French Taste: Elegant Everyday Eating
By Laura Calder
Published by HarperCollins 2009, $39.95; hardcover, 309 pages

If you think really good French food should be left to five-star chefs and followers of Julia Child’s masterworks, you need to meet Laura Calder. The Food Network star has nailed it for anyone who wants to prepare tasty French dishes without the need to have either tons of time or several assistants to do all the prep work.

In fact, the subtitle sums up what I know about French food from my travels there. I ate mostly at home tables, and the food was prepared by ordinary French cooks, not chefs. All of it seemed simply prepared, and maybe it had to do with the French vibe around the table — the “passion for pleasure,” as Calder describes it, that infuses French life and sets its food apart as special — that made those meals so fabulous. Interestingly, most of those home-cooked French meals ended with sublime bakery-made desserts, not hard to understand since there’s a fabulous bakery there every 10 feet or so. Why kill yourself whipping up a gorgeous apricot tart or chocolate mousse cake when the bakery’s only minutes away? That seemed to be the general consensus.

It’s an attitude that comes through in Calder’s book. Yes, she offers recipes for delicious sounding desserts, including a lemon tart that made me drool just reading it. But on the whole, the approach she takes is relaxed, typical of the French cooks I ran across. “There’s no need to commit to mastering the entire canon of French cuisine just to make mousse au chocolat or a steak au poivre,” she says in the introduction. To which I say, “Amen.”

Keep in mind the French insistence on impeccable ingredients – those of the freshest and highest quality – and you’ve mastered the most important part of producing fine French food. Don’t stint and use fake lemon juice or margarine (it’s butter and cream all the way!) or jarred chopped garlic. If you do, you and everyone else at your table will not be impressed. To that end, Calder provides several “pensées” on entertaining, shopping (particularly for cheese and wine), and even the proper role of apéritifs and digestifs in the pleasures of the table.

Calder is generous with the credit she gives to the people who inspired or provided the starting point for many of the recipes she includes here, something some cookbook authors aren’t prone to do. It’s a testament, I think, to the confidence she has in what she’s doing, helping her viewers and readers to prepare good food in the French style. She didn’t invent French cooking, she seems to be saying. She’s just well-versed enough in it to share what she’s learned and experienced (she lived in France for 10 years before returning to Canada).

There are a number of classics here, including duck l’orange, which is simplified by calling for only the duck breasts, not the whole duck. But it still requires a number of steps that give it its authentic flavour. Other classics are a little easier on the cook, including tartines (French for crostini), pissaladière (a Provençal take on tomato and anchovy pizza) and vichyssoise (leek and potato soup, served hot or cold, depending on the season. . . and maybe the cook’s temperature). The duck is probably the most complicated recipe in the book and a few other recipes use such non-French ingredients (at least in the traditional sense) as soy sauce, which may put off the purists among you.

There’s also what Calder — and I wholeheartedly agree, having tried the method — considers the best recipe for home-made French bread this side of Paris in the book. It’s a no-knead bread dough invented by New York baker Jim Lahey and made famous through a New York Times column by Mark Bittman.  “This bread has the most amazingly mature flavour, with an incredibly chewy, airy lightness and an unsurpassed crisp crust,” Calder writes.

Just to give you a taste, here’s a brief list of what else you’re in for with this book: Hors d’oeuvres include artichokes with roasted garlic aïoli, chèvre dipping sauce for crudités, pernod mussels on the half shell, salmon rillettes, onion and bacon tart; first courses include vâche qui rit soup, celeriac remoulade, fennel and mushroom salad, asparagus with orange sauce, cocotte eggs, cheese and herb soufflé; mains include french-style omelette, squid stewed with tomatoes, white wine and black olives, pan-fried scallops with chive beurre blanc, pork chops with red onion confit; sides include pommes Anna, white beans with crème fraîche, tian of Provençal vegetables, petit pois à la Française and sautèed cucumber with mint; desserts (because we are not spoiled by countless fabulous bakeries nearby) include olive oil and red grape cake, savarin with strawberries, chocolate crêpes, rough apple galette, crème caramel and hazelnut roll.

Hungry yet? Here are two of Calder’s recipes, one for classic steak and peppercorns, or steak au poivre, the other for a more “nouvelle” appie, sesame soy avocado bites. Bon appetit!

PEPPER STEAK

“I used to have a pepper steak recipe I liked, but I haven’t made it since I was taught this version by a friend’s mom, Martine Labro, one of the best home cooks I know in France. It is so fast and simple that it’s almost embarrassing, but, trust me, it’s the ultimate in pepper steak. Martine doesn’t bother with beef stock herself, but I like the depth of flavour it gives.”

Note: Unless you use a heavy non-stick pan, I would suggest a light swish of oil before heating the pan.

2 to 4 tenderloin or eye of round steaks (estimate 5 oz. per person)
1 to 2 tbsps. green peppercorns in brine, rinsed and drained
¼ cup red wine or strong black tea
Salt
½ cup beef stock
½ cup crème fraîche

Bring meat to room temperature before cooking, about 20 minutes. Soak peppercorns in the wine in a bowl. Lightly oil and heat a large frying pan to high, and season the meat with salt. When the pan is very hot, fry the steak on both sides to your liking.

Let the meat rest on a board while you prepare the sauce. Drain peppercorns. Deglaze the pan with the stock and boil it down to a generous tablespoon, about 2 minutes. Lower the heat and add the peppercorns and cream to heat through. Put meat back in the pan, turning once to coat. Serve. Serves 4.

SESAME SOY AVOCADO

“A roommate of mine used to make this all the time when people dropped by our Paris apartment for drinks. It takes about 30 seconds, start to finish, and involves nothing more than a quick chop, a bit of sprinkling, and a few squirts. The result is startlingly good; a rubble heap of fleshy avocado chunks, transformed with soy sauce for depth, lemon for acidity, and sesame seeds for a teensy scattering of crunch. Serve with picks at apéritifs, keeping in mind that it is also great beside a toasted tomato sandwich for lunch.”

2 perfectly ripe avocados
Lemon juice
Olive oil
Organic soy sauce
Fleur de sel or Maldon sea salt
Freshly ground black peppercorns
Toasted sesame seeds

Just before serving, halve, pit, and peel the avocado. Cut into cubes onto a flattering plate. (The sauce will run to the bottom, if you put them in a bowl, so avoid that.) Squeeze over lemon juice to taste, then drizzle lightly with olive oil and a thread of soy sauce. Sprinkle with salt, and grind over some pepper. Scatter over the sesame seeds. Taste and see if the avocado needs more lemon or soy. Correct seasonings, and nibble away to your heart’s content. Serves 4 to 6.

– From French Taste