Tag Archives: Around My French Table

Cook the Book(s) Review! Around My French Table

29 Jan

Welcome to the end of the month, friends!  The Cook the Books Challenge hosted by yours truly and my pal Meg over at Grow and Resist is now…officially…1/12th over!

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Don’t cry or stress eat!  We still have 11 months of fun to go!

February is almost here and we’re soon gonna be talking all about dumplings.  Check out my introduction to February’s book if you haven’t already.  And tomorrow, go to Meg’s blog for a round-up of all the  bloggers that joined us in January!  We had more than 15 people cooking right along with us and living to blog the tale. Yay!  Non bloggers will be there too, we hope, in the comments telling us about their adventures with Dorie.  But for now, let’s check in about our book from January, Around My French Table, by Dorie Greenspan.

I picked up Around My French Table back in December as we were all wassailing around our holiday whatevers.  It seems so long ago now.  At first, I was a little intimidated by taking on French cooking right out of the gate.  I had never cooked French food before, or even heard of Dorie Greenspan.  What the heck?  What was I born in a barn or something?  Now, ooh la la!  Look at me, calling Dorie by her first name, whisking all the effing time, casually asking Double S to pick up gruyere at the local grocer, and wishing Dorie would swoop in with her “bonne idees” in my real life.  Thanks for the memories, Dorie!

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So, what are the key elements of a good cookbook?  What can I tell you about this book that will help you decide whether you want to get your hot little hands on it?  With each cookbook this month, I’m going to focus on five factors that help me evaluate whether a cookbook is a keeper or not: layout, aesthetics, ingredients/supplies relied upon, additional helpful information provided by the author, and the recipes themselves.  Ok?  So let’s go!

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LAYOUT

The layout of Around My French Table is clear and intuitive.  Dorie organizes her chapters  first by course, and then by protein within the entree course: nibbles and hors d’oeuvres, soups, salads, desserts, as well as chicken and duck, fish and shellfish, beef/pork/veal/lamb, and vegetables and grains.  She ends with a chapter called “Fundamentals and Flourishes” that I often found myself flipping to to read Dorie’s takes on the basics like vinaigrettes and the like.  At the start of each new chapter is a table of contents, providing the title and page number of all the dishes she makes within that chapter.

There is also a helpful, cross referenced index at the back of the book.  You can look up recipes by searching by ingredient, or by the title of the recipe.  I did notice that some of the more creatively named recipes were not listed in the index under the name given, but instead by a key ingredient.  For example, “Go With Everything Celery Root Puree” is not found under “G,” but is found under “celery” and “purees.”  Dishes with self explanatory names are listed in the index under the name given.  No big whoop, just saying.

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The book begins with a brief but interesting introduction.  Dorie doesn’t go on at too much length about her life, but you get some key points that personalize the recipes.  She was a graduate student whose love of Paris and French cooking made her leave graduate school and follow her passion.  Good choice, Dorie!

Just kidding, graduate school friends! Ahem.

The recipes themselves are laid out in an easy to follow way.  The instructions aren’t numbered, but each step is a short and manageable self-contained paragraph.  Also, each recipe clearly states how many servings the recipe makes, as well as her suggestions for serving and storing, which was helpful.  Also, and one of my favorite of the flourishes Dorie uses, she includes a “Bonne Idee” (or good idea) with a lot of the recipes,  with suggestions on variations you might want to explore with each recipe.

The only improvement I’d make to the layout of Dorie’s book is perhaps a section at the start of each recipe listing any unusual supplies you will need for the recipe, and how much time it will take to make the recipe.  Like, “This will take two days!”  Yes, you can get this by carefully reading the recipe.  But sometimes when I plan what I’m making, I only skim the recipe to make a grocery list.  Then later when I’m about to cook , I read the recipe and realize I needed a specific accoutrement that I don’t have, or that it would have been much preferable to start something a day or two ago.  D’oh!  This just happened to me when I tried to make Dorie’s crepes over the weekend while Double S and I were on a weekend getaway. I didn’t see until the second page of the recipe, on the morning that we were going to eat the crepes, that the batter is much better if refrigerated at least 12 hours.  Double d’oh!  The crepes turned out good, but were thin because I only chilled the batter for a bit less than two hours.

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This is especially annoying if I am stressed for time or not in my own kitchen with my supplies.  Just a simple little section next to serving or storing suggestions with this information would be helpful.

AESTHETICS

Ok, so this book is nice to look at.  Beautiful photographs on glossy, high quality paper with a sturdy binding and a removable book jacket.  Then there are the photos.  There are photos of finished products, luscious produce, Dorie  demonstrating techniques, and so on.

I do like cookbooks that have a picture accompanying each recipe though.  Dorie has pictures of less than half of her entrees.  For example, 6 of her 18 seafood recipes are accompanied by photos.    I’m sure it is cost prohibitive to have more photographs of this quality, but it would have been helpful on several occasions for me.  As I told you when I made the Shrimp With Cellophane Noodles (page 322), seeing the dish would have given me a better sense of what noodles Dorie was suggesting.   Because I guessed on that key element, the dish turned out not nearly as good as it could have been.  I may have over thought that, but still, a picture would have prevented the problem, especially for a pretty unusual recipe.

And, bonus!  The recipes turned out to look like what the photographs showed!  Here were a few of my favorite things I made!  All had pictures in the cookbook, and all resembled the photographs therein!  Success!

Spicy Vietnamese Chicken Noodle Soup!

photo(59)Salmon and Potatoes in a Jar!

photo(52)Cafe Salle Pleyel Hamburger!

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Cheese Topped Onion Soup!

photo(12)Deconstructed BLT and Eggs!

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Wow!  Those look good!  I have one question for you:

Oh, yes.  Yes, I did.

INGREDIENTS/SUPPLIES

A real strong point of Around My French Table is that the ingredients and supplies needed are readily accessible.  No need to travel all over the city looking for an obscure herb.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but it does make this book really easy to use on a weeknight or without much pre-planning.  Gotta love that.

There is no glossary of ingredients or equipment she uses, but with a book like this, it’s not needed.  Dorie mentions at the beginning of the book that all the ingredients used in the book are readily available at most neighborhood grocery stores, and that the techniques are practical and realistic.  I found all of that to be true.  Her main specification came when she stated what she means when she says eggs, butter, and milk, which are ingredients you’ll find in many of her recipes.  Large, unsalted, and whole, respectively. That’s about all the extra information you need to know.  With this book, there was no need for more information on ingredients or equipment than Dorie provided.

The only problem I encountered in this area was when I made Dorie’s eclairs.  OK, granted, making eclairs was a bold move for someone with hardly any experience with pastry.  They were delicious, but they would have turned out better looking I think if Dorie would have better described what pastry tip she wanted readers to use, or did some more research as to the kind of pastry tips readily available to home cooks.  In the eclair recipe, she states that a 2/3 inch pastry tip should be used.  I went to three different stores, including a restaurant supply store, and perused the internet and never once found a 2/3 inch pastry tip tube being offered for sale or discussed anywhere.  Now, looking at this site, I could have found something large enough or larger than is available at any store in Seattle (but again, never 2/3 of an inch), but I also would have had to order that online in advance.  I had several friends and commenters state that they too couldn’t find this elusive pastry tip.  Here, more guidance from Dorie would have been helpful, or perhaps she could have provided a size or alternative technique more friendly to the casual home cook.

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Moral of the story: There are a crap ton of pastry tips out there. Be more specific, Dorie!

ADDITIONAL INFORMATION PROVIDED

OK, so what I mean here is what do we learn from the cookbook, if anything?  Sure, we get the recipes.  We get a bit of backstory from the author.  But what else?

Well, in around Around My French Table we get quite a bit more.  If there is  something of note in the recipe, odds are there will be a little green box with more information at the end of the recipe. One of my favorite ways Dorie does this is in her chapter on Vegetables and Grains.  For example, she tells us four different ways to cook beets, how to shop at farmer’s markets, and different techniques to mash the best potato.  These were helpful!  I roasted the beets for my beet salad and the subtle smokiness was very welcome, when I usually would just boil beets for a salad like that.  In the beef section, Dorie provides additional information such as quick and easy ways to make frites, even though she doesn’t provide a recipe, to accompany the beef.  Spoiler alert: It involves frozen french fries.  Quelle horreur!  She also provides tips on how to order meat from your butcher, how to eat mussels, and how to prep chicken for roasting in her protein chapters.  When it comes to the few specialty ingredients she calls for, Dorie also provides more information on these as well, like armagnac (a cooking spirit similar to cognac) and piment d’espelette (a mildly sweet and hot chili pepper).  She also throws in fun anecdotes, about French eating habits, about how complaining in France makes you a connoisseur (I need to go!), and favorite meals she had in Paris.  There’s also simple everyday tips, like how to make raw garlic less bitter, how to make good croutons, how to cook asparagus, and how to make lardons. I did that!

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RECIPES

Ok, so last but not least, you’re probably wondering, well, how the hell did the food taste?  Answer: Seriously, I liked everything I made, and I tried to test a variety of her recipes.  Dorie divides the book into nine sections.  The variety of the recipes is top notch.  Yes, it’s French and French inspired food, but it’s modernized and made pretty hip, and Dorie talks about how France’s colonization of Vietnam as well as the modern popularity of fusion influenced the book.

Here are Dorie’s nine sections of recipes.  I made, or at least tasted, something from each section.

Nibbles and hors d’oeuvres?  I had Meg’s Cheez-it-ish Crackers.

Soups?  I made the Cheese Topped Onion Soup and the Spicy Vietnamese Chicken Noodle Soup.

Salads, Starters and Small Plates?  I made the Deconstructed BLT and Eggs, the Lime and Honey Beet Salad, and the Salmon and Potatoes in a Jar.

Chicken and Duck?  I had Meg’s Chicken in a Pot.

Beef, Veal, Pork and Lamb?  I made the Cafe Salle Pleyel Hamburger, and the Short Ribs in Red Wine and Port.

Fish and Shellfish?  I made the Shrimp with Cellophane Noodles.

Vegetables and Grains?  I made the Go With Everything Celery Root Puree and had Meg’s Herb Speckled Spaetzle.

Desserts?  I made the Eclairs and had Meg’s Citrus Berry terrine.

And in Dorie’s section on Fundamentals and Flourishes, I made the everyday vinaigrette, the tapenade and the tapenade vinaigrette, the cream puff dough, the vanilla pastry cream, the chocolate pastry cream, crepes, and mayonnaise.  Man, I really did some cooking!  I think I too can pose like Dorie now!

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So after a month of making and tasting recipes from this cookbook, I give it my highest recommendation.  The recipes are surprisingly easy, for the most part, and they turn out the way Dorie says they will turn out.   There are recipes for day to day use, recipes for special occasions, and recipes for fun weekend cooking projects.  The variety of the recipes is high, and there are plenty of recipes for vegetarians.  Techniques are well described and fun facts about the recipes are provided.

The most difficult thing I made was probably the eclairs, and those turned out delicious, even if I did have to wing it a little.  I was not an experienced French cook either.  Yes, I cook regularly at home, but I think that even a novice home cook looking to broaden their repertoire would be hard pressed to find a better everyday cookbook that can also awe guests that you wanna awe.  And hey, sometimes you wanna awe people.  No big whoop.

And as I said, I did have some minor problems with a few of the recipes.  The thing is, the problem usually related to some error I made.  Usually that error was not carefully reading the recipe.  That is something I need to work on, friends.  See, I learned something about myself too.  Bonus!  Overall, Around My French Table is a great addition to your cookbook shelf.

Thanks for playing along this month!  See you in February!

Cook the Books! What Else Did I Make In January?

22 Jan

So we’re almost at the end of our first month of the Cook the Books challenge! What a whirlwind it has been! Remember, when we introduced you to it all at the end of December? We were so young and innocent back then…

I’ve told you about a few things I’ve made so far. Cheese Topped Onion Soup. Deconstructed B.L.T. and Eggs. But wait, there’s more! I’ve really gotten up close and personal with this book!

Since the month is quickly coming to an end and we will all soon start thinking about dumplings, I thought I’d tell you a little about all the other stuff I’ve made in Dorie Greenspan’s seriously awesome book, Around My French Table. If I wouldn’t have already ordered this book and now have my very own tattered and stained copy, I certainly would have bought it for myself by now.  Yep, it’s that good.  Here’s what I’ve made.

Spicy Vietnamese Chicken Noodle Soup. Page 98.

Last weekend, I decided to see what Dorie could do with Asian food. Let’s start positive. The Spicy Vietnamese Chicken Noodle Soup may end up being my single favorite thing from Dorie’s book.

Dorie mentions that, due to the history of France colonizing Vietnam, it’s common to find little Vietnamese restaurants in even the smallest towns in France.  And that the “bones” of Vietnamese cooking are present in a lot of French cooking, as evidenced by the French use of Vietnamese spices, condiments and seasoning.  Dorie mentions that this soup her combo homage to two soups she gets at her local neighborhood Paris Vietnamese spot, pho and la sa ga, a coconut milk soup.  She gets it right, because this combination is delicious.

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This soup was very easy to make. The flavors were spot on; it was like a slightly heavier/creamier take on pho, which sometimes you want, especially on a cold night. Double S really loved this one too and made me promise to add it to our dinner repertoire.  Done and done!

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Making a bouquet garni, cuz I’m fancy now.

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Yep, those are the awesome large soup bowls I picked up at Dong Vinh.

I got/had all the optional garnishments Dorie suggests, but seriously?  The soup is so good it doesn’t need any garnishing, other than some fresh mint and basil prior to serving.

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But here’s a brag for the homemade chili garlic sauce and chili oil I made last fall!

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Shrimp and Cellophane Noodles.  Page 322.

I also tried Dorie’s, admittedly barely Chinese, take on shrimp with cellophane noodles. Dorie mentions how freely French chefs will add ingredients or techniques from other cultures in their attempts at fusion, and this recipe comes from that spirit.

I eat and cook a good amount of Thai and Vietnamese food, mainly noodle dishes and pho. There are great markets near my neighborhood and at many other local neighborhood in the Seattle area as well, that it make it easy to get the few more obscure ingredients you might need.  This one called for dried wood ear mushrooms, cellophane noodles, and  a few spices you probably already have at home, including Chinese 5 spice.

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Re-hydrated mushrooms.

I made the called for tomato puree with my own garden tomatoes I froze last summer.  Wow, I’m glad I decided to preserve tomatoes by freezing.  So easy!

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The only thing I needed some guidance on here were the cellophane noodles. This is one of the recipes in the book that was not further illustrated with a photograph and it suffered for that. Although I’ve bought noodles many times at Asian markets, I never called them or heard them called “cellophane noodles,”  so I Googled “cellophane noodles” and the first photo that came up was a picture of the very thinnest cellophane noodle. That kind of noodle is what I ended up using and I wouldn’t recommend it.

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I’d also recommended to thoroughly read the recipe. Duh doy.  I must have just thoughtlessly assumed the whole package of noodles would go into the recipe. When I saw all the (delicious) sauce being absorbed into the very thin noodles and becoming a sludge of rice like substance, I checked the recipe and saw that the recipe only called for 3 oz of noodles and I had jut put in a 16oz package.  Mother effing shit!  That kinda ruined the recipe. The sauce had an interesting flavor that came from the Chinese 5 spice and the other added spices. I’d make it again if I ever had a package of more fitting (read: quite a bit thicker) cellophane noodles. The shrimp absorbed the sauce, and the sauce is delicious.  When buying Asian noodles, think of them like the more familiar Italian noodle.  Here, you want a cellophane noodle about the size of a spaghetti noodle, as the sauce is supposed to sit on top of the noodles like good old fashioned spaghetti.

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My picture looks ok, but this was taken before all the sauce was absorbed up by the noodles.

Salmon and Potatoes in a Jar. Page 182.

I like pickles and pickling, mason jars, out of the ordinary food experimentation, and large projects. Thus when I saw the recipe for Salmon and Potatoes in a Jar, I knew I had to give it a shot. What I didn’t know was how easy it was!  It wasn’t a large project by a long shot.

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Dorie mentions that this dish is a take on gravalax and tartare.  Double S is Scandinavian, so I thought she’d like this one.  Dorie was also not wrong on how much this dish impresses.  The presentation is killer!  Double S was already planning what future dinner parties we could attend and take this as an appetizer that will get us accolades from our friends.  Plus this is the Northwest and we have access to great local salmon.  Bonus!  I got a one pound fillet of sockeye salmon at my local farmer’s market.

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The salmon sits overnight in a half salt/half sugar rub, then the next day you add some fresh spices and onion and carrots, and top with olive oil. The rub preserves the fish. The onions flavor everything.  And you are left with a flavored oil you can use for many other things.  Dorie suggests dressings and marinades.

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The salmon is mellowed out by the process, so this recipe could fly with those who do not like “fishy” fish. It was great on good fresh bread and with a slightly tart and fruity white wine.

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Cafe Salle Pleyel Hamburger.  Page 240.

My efforts with the hamburger had mixed results, but I don’t think it was the fault of the recipe. The only problem I had was that the burger fell apart, both as I grilled it and on the bun.  Bummer.   I used frozen meat (which has a tendency to fall apart), and I added more cornichons than were called for because I love cornichons. This of course made the patty wetter than ideal. I loved the flavor of the meat but not the texture, which was more like meatloaf. If I tweak my technique, this is a definite keeper.

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Oh and fresh grated good Parmesan Reggiano on a burger, brilliant.  I’ve never been a fan of a big honking piece of orange cheese on my burgers, other than the occasional piece of blue, but fresh grated parmesan was an eye opener.  Plus, I liked how even a small essence of ketchup, which I’d otherwise never put on my burger, from the dried tomatoes, was welcome.

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I made the onion marmalade and used some more of Dorie’ recipe for mayo, which I still had on hand from the Deconstructed BLT and Eggs.  Still awesome!

And then for the big January dinner party with Meg and our lucky significant others!  Total. Success.  Here’s what I made!

Lime and Honey Beet Salad.  Page 121.

The beets turned out fantastic. One thing I like about this cookbook is how Dorie provides a spotlight for a lot of the vegetables she uses in the cookbooks, with tips for assessing ripeness and potential deliciousness, as well as various cooking techniques. I’ve made beets a thousand times, but I ended up roasting the beets for this salad using Dorie’ slightly different technique for roasting, and I liked the subtle smokiness the technique added to the salad.

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Photo by Meg.

Short Ribs in Red Wine and Port.  Page 254.

The short ribs were amazing. The meat turned out a pretty close approximation to the idea I have in my mind of the word tender. Dorie mentions that she has tinkered a lot with the spice mix she uses for this one. Well, I loved the one she finally decided on here. These leftovers are going to be amazing. Dorie herself a predicts the lovely lucky situation you’ll be in with leftovers of this beef, and shares recipes using the leftovers. I liked that choice. Also, here’s a plug for Bob’s Quality Meats if you’re in the greater Seattle area.

Dorie highly recommends making these a day ahead if at all possible.  I did so, and I agree.   The flavor was amazing.  The smells will make you sad that you are not eating them on the night you braise them!

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Plus, again, a jaw-dropping dish that isn’t hard to make.  Once you brown them off a little in your broiler, you’re just waiting, whilst delicious smells waft through your house.

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Tres bien!

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The Go-With-Everything Celery Root Puree.  Page 354.

The purée was good. You got a real hit of celery flavor with this dish. I may have added slightly more celery root than she calls for though, due to the sizes of the roots I purchased. I would perhaps attempt to balance the celery and the potato more if I made this one again. I like how she adds a whole onion; it makes a delicious addition to the dish.

This was another really easy dish to make, once you had the ingredients.  After the veggies are boiled, just whirl it in your food processor to a state of creamy deliciousness.

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I served the puree topped with the short ribs and the gravy.

Double S and I, plating with stern concentration!

Double S and I, plating with stern concentration!  Photo by Meg.

Vanilla Eclairs.  Page 473.  I made chocolate and vanilla cuz I like to go over the top.
Finally, and the dish I was most scared to make, came the eclairs. They ended up tasting delicious, but too small to be eclairs. I’m now sure if I somehow made a mistake when making the dough, or if I didn’t have a big enough pastry tip.

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The pate a choux, right before it hit the mixer.

Dorie mentions the need for a 2/3 inch pastry tip for a pastry bag. Problem is I couldn’t find a tip that large in any store. The pastry creams and chocolate ganache were phenomenal though.

I couldn’t have done this one without Double S.  She piped out all the pate a choux, and cut and filled the eclairs.  Double!!!  S!!!

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We all had a debate as to whether the chocolate or vanilla eclairs were better.  Shocker: It was a tie!

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These were so good. Photo by Meg.

I’m kind of in awe of this book so far. There have been only a very few many minor misses in the dishes so far, and most were caused by something I need to work on in the kitchen, like paying more attention to detail.

I’m gonna try to squeeze in a few more recipes before I start thinking about dumplings.  Speaking of dumplings, stay tuned for my introduction to February’s Cook the Books Challenge cookbook, Asian Dumplings, on Friday January 25.

And as we’ve told you, if you’ve cooked along with us this month, please send us a link to your post at cookthebookschallenge@gmail.com by January 25th, or (if you don’t have a blog) tell us what you made in the comments section on Meg’s round up post, which will be up on January 30th.

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