October 2010

Charlotte Freeman


Notes from La Rentrťe

There is a very short window here in Montana between the moment when we can first start eating our own summer vegetables, and the beginning of autumn. This year, they seem to have arrived simultaneously -- the first local hothouse tomatoes (ironically grown in a greenhouse at approximately 8,500 feet in Tom Miner Basin), the first basil, zucchini so tender and new we havenít become inured to them yet, crunchy green beans, and the first cucumbers -- have all arrived just as the days grow noticeably shorter and the first snow has fallen on the peaks around us. June was exceptionally cold this year, and although weíre all swathing our gardens in plastic, weíre also exchanging recipes for green tomatoes.

This seasonal collision puts me in the slightly schizophrenic position of cooking simultaneously out of these two cookbooks, the one whose pages seem to release their own rays of Italian sunshine, and the other that speaks to me of the golden autumn days of the Paris rentrťe (my favorite time of year to visit).

Recipes from an Italian Summer comes from the same source material as the Silver Spoon cookbook that Phaidon put out a couple of years ago, but I have to admit, I find this one much more accessible, and Iíve cooked out if it a lot more. Perhaps itís the lack of comprehensiveness -- or perhaps itís the emphasis on buffet and barbecue dishes, the sort that can be put together beforehand, and which are delicious at room temperature. In the summer I tend not to cook every day, so I like to stock the fridge with interesting marinated veggies, and even grill meat ahead if thereís a cool evening breeze, and this book lends itself perfectly to that sort of summer cooking. This is a casual cookbook, one focused on simple seasonal ingredients, and yet there are enough interesting tricks that youíll find yourself transferring them from one recipe to another. The mustard seed, lemon and olive oil dressing for the green bean salad also lends itself to the orphaned zucchini my neighbor dropped off on his evening walk the other night. The Panzanella is certainly not anything new, but once again summer brings an opportunity to remember how delicious it is, what a marvelous way to use up old bread and the newest juciest tomatoes. And yet, there are new-old dishes too, like the ham and ricotta patť, a delicious, cool summer lunch dish (and around here, a good way to use up whatís left of last yearís pig. County fair time is time to order a pig for the winter from our local meatpacker). Served with aforementioned green bean salad at the table under the apple tree, itís a lunch with a friend that is the very definition of alfresco. This is one of those cookbooks I find myself pulling out as the vegetables continue to change week by week. It would be a great gift for someone new to a CSA because there are so many different vegetables featured that one is sure to find something for everyone.

Dorie Greenspanís Baking has been my go-to guide since it came out several years ago, and as someone who has been following her blog, I was thrilled to hear about Around My French Table, her new book about contemporary French home cooking. I am not someone who wants to recreate restaurant dishes at home -- after that stretch in my twenties where I dated several chefs, I know I canít cook like that. What I am always on the lookout for are books for home cooks, books that tell you how people in different countries are cooking at home. And while Iím a sucker for books that promise to teach you to cook like a grandmother, the rarer find is a book like this one, that promises to teach you like a hip, contemporary person who lives in Paris.

This book has only been in my house a couple of weeks, and already itís filled with little adhesive notes marking the recipes Iíve tried, and the ones Iím waiting to try when the temperatures drop. Despite the heat, I couldnít resist the very first recipe in the book, for gougŤres. I love gougŤres -- those hot, cheesy cream puffs that are a mainstay of the French apertifs presentation. Luckily, they also freeze beautifully -- so not only did my beloved and I start a dinner of local steak on the grill with cheesy puffs, but thereís a Ziploc bag stashed away in the freezer. There are a lot of appetizer and luncheon dishes in this book, including several really interesting treatments of salmon and tuna that Iíve fallen in love with as well -- one rillettes version each of tuna and salmon, and marinated salmon that is a variation of the marinated herring one often sees in French bistros. Iíve tried both of the rillettes, and I love them for lunch. Theyíre each miles more interesting than my old standby tuna salad, and Iím hoping that soon Iíll feel brave enough to try the sardine rillettes (sardines being something I want to like, but find myself slightly freaked out by). When a friend was closing up her house (because she sadly had to return to LA), I lucked into a large package of smoked salmon, which I put up in oil using Greenspanís recipe. Itís delicious; the aromatics cut what I often find to be too smoky a flavor, and the oil helps preserve what otherwise would probably have spoiled.

Iíve been on something of a lamb kick lately, and although I liked the Lamb and Dried Apricot tagine, my sweetie and I actually liked the preceding recipe, Braised Cardamon-Curry lamb a little better. I think it must have been because the latter has potatoes, and I live with a man who would forsake almost all else for potatoes. Both of these recipes show off what is new and interesting about this book -- the spicing. Greenspanís Paris is a world where she can still get into a lengthy discussion at the butcher about the correct cut for Boeuf ŗ la Ficelle, but it is also a multicultural world where curry powder, Asian spices, and coconut milk take their place alongside such staples as Chicken in a Pot, Moules Mariniere and Boeuf a la Mode. This is an exciting and modern take on French home cooking, and yet, itís one that doesnít throw out the old standbys. I have a hunch, this might just supplant my battered, marked up, filled-with-clippings copy of Patricia Wellsís Bistro Cooking as my everyday French cookbook of choice. I know Iím thoroughly looking forward to cooking my way through this book from end to end.