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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.
As far as “diet” books go, Mireille Guiliano’s “French Women Don’t Get Fat” is old news. Published in the US in 2005, it became a runaway bestseller not so much for its engaging writing style or common sense approach to eating but because of our continued fascination with the French Paradox. Why is it, we wonder, that the French can eat all that cream, cheese, pork and goose fat and remain so svelte?
According to Guiliano’s research, only 11% of the French population is obese, compared to 30 % of the American population. It is, of course, a generalization to say that French women don’t get fat. Obviously some of them do, but Mireille’s point is that on the whole, they are comparatively slimmer to women from many other industrialized countries. In her second book, French Women for All Seasons, she reports that many readers sent her “gotcha” type letters about seeing a fat woman on a visit to France. Obesity is on the rise around the world due to the globalization of fast food and junk food, even in France; however, what the author tries to emphasize is that the better quality food you eat in moderation, the slimmer and healthier you will be. She explains it’s not just the food that is important but the whole culture around it. Ultimately how you eat is just as important as what you eat, if not more. Habits such as eating on the run, in your car, or at your desk at work are not a part of the typical French lifestyle. A meal is meant to be a leisurely affair, eaten sitting down–preferably with family and friends. It’s this traditional way of eating that Mireille feels is threatened in France, and she rightly encourages us all to get back to the way people used to eat.
The first French person I ever met was Sophie*, a young woman from Paris. Living in Canada, I had met many people from Quebec, but I had never met anyone from France until a few years ago. I was teaching English classes at a government agency established to help Francophone speakers settle in British Columbia. The classes were open to residents as well as visitors from any country that spoke French as a first or second language. Sophie had bright blue eyes, an infectious smile, and a face like an angel. She was also–by anyone’s definition–severely overweight. Sophie was always the first one to come to the school for my evening class. Every day I would find her in the lunch room, studying her notes as she ate her dinner, which was always a supersize meal from McDonald’s, Burger King, or Subway. Since I had always imagined French women to be reed-thin, meeting Sophie was a bit startling. To my mind, she was proof of the damage that the typical American diet and lifestyle could do.
In her book, Guiliano writes about her experience of gaining a lot of weight as an exchange student living in America and how her family doctor put her on the road to weight loss by teaching her how to eat quality foods in moderation. Using his tips and tricks, she lost the weight and has kept it off for decades. There are no gimmicks, just some time-honoured advice based on how French women traditonally act and think in relation to food. It all comes down to taking time with your food and eating in moderation. If you buy the best quality food you can afford, you will be satisfied both physically and emotionally; you won’t feel the compulsion to stuff yourself with junk and empty calories.
The thing is, moderation itself is something that is difficult for humans. We have evolved with a feast-or-famine mechanism that has ensured our survival throughout the millenia but can make it difficult for us to control ourselves in the constant presence of an abundance of food. But I do believe that over time, we can learn to eat more mindfully. The way of eating described in this book is not akin to a diet, something you go on and off of. It’s a lifestyle change. A true lifestyle change–not a diet in the guise of a lifestyle change. Nothing is forbidden and occasional splurges are encouraged. It’s a system of checks and balances. If you indulge one day, you simply cut back the next. At its heart, this book is a manual that can help you learn to eat for pleasure.
I have been on countless diets over the years but none of them worked. I would start to gain the weight back before I even reached my goal weight. By following Mireille’s advice, I have been able to lose twenty-five pounds and keep it off for four years without feeling deprived. I don’t necessarily eat how much I want whenever I want, but I do eat what I want. And that to me is most important, because a life without cheese, chocolate and French bread is just not worth living!
*not her real name
In the introduction to his book The Man Who Ate Everything Jeffrey Steingarten tells how upon his appointment to Food Writer at Vogue magazine he set out to conquer his list of food phobias. How could he be an objective critic, he reasoned, if the mere thought of eating anchovies or dill sent him into spasms of revulsion. High on Steingarten’s list of reviled foods was Greek cuisine, something I found hard to believe. How could one think this uncomplicated yet delicious cuisine distasteful? Plates piled high with tender calamari, savoury little pitas and pies, moussaka, chunks of roasted lamb or chicken on skewers … what’s not to like, I ask you? Jeffrey worked hard at neutralizing his palate but I suspect that not very many Greek restaurants are high on his list of preferred dining locations. I think he might think differently were Aglaia Kremezi to cook for him.
Aglaia is an international authority on Greek food and often contributes to Gourmet magazine and the LA Times. She won a Julia Child award for her book The Foods of Greece. Recently I came across her wonderful book The Foods of the Greek Islands, a collection of authentic recipes from Corfu to Cyprus and all the islands in between. I spent about a week cooking from this book. Even the simplest dishes, like lentils and rice, were tastier than I imagined, and I was surprised by the diversity of the offerings in Greek cuisine, most of which you won’t find on the menu of your local taverna. From the chicken with tomatoes and feta, to the veal stew with quinces, to the onions stuffed with ground meat and pine nuts, everything I have made from this book has been delicious.
As much as I love Italian and French food, I have grown weary of cooking it. My taste buds have been crying out for the zing of something completely different, and Aglaia’s recipes fit the bill. They are relatively simple and rustic yet highly flavorful. You won’t have a problem finding most of the ingredients at your local supermarket these days. My favorite chapter is on pitas and pies. Pitas are closed pies–meat, homemade cheeses, zucchini, eggplant, greens and other vegetables wrapped with thin layers of pastry. Spanakopitas are the most well-known type of pita in North America, of course, but the truth is that there is a multitude of these little pies popular across Greece.
I am including Aglaia’s recipe for phyllo here because it’s the best one I have found. Earlier, I put up my recipe for Balkan Style Cheese Pie, which proved to be a popular post. You might want to try making it with homemade phyllo dough. Making your own phyllo is something I think every home cook should try at least once.
The other two recipes shown here are for a couple of simple recipes I like to make at home when the mood for Greek taverna style food strikes–Calamari and Saganaki. I adore calamari and I mean, who can resist fried cheese?
Aglaia Kremezi’s Cretan Phyllo Pastry Dough
Adapted from The Foods of the Greek Islands
Makes 1 pie or 50 small turnovers
3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon coarse sea salt or kosher salt
1/2 cup vodka
1/2 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
1/4 cup olive oil
about 2/3 cup water
1) Pulse flour and salt in food processor until mixed. With the motor running, add the vodka. lemon juice, and oil. Add just enough water to make the dough soft. Let it rest in the processor for 15 minutes.
2) Process the dough until it is slightly elastic, about 1-2 minutes. Let it rest for another 30 minutes.
3) On a lightly floured board, knead the dough until it is smooth and elastic. Add a little flour if it becomes sticky. Divide the dough into 4 pieces and cover 3 of them with plastic wrap so they won’t dry out.
4) Roll out the dough with a rolling pin as thinly as possible, dusting with a little bit of flour to prevent sticking. The thinner the better. If you have a pasta machine, you could alternately roll out strips of phyllo that way.
5) Repeat with remaining dough. Use immediately, proceeding with instructions for individual recipes.
Serves 4-6 as an appetizer
1 pound (500g) frozen calamari rings, thawed and drained
1 cup (250ml) all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons sea salt
1 teaspoon paprika
1/4 teaspoon pepper
parsley and chopped red onion, to garnish
1) Rinse calamari rings under cold running water and drain. Heat vegetable oil in a frying pan to about 375F. You do not have to use a lot of oil; just enough to submerge the calamari halfway.
2) In a large bowl toss flour, salt, paprika, and pepper until well-combined.
3) Toss calamari rings in the flour mixture and shake off the excess. Fry on each side for about 2-3 minutes, or until tender. Check for tenderness as you are frying, as calamri can quickly become rubbery.
4) Remove from pan and drain on a plate covered with paper towel. Sprinkle with chopped red onion, parsley or garlic chives, and serve hot with lemon wedges.
Saganaki isn’t actually a type of cheese but the name of the cast iron frying pan it is usually made in. The best cheeses to get for making taverna-style saganaki are hard yellow Greek cheeses like kasseri or kefolotiri.
To make this popular meze, cut strips of cheese about 1/3 of an inch thick. Dip in a bowl of warm water and then press each side of the cheese onto a plate sprinkled thickly with all-purpose flour. The warm water will help the flour stick and not slide off while you are frying the cheese. Dip in warm water again and fry the cheese in olive oil or a knob of butter until golden. Serve immediately with a good dousing of freshly squeezed lemon juice.