The first thing that happens if you walk into Judith Jones's kitchen, umbrella-less and rain-soaked as I was one recent afternoon, is you get a thorough knees-down licking from her Havanese puppy, Mabon. Then Judith offers you a warm kitchen towel from the rung of her Garland stove to dry off. It's an unusual welcome.
For my part, the entrance was anything but graceful. I self-consciously hunched over my rain boots, slipping them off, not taking my gaze off all the details of the room, and toppled over. How could I not? My eyes, like saucers, were busy scanning the French copper pots, peg-boards straight from Julia Child, the apothecary of beans, grains and spices, the industrial stove visibly etched with history.
It's a modestly-sized room at the top of an apartment on Manhattan's Upper East Side where one little lady and her fluffy white dog are living a piece of food history. It is all at once ordinary and remarkably unique.
Judith Jones is best known for her work as the editor of many of Julia Child's books, including Mastering the Art of French Cooking (Knopf, 1961) which celebrates its fiftieth anniversary this week. She has worked at Alfred A. Knopf, Inc since 1957 where she is now Senior Editor and Vice-President. In addition to Child, Jones worked closely with other luminaries of the food world like James Beard, Marion Cunningham, Marcella Hazan, Madhur Jaffrey, Edna Lewis, Joan Nathan, and Claudia Roden. She is famous for rescuing The Diary of Anne Frank from the rejects pile. She was also John Updike's longtime editor.
Judith is also an author, most recently of the cookbook, The Pleasures of Cooking for One (Knopf, 2009), written after her husband Evan died. These days, she finds she's cooking for one most nights of the week, but often sharing a little of what she makes with Mabon.
It's one of those great New York apartment stories. The kitchen hasn't changed much since 1970, when Judith and her husband Evan bought the co-op where Judith actually grew up and together they updated the space. They modeled the kitchen somewhat on Julia's kitchen, but also made it expressive of Judith and Evan as a cooking couple. They kept the tall cabinets that reflected the bygone-days design of a 1900s kitchen intended for relegated kitchen staff, but added extra counter-space so they could stay out of each other's way. It is, above all things, practical.
I was hard-pressed to find much in Judith's kitchen that appeared to come from any of the catalogs that jam most of our mailboxes. Everything is heavy-duty and well-used without being fussy. Judith says what she resents about most home kitchens is that they cut corners. Cooking for one is no reason to skimp. Close to ninety years old, she's still sharpening all her carbon-steel knives.
After taking my hand and leading me through decades of memories, Judith snapped into action and said it was time to eat. We'd make a proper omelet. In the refrigerator she found green onions and mushrooms, stored in her trademark glass-jar method. "They last forever! Well, no, you don't want them to last forever."
We shared this simple plate of food — one plate, one fork — while Judith described to me one of many memorable meals she had in the kitchen. It was with Julia Child and her husband, Paul. Judith remembered what a great baguette he made there. I wasn't sure if the tear in my eye came from the stories she told, or the fact that she was physically feeding me; a woman who never had children but is responsible for enriching the way millions of people experience one of the most deep — and I would argue maternal — joys possible, feeding someone.
As I wiped bits of omelete from the corner of my mouth, I looked down and realized that during my visit Mabon had chewed a hole in the bottom of my book bag, giving me a scrap book souvenir far more precious than any ticket stub or autograph. But the real memory was simply taking in this space, this living museum of food history, this humble kitchen where meals happen day after day, for whoever passes through, and whoever stays put.
(From The Pleasures of Cooking for One, by Judith Jones)
Don't let yourself be frightened at the prospect of making an omelet. The more you make, the easier it will be, and it only takes minutes to produce a seductive oval mound of yellow eggs wrapped around a filling that provides just the right complement. An omelet can make a whole meal and is a great receptacle for whatever little bits of things you've stored in your fridge. So I'll give only proportions and suggestions for various fillings, not specific directions for preparing each one. That way, you can use mine as guidelines to make your own. It is important to have a good nonstick omelet pan. Mine is 6½ inches in diameter at the base and 8 inches across the top, the size I like for a two- egg omelet, and I reserve it for only that purpose. If you prefer a slightly thinner, more spread-out omelet, get a pan with an 8-inch bottom diameter.
WHAT YOU NEED
About 3 tablespoons filling (see suggestions below)
2 teaspoons butter
2 large eggs
Salt and freshly ground pepper
If the filling you plan to use is cooked, either heat it up in the omelet pan with a little butter or olive oil and then turn it out onto a small dish and keep it in a warm spot, or heat it briefly in the microwave. If you're dealing with raw ingredients that need cooking, use a separate pan, and have everything cooked and ready to go as you start your omelet.
When you're ready, heat the butter in the omelet pan over medium-high heat. Meanwhile, quickly crack the eggs into a small bowl, season with a good pinch of salt and several grindings of pepper, and beat with a fork until the yolks and whites are just blended. The butter in the pan should be hot and sizzling, and as the large bubbles start to subside, you'll know you're ready to go. Pour the eggs in, and let them set for just 10 seconds.
With the flat of your fork against the bottom of the pan, vigorously move the mass of eggs all around. Let them set again for just another few seconds, and then with the tines of the fork pull the parts of the egg that have set around the rim toward the center, and tilt the pan slightly so that the uncooked, liquidy parts flow onto the bare spots and set. This whole process should take only about 1 minute. Now spoon the filling across the center of the eggs, and give the pan a very firm jerk or two, so that the egg mass at the far edge of the pan flips forward onto the filling (you can nudge it with a spatula if it needs help). Turn the omelet out onto a warm plate, letting the filled part settle on the plate first, and then tilt the pan further and flip the remaining, uncovered part over the top. And, voilá, you have a perfect omelet. And if it isn't quite perfection, tant pis. Only you will know--and it will taste delicious.
Ideas for Omelet Fillings
• A few leftover cooked asparagus spears cut in quarters and warmed in butter
• Leftover cooked spinach or other greens, such as Swiss chard,
turnip, or beet greens, warmed in a little olive oil
• Eggplant, particularly leftover ratatouille
• Roasted peppers
• Mushrooms, sautéed, or use a couple of tablespoons of duxelles
• One or two roasted or boiled small potatoes, particularly good with cooked leeks or artichoke hearts or sorrel
• Cheeses: A tablespoon of fresh cheese is always a nice complement to any of the above vegetables. Grated aged cheeses like Cheddar, Gouda, Cantal, Parmigiano- Reggiano, or a Grana Padano (just look in your cheese bin and see what's there) are all yummy as an accent with other fillings. Mix and match as you please, or make just a pure
cheese omelet, sprinkling some on top as well as using a generous amount as filling.
• Meaty and fishy accents: Try a little shredded ham or prosciutto, cooked crumbled sausage, roughly chopped chicken livers, creamed chicken, or turkey. For fishy accents, if you have some leftover salmon, flake it and mix with some herbs or a little green sauce; shrimp and scallops, perked up the same way, are also good. Bland fish is disappointing, but smoked fish — salmon, trout, finnan haddie — all make a fine foil for eggs.
Excerpted from The Pleasures of Cooking for One by Judith Jones. Copyright © 2009 by Judith Jones. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
• The Pleasures of Cooking for One by Judith Jones (Amazon, $15.98)
• Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child, Louisette Bertholle and Simone Beck (Amazon, $21.64)
• Mastering the Art of French Cooking Comes to the eBook (Kindle, NOOK, iPad, etc, $19.99)
Related: Rhiannon's Jadeite Jewel of a Kitchen
(Images: Sabra Krock)