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Julia Child ages, but
she never gets old


Julia and Jacques Cooking at Home will air weekly on WUSF-Ch. 16 at 4:30 p.m. Sundays beginning this weekend and at 8:30 p.m. Wednesdays starting Oct. 6; it will run on WEDU-Ch. 3 at 12:30 p.m. Saturdays beginning Oct. 2.


© St. Petersburg Times, published September 23, 1999

We who have watched Julia Child chortle as she cooked for four decades knew she would wear purple when she grew old.

Yet who could imagine she would wear it so well in her 80s as she does when she returns to the screen this weekend with another TV cooking legend, Jacques Pepin?

From a peek at the first episode and outtakes of the new Julia and Jacques Cooking at Home filmed at her home in Cambridge, Mass., Child had as much color in her spirit as in her purple silk blouse. She may have aged, but she hasn't lost her fizz.

Her hair has thinned, and her posture is stooped, but you know she's back as soon as you hear her oooooh at a well-marbled steak: "That is sooooo beautiful."

When she tosses crimini and shiitake mushrooms into butter and oil and says, "They'll be happy together," the trill is not gone.

While Pepin's famous step-by-step hands do much of the work, Child's bony fingers are still eager to flatten prime beef for steak Diane, crack a huge ostrich egg and demonstrate how to cut an onion just right for pan-roasting.

Child, who started out as "The French Chef" in 1963, and Pepin, a genuine French chef who arrived in the United States in 1959, share the kitchen like two generations of a loving family. The passionate home cook and the practiced restaurant chef enjoy trading recipes, debating technique and gently bickering.

They obviously share a love of food, especially classics such as French Chateaubriand and American pot roast. The camera loves this food, too, with its glistening brown crusts and bubbling pots you can almost smell.

And these pioneers of American cooking shows still use television well, although they can ham it up clinking wine glasses and clowning as if they are in a Fawlty Towers skit. Child dons a firefighter's helmet and stands by with a fire extinguisher when Pepin flambees; Pepin wears a toga for Julia's Caesar salad.

More practically, they and the camera focus much of the time on how to buy good ingredients and on how to clean and trim them before they hit the stove.

While cable channels boil over with fusion cooking and flashier chefs, Child and Pepin are comforting guides to basics and older flavors that have returned to popularity.

For this show, they improvise on old favorites that have been carefully reconstructed for the companion book of the same name (Knopf; $40). In the 22 TV segments and the book installments, the dishes include cheese souffle, stuffed artichokes, scalloped potatoes and blanquette de veau, from traditional haute cuisine to the cooking the French call a la bonne femme.

As America's gourmet grandmother, Child dearly loves the old ways and laments the scarcity of aged prime beef and too much fuss over fat and salt. At one point in the filming, she chides Pepin: "We don't care about nutrition; we care about flavor." Yet she also confides that she doesn't stuff herself on rich foods: "In restaurants I'm a shameless doggie-bag taker."

When she and Pepin prepare dueling hamburgers, however, his is unseasoned and cooked on the grill, while hers is mixed with salt, pepper and shallots, cooked in a cast-iron skillet sprinkled with more salt and served on a buttered bun with mayonnaise and everything else, including not one but two strips of bacon. Both burgers are more than 3 inches tall and have to be cut in half.

As they munch into their burgers, they close as they always have: "Happy cooking" from him, "Bon appetit!" from her.

"Bam!" should live so long.

Steak au Poivre

  • 1 thick-cut well-marbled strip steak, about 1 pound total weight, 1 1/2 inches thick
  • 2 tablespoons or so mixed whole peppercorns, including black, white, green, Szechuan and Jamaican (whole allspice)
  • Salt
  • 1 teaspoon vegetable oil
  • 1 tablespoon butter

    For the pan sauce:

    • 2 tablespoons minced shallots
    • 2 tablespoons cognac (or bourbon or red wine)
    • '1/2 cup flavorful dark stock
    • 1 tablespoon unsalted butter, at room temperature)

* * *

    For the garnish:
    Chopped parsley

    • Trim the steak of all surrounding fat and cartilage. Cut the meat into two pieces, and crush the peppercorns with the back of a skillet
    • Sprinkle salt to taste on the top and bottom of the steaks; then press each side into the cracked peppercorns, encrusting the steaks lightly or heavily, as you prefer.
    • Heat the oil and butter in a heavy saute or frying pan over high heat. When the pan is quite hot, lay the peppered steaks in. Fry for about 1 1/2 to 2 minutes, until the undersides are well seared.
    • Turn the meat and cook the second side for about a minute. Press with a finger to test for the slight springiness that indicates rare.
    • Cook to desired doneness and remove to a warm platter.
  • Making the pan sauce:
    • Add the shallots to the pan and saute briefly, stirring with a spoon to scrape up the drippings.
    • Lean away from the stove (averting your face) and pour the cognac into the pan; tilt the edge of the pan slightly, over the burner flame, to ignite the alcohol. The cognac will flame up for a few seconds as the alcohol burns off; cook for a few moments more, and then add the stock. (If using an electric burner, you can flame the sauce with a long-handled lighter. You can skip the flaming if you use wine.)
    • Bring the liquid back to the boil and cook about 1 minute to thicken the sauce, stirring occasionally. Taste and adjust seasoning. Finally, add the soft butter, swirling the pan until it melts and incorporates with the juices.
    • When blended, pour the sauce over the steaks. Sprinkle liberally with chopped parsley and garnish each plate with sprigs of parsley or watercress.

Note: An acceptable substitute for a small amount of stock can be made from a can of beef bouillon, the low-sodium variety. Simmer it for half an hour or so with a handful of diced carrots, onion, celery, perhaps a tomato and a little dry wine or vermouth. Strain, and season if necessary.

Yield: Two steaks, each about 6 to 7 ounces, serving two generously or three.

Source: Julia and Jacques Cooking at Home, Julia Child and Jacques Pepin, Alfred A. Knopf, $40.

Two experts, two techniques

    Jacques Pepin

    • Steak au poivre must be the grandfather of all the spice "rubs" that are so popular today. Here, we vary the classic approach only slightly -- using peppercorns with different nuances of flavor -- but there is nothing wrong with trying different spices as a coating for the steak. Be creative. See what you have in your cupboard. You might use fennel, caraway or cumin, or try some dried herbs, such as thyme or herbes de Provence.
    • Remember that the flavor of the spices you put on the steak will be altered by sauteing, just as they are when you roast spices. Some flavors will be intensified and others diminished: For instance, a good deal of the heat of pepper, even cayenne, is reduced by searing in a very hot pan.
    • Similarly, the pan sauce can be varied with what you have on hand -- what I call cuisine d'opportunite. Good stock is essential, but you could omit the shallots; if you don't have cognac, deglaze with red wine or bourbon; instead of butter, add a bit of cream to the pan and reduce.

* * *

    Julia Child:

    • A really thick cut from the boneless strip is one of my favorite steaks. But while steak au poivre is magnificent for those with a great appetite for pepper, it is not my favorite preparation. I think that the better the piece of meat, the less you need to put on it.
    • A word of caution: Take care when flaming the cognac for the pan sauce. Jacques is an expert in what he calls "pyrotechnic" cooking and pours the cognac right from the bottle. But it is safer to add a measured amount of cognac from a ladle, to be certain that the flames can't leap up into the bottle and perhaps explode. Avert your face and stand back as you tilt the pan to ignite the alcohol.

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