The crowded world of cookbooks has seen a wave of celebrity chefs added to the list of cookbook authors and Toronto’s members of the firmament are busily releasing their contributions. I was happy to get the opportunity to cook from a review copy of Chef Marc Thuet’s French Food My Way(Penguin). Chef Thuet is well-known for his King West restaurant, chain of Petite Thuets, and his television show Conviction Kitchen.
Because there are so many options I definitely think if we’re going to make good use of our cookbooks we need to be selective. Consider whether a particular book does a very good job of filling one of two roles: either as a very broad (usually large) collection of recipes that offer well-researched and tested techniques for fairly common recipes; or a guide for a specific, often luxury (or at least special occasion) form of cooking. Most cookbooks that fail do so because they aim between these two targets. With the seasonal organisation, specific menus for holiday meals and direct references to the well-regarded restaurants he has cooked in Marc Thuet does a good job of placing French Food My Way into the category of specialised cookbooks.
The obvious inference that can be drawn from the “My Way” tail of the book’s title is that this will not be French cooking by the general way (as set out for restaurant’s by Larousse and for American home cooks by Child). So, what is Chef Thuet’s way? There is a solid amount of traditional French techniques that are lightened with the introduction of Asian ingredients as has become popular in French restaurants around the world. There is also an obvious concentration on his Alsatian heritage and the specific local ingredients that his restaurants feature.
There are an ambitious seven recipes with foie gras in the title and two more that call for it as a minor ingredient. This is exactly how it should be. I won’t be diverted–by crushing the arguments that try to impugn this traditional product, for instance–further than saying that foie gras is delicious and more recipes should call for it. It’s just unlucky happenstance that I didn’t have this book when I still had a very large lobe of foie (a gift) in my freezer.
At first glance a book with so many foie recipes (and there are approximately as many that call for truffles or caviar) could seem unapproachable, I understand. The easy solution is to make creative substitutions. I subbed chicken livers and butter for the foie in the Suprême of Pigeon recipe–and also swapped in boned chicken thighs for the pigeon breast. Even with these modifications this was still an eye-opening dish and the bottom line to me is that it’s good to have a cookbook that pushes us gently in the direction of trying new ingredients but is still useful when more common ones stand-in.
Along the same lines the chicken recipes in Chef Thuet’s book reach to greatness. For instance, the Chapon au Riesling (roughly speaking his take on coq au vin) was a big hit. The same applies to the dessert recipes including his maple granola (that I adapted for breakfast purposes by doubling the oats) and the Petite Thuet Tarte Tatin. With four ingredients all cooked in a cast iron pan this recipe is easy-going for the home cook to experience the match between the complex flavours of deeply-browned caramel and in-season apples. Incidentally, this is the sort of dessert that I can see working perfectly in our wood oven which makes me want spring to arrive even more desperately.
It’s frustrating to see that Chef Thuet has agreed to publish his baking recipes without weight measurements. While not totally necessary for successful baking, measuring by weight is easier, cleaner, and more consistent. I understand from my post about the shortbread recipes and the butter giveaway I’m currently running that it is the Canadian Press style that sets the standard for volume-only recipes. Fine, I can accept that not everyone owns a kitchen scale but probe thermometers aren’t in every kitchen and that hasn’t stopped recipes from (finally) stating the desired doneness temperature as well as the less accurate time estimates. Professional chefs who very likely use weight measurements when baking in their restaurant kitchens do the readers of their cookbooks a disservice by depriving them of this information.
Best of all in this context it seems much easier to scale a recipe from restaurant to home quantities in the by-weight system. I can’t think of a recipe that would call for 13/16 of a cup of flour (because they would round to the less exact 3/4 C) but 105 grams could stay as is.
By no means would I recommend this book as the sort of cookbook to give someone in their late teens or early twenties who is starting from scratch–that market is amply sered by Cook’s Illustrated, Gourmet Magazine, and Mark Bittman–but it definitely has earned a place on my shelf. I think other home cooks will appreciate the authenticity, mix of simple and advanced techniques, and gentle push towards unusual ingredients. Home cooks who like cooked French food or want to learn more about it will especially appreciate this book as a gift this year.