`From Julia Child's Kitchen' by the great culinary teacher, Julia Child, is an account of the recipes from the second major PBS `The French Chef' series, filmed in color in the WGBH Boston studios, just as the book, `The French Chef' covers recipes from the very first black and white series of shows. These two books have probably been lost in the shadows of the monumental two volume `Mastering the Art of French Cooking' and the later `The Way to Cook' and Child's collaboration with Jacques Pepin and Dorrie Greenspan on baking. Since this book is so much in the shadow of other works, I half expected to find a few traces of clay feet on the great Julia. Let me assure you that I did not. This book is every inch as delightful and informative and insightful as every other culinary work from Ms. Julia and her various collaborators. In fact, this book is so good, it is almost a crime that it should be available from a Random House discount label rather than its original imprimatur from Alfred A. Knopf (a Random House subsidiary).
The very most important fact to learn from this book is, as Ms. Child says, that it is `self-contained'. Essentially, that means there is nothing for which you have to go searching for in one of her earlier books, such as how to make a veloute sauce or how to coddle an egg. Next in importance is that while the book is heavily based on the French cuisine, it is a bit more strongly oriented to American tastes and methods than the classic `Mastering...'. Less important to the average cook, but of great importance to me is the insight Ms. Child gives to the task of learning cooking and of becoming an accomplished cook.
I find it an enormous irony that the while Julia Child created the modern American archetype of how to write a good recipe AND there have been writers such as Diane Jacob (author of `Will Write for Food') who does not see the point of writing recipes in any other way, Julia states that an experienced cook can, in fact, successfully execute a recipe which has nothing more than a simple narrative outline of what the cook is to do, much as Ms. Child's famous British contemporary, Elizabeth David did in her first work, `A Book of Mediterranean Food'. And, this `alternative' style of recipe writing and philosophy of cooking education is popular with some very good English food writers, especially Nigel Slater (`Appetite', `Kitchen Diaries'). So, even though Julia Child, throughout all her books, gives us very detailed recipes, she is all in favor of internalizing cooking principles and striking off on one's own.
One upshot of this is that this book is a really excellent text for a cooking class. Not only are all recipes explained in great detail, but lots and lots of reasons why things work the way they do are given, without ever dipping into technical scientific language, and having to apologize for that fact. So, we find Julia Child to be the mother of not only mainstream culinary writing, but also of the brand of culinary explanation done so well by Shirley Corriher and Alton Brown. And, she even does a better job on some matters than his nibs, Alton!
My favorite chapter for evaluating cookbooks, if there is one, is the chapter on egg cookery. This is because there are so many egg dishes that are virtually all about technique. Leading the list is the classic French omelet, except that Ms. Julia reveals the rather obscure fact that there is no one French omelet recipe. There are at least three, and she gives us instructions for all, but giving the most attention to the classic Parisian style typically done with a minimum of egg beating, lots of butter, and a flattish iron pan. She actually starts this chapter with a very long discussion on the ins and outs of making a good hard-boiled egg. I have known for a long time that there are two major schools of hard-boiled egg cookery. There are those who instruct us to pierce the eggs with a pin and dip them into boiling water and there are those who tell us to put the room temperature eggs into cold water, bring them to a boil, and let them sit in hot water for a certain time. Ms. Julia recommends the first (most famously advocated by Mark Bittman) and refers to the second method as `coddling', although the two methods produce virtually identical results, except that the second method takes a bit longer. Julia does not cover every possible egg dish, and yet for those she does cover, she does a better job than any other I have read, including those found in `the good egg', a book by Marie Simmons, dedicated entirely to the egg cookery.
There are several other surprises in this book. It includes, for example, a complete survey of techniques for separating oil from water, including one incredibly effective technique using a simple piece of chemical equipment called a separatory funnel. I am totally amazed that my hero Alton has never gotten around to demonstrating this technique.
This may not be the very best cooking textbook ever written (I think Madeleine Kamman's `The New Making of a Chef' may be somewhat better), but it is written with such charm and it is so cheap that it would appeal to even the most thrifty and most word weary students imaginable. It is especially delightful to see Ms. Child having no reservations about using modern cooking aids. I am even surprised to find her using a gadget for poaching eggs instead of using the purist's approach of laying the raw egg into swirling water.
This is a superb first cookbook for new cooks with all of the insights and few of the `haute cuisine' patina of Julia Child's better-known works. (I agree with other reviewer that pics are poor, but its the words that really count here).