Like her Food Network cooking show, French Food at Home, Laura Calder’s second cookbook, French Taste, is, in essence, a primer on basic Gallic cooking aimed at people who are intimidated by the kitchen. Detractors might say this misrepresents French cuisine, since the book contorts itself to entice the reluctant cook, which is anathema to French gastronomy. But a more positive spin is that the book demystifies French cooking, providing a welcome corrective to North America’s misguided culinary culture of empty junk food, microwave meals, and low-fat paranoia.
Without question, however, this is a book for people who need justification to take an epicurean approach to food. Those who already have an appreciation of fine butter, cheese, bread, and wine may find Calder’s attitude somewhat patronizing. Additionally, those who already know how to, say, properly boil a beet or blind bake a pastry shell, might find Calder’s instructions irksome – to say nothing of her mini-essays offering pat cooking “philosophies” and advice on how to shop for groceries. Nonetheless, such people would be well advised to persevere in order to take advantage of Calder’s many excellent recipes.
Divided into chapters by menu courses, the book gives us a superb lobster, grapefruit, and avocado salad dressed with almond, hazelnut, or walnut oil. Pork roast braised in milk will be unfamiliar to many but is worth the price of admission, as are such treats as potatoes cooked in duck fat, olive oil and red grape cake, and nougat glacé. Virtually every page of the book, in fact, offers the sort of recipe one wishes their local bistro would adopt.
Jean-Pierre Challet takes a more focused and less patronizing approach to Gallic cuisine in One-Pot French. French cuisine has a reputation for complexity, but Challet, chef at the Toronto restaurant A Taste of Quebec, shows us how to enjoy all that France has to offer in a surprisingly diverse variety of relatively simple recipes that employ only a single cooking vessel – be that a pot, frying pan, or pastry sheet.
His book offers chapters based on menu courses with additional sections covering discrete subjects such as eggs, potatoes, and sandwiches. Less of a lifestyle lecture than Calder’s book, One-Pot French may be better suited to cooks with more experience. For example, a recipe for salade Lyonnaise – dandelion, bacon, and poached egg – omits instructions on how to poach the egg. Presumably, Challet assumes the reader already has this skill – not necessarily a sound assumption to make.
Still, there are plenty of recipes here that just about anyone could tackle, meeting Challet’s stated goal to keep things simple. The vast majority are classic rustic “comfort food” dishes such as French onion soup, cheese soufflé, coq au vin, salade Niçoise, croque madame, pommes Anna, lemon tart, and chocolate mousse. Indeed, if Challet falls short anywhere in comparison to Calder, it is in his lack of creative exploration.
Photographically, the two books are similar. The images in Challet’s book, by Gareth Morgans, offer an unaffected clarity and richness well suited to the book’s themes. The photos in Calder’s book, by James Ingram, have a similar hominess, though sometimes feel slightly more staged. For sheer browsing appeal, however, Challet is the clear winner, with over twice as many pictures – an advantage he may need on the sales floor to overcome Calder’s TV-celeb status.