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Satisfy your comfort-food craving with French country cooking from Mimi Thorisson

Time:2016-11-18 01:01wine - Red wine life health Click:

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Slow-cooked braises, bubbling gratins, and custardy cakes – French farmhouse classics are hearty and comforting. It’s an elegant cuisine but one that’s simultaneously rustic and approachable, built on a respect for high-quality, seasonal ingredients.

Take poule-au-pot (chicken in a pot) for example. As author Mimi Thorisson writes in her latest cookbook, French Country Cooking (Appetite by Random House, 2016), “There is more to this dish than meets the eye. I call it country chic.”

A mixture of garlic, ham, bacon, shallots and parsley is rubbed under the skin of the bird, directly on the breast meat. The chicken is simmered with aromatics, served with a splash of the resulting broth and mushroom sauce on the side.

“My kind of French cooking is family-style dishes that are old-fashioned — classics that I revisit and give my little touch,” Thorisson says in an interview.

“And I like to demystify it a bit. Of course some of the recipes are more elaborate, but I think that generally, French food is about very, very good produce that you don’t have to do much to.”

Born in Hong Kong to a French mother and Chinese father, Thorisson spent her childhood summers with family in France. Her mother is from the southwest, near Toulouse, and she grew up eating iconic French dishes such as cassoulet.

She says that she didn’t start to make cassoulet until she was in her mid-thirties. Haricots Tarbais are the bean of choice, and you’ll need a source for excellent pork sausages, not to mention a touch of patience. But as Thorisson says, “It doesn’t require any special techniques or tricks.” She’s included the recipe in French Country Cooking as a gentle encouragement.

“I just love these classics. A great soufflé is a big theme in French cuisine and it goes with all the copper pots, and the beauty and the refinement of French cuisine. These are signature dishes that I like to preserve. I love them,” she says.

French Country Cooking includes recipes for two soufflés, one sweet (raspberry) and one savoury (white asparagus). She says that a light and airy soufflé or two is a necessity for a French cookbook: “A corollary is that you can’t really come to France without having at least one.”

Interwoven with the recipes is the story of how the Thorissons found their new home, a château amid the vineyards in Médoc, a Bordeaux wine region in southwestern France. The grand house had been a hotel and restaurant in its previous life, run by a women named Plantia, the great-grandmother of the previous owner.

Regional Médoc specialties – featuring game birds, wild mushrooms, oysters, and a type of “local barbecue” – are well-represented in the book. Quail millefeuille, chanterelle and garlic tartlets, broiled oysters with foie gras and sauternes (sweet wine), and pork shoulder grilled over grapevine branches.

“I just slid in with my family so we could continue the legacy of cooking in this house,” Thorisson says of the home she shares with her husband (and photographer) Oddur, their eight children, and a pack of Smooth Fox Terriers.

“The book is a silent ode to Plantia. I feel like her energy is in the house because she lived and cooked there. We stepped into the house, and then this amazing story slowly unfolded about Plantia and the family who lived there.”

Thorisson opens French Country Cooking with Plantia’s favourite dessert – a classic tarte tatin – and her spirit is a thread throughout the book, from special touches on a traditional onion soup (Comté cheese tartines), to a recipe for spring vegetable stew with fava beans and artichokes (Plantia’s signature dish).

“When I moved into the village (Saint-Yzans-de-Médoc), my first instinct was to contact as many elderly people as possible that knew about the past. And they had so many vivid memories so I asked often: what was their favourite (of Plantia’s dishes), and what was served,” she says.

“For example, the mayor’s wife used to work there as a child during the wine harvest and so dishes like fava bean stew and tarte tatin … all these classics came up.”

Plantia’s story captured Thorisson’s imagination, and the more she learned about the history of the house, the more she started thinking about ways to bring it back to life. It didn’t take long for her to land on the concept of a restaurant.

As readers of her popular food blog Manger will know, she warmed up by hosting a series of cooking workshops. Then, for several weeks in late summer 2015, her dream was realized in the form of a pop-up family restaurant – one that shared its name with their address, 1 rue de Loudenne.

“It was a little dream – a fantasy restaurant that I managed to create for real. It was my version of a restaurant, which is nice white tablecloths and beautiful dinnerware. And a nice starter, a glass of Champagne, the radishes… all those little details that I like and expect at a table, and the daily specials I (offered),” she says.

Many of the dishes she served at the pop-up are included in French Country Cooking, as well as special staff meals: the legendary croque-madame sandwich; tomates farçies (stuffed tomatoes); endives with ham; Basque specialty eggs piperade; and a very special mac and cheese with a mixture of “glorious, pungent” Mimolette and Comté.

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