It’s been on hold at the library for two months, and I finally got to take it home last week. I know I should have bought it — but I’m chintzy enough to want to take a good look at a cookbook before I actually spend the money. So I’ve been perusing “My Paris Kitchen” for a week now, and, yes, I’ve decided it’s definitely deserving of a place on my already overstuffed cookbook shelves.
I am not surprised. The book is by David Lebovitz who is an American chef who spent thirteen years at Alice Water‘s famous Chez Panisse in California and then left the restaurant business in 1999 to write books. He moved to Paris in 2004 and turned davidlebovitz.com into a phenomenally popular blog. He is the author of six books (I’ve now read and enjoyed three) mostly cookbooks, but including a funny and fascinating memoir called “The Sweet Life in Paris.”
This cookbook actually got me at the cover — a mouth-watering display of what looks like braised chicken breasts (chicken with mustard, I think) in an enormous copper pan that he bought in the famed cookware shop ( E. Dehillerin) in Les Halles and an inside cover overview of Paris rooftops with a perfect, moody Paris sky. The photography is by someone named Ed Anderson and it is just as eye-poppingly good as you would expect in a handsome hardcover edition.
Anyway, this is ostensibly a contemporary cookbook, purporting to show how Parisians eat today, with 100 sweet and savoury dishes that range from appetizers to desserts. Lebovitz was a pastry cook at Chez Panisse and so the opulent desserts make the most of that skill, as well as his personal penchant for all things chocolate. A section on ingredients and equipment are the very minimum that are required and that will fit into his tiny Parisian kitchen. There is also an extra chapter called “The Pantry” in which he presents an assortment of recipes, ingredients that he likes to keep on hand, or in the refrigerator, such as chicken stock, clarified butter, vinaigrette, and so on. The recipes are clearly stated, simple and sometimes surprising. For instance, in the vinaigrette recipe, he talks about how in France he discovered that neutral tasting oil was often used instead of olive oil and how he gradually came to realize that cold pressed oils such as sunflower, safflower or canola could be substituted for the EVO with interesting results.
But this is much more than just a cookbook. Lebovitz has said that “the book is meant to be a story about how I cook in Paris … with a story running through the recipes, text, photos and headnotes.” So each recipe comes with a narrative accompaniment, or an anecdote and the chapters are interspersed with little essays on everything from the use of salted and unsalted butter, to the difficulty for Americans in pronouncing French words (try saying “moelleux” for instance without making your French friends grimace), or to the idea of “local” in France which often translates into discussions of “terroir” and “le cuisine du marché”. I particularly love his discussion of the cheese course which we always approach with a certain amount of ambivalence in Canada. Lebovitz notes that the cheese course comes before dessert in France — or it can come instead of dessert, if the host so desires. He notices how people in North America often try to put as many different kinds of cheese as they can on the cheese plate so that everyone can try something different. (Yes, and how they end up with 10 little pieces of wrapped up cheeses that linger stalely in the refrigerator.) The French, on the other hand, believe that it’s a better idea to have one or two examples of the very best of the genre, rather than loading up with numerous little bits of different kinds where the flavours will cancel each other out. And the French also do not consider it necessary to tart up their cheese with other elements such as chutneys or nuts or fruit — just crackers or bread.
There are, of course, so many hundreds of cookbooks about Paris, ancient and modern. This cookbook would be a great companion on your shelf to Patricia Wells’ really fine “The Paris Cookbook” which also deals with contemporary cooking in the city. The difference is that Wells concentrates on recipes from Parisian restaurants, whereas Lebovitz is much more personal. But I also loved the way that Lebovitz handled the increasing globalization of the Parisian cuisine. Paris, like all big cities, is no longer purely French but now has a large ethnic component. Instead of deploring this fact, Lebovitz writes about how the Parisians translate ethnic into French and he includes recipes for everything from baba ganoush to hummus to Indian cheese bread with a Parisian accent.
Anyway, here’s his recipe for croque-monsieur, the first, really French thing I ever ate in France and the precursor to a forty year love affair with French food.
Croque-Monsieur (Fried Ham and Cheese Sandwich)
1 tbsp salted or unsalted butter
1 tbsp all purpose flour
1/4 cup whole milk
pinch of sea salt or kosher salt
pinch of cayenne pepper
4 slices sourdough or country style bread
4 slices prosciutto or thinly sliced dry cured ham or 2 thick slices boiled ham
2 thin slices Comté or Gruyère cheese
4 tbsp salted or unsalted butter
1/4 cup grated Comté or Gruyère cheese
1) Béchamel Sauce: melt the butter in a saucepan over medium heat and stir in the flour. When the mixture starts to bubble, cook for 1 minute more. Whisk in 1/4 cup of the milk, stirring to discourage lumps, then whisk in the remaining 1/3 cup of milk. Cook for about 1 minute more, until the sauce is thick and creamy, like runny mayonnaise. Remove from the heat and stir in the salt and cayenne; set aside to cool a bit and thicken.
2) Spread the Béchamel evenly over the four slices of bread. Lay a slice of ham over two of the bread slices, top them with slices of cheese and then top with the remaining ham slices. Finish with the two remaining slices of bread, Béchamel side down (on the inside) and brush the outsides of the sandwiches without restraint with the melted butter.
3) Turn on the broiler and heat a large ovenproof frying pan or grill pan over medium heat on the stove top. (Make sure to use a pan with a heatproof handle for broiling later.) Place the sandwiches in the frying pan, drape with a sheet of aluminum foil and then rest a cast iron skillet or other heavy pan or flat object on top. Cook until the bottoms of the sandwiches are well browned. Remove the skillet and foil, flip the sandwiches over, replace the foil and skillet and continue cooking until the other side is browned.
4) Remove the cast-iron skillet and foil and strew the grated cheese on top of the sandwiches. Put the pan under the broiler and broil the sandwiches until the cheese melts. Serve immediately.
Variation: To make a croque-madame, while the sandwiches are broiling cook a sunny side up egg for each sandwich. Slide the eggs on top of the sandwiches after you plate them.
Don’t let the “Béchamel sauce” put you off. This is just a sort of old-fashioned white sauce and it makes the sandwich really spectacular.