Wednesday, August 5, 2009

meghan & julie & julia

Welcome everyone who has popped over from the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. I hope you've taken the time to skim a bit of my blog. If you like what you see, please come on back. If you don't, please don't leave a nasty comment. In the immortal words of Thumper, "If you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all." On that note, constructive criticism and healthy debate is always appreciated!

I also encourage you to check out the other fabulous bloggers involved in the project. I signed up for all their RSS feeds, especially if any of them continue to take on this challenge.

While many of you probably read my whole tale over at the JS, I'm including my unedited version below (with links to the vendors I used in the process).

The True Adventures of Meghan and 4 Lobsters

It all started with twittering about radishes.

I’d been on a radish kick earlier this summer and when the Journal-Sentinel’s PostCollegeCook was looking for radish recipes via social media I was happy to oblige.

Little did I know an insignificant spicy root vegetable would lead me to taking on the master—Ms. Julia Child.

After some tweets back and forth, sharing a radish slaw and radish tart recipe I noticed a call out from the JS looking for twentysomething bloggers to try a “food challenge.” Intrigued, and always hunting for recipes and experiences to fill my “Monday Munchies” blog column, I followed up.

This wasn’t any old challenge. This was a tie-in with the forthcoming Julie/Julia biopic profiling the original food superstar and an NYC blogger trying to learn her cooking methods. I was to roleplay the blogger role, and well, Julia was to manifest through her classic tome Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Always up for a good test, and looking for an excuse to finally clean my apartment and have a few friends over for food and wine, I took the assignment.

I don’t consider myself a great chef, but like Julia Child, who learned midlife how to tackle the gourmet, I don’t shy away from throwing myself wholly and fearlessly into the kitchen. Unlike Julia, I’m a little bit more free-form of a cook. She’s more classical musician, I’m a bit more jazz. I usually throw in “whatever.” But, I acquiesced, it would probably behoove me to follow directions and see what turns out.

Where to start in emulating a pop cultural touchstone of my childhood (just weeks after another had so publicly been mourned)? How to begin following in the footsteps of my farmshare partner, Becky’s, distant relative? Each week we divvy up our vegetables, but isn’t she genetically predisposed to make them gourmet?

I didn’t want to cop out and try something that would be easy for me. I had the added challenge of avoiding any recipe that involved red meat or pork, since I don’t eat them. Let me tell you, this is extremely difficult considering even most veggie dishes require bacon fat or beef bullion.

After seriously reflecting on duck, I flipped to the seafood section. Page 221 called out to me. Homard Thermidor – Lobster Thermador, Gratinéed in its Shell.

Hmm…sounds delicious.

But a lot of work! But Julia promises “it is not a particularly difficult dish to execute.” Well, then okay, I’ll give it a go.

I read and reread the recipe for a week. Unfortunately lobster is not quite something you can give a dry run. Like studying for an exam, I plan my strategy. I invite my guinea pigs, providing full disclosure as to what this all about. The dish is built for six, but only three can make it.

“Good, I’ll keep the death toll to a minimum,” I joke.

I invite only my most foodie-freak friends. The ones who will tell me if it totally sucks. They decide to take on the challenge themselves. Aimee offers to bring an escargot appetizer. Jason pledges to make Julia’s chocolate mousse for dessert.

Suddenly this is becoming very real.

I make one side dish the night before (potato salad with radicchio and cilantro pesto), otherwise there’s not much advance prep I can do. The big day arrives.

I drag myself out of bed and hop on my bike over to Blatz Liquor to pick up the vermouth and cognac Julia calls for, as well as some wine to accompany dinner. They’re closed. I take this as a bad omen.

Running a bit behind schedule (according to the strategy in my head), I turn the bike down Broadway to the Milwaukee Public Market. First stop, Good Harvest Market. Committed to natural and organic ingredients, it’s great to have this store close to home. I pick up the required vegetables, European style butter (what better for French cooking?), and organic cream. Being a slow food proponent, I was a bit disappointed to find out that even the loose vegetables, according to the cashier, “were probably from California,” but justified as an homage to SoCal native JC.

Next, to the Spice House – one of those places that would be on my “top five first stops if I ever won the lottery.” I am excited to see that they now have “certified organic” spices and grabbed cayenne pepper and thyme. I also stock up on tarragon and dry mustard, as called for in the three-page recipe. The helpful clerk tells me other uses for the dry mustard, which was a new herb for me. Apparently I can mix it in with tuna salad or mayo for a “nice kick.”

I swing by the West Allis Cheese Shoppe to grab some shredded Sartori Parmesan, then finally, show time. I walk slowly but intently to St. Paul Fish Market and look down at my shopping list one last time.

“Three two pound lobsters please, “ I ask.

The kid behind the counter politely explains that they don’t carry any lobsters that large. Just about a pound and a quarter.

Crap. Bad omen number two.

Doing some quick math (as well as thinking about the limited cooking supplies I have at home), I opt for “four of the fattest lobsters you have.”

My four petite homards, get loaded into a long styrofoam cooler. I request they wrap it with packing tape so I can flip it vertically in my bike basket.

“I don’t want lobsters running loose on Wisconsin Avenue.”

After a precarious ride home, avoiding any spills or attacks by PETA activists privy to the massacre I will soon commit, I drop my crustacean pals off at the apartment, then head back to Blatz Liquor.

Thanks to twitter, they’re ready for me. There’s a nice small bottle of dry vermouth and I opt for brandy over the more expensive cognac. Being an “accidental Wisconsinite,” I still haven’t embraced the brandy/cognac thing and know the bottle will go unused unless I cook with it again.

After purchasing my cooking liquor, I realize I need wine pairings. The clerk assists me in selecting a Pine Ridge Chenin Blanc-Viognier blend, as well as Charles Smith’s Kung Fu Girl Reisling. I’m taken with the idea that I should have a cold beer to sip while cooking, so he directs me to a new beer, Southern Tier Brewery’s Crème Brulee Stout.

Shopping is complete. Time to really attack the task at hand.

Not ready to face reality, I call my parents as I walk into my apartment. I don’t want to tell them what’s going on, so I get 10 more minutes of avoiding reality until the fighter jets for the airshow start up and I am forced to get off the phone.

I change into my best ‘50s housewife dress and take a deep breath. It’s go time.

I start slicing and dicing my veggies. I learn from Julia the proper way to clean mushrooms (soak in a basin of cold water and rub dirt off with your fingers, drain and wash again). I cheat a little with some of my Pampered Chef gadgetry. No thin slicing when I have a food plane. I don’t want a trip to the ER and this is a good way to avoid that.

While in the prep phase I hear my friends clawing at the Styrofoam. It’s a little off-putting but I concentrate on the task at hand.

Everything is ready and I read and reread the recipe about 50 times in a minute. It just doesn’t seem right that there’s only about 4 cups of liquid in my huge canning kettle (which conveniently doubles as a lobster pot). Don’t you boil lobster?

Apparently you steam them in this case, after simmering herbs and vegetables in the water for 15 minutes prior. Things are starting to smell good in the kitchen. And I am ready to escort the little guys to Lobster Death Camp.

I successfully make it through step one. Having spent the first year of my life in Maine, I’m unfazed by the slaughter. The lobster steams to a pleasing bright red and the mushrooms I simultaneously stewed in butter look perfect as well.

All is right in the world.

Unbeknownst to me, that was the easy part.

I’m instructed to split the lobsters in two, but leave the shells intact. What sort of laser beam eye, magic powers did Julia Child have to divide lobsters? I use my biggest, sharpest knife, but there’s shell flying everywhere. I manage to salvage the tails pretty much intact. The heads/torsos are a different story. I need to remove the “sand sacks” and intestines, but I have no idea how to identify those. I end up tossing a lot of creature and am left with a shell of the shell.

I figure I’m blessed by the fact the cookbook doesn’t include photos.

At this point I can set the lobsters aside, after scraping that green oozy stuff into a “sieve” and adding to my sauce. Not quite sure what qualifies as a sieve, I use the sifter I got at IKEA. Seems to work.

Sauce time is hard. I’m supposed to reduce the mushroom juice mixed in with the lobster juice to 2 1/4 cups. How are you supposed to measure that when it’s boiling hot and in a ginormous container? I eyeball it, but only get about 1 1/4 cups. I justify this with that fact that I have skinnier lobsters. Lacking the energy or latent fraction skills to substitute other ingredients, I sally forth. The sauce gets a little chunky, but I just keep beating and adding in more cream. I feel a sense of pride using egg yolks from my CSA farm, Rare Earth, since I’ve had to neglect the local in a lot of this process. I’m happy this part includes the instructions “taste carefully for seasoning.” Although the sauce looks a little wonky, it tastes great. I’m sold on the dry mustard.

I am not sure if when Julia Child ended the sauce section with “set aside,” she meant for over an hour while you meticulously pick out lobster meat, but that’s what happens next.

I further massacre the lobster by picking the meat out of the tails and claws. I don’t have any of the lobster tools, so I use a fork, knife and my lemon hand juicer to crack the shells. After what seems like forever, I have a heaping bowl of meat, which I then cut into the arbitrary 3/8” size cubes. Seeing as most of the meat is somewhat stringy, I wing it, knowing I’m almost to the end of the tunnel.

Although by this point I’d cracked open the beer, I’d realize it would be better suited to go with dessert than to cool me off in the kitchen. Thus, I have no glass to raise when I get to the magical words “Final assembly.”

All the steps suddenly make sense. I sauté the meat in the cognac (and more butter!), fold in the mushrooms, and some of the sauce (which I reheat and add more cream to, as I’m still not sure about the consistency), and prep it to “heap into shells.” The shells seem purely decorative at this point, and although it doesn’t call for it, I clean off the pieces I have left before I put anything “into” them. Mostly it’s just “on top of,” but it looks like it’ll do. At this point I reach the magical asterisk in Julia’s recipe, which means I can put the pan in the fridge and wait to bake.

I decide to make a pitcher of lemon cucumber water before starting on my sides. I toss my potholders on the stove and go out on the balcony to pick mint and get some fresh air. I come back in and rinse the mint, a faint burning smell wafting up my nose. I turn around and see open flame. My potholders are smoldering. Apparently I was so excited to get to the asterisk, I forgot to turn off the burner.

Bad omen number three.

My friends arrive shortly. Yesh with fresh flowers, Jason with mousse and Aimee with snails. We visit and I chop the green and purple beans for a side and prep an easy summer salad and vinaigrette. While we eat our escargot, I toss the lobster in the oven and pray. I’ve already braved fire today, I just want this to turn out okay.

The timer beeps and the moment of truth arrives. The appetizer course was out of this world and I hope I’m not a disappointment. I arrange the dish on a serving platter with lemon and parsley. I feel I’d make up for the half-assed shell job. My friends are impressed when I walk into the dining room with the platter. They all dish up, while I try and finish my first course.

Then I hear it.

The mmmms. At first I think they’re being polite. But then Aimee declares:

“If I’m ever on death row, this is the last meal that I’ll request.”

The serving dish makes its way around again. I’d planned to repurpose this for lunch tomorrow, but I look over and see Jason greedily scooping seconds off the platter and Yesh sopping up every last morsel on her plate.

The omens had stopped at three. My friends were happy and my dish definitely blew my own expectations. I didn’t know that I had it in me. I’d love to challenge myself again, but I think I’d need to sleep for days before attempting another five hour kitchen marathon.

Reflecting on this project, I realized that in the past year I’ve really ramped up both my cooking and my blogging. Much of the cause has been becoming single and needing to find an outlet. Ironically, Julia Child learned to cook to please her husband. I learned to cook to please myself.

At any rate, that's the whole tale, in a nutshell.

What other culinary adventures would you like to know about? Please leave in the comments.


  1. I loved your write-up in JS - good job on the lobster! That was really brave. Please accept this as hopefully helpful, constructive type comment: there is a complete 4-page description of how to handle and cut up live lobsters in Volumen II of "Mastering..." - Julia even tells you how to tell the sex of the lobster! Just thought you'd like to know in case you ever decide to try Lobster Thermidor again! :)

  2. The lobster looked great, and I'm glad it turned out well despite all the setbacks. Sometimes, you just have to power ahead, culinarily speaking.


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