If you have been reading my blog for awhile, you may have guessed that I have an extensive collection of French cookbooks. One might argue that if you’re into French cooking, all you really need is a couple of good ones. One might also argue that Julia’s Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking is all you really need on the subject. Having just one of something I like, however, is not my style. I like quality and quantity. And as much as I love MtAoFC, sometimes I just don’t have all day to steep chicken and cream in port wine. For years, I’ve been looking for a French Cookbook that contains all of my favorite rustic, country-style recipes, organized by region, with plenty of beautiful photographs, and clear, simple instructions.
Essentials of French Cooking by Williams-Sonoma is that book. It begins with an overview of the culinary traditions in France and the influence of French cuisine, which has long been reputed to be the world’s greatest. What follows is a chapter on the specialties of each of the twenty-one regions of mainland France, as well as the island of Corsica. For example, as one of the two most important wine-producing regions, Burgundy is known for a variety of rich, wine-based dishes such as Boeuf bourguignon and Escargots de Bourgogne, whereas Brittany, a northwestern region that has more in common with Britain than the rest of France, is known for a simple cuisine that focuses on fish and seafood.
There is a section on planning a French meal, which explains the concept of terroir–the idea of building a menu based on dishes originating in the same region, a section on choosing French wines, and one for the various utensils necessary for executing the perfect French meal. There is even a section on charcuterie, the assortment of pates and cured meats which is a common prelude to a meal throughout the country.
You won’t find the sort of unfamiliar and complicated recipes that are plentiful in Julia Child’s book. Child’s book is expansive and encyclopedic in scope. Essentials of French Cooking, however, focuses on the type of classic, everyday recipes that are often encountered in the English-speaking world: French onion soup, quiche Lorraine, crepes Suzette. Tarte au citron, tarte tatin, coq au vin. It’s all here, the best of the best of French cooking.
The recipes are easy, many requiring just a few steps, like this recipe for Pommes Anna, a potato gratin created to honor Anna Desilons, a courtesan in Paris in the nineteenth century. It’s a grand name for what is essentially a dish of sliced potatoes baked in melted butter. The final product is turned over onto a plate to reveal a crust of crispy potatoes, creating an elegant presentation. It’s the first recipe I’ve made from this lovely new cookbook, but it’s certainly not going to be the last.
Makes 6 servings
5 tablespoons (2 1/2 ounces/ 75g) unsalted butter
1 1/2 pounds (750g) potatoes
salt and freshly ground pepper
1) Preheat the oven to 375F (190C) Coat a 9-inch (23cm) pie pan with 1 tablespoon of the butter.
2) Peel the potatoes. Rinse and pat dry with paper towels. Slice the potatoes about 1/8 inch (3mm) thick, using the thin blade of a mandoline.
3) Melt 4 tablespoons of butter in a large saucepan over medium heat. Set aside.
4) Arrange a single layer of potato slices on the bottom of the prepared pan, overlapping them slightly. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and drizzle some of the melted butter over top. Repeat the layering process until all the potato slices have been used.
5) Bake until potatoes are tender when pierced with a fork and the top is crisp and golden, 40-60 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack and let stand for 5 minutes.
6) Run a knife along the edge of the pan, then place a serving plate over the pan. Invert the pan and plate together to unmold. Cut into wedges and serve immediately.