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Inspiration in Ink: A Kitchen in France

A Kitchen in FranceFor an armchair traveler like me, Mimi Thorisson’s A Kitchen in France: A Year of Cooking in My Farmhouse transported me to another place. The book as a whole, Mimi’s recipes together with the photographs taken by the author’s husband Oddur Thorisson, offers a glimpse into their world of family, friends, dogs, food, home, and the French countryside in Médoc.

Médoc is a wine-producing district in the Bordeaux region in Southwestern France on a peninsula between the Atlantic Ocean and the Gironde estuary, just north of the city of Bordeaux. Thorisson describes it as the “anti-Provence”, considered off the beaten track even from the French.

For those not familiar with Mimi Thorisson, she writes the blog Manger, where she shares her version of French home cooking and her family’s life in rural France. No country bumpkin, she and her family chose to relocate to this region from Paris. In April 2013, Saveur magazine named this gem the Best Regional Food Blog.

Mimi Thorisson’s approach to cooking is to savor what’s in season and to transform the best ingredients in simple ways. The book is organized by season, starting from the rebirth associated with Spring and working its way through Summer and Autumn before reaching Winter with its instinct for comfort and nesting. Each season opens with an essay sharing thoughts about food treasures she values at that time of year, whether grown in her garden, purchased at the market, or foraged near her home. Her story continues to unfold through the headnotes accompanying each recipe, sharing the provenance of the recipes from her kitchen.

Thorisson has a deep connection to France. Though she grew up in Hong Kong, she spent summers in France with her grandmother and great-aunt where she learned to cook and appreciate seasonal local ingredients.

The recipes in this book cover a broad range of French home cooking, from everyday fare such as simple roasted potatoes to special occasion dishes such as bouillabaise. Many of the main course recipes won’t be easily accessible to the typical American home cook because they call for unfamiliar meats that will require a trip to the butcher. For those with an intrepid palate and access to specialized ingredients like poussin, guinea hen, squab, quail, snails, beef cheeks, sweetbread, and oxtail, uncomplicated recipes to prepare them are on offer. That said, this book has something for everyone.  There are plenty of other recipes for starters, side dishes, and desserts that are similarly uncomplicated and use seasonal ingredients that should be readily available to any home cook.

At the end of the book, there is an unexpected group of recipes to celebrate Chinese New Year. These recipes are not out of place in this French cookbook because they reflect the author’s heritage (her father is Chinese) and just as she honors and celebrates the culinary heritage of her French mother’s family, she gives equal respect to her father’s Chinese roots as she passes down the traditions of the Chinese New Year celebration.

By season, these are the recipes I’m tempted to try first:

Spring

  • My Aunt Francine’s Fava Bean Soup
  • Onion Tart
  • Roast Chicken with Crème Fraîche and Herbs
  • Roast Lamb Shoulder with Garlic Cream Sauce

Summer

  • Tomato Tart
  • Tuna Rillettes
  • Almond Mussels
  • Peach and Cherry Papillotes

Autumn

  • Potatoes à la Lyonnaise
  • Butternut Gratin
  • Apple Tart with Orange Flower Water
  • Galette Pérougienne

Winter

  • Winter Vegetable Cocotte
  • Garlic Soup
  • Roasted Sausages with Red Wine and Fennel
  • Kouign Amann

This book can be equally at home in the kitchen or on the coffee table. As a cookbook, it is a compilation of recipes, but the gorgeous photos provide a temporary visit to the Thorisson home in the Médoc without leaving your couch.

A Plateful of Happiness Rating: 4 plates (out of 5)

 

Disclosure: I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review. The opinions expressed are my own.

“dressy” pasta risotto {ffwd}

Cheesy Noodles

Happy New Year! The years seem to run into each other, and the 2013 to 2014 transition is no exception. As we get started in the new year, I hope it is a happy and healthy one for you and your family.

The first French Fridays with Dorie recipe is for a lovely side dish called “dressy” pasta risotto. I love pasta and risotto, so have wanted to try this recipe for a while, to see what it’s all about.

I’m not sure what it is about the French and pasta. I think their relationship is a bit odd. Here we have pasta cooked like risotto, with just enough liquid for the pasta to absorb to be done: a little unusual. Years ago, when I first visited France, I had another odd “French pasta experience”. It’s one worth sharing as it has a prominent place in Howard and my family lore. Bear with me, because it takes a little time to tell.

The summer I was around 12, a French girl, Marie-Pasçale, spent the summer with my family as our au pair. My mother kept in touch with her intermittently over the years. On our first trip to France, Howard and I visited the grown-up Marie-Pasçale, now married and living in Brittany, with her husband and 6 children. We had a wonderful visit. Our dinner that night is one that Howard and I still dream about. We enjoyed fresh sardines grilled over a wood fire, and it was amazing!

To keep their lawn cropped, they kept a small herd of sheep. The next day was its own hilarious adventure when we helped corral the sheep into a VW bus to take to a neighbor’s house to be shorn. Apparently, sheep are not the smartest or bravest animals but will follow the leader wherever she goes. The game plan was for everyone to form a large human arc around the sheep and gradually step towards the center. The idea was to get the sheep to huddle close together and move towards the one opening in the circle, which led them directly into the open door of the bus. We were told: just don’t let a sheep past you because if you do, they will all follow her lead and run.

At this point in my life, I had no experience with farm animals. As we stepped closer to the sheep, I realized that an unshorn sheep is a smelly and dirty creature. When it’s time for shearing, the sheep’s coat is heavily greased with lanolin and adorned with bits of straw and not a small amount of poop. As we got even closer, I could tell that the sheep closest to me was thinking about charging me and breaking out of the circle. I was trying to be brave and stand my ground, but I really didn’t want the sheep to touch me. I was wearing my only pair of clean jeans and had to board an airplane the next day. Plus, the sheep was really dirty. I’ll admit, I was the weak link in the chain, I lost my limited bravado, the sheep broke through, and chaos ensued.

Eventually, the sheep were rounded up, transported, shorn, and brought back home, and Marie-Pasçale’s husband Christophe made us lunch. He put a big pot of spaghetti on to boil. I should mention that one of Howard’s favorite quick lunches is a bowl of elbow macaroni with ketchup. To him, it’s comfort food. I don’t like ketchup to begin with. I’m also part Italian, so I think this combo is kind of gross. Well, when the spaghetti was cooked, Christophe put the colander of spaghetti on the table with an assortment of toppings so everyone could serve themselves. One of those toppings was a bottle of Heinz ketchup. And, it was the most popular choice amongst the French people at the table. I just rolled my eyes, but Howard was so proud to learn that his favorite lunch was also considered to be French home cooking.

Back to the pasta risotto… First, you sauté an onion, then add chicken broth and little pasta shapes. I used tubetti , but Dorie says elbow macaroni is more traditional. This would also be nice with the tiny shell pasta. Like risotto, you use just enough liquid for the pasta to absorb, rather than the usual way of boiling pasta and draining off the excess water. The pasta cooks at an active simmer. Unlike risotto, you only have to give the pot an occasional stir.

Pasta cooked as risotto

After the liquid is absorbed, the pasta will be al dente. Now it’s time to dress it up and add some decadence. You stir in some heavy cream, a bit of mascarpone, and a generous amount of Parmesan cheese. In the end, you get a pot of delicious “cheesy noodles”

The cheesy pasta went well with chicken as well as steak dinners. Now that I think about it, this might be equally delicious without the cream and cheese. (I’ll have to try that another time.)

If you want to try this yourself, you can find the recipe here. You can also find it in Dorie Greenspan’s book Around My French Table. To read about others’ pasta risotto, follow their links here.

For those of you who don’t get much snow, here’s the view from my back porch this morning. We got about 8 inches of the white stuff last night. The sun is out now, but the temperatures are in the Arctic range.

Jan 3 snowstorm