Worn and well-used cutting boards like mine, made from one piece of blonde oak, tell stories of past meals.
This gouge here, that’s from the day I sliced the boule with the extra thick crust, for the open-faced cheese-and-tomato sandwiches. And that dent there, well, I pressed a little too hard on the chef’s knife while mincing a bunch of parsley.
My father made this particular cutting board for me, in the days when he still worked with his tools in the cluttered basement, the garage door open to the humid Florida morning, the fragrance of honeysuckle wafting through the air, competing with the smell of freshly sawed wood.
There’s something comforting about this grungy board that’s seen hundreds of yeasty rolls and plump loaves formed on it, dozens and dozens of pie crusts rolled out, keeping my family fed and comforted through happy moments as well as civil unrest and hurricanes and deaths. I wish I’d notched the edges, keeping track of my progress as a cook.
Comfort, it seems to me, is one reason to cook when life looms up and grabs you, pulling you down into an abyss of sorrow. My family recently suffered an appalling, senseless loss and is dealing with other, smaller, but no less devastating, tragedies.
It just so happens that about this time, a review copy of American food writer Hillary Davis’s French Comfort Food (Gibbs Smith, 2014) landed on my front porch, nestled in a gigantic cardboard box, bolstered by pale blue packing popcorn. Davis is the author of a previously well-received book, Cuisine Niçoise (2013), also published by Gibbs Smith.
Just so you know, I own dozens of French cookbooks. My favorites lean toward those by Elizabeth David, Joanne Harris, Mirielle Johnston, and Wini Moranville. Why not Julia Child’s? Because, unlike Julia’s, these books give me the sense that some types of French cooking can be as easily executed as Italian meatballs and spaghetti.
French Comfort Food offers all the usual classics. And at first I thought I was going to have to write the usual trite things about yet another French cookbook filled with grand-mère’s recipes. The introductory sections pay homage to the travel-brochure image of France and its food. The glorious, glossy photographs by Steven Rothfeld sell the ideals of the French country kitchen. There’s no couscous listed in the index. The truth is, the book is a fantasy of French cuisine, a nostalgic paean to the past.
And yet, and yet, it is a wonderful thing indeed. But be forewarned: if you tend to diet constantly, follow a strict vegetarian or vegan regimen, or shy away from rich food, you might not be one of Davis’s target readers.
For the recipes in French Comfort Food, Davis draws on her long sojourns in France – eleven years in Nice and three in Paris – and the generosity of friends, restaurant owners, and her “hundreds of well-worn cookbooks.” It would have been nice to see a bibliography of those sources. The key word here is “comfort,” at least for those of us coming from the more Eurocentric cuisines of the world. “Comfort food,” of course, means different things in different cultures. In the aforementioned Eurocentric cultures, “comfort food” usually signifies meat, butter, cheese, cream, and sugar.
And Davis delivers all of these in delicious and well-executed recipes, most of which cover only one page, ingredients followed by concise but detailed instructions. Purists will quibble about some things: ingredients (chicken stock in French Onion Soup) and equipment. She recommends using bouillon cubes at times and a slow-cooker for some recipes, following in the footsteps of Michele Scicolone in her The French Slow Cooker. She calls what’s basically a Gratin Dauphinois a “Gratin Savoyard,” but Davis attempts to impart the taste and spirit of the cuisine into the recipes so that cooks won’t be intimidated by the Frenchness.
The average cook in the average town in the United States ought to be able to reproduce all the recipes in the book, although I know my local Kroger does not carry the candied chestnuts called for in the “Roasted Butternut Squash Soup with Candied Chestnuts.” But here, as in all of the recipes in the book, Davis offers suggested substitutions: halved walnuts and raw diced pears.
I slice the potatoes, the rhythm of my knife a soothing sound, the hum of the highway like “Om” in the background. A little-red-hen thought of thanks goes up to the cows that produced milk for the cream and the cheese, the farmers who fed the cows, the growers who planted the potatoes, and the chicken that laid the eggs that thickened the cream, making the dish reheatable the next day without the butterfat separating into an oily yellow pool.
Yes, cooking calms. Cooking comforts the soul. We should do more of it.
Irresistible Potato, Cheese, and Cream Casserole (Gratin Savoyard aux Pommes de Terre) Serves 6-8
2 large cloves garlic
1 tablespoon (15g) butter, softened
2 1/2 pounds (1.2 kg) Yukon gold potatoes
2 sprigs fresh thyme
3 cups (720 ml) heavy cream
freshly ground nutmeg, to taste
sea salt or kopsher salt, to taste
coarsely ground black pepper, to taste
2 large eggs, room temperature, beaten
8 ounces (225 g) Gruyère cheese, grated on the large grate of a box grater
Preheat oven to 350 F (180 C).
Slice one of the garlic cloves in half and rub the halves all over the inside of a 9×12-inch baking dish. Peel and mince the remaining clove. After rubbing with garlic, liberally grease the baking dish with butter.
Peel the potatoes into as perfect ovals as you can. Thinly slice the potatoes on a mandoline or, if using a knife, to the thickness of a coin.
Take the leaves off the thyme sprigs and discard the stems.
Place the cream, minced garlic, nutmeg, and thyme into a saucepan. Pat the potatoes dry with paper towels and add them to the saucepan. Bring to a boil then remove from heat, cover, and let sit for 15 minutes. Strain the cream into a bowl or a large measuring cup.
Transfer half of the potatoes to the baking dish, slightly overlapping them. Sprinkle with salt, lots of pepper, and nutmeg.
Whisk the eggs into the cream then pour half over the potatoes. Scatter half the cheese over the top. Push down the potato slices to submerge them as much as possible in the cream. Add the remaining potatoes, salt, pepper, nutmeg, cream, and cheese.
Bake for 35-40 minutes. Place under the broiler until the top is golden brown. Remove from the broiler and allow to rest for 10 minutes before serving. [Note: the dish browned well without the broiler step, so I just let the potatoes cook another 5 minutes, and removed the dish from the oven.]
IDEAS AND SUBSTITUTIONS
You can make this with zucchini instead of potatoes, or add mushrooms, smoked bacon, or onions, use fat-free half-and-half instead of cream, and if you don’t have fresh thyme, 1 teaspoon dried thyme instead.
© 2014 C. Bertelsen