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Cookbook Review

‘French Grandmother’ dishes are hearty, fuss-free

Despite its intimate-sounding title and the kindly white-haired dowager on the cover, there is no actual grandmother behind “Recipes from my French Grandmother.” The Grandmother series (which now includes Spanish, Russian, Italian, and Jewish entries) comes from international publisher Lorenz Books, and each book collects the kind of hearty, fuss-free, but not necessarily quick dishes you’d expect your grandmother to teach you. Here the recipes are interpreted by author and teacher Carole Clements and food stylist Elizabeth Wolf-Cohen, who have collaborated together on many French cookbooks.

While we cooked from the book, we ate very well (although we did tear through cream and butter at a terrifying rate). This is familiar fare, versions of which you’ll have seen in cooking magazines or any restaurant with French influences. Still, there is something to be said for having the recipes given the Lorenz Books treatment: lots of photographs (including step-by-step pictures) and no-frills directions.

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Stylish sides gave our table a bistro-like feel night after night. You may have wondered what to do with frisee, the curly lettuce whose slightly bitter overtones can overwhelm on their own. But in a traditional salad, scattered with rich chunks of bacon and croutons, and tossed in a warm red wine vinaigrette, the plate puts that bitterness in context. Glazed carrots and turnips are the kind where a sprinkle of sugar brings out the natural sweetness in the roots, while a long and gentle cooking time lets the butter insinuate its way deep inside. Strands of caramelized onion and ribbons of chard hold together an easy, eggy omelet.

In some cases, I had to engage in guesswork. It was clear that the peas and beans in a vegetable soup would be grey and lifeless after 35 minutes of simmering, so I added them at the end instead of midway through. A basil pistou is the crowning touch, an emphatic counterpoint to the summery freshness of the soup. A side of fava beans mustn’t be boiled for the 8 minutes recommended; if you don’t want them to turn to mush, half the time is plenty. If you overdo it, though, it’ll still be a swooning, luscious mush, draped with creme fraiche and chives. What kind of potatoes should you use in a dish of scalloped potatoes? Should they be peeled? How thin should they be sliced? No answers were to be found in the recipe, but after I’d scraped up the last of a delicious, but fall-apart messy, dish, I concluded they should have been waxy, and sliced ¼ inch, not ⅛ . It’ll be better next time, but it would have been nice to know in the first place.

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The big dinner centerpieces are, without exception, winners. An old-fashioned chicken fricassee is pale and tender with mushrooms, pearl onions, and cream sauce. Each ingredient gets its turn in the butter, and you can taste every bit, so you’ll want some bread for wiping out the pan afterward.

A fresh, sharp summery vinaigrette with mint, diced tomatoes, and honey, sets off the gamy richness of simply grilled lamb loin chops. Prunes do double duty in a roast pork dish: They’re soaked in wine overnight, leaving behind a liquid that lends its sweetness to yet another cream sauce; at the table you pair dark and sugary prune morsels with each forkful of succulent pork.

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If you’re comfortable with tart doughs, there are some fine and easy fillings here. Alsatian leek and onion tartlets are fussy, what with lining the pans, baking the pastry, then filling them. Unless you take more care than the recipe provides for, the dough will most likely shrink around the golden, caramel-stranded filling. In the end, the tartlets are not enough to be a meal, but you’ll find the five minutes it takes to inhale them are pleasant ones.

Finally, a lemon tart is an easy weeknight sweet, filled with nothing more than eggs, cream, and lemon (you’ll need a tart pan at least an inch deep — no mention of that in the recipe — if you don’t want excess crust and filling).

The series is an international one, so measurements are given in metric, imperial, and US versions. This can be confusing, as a US pint is 16 ounces but an imperial pint is 20 ounces. The authors assume you’ll use some discretion about cooking times. They don’t hold your hand much with the tricky parts, but the pictures help. All in all, the book may not be as patient or affectionate as your grandmother. But it’s almost as forgiving.


T. Susan Chang can be reached at admin@tsusanchang.com.