The Interview: Around My French Table with Dorie Greenspan
Dorie Greenspan is the author of Around My French Table (Houghton, Mifflin, Harcourt ), a collection of inspiring, delicious and very personal recipes based on her years of living, cooking, and writing about food in Paris. Shortly after publication this fall, it was chosen as the best cookbook of 2010 by Amazon and jumped onto the The New York Times bestseller list in early November.
Unlike other cookbooks that appear every year, written by the celebrity du jour, Dorie has estimable street cred in the world of fine food. She’s co-written books with Julia Child, Daniel Boulud, Pierre Herme and other star chefs. She’s a contributing editor at Bon Appetit. She has a lively food blog and tens of thousands of followers on Twitter. She’s also a nice person. As a friend, I will attest to that.
But back to the book. It’s one of those rare tomes that let you immediately enter another, far tastier world. If you’re like me, you will want to cook — or at the very least, eat — everything you come across. The book was years in the making and it shows. It’s peppered with anecdotes about friends in Paris lucky enough to have a Sunday supper at her house — or she at theirs. This is comfort food raised to high art, and the it’s a delight to read, the fail safe holiday cook book gift of 2010. It will be a pleasure to watch my copy become dog-eared with use.
I finally caught up with Dorie, who divides her time between Paris, New York and Connecticut, at the end of her book tour. She was about to return to Paris. By the time you read this, she’ll be opening the door to her apartment. Lucky indeed, as she herself might say.
EP: While this is a very personal collection of recipes, it’s also very much a window into your life as an American in Paris – you’ve lived there, part time, for a veritable baker’s dozen of years. How has your life in Paris changed your attitude towards food and entertaining?
DG: I’m not sure that my attitude toward food was changed by Paris – it’s more that it was formed decade ago by France – but over the past 13 years or so, since I’ve had my own place in Paris and therefore the chance to invite friends home for dinner, I think my attitude towards entertaining has changed and so has my style: I entertain more often, but more simply. Instead of fussing for a day or more to make a fancy Saturday night dinner, I’m more likely to serve dishes that can come to the table in their pots and get passed around and shared and dipped into for seconds (as people often do with My Go-To Beef Daube). Food like this is easy on the cook, but more important, it keeps people at the table chatting and enjoying themselves, and that’s the real reason to entertain.
EP: One quote from the book that struck me was that “The French are just as busy as we are, and they’re masters of supremely easy – and supremely delicious food.” Following on that, the recipes in the book (thankfully) don’t require a course from Cordon Bleu nor 12 hours in the kitchen, a rap long given to French cooking. Do you think this will come as a revelation to readers?
DG: I think many people know French food from restaurant food and from Julia Child’s wonderful Mastering The Art of French Cooking, and neither, as good as they are, present a picture of what’s happening in French homes these days. Weekday meals in French homes are usually made quickly enough to give a Rachel Ray recipe a run on the stopwatch. But what I love about French ‘fast food’ is that it can be so stylish. Three dishes come to mind immediately: two chicken dishes that can be made in under 20 minutes – Alice’s Cinnamon-Crunch Chicken (sautéed chicken cutlets, crème fraiche and crushed storebought cinnamon cookies) and Chicken Diable (sautéed chicken cutlets finished with spicy Dijon mustard); and Pork Tenderloin and Oranges, another quick sauté, this one made with slices of pork tenderloin, fresh orange segments and orange juice.
EP: Do you see this book as reintroducing French cooking to Americans?
DG: I think of this book as a snapshot of what’s happening in food in France today. It’s also a personal look at how my friends and I are cooking and eating in France. For people who haven’t had the chance to explore French food, I hope this will be a good introduction to a slice of modern French cuisine. And for those who already know the food, I hope this will expand their view. What’s so interesting about food in France today is how inclusive it is – the wonderful traditions of the culture and the cuisine are as strong as ever, but influences from other countries and other cuisines are now part of the current scene. In many ways, French food has never been more recognizable to Americans than it is now and so I think, if you’re just coming to the cuisine, you couldn’t have chosen a better moment.
EP: You note that the French are masters of convenience food, mentioning that Pierre Herme, France’s most famous pastry chef, uses Nutella in a chocolate tart. Can you give us another example or two?
DG: My favorite convenience food in France is frozen all-butter pastry: puff pastry, sweet tart dough and savory tart dough. I’m also crazy about the frozen potato ‘pellets’ from Picard, the frozen-food chain. They’re nothing more than 5-gram niblets of steamed and mashed potatoes that you cook with a little hot milk to make great mashed potatoes.
Here’s a funny story about dough: Yves Camdeborde, one of Paris’s most popular chefs, gave me his recipe for Tuna, Mozzarella and Fresh Basil Pizzas, which he ‘builds’ on a puff pastry base. We were making them together for the video on my book’s Amazon page and I asked him if he makes his own puff pastry. He looked at me as though I had to be joking. His answer: “No, of course not – I buy it (albeit from the great patisserie Gerard Mulot down the street). Don’t you?”
At home, many French cooks will use a convenience food or something store-bought and mix it with something homemade. I love this. It reminds me of chic women who will wear Gap jeans and a Chanel jacket.
EP: Can you give us a three course menu from the book that would take us to the romantic Paris that we all dream about?
DG: Here’s a 5 1/2-course menu, because without an aperitif and a cheese course, I can’t imagine the meal being Parisian or romantic:
Start with Gougeres, little cheese puffs, in the living room with a glass of Kir, Champagne or white wine.
Begin the meal with Cheese-Topped Onion Soup with a spoonful of Cognac in the bottom of the bowl.
For a main-course, have the Chicken-in-a-Pot or My Go-To Beef Daube or the Chard-Stuffed Pork or Duck Breast with Kumquats (a quick, simple, elegant play on duck a l’orange).
A cheese course – even if you have only a couple of cheeses, this course makes a delicious pause between the savory and the sweet courses and besides, you’ll want to drink the rest of your wine with something delicious.
For dessert, Vanilla Eclairs, or Double Chocolate and Banana Tart or Orange-Almond Tart, or Marie-Helene’s (so easy, so good) Apple Cake or maybe even a Peach Melba.
EP: Now how about a typical daily menu, one that might more closely reflect daily life and the true cultural variety one sees in the City of Light?
DG: The meal might start with something very simple like Roasted Peppers with plenty of bread to soak up the olive oil. Or there might be a few salads, some homemade, some partially homemade and some storebought, for instance: Café-Style Grated Carrot Salad (most cooks buy the carrots already grated); the Greek classic, Tzatziki (which you can make in 5 minutes or buy at any French supermarket); and perhaps Lime and Honey Beet Salad (made with already-cooked beets).
For a main course, perhaps a tagine, a Moroccan one-pot dish that can be made simply and served from the pot. I’m partial to the Lamb and Dried Apricot Tagine. Or maybe Mussels with Chorizo over Pasta, a great dish that’s very, very quick to put together and which, like the tagine, can come to the table as is. Or one of my favorites, the Café Salle Pleyel Hamburger – I can’t believe I had to go to Paris to find my favorite hamburger!
I can imagine finishing this meal with the Caramel-Topped Semolina Cake, which my French friends would make from a mix and which I make from Cream of Wheat (pretty incredible on both counts, I know) or with Top-Secret Mousse, one of the simplest and best mousse recipes imaginable. It took me months to pry this recipe out of friend only to discover that it’s the recipe on the back of a Nestle’s chocolate bar. It is, as my friend Helene told me, “the mousse we all make”.
EP: I like the familial, chatty nature of this book, the fact that friends and fellow food writers and expats (like Alexander Lobrano, who writes the Letter from Paris for Everett Potter’s Travel Report) turn up in these pages, as dining companions or people who can share some treasured recipe with you. It does make the reader feel as if they’re sitting at the kitchen table in Paris with you. Is your life in food really so closely intertwined with your social life in Paris?
DG: It’s true, it’s very true, my food life and my social life in Paris are just about inseparable. I know there are a million things to do in Paris and I do many of them, but I spend a great deal of my time shopping for food, cooking food for family and friends, eating food at friends’ homes and going out to eat with friends. Oh, and walking around town with friends on the look-out for new food shops, patisseries, cafés and restaurants. And, of course, talking about food and yes, that talk takes place when we’re sitting at my kitchen table. I love this about my life in Paris.
I used to think that my food life and my social life were so intertwined because all my friends are ‘food people,’ but it turns out that it’s more like all Parisians are interested in food. Here’s a good tip for people visiting France: if you find yourself in a situation in which you can’t think of a thing to say to a French person, turn the conversation to food and soon you won’t be able to get a word in edgewise. I know this from much experience.
EP: How about naming one or two great Paris bistros, places where you’d gladly have dinner tonight.
DG: I’d be so happy to have dinner any night at the Bistrot Paul-Bert or Le Comptoir. They’re two of my favorite bistros in Paris. I also really like the newer bistro Frenchie. Unfortunately, these are all tough reservations to nab, so it’s best to reserve early or call that day and hope there’s been a cancellation.
EP: The proverbial question – where do you shop for kitchen wares and gadgets in Paris?
DG: I buy some kitchen gear at Dehillerin and baking gear at M.O.R.A., but I end up buying most of my everyday gadgets and gear at Monoprix
EP: I know you’ve just completed a book tour for Around My French Table and I’m guessing that if it’s like most book tours, you’re ready for some comfort food. Short of making reservations, what might you make from your own book tonight?
DG: Hachis Parmentier! It’s a beef and mashed potato dish, like a shepherd’s pie and I can’t think of much that’s more comforting. I’d love to have it for dinner tonight; my husband would love to have it three times a week.
For more Paris insights, kitchen wisdom and recipes from Dorie, visit Dorie Greenspan.
And check out an interview that I did with Dorie a few years ago, where she expounds on all things Paris.