French by Damien Pignolet ... Miam miam!
My tatty paperback copies of Elizabeth David's French Provincial Cooking and Richard Olney's Simple French Food, for instance, were and still are a profound influence. They bear all the battlescars accrued over years of loving abuse - butter stains, wine spills, fall-apart pages, and of course margin upon margin of furiously penciled notes. Through the lucid prose of Ms. David's succinct style and Richard Olney's languid instructiveness, I first furtively inhaled the intoxicating whiff of onion panade, immersed myself in the differences between a blanquette and a navarin, and all in all eased into the idea of learning how to cook French.
Today, these two culinary classics stand backs straight and heads held high in all their distressed glory next to more recent, glossier and fancier volumes in the "French" section of the bookcase. Being a closet Francophile (ok, not so closet), this comprises a hefty proportion of the books I own. And I'll be the first to admit that I've become quite the toe-dipper where these newer models are concerned, reluctant to commit the time and energy into cooking my way through a whole book.
Then a week back, I finally got hold of a copy of French by Damien Pignolet. Having had some fabulous meals at Bistro Moncur in a trip to Sydney a few years back, it's a book I've been eagerly awaiting since its release late last year. I knew it would be good. What I didn't expect was the scalp-tingling rush I experienced as I spent the better part of the weekend leafing through the pages - I haven't felt this way about a book in ages. One Post-it pad later, I finally gave up attempting to flag the recipes I wanted to try - there were simply too many. The collection of traditional and provincial French recipes, all wonderfully written in the chef's highly engaging manner, represent the exact sort of cooking that gets me all glazy-eyed with anticipation. Rare is the cookbook with style. Even rarer is the cookbook with substance. And rarest of all is the cookbook which possesses both in such generous measure. Damien Pignolet's delectable words are given lush visual context thanks to ravishing photography by Earl Carter as well as gorgeous design and layout.
If it's any indication of my readiness to happily dive headlong into French, the past week's worth of meals have all centered around a dish or two from the book - as good an omen as any that here is one book destined for all sorts of smears and scribblings, for relishing and cherishing, for actually cooking from (below, a sample menu). Even W, who typically leaves these things up to me, has gotten in on the act - aside from the blue stickies (mine), there's now also a flurry of pink ones (his) as a not-so-subtle hint of meals he's expecting (I say this with nothing but affection). But that's another post entirely.
Quenelle of Prawns
In his own fashion, W is the fussiest eater I know (again, I say this with affection). And these quenelles, a twist on the quenelles de brochet (pike dumplings) that are a specialty of the Loire, were by far his favourite (the very reason, in fact, that he was sufficiently piqued to pick up the book). Incredibly sweet and ethereally light (the prawn flesh is bound by a cream-based mousseline rather than a flour-based panade), the quenelles are poached in a rich prawn and fish stock before being thickly blanketed by velouté and sprinkled with grated gruyère. The final brief spell in the oven not only allows the quenelles to emerge an appetizing hue, but also ensures the little torpedoes get a chance to absorb the finely flavoured sauce whilst plumping up some more.
I immediately gravitated to this recipe for the simple reason that the version I had tasted at Bistro Moncur stands in my mind as the ultimate soupe de poisson - intensely flavoured, without the least trace of muddiness that all too often taints lesser examples, the very essence of the sea. The key is extracting the flavour from a lavish quantity of fish, bones and crustaceans in the minimum of liquid - unlike meat stocks, fish stocks do not improve with prolonged cooking, which is a surefire way to extract off flavours. In addition, any excuse to go witness the magic of mounting a mayonnaise-type sauce (in rouille's case, perfumed with saffron and suffused with garlicky heat) with mortar and pestle - not just because in Richard Olney's words "no other receptacle from which to serve can be as handsome as the marble mortar", but because the ease of using a blender or processor comes at the expense of taste and texture.
My favourite of the lot. Whilst doing my grocery rounds, I spied some enticing foie de veau at the butcher's and immediately had the book's preparation in mind. Have I ever mentioned how much I love liver? (or for that matter, most other offal from tongue to tripe?) With the liver of milk-fed veal calves, preferably crustily golden without, with a pinkly tender interior that's verging on creamy - the perfect degree of doneness that the recipe will gently nudge you towards. To dismiss this dish, classically flavoured with sage, onions and sherry vinegar, as mere "liver & onions", would be to pass on a very good thing.
Because I had made custard for ice-cream earlier in the day and had egg whites to spare, because I love meringues, and because I was in need of an easy mid-afternoon sugar fix. The stiffly whipped whites are flavoured with finely chopped walnuts and lemon zest before being dolloped free form on the baking sheet. Just before serving, a light dusting of cocoa adds the right hint of bittersweet.