Veal Prince Orloff
Sad news will always find a way to catch up with you.
My husband and I were on a trip out to California last June to visit friends and tour Yosemite when one morning I opened up Facebook and discovered a three-month old message waiting for me. (I have generally been eschewing Facebook out of a kind of protest for its policy to allow political disinformation through its ad platform.) There in my messages inbox was a note from someone I had never heard of who informed me that the adult daughter of a friend of mine was trying to reach me and that I could contact her via her personal web site.
I knew instantly that my friend Judy had either died or was near death and that it had taken me three months to find out. I wrote to her daughter immediately explaining that I had just received the message and that I assumed she had some sad news to tell me. Yes, she replied. Her mother had died in February and she had wanted to invite me to her memorial that was held in April.
I was an absent friend at the end of Judy’s life and this reality will always haunt me. In my note to her daughter, I acknowledged my failure to be present for Judy. It had been probably five years since I had last visited her in New York. My explanation was that I had been busy helping my own parents through the end of their lives two states away. That’s the truth of it, but it is not an excuse.
I first met Judy back in 1997 or 1998. We were both Girl Scout leaders for a troop in East Harlem. Judy was exactly twenty years my senior and quickly became one of my closest friends as well as a role model for what it meant to be a single woman in the city.
When I think that she was eighty-two at the time of her death I have a hard time picturing her at that age. For me, she will perennially be in her sixties, a single woman with two grown daughters still working as a journalist and keeping up with a troop of pre-adolescent girls who gave us a run for our money on the best of days. Maybe we do that with everyone we know who absents our daily lives—they remain frozen in time at the age when we first met them.
By the time I met Judy she had already lived a full life. I’m certain there were occasions when I would stop and marvel that my parents were only eight years older and yet Judy’s life experiences were so very different. To me, her life sounded exotic—yet I am certain that I assigned all kinds of romantic or idealized notions to her, filling in the blanks of her narrative that she would never reveal to me.
Like my parents, Judy grew up in the Midwest. But whereas my parents took a conventional route with a house in the suburbs and three children, Judy took the proverbial road less travelled. At college in Iowa where she was raised, she met a Hungarian immigrant several years her senior. The handsome foreigner offered her a different life and she took it. They lived in Havana just before the revolution and then in Paris in the early sixties, not long after Julia Child had lived there.
I was so curious about those times in Judy’s life. What was it like in Havana in the late 1950s, I asked more than once. My curiosity only grew when she told me that she and her husband flew home one Christmas and never returned because the revolution had broken out during their home leave. “Didn’t you sense it was coming?” I asked. To me, it sounded thrilling to have lived in Cuba at the time of such monumental social change. To Judy, though, she was just a young, naïve American woman happily living the life of an American expat. Later, I learned she had an American friend who had had an affair with Che Guevara. Notwithstanding what Judy told me, I had decided her backstory was something out of a novel—or at least a short story.
But what really piqued my curiosity was her relationship with her husband. As I said, he was a bit older and Hungarian-born. After living in Havana and Paris, they eventually moved to New York. The way I remember it, they were married for several years before Judy finally convinced her husband to have a child (a girl) and then several more years before he agreed to have a second child, another girl who turned out to be the apple of his eye.
One fine day, as Judy recounted to me, her husband came home and said he had just been offered a new job in Washington D.C. “Fine,” Judy responded. “You go ahead, and I’ll stay here in New York with the girls.” They never divorced but remained separated for the rest of their lives.
Having never worked a day in her adult life, Judy was determined to find a job and not accept any money from her estranged husband. Amazingly, she worked her way into journalism and was writing as a freelance business journalist for the International Harold Tribune when I met her. I admired her so much for her gumption and willingness to reinvent herself mid-life. Like Eleanor Roosevelt before her, Judy represented the triumph of a woman who overcame the limits of the patriarchy or at the very least, the sadness of a broken marriage.
Judy was a congenital optimist. When most might have found cause to complain about a situation, Judy would laugh and say either, “Well, there you are,” or “I won’t bore you with the details,” not wanting to impose. It was really her way of setting boundaries, and so I was left to fill in my own ideas about her life, most especially when it came to her marriage.
Because they never divorced and remained friendly—they often spoke by phone and her husband came to New York from time to time, presumably staying with her—I imagined that her husband still carried a torch for her. In the end, I believe she still loved him in her own way too.
When her husband was dying of cancer, it was Judy who brought him back to New York (in an ambulance) so that she could care for him at the end of his life. It clearly hit her hard. I remember her calling me to tell me he had died while I was on my way back to Belgium from a vacation in Provence (see what I mean about sad news always finding you?). Some months later, Judy came to visit me in Brussels and I have a vivid memory of the two of us sitting on the sofa in my apartment drinking a glass of wine (I think my husband might have been traveling on business) and she was telling me about her husband. It was the only time I had ever seen her get emotional. “He told me once, toward the end, that there had never been anyone else in his life like me.”
Judy and I saw each other several more times after that sad visit. But not long after my husband and I returned from Brussels she was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. I visited her in New York a few times in the early days of her illness and she seemed to be doing well. But then she had a fall in her home and her children, rightly concerned for her safety, hired an in-home aide. I stopped in to see her not long after the aide had been hired and was so shocked to see her looking so frail with a voice that sounded thin and weak. The aide served us tea and arranged a bunch of lilacs I had brought. We chatted for awhile, with Judy, every chipper, describing the ordeal of having fallen and lying in her apartment unattended for hours as if it were nothing at all. “I won’t bore you with the details”…It was very unsettling to me.
As I looked around her apartment that day, I noted that nothing had changed. It was still the uncluttered, elegant, New York sophisticated Upper East Side apartment it had always been. It had an eat-in kitchen and an L-shaped living room with space for a full-sized dining table that gave us less fortunate New Yorkers a good case of apartment envy.
In the eight years I knew Judy before moving with my husband to Brussels, I probably attended at least a half dozen dinner parties there. Judy enjoyed throwing dinner parties, but what stood out for me was that she always served exactly the same menu: A starter of steamed asparagus with crumbled hard-boiled egg and vinaigrette followed by Veal Prince Orloff, straight from Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking.
Veal Prince Orloff—for those who don’t know—was almost as well-known as Julia Child’s more celebrated Boeuf Bourguignon. It is a throw-back to an earlier time when home cooks would stage elaborate dinner parties to impress the husband’s boss, or in-laws. In fact, the dish was featured in one of the classic episodes of The Mary Tyler Moore Show back in the ‘70s when Mary had to throw a last -minute dinner party for a visiting congresswoman. That’s how well-known Veal Prince Orloff was among the dinner-party-to-impress set back in the day.
Now I don’t know if Judy ever made Veal Prince Orloff as a way to impress her husband’s boss or even her in-laws, but what I do know is that when Judy found something that worked for her, she stuck with it. (I have some degree of certainty that all the furnishings in her apartment were the originals. When the seat cushions wore out, she did re-cover the chairs, but otherwise she stuck with what she knew, and if it didn’t exist anymore, she tried to get as close as possible.)
I imagine she first started making Veal Prince Orloff back when she was living in Paris in the early ‘60s. Once when I was visiting her on a trip back to New York while living in Brussels, I stayed in her guest bedroom (with the same girlish twin bed and furnishings that no doubt had been there since her daughters were children) and noticed her copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking on the bookshelf. It was so well-worn the cover had come off and I bet if I had had the presence of mind to look up Veal Prince Orloff it would have been full of cooking splatters.
My own well-worn copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking
Veal Prince Orloff is a dish that takes the better part of a day to prepare, with multiple steps and side preparations like making mushrioom duxelles, soubise and velouté that generates a sink full of dishes.
Of course much of it can be prepared ahead of time which Julia Child helpfully points out in her recipe. Still, it is a dish that is a huge time commitment and one that has sadly gone out of fashion in the age of Alison Roman’s bestselling Nothing Fancy dinner party cookbook. Just before serving, the cooked veal roast is sliced thick, the mushroom, rice and onion stuffing tucked in between each slice and the cheese sauce poured on top before the whole thing goes back in the oven for warming and browning. It’s a real showstopper.
Veal Prince Orloff, browned and ready to serve.
I once stopped by Judy’s apartment on the morning of one of her dinner parties and there she was in the kitchen, toiling away, her hair a tad unkempt, a slight dew on her face from the heat of the stove. I can still conjure the rich smells of slow cooking onion, mushrooms and roasting meat wafting through her apartment. It is one of the most indelible and cherished memories I have of her.
When I learned that she had died after the long, slow ordeal of Parkinson’s I thought back on all those dinner parties of Veal Prince Orloff. Her daughter, as thoughtful and generous as Judy, described her final years and the dementia that had set in while assuring me that she and her sister saw to it that Judy was able to stay in her home until the end with frequent visits by family and loved ones. Again, I felt I had let her down.
And yet, her daughter never faulted me for my absence. In fact, in her note she assured me of Judy’s affection for me and how happy she was when I met and married my husband. I have held on to these last remembrances and kind words for nearly nine months now.
Almost as soon as I learned of her death I turned to my husband and said I wanted to make Veal Prince Orloff to remember her. I have been holding onto that idea for the same nine months, not quite willing to execute it. My reasons are as unknowable to me as Judy’s marriage or her youth in Cuba or Paris. It may be my reluctance to let her go or even my guilt at not being there when it counted most.
But now, with the first anniversary of her death upon me, it is time to face all of this and make her signature dish. I have found over the years, that making a favorite recipe associated with a friend or loved one is like being in their company again. I can hear her laugh and see her standing over the stove in her New York kitchen and declaring, “Well, there you are.” I miss Judy. Her husband was right, there will never be another like her.
Veal Prince Orloff: The Recipe
The recipe for Veal Prince Orloff can be found on page 355 of Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking. I would not be doing it service to try and re-write it in my own words.
I would, however like to make a few comments: I used a three-rib veal loin roast, boned, rolled and tied. It was the perfect amount for four generous servings. I asked my butcher for the bones, roasted them for about 20 minutes in a hot oven then tucked them around the browned veal in the pot to roast on the bed of softened onions and carrots.
Trust the recipe. While you might be tempted to add liquid to the roasting pot as you slide the veal into the oven, Julia (as always) is right. The veal throws off enough liquid as it cooks to provide the jus for the velouté sauce.
As for doneness, times have changed and we no longer cook veal to an internal temperature of 175 degrees. Everybody’s oven is different so cooking times may vary, but for my loin roast for four, I roasted it for 50 minutes to an internal temperature of 160 degrees for medium. It cooked further, of course, when I returned it to the oven for re-heating and browning with the cheese sauce and it was just right.
I also found that for the final browning and re-heating with the cheese sauce my oven did the job in 20 minutes, not the 30 to 40 minutes suggested in the recipe (and as you can see from the photo, even that was almost too long, but I have a Miele oven that has a browning function within the baking setting and maybe I shouldn’t have used it).
When we sat down to eat, we enjoyed a wonderful bottle of a 2007 Pinot Noir from Sta. Rita Hills to accompany the veal. I have been hanging onto it for awhile and I couldn’t think of a better time to open it than in memory of Judy. We toasted her more than once.