Tag Archives: French cooking

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! Dorie Greenspan’s French Onion Soup! Cry Me a River!

8 Jan

OK, so what do you do the night before a big trip?  Pack?  Water your plants?  Drop Fido and Spot off at the petsitter?  Charge up the old camera?  Print out your boarding passes?  Not me, friends!  I decided that I should cook an elaborate French meal on the night before my awesome partner Double S and I went to Yellowstone National Park.  Why?  Well, first, I’m zany like that.  I like to, say, stuff kimchi into jars at midnight on a Saturday.  Ask Double S about that one!  Second, well, I wanted to start the Cook the Books Challenge!  Oh, you don’t know?  Here are the deets!

I’ve told you guys about the blog challenge that my friend Meg and I came up with this year.   In brief, we are picking a cookbook for each month of 2013.  We’ll tell you about it in advance.  Meg told you about this month’s choice, Around My French Table a few weeks back.  You cook a recipe or recipes from the book each month, and you tell us about it.  We all learn to cook, more and better.  Easy peezy George and Weezy!  If you have a blog, well, first things first:

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Ok, sweet fist bump.  Moving on.  So if you have a blog, post about what you made from the book of the month by the 25th of each month.  Shoot us an email with the link to your post: cookthebookschallenge@gmail.com.  We’ll do a round-up of all the posts (with links and photos!) by the 31st or so of the month.   If you don’t have a blog, share what you made in the comment section of the round-up post at the end of the month.  Sweet1

Ok, so back to my shenanigans on the night before my trip.  That afternoon, I perused Around My French Table whilst Double S did the normal night before a trip activities as described above.  I dog-earred a few potential good candidates for a nice Sunday night supper, our last at home for a week.  I looked into the Deconstructed BLT salad.  I love deconstructed things.  What can I say, I’m a big fan of Top Chef AND being a pretentious hipster! I also looked into the nicoise salad.  I wanted to go classic.

But I finally decided on the Cheese Topped Onion Soup.  What’s more French than French onion soup, I mused?  This?

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Any time a French man is shown in a cartoon or pretty much any other medium of pop culture, said French man must be wearing both a striped shirt and a beret. It’s the law. Don’t fight it.

So starting at 6pm that night, I made my inaugural dish of the 2013 Cook the Books challenge.

Cheese-Topped Onion Soup, page 56-57.

I figured that 6pm was a perfectly fine time to start cooking this dish for several reasons.  1) Dorie Greenspan mentions in the recipe that it takes “an hour or more” to carmelize the onions.  And besides the carmelization of the onions, this recipe looked really easy.  And it was!  Except I didn’t realize the ramifications of the two little words “or more” after the word “hour.”  2) US pop culture teaches me that French people eat late, so when in Gay Paree (heh heh) do as the gay paree-sians do!  3)  I didn’t have to go to work the next day!  Off I went!

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If you make this onion soup, prepare to practice your onion chopping skills.  Chopping onions the right way will make your life in the kitchen much easier.  BTW, I took a knife skills class and Dorie explains the technique in two sentences that we spent quite a bit of class time learning.  Nice!  Onions were being peeled and chopped, and I was rolling along. Time to turn on some tunes!

See when I cook, I need music.  Lots of it, and loud.  Ok, so I’ll admit that I put my knife down, ran to my desktop and threw together a quick mix inspired by onions and the crying that results from their preparation.  Heck yeah, onion themed mixtape!

I love onions.  Raw, cooked, you name it.  I eat more onions than the average person, methinks.  Thus, around the old homestead, dinner often starts with me chopping an onion.  And onions really make me cry.  I know, I know.  There are tricks to avoid this, like cutting onions next to an open flame, having a piece of bread in your mouth while you chop, rinsing the onion first, wearing ski goggles or a scuba mask, standing on one leg and thinking about how you’ve disappointed your parents, and so on.  Seriously, all of those are true except one.  I’ll leave it to you to figure out which one.   But, at this time of the night, ain’t nobody got time for that.

That’s Sweet Brown, everybody, of the famous “Ain’t Nobody Got Time For That” meme of 2012, viewed by over 15  million people.  My cousin showed me the auto-tuned You Tube remix on Christmas Eve, and now Double S and I have been often telling each other that we do not have time for that, regardless of what “that” is.

All started off well.  I peeled and I bobbed my head, remembering those innocent days when Britney and Justin were still together.

I kept going, slicing the onion in half from top to bottom, remembering my days loving hair rock, which OK, technically, are still ongoing.

Yeah!  I kept cutting, this time lengthwise, again and again.  OK, this has been fun and everything, but when would this end?  Axl told me not to cry.

And I imagined hot early 90s babes fighting over me as I ladled them bowls of onion soup, like they do here over Axl Rose for some reason.  But you know what they say: no woman, no cry.  Which just so happened to be the next song on my mixtape!

When the peeling and chopping are done, time to start the carmelization process.  I hope you packed some water and comfortable shoes.  Man, did I gain a new appreciation for the art of carmelizing onions.  I started with my thick bottomed cast iron dutch oven and kept the heat as low as it goes on our stove.  The onions released a lot of water and after an hour, the onions just looked steamed.

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That kind of kept going for awhile.  I was concerned, but I was not gon’ cry.  Sing it, Mary…

After that first 90 minutes or so, I finally got concerned.  It was 7:30 and I had steamed onions.  Dorie makes it clear that your onions must be brown and carmelized to get the right flavor in the soup, and to be patient because you do not want burned pieces.  But, Dorie..it’s 7:30 for chrissakes!  I decided to switch pans.  I moved to a larger, shallower, non-stick skillet and set aside the excess water, thinking the onions needed to touch more area of the pan to actually carmelize, and it worked.  It took over two hours, but I got carmelized onions!

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Sweet!  Time for some Van Halen!

Lessons learned about onion carmelization, an important cooking technique you will learn if you make this soup:

  • Slice the onions as thinly and uniformly as possible.  And discard all of the thin outer layer.  That layer will never carmelize.  It’s OK to waste just this little bit.
  • Use the largest pot with the thickest bottom you have to carmelize the onions.
  • Adding a pinch of sugar at the beginning is recommended by Julia Child, and hey, she kinda knows about French cooking.
  • How much you stir is important.  From my research, if you can hear a sizzle, you’re fine.  Stir when the sizzle subsides, so not constantly, but about every 10 minutes or so.  I was definitely stirring constantly, which is unnecessary.
  • Keep the heat low as Dorie says, but be reasonable.  The intensity of the heat on your stove may vary.  After I toiled away with these onions, I did a little research into the fine art of carmelization.  Some sources say to start with the heat higher for about 20 minutes or so, while stirring very frequently, and then end with the heat as low as possible, while stirring frequently. Based on my evening, this sounds about right.  The onions have to cook and steam and release liquid before they can brown, so don’t just say eff it and start with your heat on high and keep it that way.  In the alternative, cook them on a low setting but not the lowest, then finish slightly higher whilst stirring constantly.  This is basically what I did, except I had them on the lowest of the low settings for too long at the beginning.  Cooks Illustrated recommends cooking onions over medium low heat, covered, for 20 minutes, then uncover and cook on low till desired brownness, stirring every few minutes.  Regardless, you kinda need to be all up on your pot for at least an hour to do this, probably more.  Unless…
  • Hey!  Have you ever roasted beets or brussel sprouts?  I have, and it’s an awesome way to cook these veggies, and often the onions are my favorite part.  I bet that carmelizing onions in the oven would work great and wouldn’t require as much attention, but some attention will always be required to get the desired brownness.  And yep, here’s a thread from Chowhound and commenters say it works!

So after the carmelization, the rest is gravy!  The soup cooks on the stove a bit, and then you need to think about cheese.  Dorie recommends a good Gruyer,e and I agree.  Double S picked us out some fancy stuff and it was delicious.

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The bread is also important here.  Get some nice, thick, good bread and toast it off a bit in the oven.  Top the soup with the bread and the Gruyere and pop it in the oven, in a crock that can withstand the heat of Satan’s lair, because as Dorie puts it, the French like their onion soup brûlante, super freaking hot.  Success!

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The soup was delicious!  And will be a welcome addition to our winter line-up of dishes that you make every once in awhile, to celebrate the season where you just want to wear comfy socks and be inside all day.  OK, so in the Pacific Northwest that’s kinda at least half of the year.  Right, Portlandia?

More importantly, what I liked about this recipe is the appreciation for onions and the carmelization process that I got …nay EARNED…from making this soup.  Carmelized onions are a special, almost sacred thing.  Don’t rush them.  Don’t make this soup when you only have limited time.  Learn what works for you.  Maybe a slow carmelization in your favorite dutch oven during a lazy winter’s afternoon whilst you sip wine and stir and listen to music.  Recommended!  Maybe an unattended stay in your crock pot while you toil away from 9-5 for the man.  Maybe a roast in the oven while you catch up on last season’s Breaking Bad, pausing to stir only once per episode.  And you NEED to catch up on Breaking Bad, best believe.

So I’m liking this cookbook so far.  There’s something for every season, and something suitable for pretty much any block of time you have available.  This recipe was time consuming, but there are others that can be knocked out on a M0nday night.  Stay tuned for what I made on just that typea Monday night!

As Meg and I have said, we will both be blogging about our exploits with this book throughout the month.  Meg has already made some stuff too!  Make one recipe or make a whole dinner party for your friends, but whatever you do, tell us about it!  By Friday January 25th, send us a link to your post: cookthebookschallenge@gmail.com.  And by January 30th, check back in for a comprehensive round-up, featuring your post and the posts of all your virtual friends.  Fun!

And bt dubs, we made it to Yellowstone and it was ah-mahzing.  More about that later…

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