Saturday, April 22, 2006

French by Damien Pignolet ... Miam miam!

It's funny how things start. I think of that period well over a decade ago - when the noxiousness of college catering first compelled me to learn how to feed myself - as a culinary coming-of-age. And as such things go, what arose from necessity would soon prove to be the beginning of a lifelong obsession. The thrill, the gratification, the veritable hoopla of cooking, has outlasted friendships, love affairs, and countless other hobbyist dalliances. Or should I say twin obsessions - hand in hand with the compulsion to cook, what else but an equally voracious appetite for cookbooks? Many a Saturday afternoon, along with much too much of my student's allowance, was spent at Books for Cooks in Notting Hill. Some of the books I picked up then continue to have a special place both in my heart and in the kitchen, and for sure, not only for their sentimental value.

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.

Provencale Fish Soup with its Rouille

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.

Calves' Liver with Sage, Onion Soubise, and a Sherry Vinegar Sauce

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.

Widow's Kisses

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.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't think it's possible for a non-cookbookophile to fully understand that singular tingly sensation we get when we find one of those rare books that as you say combines style and substance. I even got tingly reading your description - you sure know how to sell a book, my dear! Not to mention that you seem to have zeroed in on the exact dishes I would have chosen to make first myself - hearty, rustic classics with a twist. Absolutely gorgeous - if they even tasted half as good as they look (and I'm sure they did), I'm sure W was a happy, happy man.

6:52 am, April 22, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Such an interesting post J. I think it is funny how one gets attracted to food and a certain cuisine. AS an example, being French, I am very attracted to all sorts of cuisines that are more foreign to me. Maybe also explaining why I love foreign languages so much. This boos intrigues me however (Am I going to have to buy another cookbook after ordering 4 this week that will be shipped to me from France?).
Beautiful beautiful pics and recipes. I have not had a quenelle in AGES!

7:03 am, April 22, 2006  
Blogger deborah said...

J, What a lovely post, and I agree with Melissa... you have chosen well with the dishes you have made. Classic, comforting and elegant. I was actually talking to my Uncle who is a Cordon Bleu (from the old days) trained chef about a liver dish where the livers are lovely and pink... we were concocting a sauce to go with... and sage was one of the ingredients. Your words have made me even more excited about a cooking course I've booked where Damien Pignolet will be sharing his wealth of knowledge. I might have to purchase the book to satiate my tastebuds until then.

8:19 am, April 22, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


I too agree with Melissa. There's nothing quite like that feeling that comes over us when we connect with that very special book.

As always your presentation is so beautiful. I feel like I could just reach out and sample a bit of everything.


9:13 am, April 22, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A wonderful post summing up so eloquently the thrill of finding a book that speaks to just putting your hand on the cover can make your heart start racing faster. I'm glad you were able to revisit some obviously fond - and very delicious-looking - memories with this cookbook!

9:48 am, April 22, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

thanks for sharing this J....
my life at this moment is so revolve with work but its such a great break to read yr posts.

though am here in france my boss chef is english and I could actually say they are not very adventurous.

But this wont stop me for exploring my own discoveries. then I will have a look at this book.

I will take the widow kisses

11:08 pm, April 22, 2006  
Blogger Stephanie said...

Wow, I absolutely love all the recipes featured! I am quite tempted to get the book now. I call the tingling my "Holy cow, my hair is standing on ends" feeling. You can just imagine that I look a little like Don King sometimes when I am at Borders drooling over the cookbooks.

10:47 am, April 23, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi, these all look lovely! I was not particularly taken by his Marie rose sauce for his classic prawn cocktail (perhaps I've grown too accustomed to the store-bought stuff that most restaurants use) and his seriously orange cake was seriously underwhelming (again, it could be that our oranges are not as flavorful). But I look forward to working my way through the rest of the book. I'm not sure if you noticed the snippet in CH's news section, but DP will be cooking at Poppi on 29 April.

3:05 pm, April 23, 2006  
Blogger Annette Tan said...

It all looks amazingly good. And since W raved about your "fish soup with mayonnaise" the other day, I'm glad I finally have a picture to put it to :-) 'Love the colour of your backdrop! And of course, you've made me want to buy the book now too. Sidebar: I realised that I forgot to pack the bottle of chilli sauce in your 'care package'. I'll pass it to W on Monday...

6:29 pm, April 23, 2006  
Blogger FooDcrazEE said...

can we learn from ur class...

7:38 pm, April 23, 2006  
Blogger Steffles said...

Hey J, all I can say is W is a lucky man. Your photos look delectable as usual.

5:11 pm, April 24, 2006  
Blogger sooishi said...


7:42 pm, April 24, 2006  
Blogger Unknown said...

cookbooks must truly be the 'apples' sent down from above to tempt us food-lovers into hopeless acts of commission...if only our results look as fabulous as yours, then 'sinning' by yet another purchase will be worth it indeed!

11:36 pm, April 24, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Beautiful photos, beautiful blog...the cookbook caught my attention but the quenelles brought me back to my last visit to Paris. I was with a colleague who, as it happens, is the fussiest eater I happen to PARIS of all places to be fussy.... We had fish quenelles at a restaurant around the corner from our hotel, and after a few suspicious pokes, he took a bite and his eyes lit up... Your post reminded me of that wonderful moment when someone realizes that good food satisfies all kinds of hunger. Looking forward to reading more...

10:19 am, April 26, 2006  
Blogger So said...

I had to laugh when I read the first part of your post, cause I still go to Books for Cooks to look for something to add to my collection. That place has a lovely owner which is I guess why the place has this warm glow. I must say...very lovely menu (it has all my favorite things). Perfect prawn quenelles, thick rouille and crusty bread, and liver that is pink with the creamy goodness of soubise

9:58 pm, April 26, 2006  
Blogger Julia said...

I have, and love, this elegant cookbook. I also made a three-course dinner from it earlier this year (the potato mussel and fennel salad and almond milk granita are superb). Highly recommedned

12:32 pm, April 27, 2006  
Blogger Ange said...

I have been eying this book for a while & great to hear that a fellow blogger has given it the thumbs up, your dishes all look amazing too

1:10 pm, April 28, 2006  
Blogger *fanny* said...

I really love the cover of that book. But do i really need another french cuisine cookbook? That's the question (and my problem).


9:26 pm, May 16, 2006  
Blogger *fanny* said...

Hi J, just buy French today and i already love it.
The recipes sound so great and i love the great explainations Damien makes.

3:48 am, August 22, 2006  

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