Long ago in a distant galaxy, that is fresh out of college and living in rural Ohio, I served a reheated hamburger and two kinds of frozen vegetables for supper. Jack looked at his plate and commented that if the meals became any simpler, we’d be slicing meat right off the cow. He was right, too. I occasionally got fancy and made something from More With Less or Diet for a Small Planet but daily meal preparation was not a source of pleasure. If the Three Ingredient Cookbook had been published then, I would have been working my way through it. Later I lived by The Once a Month Cookbook where you make a month’s worth of meals over one weekend.
I don’t hate the idea of cooking. I have recipe boxes, file folders, a OneNote section and a shelf of flagged cookbooks bursting with possibilities. But I am not a fan of chopping. More specifically I am not a fan of chopping day after day after day. Then there is another task I’m not fond of: clean-up, which even the simplest meal requires.
So over the years, I’ve developed a cuisine that could be called easy but good, with its hallmark method of ‘open and dump’. Though I’m not sure hungry ex-pats are the sharpest critics, when someone does compliment my cooking, my stock response is “Oh, it was so easy.” I’m not trying to be modest. I follow an intuitive equation that calculates ease of effort with epicurean achievement. The goal is to make dishes that are tasty but quick.
The creme de la creme of my easy cuisine
Since moving here, I’ve expanded my repetoire and have started to make some standard items from scratch, either because it’s cheaper [salad dressing and orange juice] or not available [croutons and barbeque sauce]. I drew the line at tortillas because other than replicating my mom’s beloved Christmas coffee cake, I have an aversion to rolling pins. Instead, I find it easier to buy several packages whenever I across the Straits to Spain.
Then when C was here, I watched “Julie and Julia”, about a woman who cooks her way through Julia Child’s classic Mastering the Art of French Cooking. We [as in C with her charming enthusiasm and me with my maternal willingness] were tempted by the scene where Julie makes Julia’s Bouef Bourguignon for a famous cookbook editor. I should have noticed that the drama is focused on how Julie burns her first attempt and not on the actual preparation of the dish. Still, C urged us to put the dish on our dinner menu and I thought, “How hard can it be?”
The answer is not hard at all–just very, very, very time-consuming as in 21 ingredients, 45 steps, and 6 hours. That’s without doing the shopping which J kindly did. In true French style he went to the vegetable market, the grocery store, and the meat butcher. Finally he went to the pork butcher, [as in ‘the only pork butcher’] because the recipe for Bouef Bourguignon requires 6 ounces of solid chunk bacon. Total shopping time: an hour and a half. Total amount of aggravation from driving in this city’s crazy traffic: incalculable.
My vintage Le Crueset perfect for French dishes, thanks to Noreen. Also perfect for weight training since empty it comes in at about 20 pounds**
Once all the ingredients were assembled, I got down to work chopping , simmering, draining, browning and sautéing. I skipped what is known as an auxiliary recipe for Simple Beef Stock because it had more than one step. My preferred method: unwrap a cube of bouillon. However, the adapted Bouef Bourguignon recipe** weaseled in two other auxiliary recipes from Julia Child’s bible, one for braised onions and the other for sautéed mushrooms.
For the first half hour, I felt like a French chef, or at least like Julia Child who was California born and bred. I preheated the oven to 450F. I cut the three pound slab of beef into 2-inch cubes [a step needed only if the cook delegates the meat buying]. I peeled and chopped a carrot and a regular onion, and cut the bacon into lardons, a word I only learned when I spent a summer in the French Alps. However, Julia doesn’t presume that her servantless American readers will have been so fortunate and she specifies that lardons are “sticks 1/4 inch thick and 1 1/2 inch long.” I could have bought a package of pre-cut lardons at the grocery store but I resisted, because I wanted to make “the real thing”. I didn’t get out a ruler to measure them, but I figured my lardons looked close enough.
Later I checked one against a store-bought lardon. Can you guess which is mine?
Mine is the one on the left of course
Using authentic ingredients was one thing [though I did have to substitute regular onions for pearl onions.]. But following the instructions precisely was another and I bailed at step 9: dry off the pieces of beef before sautéing them. Mine went in wet.
Then at step 13, the thrill of pretending I was a diplomat’s spouse living in Paris suddenly disappeared.
13] Toss the contents of the casserole with the salt and pepper and sprinkle with the flour.
14] Set the uncovered casserole in the oven for four minutes.
15] Toss the contents of the casserole again and return to the hot oven for 4 more minutes.
16] Now, lower the heat to 325°F and remove the casserole from the oven.
I felt I had landed in dog obedience school and I started muttering to myself. Would it really make any difference if the casserole was put in a 450 oven for 4 minutes, turned and then given another 4 minutes? Maybe not, but I reluctantly decided I’d better tow the line if I wanted to be sure the dish turned out perfectly. I had three hungry adults waiting eagerly for the pièce de résistance. *1*
The same couldn’t be said of Jeff
By the time the meal was ready, it seemed I had mastered not only the art of French cooking, but the book of Leviticus as well. That’s where you’ll find instructions for how to deal with mildew and be cleansed from skin diseases. In chapter 4, there are also details given on the more important matter of making a sin offering for unintentional sins.*2* First you have to offer a flawless female goat, lay your hand on the head and slaughter it. Then “the priest must take some of its blood with his finger and put it on the horns of the altar of burnt offering, and he must pour out all the rest of its blood at the base of the altar.” The fat has to be removed and smoked on the altar too. Back in Moses’ day, I can’t imagine how many animals I’d be sacrificing for all my unintentional sins. But that’s what I would have to do to put myself right with God again.
Fortunately, following all the steps to make the Boeuf Bourguignon turned out to be worth it. [Halfway through cooking, someone pointed out it’s really just a fancy name for beef stew, and I had my doubts.] We all took our first bites and everyone agreed it was surprisingly delicious. We feasted away, and there were even leftovers which is perhaps my favorite dish of all.
However, I can’t say that I’m eager to make a dish which brings to mind the expression ‘slaving away in the kitchen’. And if I had to cook three meals a day like that, I’d be ready to take any short cut offered, cake mixes, frozen dinners, pre-cooked bacon. I ‘d steer my taste buds far away from frenchified delicacies like Mousse de Foies de Volaille and Coquilles St. Jacques à la Provencale. I’d go running for boxes of macaroni and cheese and canned soups, and fast food hamburgers, even though they wouldn’t taste nearly as good.
But what if the best chef in the world showed up at my door at dinner time and said, “Here’s a meal for you. It’s all made. You don’t have to do anything. You don’t have to pay me anything either. It’s a gift. Just take and eat it.” What is being offered is not canned or boxed or mass-produced food. We’re talking about the chance to have an absolutely scrumptious dish of true gastronomical delight. I’d be crazy not to take the free gourmet food rather than toil through dozens of fussy steps. [I’d also be crazy to pass by the gourmet food and be content with a cheap imitation.]
The rules of Leviticus were taken care of when Jesus made the ultimate sin offering. His death on the cross means no more frying bulls, male goats, female goats, rams, lambs, doves and pigeons. No more blood on the altar, no more slaving in the kitchen. Because he paid the penalty for every last infraction, we can taste the sweet fellowship of restored righteousness every day. A marvelous feast awaits us. Free, undeserved, delicious. All we have to do is go to the door and accept His offer.
Someone may come along and try to charge us for it. Jesus was always telling his disciples to be on guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees who had turned God’s way into a strict rule book. The recipe for righteousness in Leviticus no longer works if you want to get into God’s banquet. It’s grace and grace alone now that counts.
I am the Bread of Life. Your ancestors ate the manna bread in the desert and died. But now here is Bread that truly comes down out of heaven. Anyone eating this Bread will not die, ever. I am the Bread—living Bread!—who came down out of heaven. Anyone who eats this Bread will live—and forever! The Bread that I present to the world so that it can eat and live is myself, this flesh-and-blood self.
John 6:48-51 The Message
Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.
**Links and notes
Recipe [all 45 steps of it] for Bouef Bourguignon à la Julia Child
Julia in person Watch Julia Child in action, making things like tarte tatin and spinach turnover.
To read more about Noreen, a Scottish woman who generously gave us many things when we thought we had lost our container of household goods
*1*pièce de résistance: a French expression, circa 1839, that originally meant the most substantial dish in a meal, a dish that had staying power.
*2* For intentional sins you go to Leviticus 20 and follow a simple one step method.