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Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Lessons from Lasagne ...

When I was a kid, we had an old television that my dad bought from the appliance repair man up the road so that we could watch Steve Prefontaine run in the 1972 Olympics. You had to change the channels with a pair of needle-nosed pliars. We lived out in the country and got 3 channels with pretty poor reception (even with the help of some tin foil rolled up around the antenae!). Oregon Public Broadcasting, however, came in clear as a bell, and every Saturday noon I sat down with a pen and paper to watch the Queen of French Cuisine, Julia Child.

At 13, this woman FASCINATED me. Having grown up in a tee-totalling home, the idea that anyone could drink wine and cook with sharp instruments over an open flame and remain standing was, well, Outside The Box for my young and impressionable self. Julie Child cooked foods I'd never eaten. She had REALLY cool cooking utensils. And she was fearless in the kitchen. What a woman!

And so, I paid attention when she talked. I took notes. I wrote down recipes. And I practiced. Every Tuesday night, I presented a much fussed over dinner entree for my family. To their credit, my parents generously encouraged my forays into the kitchen and enthusiastically applauded my culinary flops AND successes. As my repertoire expanded, so did my confidence and my passion for food, and I began to tackle recipes that broaded my skills and my culinary horizons.

Enter "Lasagne a la Francaise" - or "French Lasagne" from Julia's classic Mastering the Art of French Cooking, which launched me into the realm of "foodie firsts". It was the first time I cooked with safron. The first time I'd boiled wide noodles (until then, my experience with pasta had been limited to macaroni and spaghetti). The first time I'd made a bechamel sauce. The first time I'd poached chicken. The first time I met ricotta (although Julia did say I could substitute cottage cheese if I didn't have any). And ... wait for it ... the first time I COOKED WITH WINE (albeit a very salty "cooking" wine that came in a little bottle from McKay's Market with a screw-top cap - it was, technically, the FIRST TIME an alcoholic beverage crossed the threshold of my parents' pentecostal home). And the result? Success! "Lasagne a la Francaise" became MY signature dish - served with a flourish for special occasions and new boyfriends. Today, it was our featured lunch special at Mon Ami. The prep time meant I had to start on it early in the morning, but the end result was well worth the effort.

Back in The Day, my television chef mentors were limited to Julia Child and Jeff Smith, The Frugal Gourmet (sadly, Jeff left the culinary world under a cloud of unexcusable crime, but not before he taught me to make Cauliflower Au Gratin). Under their tutelage, I fine-honed my basic skills and expanded my palette. Today, with a plethora of celebrity chefs and cooking channels to choose from, I am (understandably) in Gastric Nirvana every time I turn on the television. From them, I've learned to roll sushi, debone a chicken, make gnochi ... the list continues. And thanks to Paula Dean, I feel ABSOLUTELY NO SHAME about the amount of butter I cook with. Nothing, however, has contributed to my skill-set as a chef like the lessons I learned when I tackled my very first French Lasagne. And, in the words of Michaelangelo, an artist who most certainly mastered his craft, "still I am learning." Bon appetit!