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Bistro + Cartoons = Stephane Reynaud’s French Feasts

French Feasts by Stephane ReynaudFrench Feasts: 299 Traditional Recipes for Family Meals and Gatherings by Stéphane Reynaud (2009 Stewart, Tabori & Chang, $40.00)

It’s a huge book. Daunting. Heavy as a couple of bricks. Padded cover, even, with a zillion miniphotos of intimidating French bistro classics in their raw and cooked forms (an octopus, a roasting tray of vegetables with leeks, a crème caramel, and several red-checked tablecloths, for that seemingly effortless retro chic, laid out under rustic-looking pot-au-feu types of stews. And a cutting board with six stuffed marrow bones stood on end.)

Flip open the front cover and you get a classic bistro menu with way too many choices (luckily it’s printed with a little English and page numbers, not handwritten on a chalkboard across the room, so you don’t have to squint). Read down the page (continue inside the back cover) and you start to dig up little puns and odd bits of humor here and there. They finally bubble up into something definite in the introduction, where the author, a medium-youngish guy seated in front of a casserole with a chef’s knife and a two-pronged barbecue fork, reminisces about a childhood stuffed with too much good food on family Sundays with his grandmère. Replete with escargot-burping uncles.

And from then on, you realize why this book is so fat: not only is there a heavy emphasis on meats and charcuterie (and six or seven different preparations for foie gras, 12 or so variations on soft-boiled eggs and omelets, etc.), but every other page is a photograph, or a profile of a couple who run one or another bistro, a venerable Lyonnaise sausage maker, vintner, baker, or cheese affineur…

Or — quite frequently — a cartoonist’s demonstration, only a little less improbable than Rube Goldberg’s, for making wine or cheese, or canning preserves (watch out for the orange tabby in the “catsup” jar). Check out the last chart, next to the Armagnac and Cognac page, which presents  increasing girths and grades of cigars appropriate for the increasing girths and ages of the smokers. Is it by way of including the classic end to a classic meal, never mind the known risks, or a subtle message the other way–that these days it’s more savvy to laugh at the cigar nostalgia die-hards than become one?

And speaking of nostalgia…There are even songsheets for Moulin Rouge classics so you can join in with your French friends after dinner. You kind of need those. You definitely need those.

Just what kind of cookbook have we lugged home?

Actually, Stéphane Reynaud is a well-regarded restaurateur on the outskirts of Paris and the well-trained son and grandson of a line of pork butchers. His previous book, Pork & Sons, arrived in the US a couple of years ago, and this one was published here in English sometime last fall. Despite the fact that I don’t eat pork and don’t think it’s a glorious profession to “break down a pig” or any other large animal, as glamorized on adventure cooking shows, French Feasts is well worth the read. Because Reynaud clearly knows his stuff, and not just about meat.

I’m not sure whether he got a translator to help, or he’s just really fluent in English–if so, my hat’s off to him, because his sense of humor really comes through fairly naturally, and it probably meant rewriting a fair amount of the text to come up with accurate and still funny equivalents for English speakers. Translating (and having to explain!) puns from French to English would be a job and a half for just about anyone. Most people would rather scrub dishes than have to explain a joke. Even me.

The recipes themselves are classics–untrammeled and unfutzed-with–and unexpectedly instructive in their simplicity.

Most have fewer than 10 ingredients, and often fewer than six. Here there are no dishes calling for 20 different special vinegars or sweeteners, as in American food-glam magazines and cookbooks. Not too many luxury ingredients, other than that many of the “proteins”–shellfish, goose, duck, game, foie gras–are hard to find in the US and kind of chi-chi expensive these days outside of Europe, but you could probably substitute with some success. And the titles are simple too–English translations of the classic French names, not mile-long lists of every special new “twist” ingredient it’s been tweaked with to up its audience appeal. Or advertiser appeal.

And the food photos. Nice photography but no attempt to make restaurant-pretty “tall food” plates with lots of garnishes. These are stews and soups and unsliced terrines–unstyled, many of them, or at least not overstyled with voguish background blur and enhanced color and gloss on every dish. Cooked cabbage looks like cooked cabbage. Turnips look like turnips, not like  flaming purple orchids turned suddenly solid. The stews look like stews you’d make at home–well, except for the lobster one, or the terrine with the crossed strips of fatback over it, or the baked fish in a glossy brown flake pastry crust. That’s just showing off, right there.

But really, most of these dishes are photographed while still in the cooking pots–which aren’t the bright shiny brand-new brand-name items you can order directly by clicking on the picture. They’re well-used, old, blackened, ugly even. Not glamorous. They don’t go with the brushed steel decorator kitchens we’re used to seeing in all the glossy cookbooks on our shelves. They have a bit of grime and wear about them, and make us feel better about our own dowdy day-to-day kitchenware that we’ve been using since we got out of school umpty-nine years ago and haven’t replaced because it’s reliable.

And now what I thought at first was a detour:

To my great surprise, given the author’s “slow food” cred, Reynaud’s recipes don’t contain any of the rote “1 teaspoon of salt” in each recipe that most recent American cookbooks have fallen into. Few of his recipes are seasoned more than once if at all, and usually just the sauce, or just the surface, right before serving. He doesn’t dictate how much, but from the context it’s obviously closer to a pinch than a spoonful, and often he skips it altogether.

He also doesn’t boil his vegetables in salted water, which is very chic right now in the US just because Thomas Keller said he does it and Michael Ruhlman trumpeted it as gospel. With only one exception–in fact, the only recipe in the book with a specified teaspoon of salt–even the desserts in French Feasts, including all of the pastry doughs from shortbread to puff pastry, are almost entirely free of added salt. The sheet cakes have baking powder, and a handful of the pastries call for salted butter rather than plain, but neither comes anywhere close to a contemporary American version’s salt content.

It’s not that Reynaud never uses salt or salted ingredients like capers or sausage or parmesan. But unlike American recipe developers, he doesn’t throw extra salt on top of them, and in fact he warns against it in one of the smoked pork-plus-sausage-plus-three-other-preserved-meats kinds of dishes.

SO—If these are the classics and the methods American chefs and recipe test kitchens have been aping and trying to bring to the table in our best restaurants for decades, French Feasts makes it clear there’s been more than a little “tweaking” or “drift” going on, particularly for the increasingly popular baked goods. Almost every American version of the classic French desserts, from mousse to napoleon to baba to charlotte and crêpes and on to cannelés, has had an automatic teaspoon or worse of salt dumped into it before it went to press. In comparison with the traditional style of French Feasts, we seem to be pickling ourselves. You have to wonder who put it there and why, and what our sorta-French desserts are really supposed to taste like when you skip the commercial interest that seems to be behind all the routine, mindless oversalting.

And you have to ask–in romanticizing Slow Food but presenting commercially tainted, overly fussy, overly expensive and oversalted versions of traditional European dishes, how far has American foodieism drifted away from reality? How badly have we lost the thread?

In contrast to the younger wave of foodie restaurant chefs and specialty purveyors in the US, most of the folks profiled in French Feasts are not sporting extensive surfer tattoos or orange clogs to proclaim their indy cred. They’re also not Glamorous-Looking French People With Scarves ™, except perhaps for the venerable lady who makes the renowned pork sausages–she’s got the elegant hairstyle AND the scarf, like most of the women of her generation. Most of the others are just ordinary-looking workaday people–who happen to know an awful lot about meats and produce and wine and cheese and bread. Which is really the point–you can learn from them and appreciate them, but no one expects you to worship them to show your food cred.

Perhaps because Reynaud is a chef, or perhaps because he’s just French, the directions are very short and, well, direct–even for relatively complicated dishes. Many of the recipes are no harder in practice than browning a cut of meat and then roasting it with some vegetables and liquids in the oven for an hour or so, but a few really are.

Reynaud doesn’t spell out the extensive how-tos given in American  cookbooks or magazine articles; he tells you “cook the syrup to the soft-ball stage and test with a fork” or “deglaze the pan with madeira” or “make a pot-au-feu with [list of 5 or 6 basic meat-and-veg ingredients] with water to cover. Cook for an hour,” but he doesn’t tell you at what temperature or remind you to stir every once in a while or show you how to pipe profiteroles or meringue or the like. You have to know some of these standard techniques already, and have enough hands-on experience to be able to tell for yourself when each step looks and smells right.

The stew instructions aren’t too far off for a beginner, and the brevity is actually a blessing–who wants to read three whole pages on how to sear meat? But the Paris-Brest pastry recipe and the Gateau St. Honoré are much, MUCH too cryptic if you’ve never made choux paste for éclairs or cooked a custard pastry cream or boiled caramel to the flossable stage. All three of those components are pretty easy to screw up if you’ve never even watched someone else do them.

So Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking or any of Jacques Pépin’s cookbooks with step-by-step photos of classic techniques are good references to keep on hand and try out before you take on Reynaud’s recipes, particularly the pastries.

Go to Julia Child for the Paris-Brest and the Gateau St. Honoré, definitely, and take the next step too–go to PBS online and search for replays of her cooking shows. Her puff pastry demo with Michel Richard is online, for a start. If you can possibly find the full collection of her earliest show, The French Chef, on DVD (it’s on severe backorder in the PBS online shop), do look for the one on choux pastry, because a St. Honoré is nothing to mess with if you don’t see a working demo first. The Gateau St. Honoré show is one of my favorite black-and-white tv memories of her, impressive as heck and very straightforward at the same time–she said it wasn’t actually that difficult, it was more a question of building than cooking. So find her shows and relive some nostalgia–see what she actually looked and sounded like, not the Julie and Julia reenactment with Meryl Streep doing forced belly laughs in a brown curly wig.

David Lebovitz is also particularly good for things like tarts, clafoutis, macarons, and straightforward choux paste (cream puff) instructions with photos at the critical stages and specific working tips that help get it right.

But if you’re ready to Cook Something French for Sunday Dinner–serious and long-cooking in the oven without too much actual fuss–Reynaud’s approach may be just right. And the book is definitely fun to peruse (get your husband or some friends to help schlep it over to the coffee table) while the oven’s going. You’ll almost have enough time.

The cabaret songsheets you just need to search for on YouTube so you can hear someone singing them. Probably no one will criticize your accent or your lack of the classic Piaf-style warble/gargle delivery if you only sing alone in your own kitchen, but please do practice before trying it out on your friends…or else be merciful and sing them in the style of Marcel Marceau.

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