When Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking hit the top of the charts last fall (thanks to the movie Julie & Julia), I felt a wave of nostalgia. Years ago, I’d taught myself to cook from that book, as its spattered pages and broken spine can testify. But I wondered how many of its new readers are actually tackling those recipes. All that butter, cream, bacon—and egg yolks! Did I really eat like that?
I did. I spent hours over the stove cooking luxurious, calorie-laden meals for my dinner parties: a creamy veal blanquette with pearl onions and mushrooms; coq au vin in a rich, dark red sauce laced with chunks of bacon; warm chocolate soufflé topped with whipped cream. I even experimented with a suckling pig. Julia recommended soaking it in cold water for several hours. I put mine in the bathtub overnight, and the next day it looked like a bloated corpse. The pig was too big for the oven and I had to cut it in half with a saw.
I’ve had no desire to roast a suckling pig since, but I do miss the days when my friends and I cooked without a thought for our waistlines or our cholesterol. So I decided to revisit some of those classic dishes and see whether I could lighten them up without compromising their taste and integrity. I wasn’t going to use horrible substitutions (such as the ones I found for a “healthy” shepherd’s pie: instant potatoes, frozen soy protein crumbles and fat-free Cheddar cheese). I simply wanted to create versions that would be easier on the conscience (and the heart) and more in tune with the way we eat today [see all the recipes here].
I began with a veal blanquette. Child’s recipe uses four tablespoons of butter, five tablespoons of flour, three egg yolks and nearly three quarters of a cup of heavy cream. So much for “French women don’t get fat,” I thought to myself as I read the list of ingredients—how about “a French woman digs her grave with a fork”? Looking through my cookbooks, I found a well-used copy of Michel Guérard’s Cuisine Minceur. When it was first published back in 1976, it caused a sensation: Butter and cream were the backbone of French sauces, but this famous French chef had magically cut the calories with vegetable purees and other low-fat substitutions. Instead of heavy cream, he used a blend of ricotta cheese and plain yogurt. I tried this in my veal blanquette and it was every bit as delicious as the fattening dish I used to make.
So was the coq au vin, which didn’t suffer from having all the bacon fat poured off (I used lean pancetta, unsmoked Italian bacon) or from skipping the butter entirely. Instead of button mushrooms, I used cremini mushrooms because they have more flavor.
Next came a real test: sole à la Normande, one of the most glorious overindulgences of French cuisine. It gets its name, of course, from the part of the country known for its butter, cream and cheese. It took me a couple of tries to get the sauce right for my simplified version. Guérard’s blended ricotta was too much for the delicate fish, so I gave in and used a small amount of cream with white wine. Not exactly a diet dish, but much lighter than the usual recipe, which calls for flour and loads of butter.
French food wasn’t my only challenge. One day I watched a chef in an Italian restaurant kitchen put his finishing touches on an order of risotto. He took the pan off the heat and, using a ladle, scooped up at least a quarter of a pound of butter and dumped it onto the rice. “It’s the butter that makes it good!” he said, stirring vigorously in the last step, called the mantecatura. He grated Parmesan cheese on top, spooned the risotto into a shallow bowl and handed it to me. I must admit that risotto was one of the best I’ve ever had.