Find our top 6 picks for the best French cookbooks of the past 25 years.
March 13, 2012
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Top 6 French Cookbooks
"Anyone can cook in the French manner anywhere, with the right instruction." Thus began the classic Mastering the Art of French Cooking, by Julia Child, Simone Beck, and Louisette Bertholle, published in 1961—perhaps one of the most important statements in 20th-century cookbooks, as it summed up Child's philosophy and threw open the doors to a rarefied cuisine for American women (and men, of course): Vive la libération! French cookbooks, written by an American, were crucial in inspiring Alice Waters, the godmother of new American cooking. Much of what we owe to good cooking we owe to the French, and a good French cookbook is a glorious thing indeed. Here, we present our favorite French cookbooks from the past 25 years.
This culinary tour de force includes recipes that read as if you're working from Greenspan's handwritten recipe cards. Each begins with a headnote, always containing a tidbit about method. Often there are comparisons to more familiar American recipes that will disarm anyone unfamiliar with—or intimidated by—a recipe or its title. Ever practical, she also offers substitutions and storage tips.
"This is elbows-on-the-table food ..." she promises. "It's the food I would cook for you if you visit me in Paris—or New York City."
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Continued: Around My French Table
That casual approach extends to the writing: "Scrape the mix into the pan and poke it around with a spatula so it's evenish," she advises concerning Marie-Hélène's Apple Cake. Her instructions made me smile almost as wide as the cake itself. Savory classics include My Go-To Beef Daube and Almond Flounder Meunière. But Greenspan loves the way modern French cooking blends tradition with new, so you'll see a few unexpected flavors, like Braised Cardamom-Curry Lamb. No matter which recipe you choose, in Greenspan's hands, you'll be well fed.
GIVE THIS TO: Confident cooks who want to learn more about French cuisine and technique. —Vanessa Pruett
Jacques Pépin is a luminary: He has six decades as a cook and thousands of recipes to his credit. And this book reads very much like his summing up.
Pépin combed through his massive archives and chose 700 favorites. Some required only dusting off, but many have been updated. The results are delicious, classic, never-boring French dishes. From soup (Split Pea Soup with Cracklings: yum!) to frozen desserts like Blood Orange Sorbet—perfectly sweet-tart and vibrant—Essential Pépin has it all. He covers seasonings, stocks, drinks, relishes, and pickles, such as Pickled Hen-of-the-Woods (mushrooms).
The book is treasure enough, but it comes with a DVD of Pépin—he of sparkling eyes and soothing accent—telling a cook pretty much everything she needs to know. This book (and DVD) aren't simply the essentials: They are, per the title, essential Pépin.
GIVE THIS TO: All present and future Pépin fans. —Deb Wise
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Lulu's Provençal Table
Lulu's Provençal TableBy Richard Olney, Ten Speed Press, 2002. Hardcover. From $70 (market price at printing); 392 pages
Richard Olney moved to Provence in 1961 and had the good fortune to befriend the owners of Domaine Tempier. The Lulu of the title is spirited and a great cook, natural hostess, and sailor.
This book is more than a collection of recipes. It begins with an account of the love affair between Lulu and Lucien Peyraud and their struggle to establish their now-celebrated Bandol winery.
Then we go into Lulu's wondrous kitchen, where Olney offers a seat at her celebrated table. We see the comfortable exchanges between friends: Lulu cooks, and Olney takes his notes. He shares her staples, including Lucien's Soup, a pureed potage of leeks, potato, and turnip, a meal "I fix for Lucien every evening when we're alone," Lulu says.
There is succulent Pot-Roasted Leg of Lamb with Black Olives with Zucchini Gratin, and Gratin de Pommes de Terre à l'Oseille (Potato and Sorrel Gratin), delicious with just six ingredients. There are plenty of simple recipes, but Bouillabaisse is a fascinating 10 pages long.
GIVE THIS TO: Francophiles, country-cooking romantics, and wine lovers. —Tiffany Vickers Davis
Straightforward, rustic country cooking at its best from another American known for her experiences of France. The subtitle makes a key point: This book doesn't seek to be the first and last word on Provençal cooking but instead a collection of the sort of meals Wells finds herself whipping up while at her enviable 10-acre hideaway in Vaison-la-Romaine. We get Wells' favorite speedy ratatouille; a garlicky-cheesy summer pistou soup; and other classics from the sun-beaten region.
This book is personal, and, unlike several other tomes in this collection, it's not massive. And, written by an expat, it occasionally betrays a little wanderlust: Inspired by the flavors of France's Bresse region, Wells combines tarragon and vinegar in Chicken with Tarragon and Sherry Vinegar, a delicious yet simple chicken stew finished with a bit of cream. She also includes a recipe for très riche potato gratin Dauphinois from the neighboring Dauphiné region.
There is nothing we haven't heard a thousand times before in Wells' philosophy, but her recipes allow the cook to follow this guidance: "Keep it fresh, keep it simple, respect the seasons, and allow the integrity of an ingredient to shine through."
The purpose of a weighty, comprehensive cookbook like Glorious French Food is to provoke a cook out of his or her narrowing habits. The obligations of the author: to gather a great deal of delicious recipes and to write with a tricky balance of authority, originality, and voice. All this James Peterson achieves with ease.
Most chapters begin with a classic recipe such as Pork Noisettes with Prunes, then dive into core cooking techniques associated with that dish, and then provide related recipes that build on those techniques. This focus on benchmark recipes adds a nice rhythm.
A wry tone prevails, but there's lots of meaty detail to chew on along the way. And, by the way, the recipes work: Duck with Turnips—a dish with five ingredients, though one of them is homemade stock—was earthy, sweet, and tender.
GIVE THIS TO: Good cooks seeking to expand their repertoire. —Scott Mowbray
Everyone to whom I've shown this substantial book responds with the same dreamy sigh: There are pages and pages of beautiful photographs of the people, animals, farms, and landscapes that make up rural France. Chapter openers praise soups, savory tarts, snails and frogs, charcuterie, and the like, explaining their significance to French rural cuisine. Sidebars dig deeper into the particulars of, for example, Alsace and Lille, or stinky cheeses and fresh chestnuts, or Monsieur Milbert, the gardener who has "dug the earth seven days a week for a half century." Recipe headnotes offer origins and history of dishes, as well as fine substitutes for ingredients that are hard to find outside of France.
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Continued: The Country Cooking of France
The food is likewise dreamy and beautifully photographed. The image of Scrambled Eggs with Wild Mushrooms—silky-creamy eggs and glistening mushrooms draped over a crisp slab of country bread—is enough to make you rethink your dinner plans. (And if you do, you'll be glad.) Other standout dishes: Carbonnade de Boeuf, a deeply savory stew of onions and beef simmered in beer and topped with Dijon-coated croutons; Tarte Tatin à la Tomate, a savory twist on the classic apple dessert; and fresh, veggie-wonderful Ratatouille. Willan suggests spooning Ratatouille leftovers into a casserole, cracking eggs on top, and baking. Listen to her; it's delicious! There are many indulgent recipes, but those seeking lighter fare will have no trouble finding vegetable salads and stews, lean fish and poultry dishes, and other recipes that go easy on the butter and cream.
GIVE THIS TO: The intermediate cook in love with the romance of France. —Ann Taylor Pittman