Julie Powell notwithstanding, most cooks discovering Julia Child’s recipes for the first time seem mysteriously drawn to the most labor-intensive and luxurious among them. Apparently, this isn’t strictly a modern phenomenon: In his entertaining book The United States of Arugula, David Kamp recounts this very same thing happening when Child’s first book debuted, poking gentle fun at those who “deliberately chose the most difficult [recipes] to execute when company was coming.”
Among these over-the-top creations, Kamp makes much of the overwrought dish known as Veau Prince Orloff, “a display piece consumptive of enough time and money to garner status.” I looked up the offending recipe in my own copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and felt a little queasy: The damned thing goes on for three full pages and contains — I kid you not — no less than a dozen sub-recipes.
Luckily for those of us who don’t have days to spend in the kitchen, Julia’s chef d’oeuvre also offers up simple recipes in spades. Scattered among the aspics and the suprêmes and the canard a l’orange lies a wide assortment of bistro classics and a fair number of recipes that rise no higher than the cuisine de bonne femme of everyday French households. Kamp recounts Julia herself choosing the simple potage Parmentier as the book’s first recipe “so that her audience would not be intimdated.”
When I pull out my Grandpa‘s battered copy of Mastering, these are the sorts of recipes I crave: The Provençale garlic soup, the mushroom quiche, the steak au poivre. So when Lisa at Champaign Taste proposed her second-annual blog party to honor the 95th anniversary of Julia’s birth, I knew right away the sort of dish I’d share. Sure, it’s not going to win any beauty contests, but it’s a delicious and satisfying plate full of seasonal flavors with a subtle French flair.
Julia recommends serving this humble “Ham Slices Baked with Tomatoes, Onions and Peppers” alongside her sauteed potatoes — and really, folks, how can you pass that up that kind of good advice? While I prepped the piperade, Cameron peeled a pound of baby spuds and trimmed them to roughly the same size, browned them in butter and oil, then covered them to steam until tender. Along with a bottle of French rosé, they were the perfect foil for the tangy, salty richness of the ham. We raised our glasses to the warbly voiced girl from Pasadena, and counted ourselves truly lucky to have lived in her era.
Jambon en Pipérade
- adapted from Mastering the Art of French Cooking
Cook’s note: Julia simply calls for “peeled, seeded, juiced and sliced” tomatoes; I’ve complicated matters a bit by explaining how you get there. If you dispense with peeling your own tomatoes and opt for good quality whole canned tomatoes — like Muir Glen — you’ll need 2-1/2 cups of tomato pulp plus about 3/4 cup of their juice. Go this route and this simple dish can be on the table in less than 45 minutes.
2 pounds cooked ham, sliced 1/2-inch thick
1 to 2 T bacon fat or olive oil
1 cup sliced yellow onions
1 cup sliced green bell peppers
2 pounds firm, ripe, red tomatoes
2 cloves garlic, mashed
1/8 tsp pepper
pinch of cayenne pepper
1/4 tsp fresh thyme
2 T minced parsley
Preheat the oven to 350°. Meanwhile, bring a saucepan of water to a boil.
While the water heats, prepare an ice-water bath in a large bowl. Peel the tomatoes by scoring an ‘x’ in the bottom of each, then dropping into the boiling water. When the skin begins to peel away from the ‘x’, remove from the pan with a slotted spoon, and drop each tomato in the ice-water bath. When cool enough to handle, remove the tomato and peel off the skin. Proceed with the remaining tomatoes until all are peeled.
Cut each tomato in half, and remove any hard core or stem section. Squeeze the juice and seeds out of the fruit, reserving on the edges of the cutting board (or in a bowl if they become overwhelming). Slice the squeezed tomato flesh into regular pieces. Set aside the tomato flesh and the tomato seeds/juice separately.
Trim any excess fat off the ham, and dry each slice on paper towels. Heat the fat in your largest skillet until it is almost smoking; then brown the ham for a minute or two on each side. Remove ham from skillet and place in a shallow baking dish large enough to hold the ham in one layer. (A slight overlap is fine.)
Lower the heat and stir the onion slices into the fat. Cook over medium-low heat for 5 minutes. Stir in the peppers and cook 5 minutes more, or until the vegetables are soft but not browned.
Place the tomato pulp over the onions and pepper, and continue to cook over medium-low heat. While this is happening, scoop the tomato seeds and juice, along with any seed jelly, into a strainer, and add the strained liquid to the skillet.
Push the solids to one side of the pan, and tilt the skillet to allow the liquids to gather on the now-empty half of the pan. Arrange the skillet off-center on the burner so that the juice side of the pan is directly over the flame, and the vegetables are further away. Simmer until the juices become minimal, stirring everything together and re-dividing every few minutes, to make sure that the juices reduce without overcooking the vegetables.
When the tomato juice has almost evaporated, stir it back into the vegetables and cover the browned ham slices with the mixture. Cover the baking pan with foil, and place in the preheated oven. Cook for 20 to 30 minutes, until the ham is heated through and tender. Baste with juices in the dish, then correct seasoning if necessary. Garnish with chopped parsley, and serve with sauteed potatoes.