My library: Around my French table

You’ve been cooking up a storm. Stained cookbook on the counter top, wooden spoon glued to hand, you followed every instruction to the letter, measured each ingredient as if your life depended on it, and dirtied every pot & pan in the house. You’re tired but proud. No longer hungry but eager to taste. You expect to be amazed. Full of hope, you take a bite and your enthusiasm falls like an ill-fated souffle: the recipe chosen with such trepidation, the dish meant to show off your talent…tastes like blah in your mouth. At best, it’s ordinary, all that effort for that? At worst, it’s barely edible. What just happened?

Before you start doubting your cooking skills, take it from a recipe editor, cookbooks make mistakes, sometimes quite a few. Some suffer from attention deficit, others from deficient funds. See, chefs can take things for granted:

• They do test recipes but it may be in their restaurant kitchen and not on a regular home stove.

• They use pro equipment in a league far above your good old handheld mixer.

• Their products come from top suppliers and not always from the supermarket.

• They often prepare 10 servings at a time for clients, not 4. And don’t necessarily test the 4-serving book version.

• They can take for granted that you know how to fold in egg whites, the proper consistency of bechamel, or that you shouldn’t salt legumes when precooking.

• Finally, because they lack money or are too trusting, they rely on their entourage for double-checking. Their wife or husband, their chef buddies pitch in. Not a professional recipe editor in sight…

As much as the cookbook industry is now driven by the star chef, let’s say food stylists and specialized booksellers I know would rather trust the cookbooks of recipe writers/developers/testers like Dorie Greenspan, par exemple.

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A critical darling released in 2009, the Babycakes cookbook— named for the famous New York vegan bakery—caused Internet outcry when many homecooks couldn’t replicate the recipes. Author Erin McKenna did her mea culpa and even posted clarifications on the bakery’s website. Ouch.

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All of which brings me to Greenspan’s tenth (!) cookbook, the newly-published Around my French Table. This American cook and food writer famous south of our border is an esteemed contributor for such magazines as Bon Appétit and has worked with culinary luminaries like Julia Child and Jean-Georges Vongerichten. She shares her professional and personal life between New York and Paris, a lifestyle to be envied. And she writes recipes like a stellar recipe tester rather than a chef.

Although I find the photographs to be very beautiful but too traditional for my taste—my apologies to famed photographer Alan Richardson—the beauty shot gracing the cover is what first attracted me to this book, before I realized I was looking at Greenspan’s latest offering.

With more than 500 pages, Greenspan’s new book arrived in a brown truck courtesy of Amazon and landed on my table like a ton of bricks: heavy, glossy, generous and very impressive. On the menu, recipes from the author but also the multitude of chefs, restaurant owners and gourmands she has met over 30 years. If you already own a few cookbooks, chances are you don’t need a new recipe for roast chicken (of which there are three!), veal marengo, gougeres or pissaladiere. French classics do adorn most pages, but Greenspan revisits many, addind ginger to her lentil soup and coca to her spareribs.

However and herein lies the beauty of this new offering, I bet you have never seen such detailed recipes that guide you through every single step, where the author even points out the changing noise from the food processor as you add this or that ingredient.

Instructions are so detailed in fact that I was initially worried about the sheer length of recipes, expecting them to be super complicated. They’re not, they’re just really well-explained. That said, although most recipes are fairly simple, they can also be time-consuming. The tajine cooked this week was a jiffy to make but the cooking time ran to one hour and fifteen minutes.

Totally scrumptious, this tajine combined chicken, sweet potato and prunes (I didn’t have any, so I substituted raisins). Kiddo devoured but dad was less impressed since he doesn’t like sweet sauces. The cooking jus, flavoured with saffron, cinnamon, cayenne, anise, bay leaf and honey, instantly seduced taste buds. Next time however, I may remove the skin from some of the chicken to reduce fat, which had my stomach talking back all night.

 

The recipe selection does explore beyond French cuisine standards with various hummus ideas, mussels and chorizo, Vietnamese chicken soup or roast pork with mango and lychee, showing that foreign cuisine has made inroads in France as much as here.

Sidebars here and there explain how to make croutons, peel celery, choose eggs or build the ultimate tartine, while a short section at the end of the book reviews kitchen basics from all-purpose recipes like tapenade and pie crusts to cooking methods. The page on poached egg may contain the best how-to I have ever come across.

In all, this new book is both beautiful and inspiring. It just makes you want to run to your favourite grocery, buy everything and start cooking. What blogger will follow in the footsteps of The Julie/Julia Project and spend an entire year around this French table? I admit to being tempted.

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Should you wish to try before you buy, you will find a few of the book’s recipes on Internet here, here, here and of course on the author’s website. Dorie Greenspan fans, of which there are many, can also join the French Fridays with Dorie Cooking Club, supervised by Mrs. Greenspan herself and her entourage. However, you are asked to buy the book and to upload your photos and comments only, not the recipes. Available on archambault.ca at a cost of $50, it is sold $31 on Amazon.ca. Just saying.

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4 Responses to My library: Around my French table

  1. Kayte 1 Nov 2010 at 9:01 am #

    Come and join us at French Fridays with Dorie…we are cooking our way through the book. Started October 1, weekly, but you can join in the fun and do as little or as much as you would like. We’d love to see you there! Here’s the connect: http://www.frenchfridayswithdorie.com/

    • Lynne 1 Nov 2010 at 10:18 am #

      I am considering joining the club actually. But I am also part of the Cooking Italy club, AND a working mom, so two may be too much for me… I’ll do the gougeres (first challenge) this week and decide then. But as a good Québécois, I do loooove my French cuisine…

  2. [email protected] 23 Nov 2010 at 8:55 am #

    Well, I thought it was me. I’m getting so that I can look at a recipe and know that is not going to work or is wrong somehow. Even a few (desserts) in Marcella’s book had to be changed. I can see how this can happen for all the reasons you mentioned. I was disappointed with Le Cordon Bleu at Home because I was never “seduced” by flavor so this book does have appeal.

    • Lynne 23 Nov 2010 at 9:52 am #

      Since writing this blog, I have made the cheese crackers for a party (major swooning) and the roasted red peppers with baguette. My husband has admitted to day-dreaming about it. Truly simple recipes, I’ll get into the more time-consuming ones for Christmas but they worked beautifully. But I understand what you mean about French cooking, it is more about comfort and delicacy than zing… Since I grew up with it, it’s second nature to me. (But you don’t want to take away my green curry paste, it would be a dangerous move these days 🙂

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