Two Fantastic Gift Suggestions

Photo by © Alan Richardson

Editor’s Note: Pen & Fork’s Cookbook Reviewer Linda Avery selects two cookbooks for you to consider for the cooks on your holiday shopping list.

Around My French Table: More Than 300 Recipes From My Home to Yours
By Dorie Greenspan
Photos by Alan Richardson
Facts: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 530 pages, $40.00 (or $24.00 at Amazon)
Photos: 146
Recipes: Over 300
Give to: Francophiles, people who read cookbooks like novels

When I first flipped though Around my French Table, I thought “this has to be the book of the year.” Dare I say another Beard award may be in Dorie Greenspan’s future?

The recipes jumped off the pages to me: Basque Potato Tortilla, yum… Lentil, Lemon and Tuna Salad, yum… Cauliflower-Bacon Gratin, yum… Cola & Jam Spareribs… huh? Well that’s one of the things that makes this book exciting: the unexpected. The headnote explains that Greenspan recreated this “cola ribs” recipe after having it at a tiny restaurant in Tours. It turns out that the chef had spent time in Kentucky and really likes Coke so he found a way of using it in his French kitchen. With the addition of jam he created a “lacquered Asian-style” dish.

Her headnotes are intriguing and headnotes are what connect you with the any author. She tells charming stories of family, friends, personal experiences, where and how she obtained the recipe. Many times she gives you the license to treat the recipe “as a base to riff on.” And, she describes her recipes as “elbows-on-the-table food.” Something about this book is reminiscent of Paula Wolfert’s The Cooking of Southwest France – maybe the Moroccan influence that proliferates in France.

The recipes are unique and doable. Some require a bit more experience or need longer prep time than others, but on average there are no fancy techniques or learning required. As an example, refer to the très easy recipe for Marie-Helene’s Apple Cake on Amazon. After Baking: From My Home to Yours, I thought Greenspan had exhausted her cache of desserts but she’s given us 44 additional dessert recipes.

Wow – which recipe to test? I gravitated toward Greenspan’s Chicken B’stilla. My first Chicken B’stilla was at the now-gone-but-not-forgotten Roxanne’s at Biltmore Fashion Square in Phoenix about 100 years ago – it was fabulous and I was hooked – I crave it and don’t think I’ve had a b’stilla as good since; certainly never tried to make it. But, it’s a busy time of year and this recipe takes some time/effort/etc. so I’ll put it off until after the holidays.

In the meantime, here’s another recipe (the cover recipe) called Chicken in a Pot: The Garlic and Lemon Version. It says home, French and maybe even winter; and it’s delicious.

From Around My French Table: More Than 300 Recipes From My Home to Yours


I can’t remember when I first made a chicken cooked in a casserole that was sealed tighter than the ancient pyramids, but I do remember that it was called Chicken with 40 Cloves of Garlic and that the recipe came from Richard Olney’s deservedly classic cookbook Simple French Food. In his version of this traditional dish, the chicken is cut up and tucked into a casserole with four heads of garlic, separated into cloves but not peeled; dried herbs; a bouquet garni; and some olive oil. Everything is turned around until it’s all mixed up, the casserole is sealed tight with a flour-and-water dough, and the whole is slid into the oven to bake until the chicken is done and the garlic is cooked through, sweet and soft enough to spread on bread. It’s a masterpiece of simplicity, and when the seal is cracked at the table, the pouf of fragrant steam is mildly theatrical and completely intoxicating.

Olney’s recipe was the first of I-can’t-even-count-how-many chickens in a pot I’ve made. I’ve cooked chickens whole and in pieces, with a garden’s worth of vegetables and with only garlic, with hot spices and with fragrant herbs, with (and without wine, and with and without the dough seal (with is better). I’ve cooked the chicken in a heavy Dutch oven (my favorite), a speckled enamel roaster (not the best), and a clay cooker (my second favorite; if you use a clay cooker, though, omit the dough seal — the clay is too fragile). And I’ve cooked it in every season — it’s just as good in the summer as in winter.

This, my garlic and lemon rendition, was inspired by a dish made by Antoine Westermann, a chef with a Michelin three-star restaurant in Alsace and a bistro in Paris. That there’s nothing Alsatian about his use of Moroccan preserved lemons and nothing particularly French about the addition of sweet potatoes makes the dish even more fun.

Makes 4 servings

1/2 preserved lemon, rinsed well
1 cup water
1/4 cup sugar
5 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 large sweet potatoes, peeled and each cut into 8 same-sized pieces (you can use white potatoes, if you prefer)
16 small white onions, yellow onions, or shallots
8 carrots, trimmed, peeled, and quartered
4 celery stalks, trimmed, peeled, and quartered
4 garlic heads, cloves separated but not peeled
Salt and freshly ground pepper
3 thyme sprigs
3 parsley sprigs
2 rosemary sprigs
1 chicken, about 4 pounds, preferably organic, whole or cut into 8 pieces, at room temperature
1 cup chicken broth
2 1/2 cup dry white wine
About 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
About 3/4 cup hot water

1. Center a rack in the oven and preheat the oven to 450°F.

2. Using a paring knife, slice the peel from the preserved lemon and cut it into all squares; discard the pulp. Bring the water and sugar to a boil in a small saucepan, drop in the peel, and cook for 1 minute; drain and set aside.

3. Heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil in a large skillet over high heat. Add the vegetables and garlic, season with salt and pepper, and sauté until the vegetables brown on all sides. (If necessary, do this in 2 batches.) Spoon the vegetables into a 4 1/2- to 5-quart Dutch oven or other pot with a lid and stir in the herbs and the preserved lemon.

4. Return the skillet to the heat, add another tablespoon of oil, and brown the chicken on all sides, seasoning it with salt and pepper as it cooks. Tuck the chicken into the casserole, surrounding it with the vegetables. Mix together the broth, wine, and the remaining olive oil and pour over the chicken and vegetables.

5. Put 1 1/2 cups flour in a medium bowl and add enough hot water to make a malleable dough. Dust a work surface with a little flour, turn out the dough, and, working with your hands, roll the dough into a sausage. Place the dough on the rim of the pot — if it breaks, just piece it together — and press the lid onto the dough to seal the pot. Slide the pot into the oven and bake for 5 55 minutes.

6. Now you have a choice — you can break the seal in the kitchen or do it at the table, where it’s bound to make a mess, but where everyone will have the pleasure of sharing that first fragrant whiff as you lift the lid with a nourish. Whether at the table or in the kitchen, the best tool to break the seal is the least attractive — a screwdriver. Use the point of the screwdriver as a lever to separate the lid from the dough. Depending on whether your chicken was whole or cut up, you might have to do some in-the-kitchen carving, but in the end, you want to make sure that the vegetables and the delicious broth are on the table with the chicken.

Bonne Idée
You can save yourself a little time and some clean up by using store-bought pizza dough to seal the pot. If you use pizza dough, it will rise around the pot.

If the chicken is cut up, you can just serve it and the vegetables from the pot, if the chicken is whole, you can quarter it and return the pieces to the pot or arrange the chicken and vegetables on a serving platter. Either way, you don’t need to serve anything else but some country bread, which is good for two things: spreading with the sweet garlic; popped from the skins and dunking into the cooking broth. One of the reasons i like to bring the pot to the table is because it makes for easy dipping,

If you have any leftover chicken, vegetables, and broth (what we call “goop” in our house), they can be reheated gently in the top of a double boiler or in a microwave oven.

The Essential New York Times Cookbook: Classic Recipes for a New Century
By Amanda Hesser
Facts: W.W. Norton & Company, 932 pages, $40.00 (or $23.97 at Amazon)
Photos: none
Recipes: Over 1,400
Give to: recipe collectors and serious home cooks

Days before Thanksgiving a curious, weighty package was delivered and I quickly noticed it was from one of my stepdaughters. The last surprise package from Maria came last spring and had me calling for oxygen when I found an iPad with 3G in the plain brown wrapper.

This time, weighing in at four pounds nine ounces, a signed copy of Amanda Hesser’s The Essential New York Times Cookbook: Classic Recipes for a New Century appeared. Is this a compendium? an anthology? an encyclopedia?

I say it is the best of the best of the best: the best collection of the best recipes of the best cooks, chefs and food writers from Craig Claiborne to Florence Fabricant to the Lee Brothers and Michael Pollan.

Hesser began her six year project by going to the public to help her decide which recipes to include in this massive undertaking. When the entries were tallied, more than 6,000 recipes were suggested; at the top of the list, a twenty year old recipe took first place with 265 votes: Purple Plum Torte, which she suggests is a crowd pleaser because it has eight ingredients, four short steps, requires no special equipment and has a memorable flavor.

This book is peppered with historical notes, serving suggestions and Hesser’s amusing stories. If you don’t buy it or give it as a gift, stop by a bookstore and read it for a while.

Although Purple Plum Torte received the people’s choice award, I chose Anita Sheldon’s Torta di Spinaci to bring to our Thanksgiving repast and in spite of the headnote, I thought it quite elegant with its fluted edge and delicate leaves surrounding the steam hole. It too deserves an award.

From The Essential New York Times Cookbook: Classic Recipes for a New Century

This is a great Sunday dinner dish. Elegant it’s not, but not everything needs to be. There is one detail that will make or break the recipe: you must squeeze every last drop of liquid from the cooked spinach before chopping it, or you’ll end up with a soggy torta. So, just when you think you’ve extracted the last molecule of water, squeeze it some more.

Serves 8 to 10

For the Pastry
3 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 pound (2 sticks) unsalted butter, cut into pieces
1 large egg yolk
Approximately 3 tablespoons water

For the Filling
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 large onions, finely chopped
1 3/4 pounds fresh spinach, trimmed and washed well, or two 10-ounce packages frozen chopped spinach
Three 1-inch-thick smoked pork chops or pork loin (about 1 pound), any fat and bones removed and meat diced, or 1/2 pound bacon, diced
1 1/2 cups freshly grated Parmesan cheese (about 5 ounces)
1 cup (8 ounces) ricotta cheese
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 large eggs, lightly beaten
1 large egg white, lightly beaten

1. To make the pastry, place the flour, salt, and butter in a bowl. With a pastry blender, 2 knives, or your fingertips, work the butter into the flour until the mixture resembles coarse oatmeal.

2. Mix the egg yolk with 3 tablespoons water and sprinkle over the mixture. Stir with a fork, adding only enough extra water to make a dough that just clings together. Divide the dough in half and form into 2 disks. Wrap each one in wax paper and chill briefly.

3. Meanwhile, prepare the filling: Heat the oil in a large skillet and sauté the onions until tender but not browned. Set aside.

4. If using fresh spinach, place the washed spinach leaves, with just the water that clings, in a large saucepan, cover tightly, and cook until the leaves wilt. Drain well and let cool enough to touch. In batches, gather the leaves in your palm and press out all the liquid by squeezing as firmly as possible. Chop the spinach. Or, if using frozen spinach, cook according to the package directions; drain well, cool, and squeeze dry.

5. Combine the chopped spinach and onions in a bowl and let cool completely, then add the diced smoked pork, Parmesan cheese, ricotta, salt and pepper to taste, and lightly beaten eggs.

6. Heat the oven to 425°F. Roll out half the pastry on a lightly floured work surface into 12-inch circle and line a 10-inch pie plate with it. Brush the bottom and sides of the shell with the lightly beaten egg white. Pour in the filling.

7. Roll out the remaining pastry and cover the filling. Trim, seal, and crimp the edges. Make a steam hole and if you’re up for it place leaves, cut from the pastry scraps, around the hole (not over it).

8. Bake for 40 to 50 minutes, or until the pastry is golden and done. Let stand for 10 to 15 minutes before cutting.

Cooking Notes
The torta can be baked early in the day and reheated in a 375°F oven. Cover loosely with foil to prevent overbrowning.
After the torta has cooled, if you wrap it well in aluminum foil, it will keep in the freezer for up to 2 months. Allow to thaw at room temperature for 3 hours and then let it finish thawing and reheat in a 375°F oven for about 1 hour.

Serving Suggestions
Palestine Soup, Carrot and Fennel Soup, Caponata, Zabaglione, Chocolate Quakes, Madeleine Kamman’s Apple Mousse

March 19, 1972: “AN ELEGANT EASTER PIE,” by Jean Hewitt

3 replies
  1. Sharon
    Sharon says:

    The shelves in my office are packed with cookbooks; some three deep with books. So I wonder if I need another cookbook. But I did make the chicken dish this week as well and I have to say…delicious. Easy and superb. And, yes, requires lots of good sopping up bread. So I’m guessing I’ll be buying yet another cookbook. Thanks for the tantalizing reviews.

  2. Linda
    Linda says:

    Thank you for the comment Sharon. I know exactly what you mean about cookbooks. I get very adamant and put a number in a box to donate and five minutes later I’ll go through them making an excuse why I need to keep one or another. Doesn’t take long to realize there aren’t enough left in the box to warrant a trip to the library.

    Happy Holidays!


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  1. […] Hesser’s The Essential New York Times Cook Book: Classic Recipes for a New Century (reviewed here in December); and Radically Simple: Brilliant Flavors with Breathtaking Ease by Rozanne Gold. (Note […]

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