The Julie & Julia Challenge
Lobster Thermidor isn't Child's PlayOne Emerald Coast resident dons an apron and accepts the challenge of cooking an authentic French recipe
By Zandra Wolfgram
Long before Julia Child inspired the movie “Julie & Julia” (recently released on DVD), she inspired many American bon vivants to try their oven-mitted hands at the art of French cooking. Emerald Coast Magazine invited its readers to prepare one of the master chef’s recipes.
Bridget Richard, a television producer for Cox in Fort Walton Beach, stepped up to the plate, so to speak. The local-programming producer loves to cook. But beyond the cupcakes she brings to the staff at the TV station, Richard doesn’t get a lot of opportunities to show off her culinary skills.
“I cook at home once or twice a week,” she says. “When I do cook, I always try something interesting with what I have available in my cabinets.”
Here is the blog from Richard, the adventurous “French for a day” gourmet, who set out to tame Child’s daunting Lobster Thermidor one recipe step at a time.
Oct. 15, 2010
I thumbed through my mother’s Julia Child cookbook, “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” and thought the Lobster Thermidor looked unique, challenging and yummy!
Nov. 1, 2010, 1 p.m.
Surprisingly, I only had to make one trip to the grocery store for normal ingredients — nothing I had to search very hard for or couldn’t pronounce. The fun part about the grocery trip was picking out the live lobsters at Publix. I didn’t want to spend too much money, so I only purchased two lobsters weighing about 1 ½ pounds each. Julia’s recipe calls for three live lobsters weighing 2 pounds each. The recipe also calls for three cups of dry white wine, so I grabbed an inexpensive bottle from the wine section.
I decided to take this cooking challenge at my parents’ house because they have a fully loaded kitchen. Two live lobsters, a Julia Child cookbook and me. I could have made my own reality TV show. I needed back-up, so my mother and I, aprons on and whisks in hand, began the journey of mastering the art of French cooking.
The first task was to cook the lobsters in wine and water along with an onion, carrot, celery stick, bay leaf, thyme, peppercorns and tarragon. I assumed I’d have to boil them, but after reading the recipe a few times it dawned on me that I had to steam the lobsters. Now I was nervous. I was thinking it would be a quick and painless death being dropped straight into boiling water. Thankfully the lobsters seemed to be quite out of it. Maybe they were blissfully drunk from all the wine in the pot. They didn’t move or make a peep after I put them in the steamer pot. Whew! My first step completed.
While the little critters were cooking, I took a saucepan and cooked mushrooms in butter and lemon. The recipe said to “stew” the mushrooms. I didn’t know exactly what that meant. I grabbed my iPhone and found out it means to slow-cook something. So far, so good. The recipe was pretty easy at this point. I figured I could knock the recipe out within an hour, but that turned out not to be the case …
After steaming the lobsters for 20 minutes, they had to cool. In the down time, my mom and I opened another bottle of wine to enjoy while we cooked. As the lobsters were cooling, I put the mushrooms into the steamer pot with the lobster juices — my first mistake. The recipe directs you to pour the mushroom juices into the lobster juices. So I had to pick out all of the mushrooms from the pot. I still don’t really understand why the recipe only calls for adding the mushroom juices to the pot. Mom explained that we were making a stock, something the recipe didn’t explain very well. I thought we’d strain the lobster juices into a bowl, pitch it then keep all the fixings in the strainer. Actually we did just the opposite. In order to make the sauce for the lobster, we first had to begin with a flavorful stock. So the important part was the flavored water, and the rest went in the garbage.
After learning about stocks from my mother, I proceeded to the best part — dissecting the lobsters. The lobster shells had to be split in a very particular way, because they would serve as the dish for the lobster meat and sauce. A good pair of scissors was a must; the shells were pretty tough to cut through. I needed help keeping them straight; the tail wanted to curl up, so Mom held them down while I split them in two. Lobster juices spilled all over the place.
Inside the lobster was a coral-colored sac along with some green stuff, which Julia refers to as “coral and green matter.” These I had to save for the sauce; the rest of the lobster was discarded except for the meat. The lobster meat pulled right out of the shell. I cut it up into small cubes. Julia doesn’t mention anything about the claws in the recipe. I figured she must have left them intact for the presentation of the meal, but I wasn’t going to waste lobster, so I got all the meat I could out of these little guys.
At this point I was pretty tired and ready to wrap up this recipe. Cutting the lobsters open was a lot of work. I took a sip of wine, regrouped and moved on to my next step.
The sauce was three parts. I began with melting butter, mixing flour into it, and slowly adding the lobster juices, aka stock, to the flour and butter mixture and then set it to the side. Next, the coral and green matter had to be rubbed through a sieve. I had no idea what a sieve was, nor did I own one. (Thankfully Mom had one in her kitchen.) I then took a mixing bowl and blended egg yolks, cream and the coral and green matter together. I slowly beat the sauce into this mixture by driblets. The sauce thickened and was complete. I was so happy to be near the end of my challenge!
I finished sautéing the lobster meat in a little cognac, added the meat to the sauce, filled the lobster tails and baked them for 15 minutes.
My parents and I enjoyed my first Julia Child experiment. The Lobster Thermidor was very good — rich and definitely filling — a hit!
Looking back … I would have had an easier time with the recipe if I had first thumbed through the cookbook to get a feel for how Julia cooked. I’ve since read the cookbook and find the Foreword to be especially helpful, with tips and advice from Julia explaining how to read the recipes. The more I read through the cookbook, the easier the recipes come to me.
Next time, I’d like to pair with it a nice steak, or as Julia would say, Bifteck Sauté Au Beurre. I’ll also remember to buy the right wine. Being French and cooking a French recipe, I should have known to buy a bottle of French wine for cooking. Something I’ve learned for my next “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” endeavor.
Laissez les bon temps rouler!