If you’re anything like me, you really don’t need another French cookbook. If you’re like me, you don’t need another cookbook, period. However, when it comes to buying cookbooks–and shopping in general–I find need is rarely part of the equation. It is precisely this attitude that has often gotten me into trouble. With shelves ready to topple over and books stacked in every corner, my apartment looks like a library exploded. I am afraid to move because I would have to move fifty boxes of books. I’ve done this before and I can tell you it’s not much fun.
As far as addictions go, my addiction to books is rather benign. It doesn’t hurt anyone. It costs me money, but a lot less money than I would spend on cigarettes if I were a smoker. And unlike smoking, reading is good for you. Like an addict, I will find ways to justify my addiction. Books are a hobby, I say, just like golf. Were I a golfer, I would spend money on golf clubs and weekly trips to the golf course.
But why not just go to the library, people say. Or frequent used book stores. Here is why; I am a writer. As a writer, I fervently believe in supporting other writers. A writer may slave away at a book for years before seeing the results of their labor. They will usually receive ten percent of the book sales. In Canada, where I live, 10,000 copies is considered a bestseller. Most books don’t become best sellers, and most writers don’t have a prayer of making a living from their writing. I know how difficult it is to put yourself on the page, to write something people will find meaningful. I know how much work goes into each sentence before it becomes good enough. I treasure each of my books as if I wrote them myself. I take good care of them and do not lend them to anyone except my closest friends, who respect books as much as I do.
I will admit, however, that the current economic situation has caused me to be much more careful with my book buying. I’m much less likely to pick up something on a whim. Recently, I realized that it had been some time since I had bought a book and I decided to allow myself one indulgence. I checked my Amazon wish list and ordered The Country Cooking of France by Anne Willan. When it came in the mail, I did a little happy dance. It felt like getting a special gift when you don’t get gifts that often.
If you haven’t heard of Anne Willan, she is an English woman who runs the famous cooking school La Varenne in Burgunday, France, which she founded with James Beard and Julia Child. She has thirty cookbooks to her credit, which have been translated into a couple dozen languages, and has won a variety of prestigious awards. She has been honored as a Grande Dame of Les Dames d’Escoffier and inducted into the World Food Media Hall of Fame.
I cook a lot from Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Some might argue that these two volumes are all one will ever need on French cuisine. But the focus of Anne Willan’s book is the sort of rustic country cooking that has seen a resurgence in popularity lately–the classic fare of the French country cook, or of the roadside bistros that pepper the French countryside. What is it that makes this kind of cooking so compelling? According to Willan, the key is terroir, the essence of what makes one ingredient in one area taste different from the same ingredient grown in another area. Terroir is much more than soil and topography, however; it is also a cultural and historical link to the land, an expression of that land and the people living there. It is an emotionally charged term for the French, a word with shades of meaning, and it has no equivalent in English.
The Country Cooking of France covers all the classics, from soups to fish to tarts, as well as fare less common in North America, such as frog legs and escargots, for which Willan supplies a variety of recipes. She even covers important finishing touches like liqueurs and preserves and includes chapters on rustic sauces and the country baker. It is a meticulously researched and tested cookbook. Some of the recipes are involved, as French recipes sometimes are, but there are plenty of dishes, like fava beans with bacon, that can be made quite quickly and with relative ease. The pot-au-feu and cassoulet are best left for weekends or when striving to impress dinner guests.
This is a cookbook that inspires you to get into the kitchen. It is also beautifully photographed and chock full of information about every aspect of the French country meal. On days you don’t feel like cooking, it’s perfect for enjoying with a cafe au lait.
Salade de Fromage de Chèvre Mariné
Marinated Goat Cheese Salad
6 ounces/ 170 g arugula or other salad greens, washed and dried
marinated goat cheeses (recipe follows)
8 slices whole wheat bread or French baguette
oil from marinated cheese, used for brushing
for the vinaigrette:
2 tablespoons/30 ml red wine vinegar
salt and pepper
6 tablespoons/90 ml marinating oil
1) Slice each cheese in half horizontally. Use a round cookie cutter or a glass to stamp out a round from each piece of bread slightly larger than the rounds of cheese. Brush the bread rounds with the oil and set a round of cheese, cut side down, on top.
2) Whisk together the vinegar, salt, and pepper in a small bowl. Gradually add the oil, whisking constantly so the dressing emulsifies and thickens slightly. Taste and adjust the seasoning.
3) To finish, heat the broiler. Arrange the cheeses on a baking sheet and broil them until bubbling and browned, about 5-7 minutes. In the meantime, toss salad greens with the vinaigrette.
4) Pile the greens on 4 plates. Set two rounds of cheese on each plate and serve while still warm.
Fromage de Chèvre Mariné
Put 4 small goat cheese rounds (about 2 1/2 ounces/75g each) in a 1 quart/1 liter jar with a lid. Add 3 dried bay leaves, 2 teaspoons peppercorns, 3 sprigs fresh thyme, 3 or 4 tiny dried chiles, and 1 1/2 cups/375ml olive or walnut oil, or enough to cover the cheeses generously. Cover with the lid and leave in a cool place for at least 2 weeks before using. Keeps up to 3-4 weeks.
Makes 4 cheeses to serve 4, with salad.