Phyllis & Julia

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Several weeks ago, I wrote about two meals etched in my memory. I waited to write about the unusual Moroccan feast until I saw "Julie & Julia," Nora Ephron’s splendidly delicious film about Julia Child’s life in France and Julie Powell, a 30-year-old resident of Queens, N.Y., who cooked her way through every recipe in the famed chef’s "Mastering the Art of French Cooking."

Meryl Streep (cue Oscar nomination) played Julia so brilliantly, I truly believed she was the French chef and not simply an actress.

Go see the film on an empty stomach, as you’ll want to dine, laugh, drink wine and chat about it afterwards with friends and family.

I think I may be the only current Philadelphia restaurant critic who met and spent time with Julia. This is where the Moroccan feast comes in.

A number of years ago, my friend Esther (pronounced "Astaire") Press McManus cooked a dinner in honor of Child. I was the only reporter there, although I think Esther invited me as a friend.

Esther’s culinary background is influenced by where she lived. Born in Morocco to Jewish parents, on her father’s side she can trace numerous rabbis going back to the Inquisition. The family moved to Marseilles, then to Tel Aviv. Esther married an American and came to Philadelphia. She taught Georges Perrier how to make pasta and baked croissants on television with Julia.

At the time of the party, Esther and her husband, Charlie, lived in a large, four-story townhouse on Spruce Street that once housed the French consulate. The kitchen was in the basement and included a Roper stove circa World War II. Esther cooked each dish herself, roasting two legs of lamb, creating a number of side dishes, including beets and Moroccan carrots, salads and several b’steeya, a kin to a pie. The latter is made with phyllo and filled with shredded chicken, ground almonds and spices. The dish is baked until the crust turns golden brown, then it’s dusted with confectioners’ sugar and cinnamon.

By the way, Esther makes her own phyllo dough, a feat in itself. I have watched her do this and can tell you I would never attempt it.

Since I met Julia once before, I looked forward to a nice long chat and becoming reacquainted. A small group, including Perrier, Jean-Marie LaCroix, Peter Gilmore and Fritz Blank, mingled with Julia in a comfortable, antique-filled room upstairs. LaCroix, who is my neighbor, poured me a flute of Champagne. I sat down next to Julia and reintroduced myself.

She was the kind of woman who could best be described as what you see is what you get. She was 6-foot-2, funny, honest and vivacious with the joie de vie viewers saw whenever she was on television.

French food was the joy of her life, along with her husband, Paul. She was not a food snob. She loved tuna salad sandwiches, burgers and lobster rolls. She told me people should drink any kind of wine they like. It should enhance the food and vice versa. She would sit down to dinner and say, "what are we drinking? Red or white?" For Julia, it didn’t matter.

As we talked, Julia and I watched, in semi-horror, as Perrier topped off his flute of champagne with Perrier water. We nibbled on almonds and olives, as Esther did not want any of us to fill up before the "main event."

Julia and I went into the dining room where the large buffet was set up. We watched Gilmore carve the lamb with the skill of a surgeon. At the time, he was Perrier’s right arm at Le Bec-Fin and he currently owns Gilmore’s in West Chester.

"Julie & Julia" brought me back to that glorious feast. Memories of Julia still mingle in my mind. She brought French cuisine to America and proved anyone — even Julie Powell and I — can master the art of French cooking.

Roast Leg of Lamb

Ingredients:
1 7-pound bone-in leg of lamb, brought to room temperature
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1 large head of garlic, separated into cloves
Fresh rosemary leaves
1 cup of dry red wine

Directions:

Preheat the oven to 500 degrees.

Rub the lamb with the salt and pepper. Place in a shallow roasting pan. Scatter the rosemary all over the lamb.

Roast for 30 minutes.

Toss the garlic cloves into the pan and roast another 30 minutes.

Rest the lamb on a carving board.

Place the pan over high heat on the stove. Add the wine and scrape up all the brown bits with a wooden spoon.

Carve the lamb. Place the sauce in a gravy boat.

Serves eight to 12.