In “How I Learned to Cook” I mentioned that one of the two cookbooks I owned was Julia Child’s The French Chef Cookbook. As I read through the book looking for recipes that I could prepare in a tiny kitchen with no oven, I also noted recipes that I wanted to try in a “real” kitchen: a place with counter space, a gas stove, and an oven. It wasn’t until 1984 that I wound up living in a house with a proper kitchen, so I would guess that I first attempted this recipe in the spring of 1985. It soon became my go-to dish for impressing girlfriends with my mad chef skillz.
“Pork Dinner for Four in Half an Hour” was the sixty-second show in Julia’s legendary series, which places its date of creation no later than 1966, 40 years before “thirty minute meals” became standard household fare. But this wasn’t some simple two course pasta-and-a-salad throwaway — check out the menu:
Vichyssiose á la Russe
Sauté de Porc aux Champignons
Risotto a la Piémontaise
Poires au Gratin
The entire set of recipes takes up only three pages including this introduction:
To prepare this three-course dinner in half an hour, start with the dessert, which takes longest to cook. The rice and veal are carried on simultaneously, and while they finish cooking, the soup is assembled. The green salad needs no recipe.
(Take that, Rachel Ray!)
I have never cooked this entire recipe, choosing to drop the dessert and soup in favor of adding a cooked green vegetable to replace the salad. The pears are sliced and baked in a sauce made from apricot jam, the soup is out of the can and modified with garnishes of beets and sour cream, so I never felt too bad about omitting them. (Canned vichyssoise became persona non grata in supermarkets when botulism was detected in cans of Bon Vivant vichyssoise in 1971.)
Even with the omissions, and allowing for an hour of prep work, I was never able to complete this recipe in under an hour. The hollandaise alone took 15 minutes to make. Did I forget to mention hollandiase sauce? It’s considered a component of the pork, unworthy of a menu listing.
It’s difficult to remember how scarce decent ingredients were in a supermarket as late as 1985. Things we take for granted now — fresh herbs, specialty cuts of meat, seasonal vegetables — were rare or completely unavailable to a bachelor on a budget. The risotto recipe calls for “unwashed raw white rice,” not arborio or carnaroli. The pork should ideally be cut from whole tenderloins, but the more commonly available boneless pork loin chops were allowed. Canned mushrooms are listed instead of fresh.
When the cookbook was reissued for the first time in hardcover, I bought a copy to replace my battered and staned paperback. Reading through the book again, I decided to give the recipe another try. This time would be different: I had pork tenderloin, real risotto rice, homemade stock, fresh mushrooms, free-range eggs, local organic butter, and twenty-four more years of cooking skills. Julia, bring it on!
I took half an hour to prep eevrything, including bringing stock to a simmer for the risotto. Here’s what I started with:
Sliced white mushrooms, arborio rice, chicken stock, white wine (the recipe calls for vermouth — back in ’66 vermouth was more commonly available to a home cook than a decent white wine), butter, two egg yolks, scallions (although I’m sure if they were more readily available shallots would have been used), garlic, herbs de provence, and pork tederloin cut into medallions and pounded to 1/2 inch thick.
I started with the risotto, which had to be prepared with three additions of stock instead of the usual ladleful at a time. While the rice simmered, I sauteed the mushrooms and the pork in separate pans. Once the pork was browned, I lowered the heat and continued cooking for another 7 minutes. Says Julia: “During this period you will have time to mind the rice, chop scallions and parsley, and assemble the soup.” I minded the rice, then added the mushrooms, scallions, herbs, and wine, continuing to cook until reduced by half.
I made one last addition of stock and finished the rice. I also started a pot of water boiling to steam the green beans.
With the rice and pork ready and waiting, I turned my attention to making the hollandaise. I beat the egg yolks with a splash of the wine and 1/2 tablespoon of butter before gradually adding the reduced meat cooking liquid. I had to be careful to add very slowly, or the heat would curdle the yolks. I thought I had curdling at the start, you can see that it’s grainy:
I stirred the mixture over very low heat until the yolks thickened, then added the rest of the butter by tablespoonfuls, stirring the entire time:
With the sauce finished, I steamed the beans until crunchy, about four minutes, while I assembled the final dish (on the oh-so-cool rectangular plates):
The dish tasted as I remembered it, perhaps a bit more refined. The creamy risotto was a big change from the pilaf that resulted from the old white rice attempts. The hollandaise was smoother and thicker, also an improvement from previous thin attempts. The flavors went together well, with the herbs adding some sweetness to the pork. I think the dish could use some acid, perhaps a splash of lemon juice in the hollandaise.
Time from start to finish? 45 minutes, and I was rushing. Having to wait for the wine to reduce before starting the sauce was a rate-limiting step, as was the sauce prep. I might have been a bit timid with the heat when thickening the yolks, but whisking in all the butter took a solid five minutes. This just convinced me that Julia was an enlightened cooking master; she could probably bang out a completed hollandaise in ten minutes.
I learned a lot about cooking during my first attempts at this recipe:
- Never prepare a hollandaise in an aluminum pot.
- Always use unsalted butter; you can add salt later but you can’t subtract it.
- Canned mushrooms taste like the can.
- Be aggressive with the heat during browning, but gentle for the cook-through.
- Taste everything at every step, season strongly.
- Timing, timing, timing.
I’ll probably continue to make this dish once a year; I’m sure I have a few more things to learn.