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Julia McWilliams Child was born one hundred years ago today.  In my opinion, this should be a national holiday dedicated to the pleasures of the table and our culinary history.  Smith College always celebrates its famous alumna on Julia Child Day, the Thursday before Thanksgiving.  Every dining hall and the campus center features different recipes from Julia.  Some of my fondest college memories are from roaming from one Julia venue to another and another, stuffing myself to the point of gluttony and leaving little appetite for the less exciting Thanksgiving table to follow in a few days (we used to call the span of time from Julia Child Day to Thanksgiving “Fat Week”).

Unfortunately, my work and campaign schedule leaves me little time to devote to doing anything elaborate to celebrate her birthday.  So I shall celebrate by treating myself to her newest biography, “Dearie,” just published by Bob Spitz, and by enjoying some of her good basic everyday recipes like Salad Nicoise, an improvised Peche Clafoutis using peaches instead of cherries, and her favorite chocolate cake.

This is the perfect time of the year for Julia’s favorite main-course salad, Salad Nicoise.  The new potatoes are in season, the green beans are plentiful, and the tomatoes are finally turning red.  I like to use tiny new yellow potatoes that can skinned just by a vigorous brushing and cooked in just a few minutes.  My Mother’s garden is filled with delicious little haricots vertes.  She plants Taverna, Maxibel, and Fortex beans to harvest when thin and about six inches long.  And her Sun Gold and Sun Sugar cherry tomatoes are huge this year.

This recipe is from one of my favorite (if there can be such) books of hers, “Julia’s Kitchen Wisdom, Essential Techniques and Recipes from a Lifetime of Cooking.”

This little book, published a few years before she died, is a distillation of pure Julia and is always perfect to give as an introductory gift to someone who is not already a fan of hers.

Salad Nicoise

  • 1 large head of Boston or Summer Crisp lettuce, washed and dried
  • 1 pound of green beans, cooked 4 to 5 minutes in a large pot of rapidly boiling water
  • 1 ½  Tbs minced shallots or ¼ very thinly sliced sweet onion (optional)
  • ½ to 2/3 cup basic vinaigrette
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper
  • 3 to 4 ripe red tomatoes, cut into wedges (or 10 to 12 cherry tomatoes, halved)
  • 1 ½ pounds potatoes, peeled, sliced and cooked
  • 2 3-ounce cans oil packed canned tuna or ½ pound leftover fish like salmon
  • 6 hard-boiled eggs, peeled and halved
  • 1 freshly opened can of anchovy fillets (optional)
  • 1/3 cup small black Nicoise or Kalamata olives
  • 2 to 3 Tbs capers
  • 3 Tbs minced parsley

Arrange the lettuce leaves on a large platter.  Shortly before serving, toss the beans and the potatoes separately with the onion or shallots, several spoonfuls of the vinaigrette and salt and pepper.  Baste the tomatoes with a spoonful of vinaigrette.  Place the potatoes in the center of the platter and arrange a mound of beans at either end, with tomatoes and small mounds of tuna at strategic intervals.  Ring the platter with halves of hard-boiled eggs, sunny side up, and curl an anchovy on top of each.  Spoon more vinaigrette over all; scatter on olives, capers, and parsley, and serve.

Julia Child's 90th Birthday and her blowing out birthday candles. Picture from the SF Chronicle.

Julia Child’s 90th Birthday. Picture from the SF Chronicle.

And because it is Julia’s birthday I have another Julia recipe to share. This one is taken directly from her writing and has no embellishments from me. Below is Julia Child’s favorite chocolate cake “La Reine de Saba—the Queen of Sheba Chocolate Almond Cake.”

From Julia Child: La Reine de Saba—the Queen of Sheba Chocolate Almond Cake

“My favorite chocolate cake.  For an 8 by 1 ½ inch cake, serving 6 to 8.  Preheat oven to 350 degrees F, set rack in lower-middle level, and prepare cake pan.  Measure out ½ cup sifted plain bleached cake flour and 1/3 cup …pulverized almonds… Using an electric mixer, cream 1 stick butter with ½ cup sugar; when fluffy, one at a time beat in 3 egg yolks.  Meanwhile, melt 3 ounces semi-sweet chocolate and 1ounce bitter chocolate with 2 tablespoons dark rum or strong coffee…, and stir the warm chocolate into the yolks.  Beat 3 egg whites into stiff, shining peaks…and stir a quarter of them into the yolks.  Rapidly and delicately fold in the rest, alternating with sprinklings of almonds and siftings of flour.  Turn at once into the prepared pan and bake about 25 minutes, until it has puffed to the top of the pan but the center moves slightly when gently shaken.

Let cool 15 minutes before unmolding.  This type of cake is always at its best at room temperature.  Serve with a dusting of confectioners’ sugar…”

So without further ado: Happy birthday, dear Julia.

Toujours bon appétit!

Also because PBS brought Julia Child into our lives through their TV programming I feel the need to remind everyone that tomorrow is Maine Public Broadcasting Network’s “Super Thursday” One Day Pledge Drive. Instead of taking up the airwaves with a week of pledge drives MPBN is trying to do it in one day. Please consider donating tomorrow to help them meet their funding goal. For more information check out their site: http://www.mpbn.net/Support/DonatetoMPBN/SuperThursdayOneDayPledgeDrive.aspx