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    Happy 2019! It's a new year--time for a restorative. Me? Bok choy broth with tofu for lunch. The purple tinge is not your hangover talking to you--I added purple and gold "black" carrots to the bowl and it got a little Rose Parade on me.

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    Copyright 2008-2019Slow Food Fast. All writing and images on this blog unless otherwise attributed or set in quotes are the sole property of Slow Food Fast. Please contact DebbieN via the comments form for permissions before reprinting or reproducing any of the material on this blog.


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    SlowFoodFast sometimes addresses general public health topics related to nutrition, heart disease, blood pressure, and diabetes. Because this is a blog with a personal point of view, my health and food politics entries often include my opinions on the trends I see, and I try to be as blatant as possible about that. None of these articles should be construed as specific medical advice for an individual case. I do try to keep to findings from well-vetted research sources and large, well-controlled studies, and I try not to sensationalize the science (though if they actually come up with a real cure for Type I diabetes in the next couple of years, I'm gonna be dancing in the streets with a hat that would put Carmen Miranda to shame. Consider yourself warned).

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 Continue reading

Knives at Dawn: Bringing Heat to the Kitchen

"Knives at Dawn" by Andrew FriedmanSo much of TV-chefery these days has to do with blood sport that it’s inevitable someone would start covering cooking competitions by following underdog contestants as though they were Olympic figure skating hopefuls. And although it’s been done before, both on Top Chef and in many, many of the star chef bios of the past 5 years, Knives at Dawn by Andrew Friedman gives one of the most detailed personal and critical inside views yet of the strange pursuit of haute cuisine for haute cuisine’s sake. Part sports dramalogue, part Judgment of Paris, Knives at Dawn trails a handful of American chefs attempting to compete for one of the highest honors in European cooking.

The Bocuse d’Or is one of the most prestigious cook-offs in the world and garners contestants from all over Europe and a few of the US’s top restaurants. The costs of training run the price of a small house, and the US team has had no government or corporate sponsorship, unlike many of the European competitors.

Throughout three months of preparation which Thomas Keller and Daniel Boulud oversaw in 2008-9, a team (1 chef, Timothy Hollingsworth, and 1 commis or prep chef assistant, Adina Guest) from Keller’s French Laundry are coached to represent the US in Lyon. They have to cover the training and travel bills at their own expense, and continue working their day jobs for more of the time than their European opponents.

As Hollingsworth designs and revises his competition entries, suggested garnishes get more and more elaborate–sometimes without anything that’s likely to make them taste better. Onion tuiles. Things wrapped in Swiss chard leaves or carrot ribbons. Savoy cabbage as a “fun” garnish for beef cheeks (here I confess I pictured cafeteria kale as a “fun” accompaniment to the legendary dish, chair mystère–Mystery Meat). And lots of things made with mandoline-sliced potatoes crisped to perfection between silpats. In fact, the word perfection, followed by perfectionistic and culture of perfectionism, keep repeating throughout the section on Hollingsworth and Guest’s training period. It’s a bit unglamorous, to tell you the truth.

The exactitude of discussion over details like garnish, plating, and the like for one fish dish and one meat dish is the kind of technical overdose patter that puts people to sleep at any time other than the actual routine that will count for scoring. Something like the perennial Dick Button and whichever female commentator could be roped in to join him,  talking rinkside about the difference in a triple-lutz made by putting pressure on the inside versus the outside edges of the blade.

Comes the week of competition and things start to take on the frenetic tone of a typical Top Chef episode, but Friedman has a knack of lifting the description Continue reading

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