wrote, every letter she sent her parents during boarding school and every invitation she received. In the end she had 180 boxes of material. She was a party girl. She went to Smith College and was a C student. At that time in her life, she was much more concerned with finding speakeasies during Prohibition than with her class work. She was boy crazy and loved to surround herself with attractive men at dinners. She loved tuna fish. When people would go to her house for lunch they would be expecting a fabulous meal, but she often served them tuna sandwiches.

No one can deny Julia’s contribution to public television. Before Julia, educational TV in almost every city was only a conglomeration of college professors giving their lectures, or maybe the local symphony. There was no national star. ‘The French Chef’ did not have the money for retakes. Julia taped every show as if it were live, so if Julia made a mistake, it was aired that way – although many of her mistakes were planned. Once Julia realized that viewers liked to see her fumble a recipe, she started doing it for comedic effect.

One of the most memorable things Spitz said of Julia is how she would march into the kitchen of any restaurant, lean over the stove, and to the horror of the chef, would dip her fingers into the pot and lick her fingers. Then she would do the same thing with another pot. In Italy she did this, and he thought the chefs would get a cleaver to her. She never really understood the love of Italian cooking and the allure of it. She felt Italian sauces were just onions and garlic and olive oil and tomatoes!

When I need to really know how to prepare French food I always go to Julia. She has never steered me wrong. So this week we celebrate a great woman!

From Julia and Jacques Cooking at Home (You can find these vegetables in your garden or at the local market, so a good recipe for now.)

Eggplant and Zucchini Gratin

Makes 6-8 servings

½ cup, or so, olive oil

1 large or 2 medium eggplant

1 tablespoon herbes de Provence

1 teaspoon salt

2 medium zucchini, about 1 pound

3 or 4 ripe tomatoes, about 1 pound

½ teaspoon freshly ground pepper

For bread-crumb topping:

½ cup or so fresh bread crumbs, not too finely ground

1/3 cup or so freshly grated Parmesan cheese

Arrange rack on lower-middle level of oven and preheat to 400 degrees. Smear a baking sheet generously with 1/3 cup olive oil.

Trim off ends of eggplant and slice on the diagonal into ovals ½ inch thick. One at a time, lay slices on the sheet, press to coat lightly with oil and turn them over. Arrange slices, oiled side up, in a single layer and sprinkle on ½ teaspoon each, salt and herbs of Provence.

Bake about 15 minutes until eggplant slices are soft and somewhat shriveled; cool briefly. Leave oven on if you are baking the gratin right away.

Trim zucchini ends and cut lengthwise into slices no more than ¼-inch thick. Salt zucchini and let it sit about 15 minutes then wipe salt and moisture off (otherwise your casserole can be too watery.) Core tomatoes and cut into slices ¼-inch thick. Spread out slices and sprinkle lightly with ¼ teaspoon freshly ground pepper.

Film a baking dish well with 1 teaspoon olive oil and sprinkle a teaspoon of the dried herbs all over the bottom. Lay one or two eggplants slices, lengthwise, against a narrow side of dish. Arrange a long slice or two of zucchini in front of the eggplant, then place 2 or 3 tomato slices in front of the zucchini.

Repeat until pan if full of alternating rows of eggplant, zucchini, and tomatoes. Arrange each new row of slices so colorful edges of the previous row are still visible.

Mix bread crumbs, Parmesan and a teaspoon of herbes de Provence. Add a tablespoon of olive oil, then toss and rub it in with your fingers to coat crumbs but keep them loose.

Sprinkle crumbs evenly over vegetables and drizzle remaining oil over all. Place dish in the center of the oven and bake 40 minutes, until vegetables are soft, juices are bubbling, and top is a deep golden brown. If the crumbs need more browning, you can stick them under a broiler for a few minutes.

I didn’t have any herbs de Provence so I went to the garden and got bunches of basil, thyme, sage and rosemary. Herbs de Provence are just the common herbs of Provence, now sold commercially in different formulations. They include, depending on the vendor, varying amounts of dried marjoram, thyme, savory, basil, rosemary, sage, fennel seeds, chervil, tarragon, and mint. Some add orange zest or lavender. Lavender has been added for the tourist in the south of France who saw it growing almost everywhere. So if you are making your own herbs de Provence, you choose.

Julia almost picked another catch-phrase to sign off on her show, “The French Chef.” She was supposed to say, “This is Julia Child—until next time.” But in an early script, Julia crossed it out and wrote in her now-famous

“Bon appétit!”