French Comfort Food

by Lisa Dinsmore
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frenchcomfortfoodI hate to admit that French food intimidates me. Both eating it and cooking it. While there are plenty of “rustic” and simple classic dishes they all seem to require a patience, focus and techniques that are hard to master for a self-taught chef. Plus, the list of ingredients can also be rather daunting. The French make some of the most amazing food in the world and you can’t get that complexity of flavor without quality products and a passion to make them come alive. Frankly I rarely have the time or energy to devote to dinner, so I’ve often lusted from afar when it comes to actually preparing French cuisine. I will consider that amazing recipe for about 30 seconds, mouth-watering, before moving on to something far less complicated, and most assuredly less memorable.

That is, until I came across Hillary Davis’s new book French Comfort Food. Sure the “French” part of the title gave me a moment’s pause, but the words “comfort food” caught my attention and sent my mind spinning with dreams of bread, cheese and all sorts of decadent delights. Perhaps even ones that I could create in my kitchen. The book brings together classic, home-style recipes from her experience of living over a decade in France (2 years in Paris, 11 in the South). Some collected from friends she made along the way, others tasted in out-of-the-way bistros and family dinners she found herself included in, many regional dishes that you rarely see here, but still cherished in their native land. Her love of all things French jumps from every page and the photos make you want to immediately book a flight.

The book is separated into six sections and includes everything from "Welcoming Starters and Savory Nibbles" (pates, dips and soufflés) to "Soups, Sandwiches and Simple Pleasures" (Can you say Croque Madame? Hell, yes please!), to family-style entrees (like Chicken Marengo and Boeuf Bourguignon) and dinner party-fare like beef or cheese fondue and Mussels in White Wine. There are also plenty of recipes to satisfy everyone’s sweet tooth. How does one choose between Creme Caramel, Profiteroles bathed in Chocolate Sauce or Macarons from Nancy?

For added color and history, she includes a short origin story with each recipe - how she found it and how/why she changed it - as well as all of the equipment/pots you’ll need to pull it off, which is quite helpful. This makes the recipes seem like a treasure hunt / travelogue of what you might find as you wander the countryside looking for sustenance. Not all of the recipes are complex or have a ton of ingredients - like the Crusty Baguette with Melted Chocolate (just 2) - which is nice for beginner’s like me and a good way to get your feet wet, so to speak.

endivedishBefore I go further into what I made in my kitchen, I want to be clear. This is not a diet/healthy cookbook in any way. The recipes weren’t altered for that reason. Great French food uses a LOT of cheese, cream and butter and this book is no exception to that rule. If you aren’t allowed to eat dairy or fat, this book may be a bit challenging to find a recipe to cook. Thankfully, that was not a problem for me. What she’s done with many of the recipes is simplified and distilled the process to get the same flavors, but without as much of the need for masterly techniques. It may be comfort food, but it’s classy comfort food, so there is still time and effort involved to make it just right.

I made several dishes that were quite good, but the standout so far was the Gratin d’Endives au Jambon. It’s a similar dish to one I saw Chef Ludo Lefevbre make with his grandmother on No Reservations a few years back and have been dying to try it. It actually doesn’t have many ingredients - it’s only endives wrapped in ham smothered in cheese sauce - but there are a number of steps to making it; however the end product was so worth the effort. Like most simple dishes this one comes down to the quality of the ingredients, so shop wisely. It is very rich and deeply satisfying. A perfect dinner to warm yourself on a cold fall day. I was SO happy there were leftovers and couldn’t wait for lunch the next day. I will be making this again….soon. (I just had to take a picture of it, it was soooo good.)

She covers all the bases with this book and it will be hard to choose where to continue my journey, but I sure am looking forward to it. I only wish there were more photos of the finished dishes instead of so many shots of the ingredients, which are beautiful but not exactly helpful. I guess that way you won’t have to be disappointed if your version doesn’t come out looking perfect. So far, it hasn’t mattered much to me. Taste is what wins out in the end and I see many cold nights being comforted by food from this book in my immediate future.

ENDIVES AND HAM GRATIN (Gratin d'Endives au Jambon)

Serves 4

Although Belgians lay a valid claim to the origin of this dish, it is a firm family favorite thoughout France as a warming winter dish--especially on a gray cold day when rain is pounding on the windows and children need warming up. To make it, whole endives are wrapped in a slice of ham then baked in a casserole with a Mornay sauce to create a cozy meal.

Special Equipment: Large Skillet; 9x12-inch casserole or gratin dish: saucepan; aluminum foil.

Ingredients:

4 tablespoons unsalted butter, plus more to butter casserole dish
8 large endives
2 to 4 tablespoons olive oil
1 to 2 tablespoons of sugar
8 large, thin slices boiled ham
4 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 cups milk or fat-free half-and-half
4 teaspoons Dijon mustard
1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon salt
6 cracks freshly ground black pepper
1 clove garlic, peeled and minced
8 ounces Jarlsburg, Gruyere, Emmental or French Cantal cheese, grated
1/2 cup grated Parmesan

PREP:

Generously butter the casserole dish and preheat the oven to 450 degrees F.

Clean the endives, pull off any discolored outer leaves, slice the root end off and slice in half lengthwise.

COOK:

Add 2 tablespoons olive oil to the skillet and heat until very hot. Sprinkle with 1 tablespoon sugar then arrange as many endives as you can in the skillet and cook for about 3 minutes, until nicely browned. Turn over and cook the other side until nicely browned. Remove to a plate and repeat with the remaining endives, adding more oil and another tablespoon of sugar, if needed.

Put 2 endive halves back together to make a whole endive, roll in a piece of ham and repeat with the remaining endives.

In the saucepan, melt the butter, whisk in the flour, then very slowly whish in the milk over medium heat until the sauce thickens and bubbles. Add mustard, nutmeg, salt, pepper, garlic and cheese of choice and whisk until melted and well blended to make your sauce. Add a little more milk if you would like it a bit thinner.

Pour some of the sauce in the bottom of the casserole dish, arrange the endive rolls in the dish, pour the rest of the sauce over them, sprinkle the Parmesan over the top, and then add a generous sprinkling of salt and coarsely ground pepper.

Cover the dish with aluminum foil and bake for 20 minutes. Remove the foil and bake another 25 minutes, until the top is golden and bubbly. Remove from the over and cool a little before serving as it will be very hot.

- Recipe by Hillary Davis, author of French Comfort Food and Cuisine Niçoise. ©2014 

Lisa Dinsmore is a writer, web programmer, movie and wine lover and is the Managing Editor of One for the Table. She also currently runs two review websites to share her passions: www.crazy4cinema.com and www.dailywinedispatch.com.


 

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