We all know Julia Child taught Americans how to cook French food through her cookbooks and TV shows.
By gosh, Child even called her first show “The French Chef,” on which she demystified sauternes and soufflés, and was bravely unflappable in the face of culinary disaster.
Though Child died in 2004, her legendary warble and famous boeuf-bourguignon recipe live on. Several of her cookbooks took on a new life, thanks to the “Julie and Julia” movie released in 2009.
So if Child showed us the secrets of the mother sauces, then who taught the French how to cook their own storied cuisine?
That would be Ginette Mathiot, whose name is not so familiar and who has not been played by Meryl Streep in a movie. Unlike Child, Mathiot did not learn to cook from the masters at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris. She was a home economist and her forte was the kind of cooking Grand-mere might do, not what was served at a four-star Parisian restaurant.
Mathiot’s “I Know How to Cook,” or “Je sais cuisiner,” is “The Joy of Cooking” of France, initially written with the young bride in mind. First published in 1932 when Mathiot was just 23, what became France’s home-cooking bible contained nearly 2,000 recipes. Mathiot died in 1998 at the age of 91.
About 10 years ago, the book was translated into English and Clotilde Dusoulier, award-winning Parisian cookbook author and blogger (chocolateandzucchini.com), updated and adapted it for an international audience. The recipe tally is down to 1,400, but still includes hindquarter of wild boar and a recipe for “plainly cooked truffles,” perhaps rooted out by that wild boar before he met his end.
Though she grew up in food-centric Paris, Dusoulier’s love affair with food was kindled when she lived for a time in San Francisco, another food-bent city. Her blog is published in both English and French.
We talked with Dusoulier by phone about the nearly 1,000-page book, published by Britain’s Phaidon, and the state of French cuisine. Here is some of that conversation:
Q: How is this cookbook different from books in America?
A: The style of French recipe writing is very brief, and even though we tried to make them more accessible, we wanted to keep the original spirit of the book. It’s not a Julia Child approach that leaves no stone unturned and tells you how to do things exactly. We give you the spine of the recipe.
In France, it’s a reference book for seasoned cooks and also traditionally a book that parents give their kids when they go out in the world and into their own place. Many generations have this book.
Q: What are your favorite recipes in the book?
A: Lamb Shoulder Provencale. It’s a rolled-and-stuffed lamb shoulder. It’s a recipe I like to prepare when I have friends over because I can make it in the afternoon. And the Apple Meringue.
Q: What is the state of home cooking in France today? Are people there having the same challenges finding time to cook as they are in the States?
A: That is also going on in France. We do have a lot of fast-food options and people work a lot. In France (like in the United States), we also have the missing link, women who came of age in the ‘60s and ‘70s who wanted to break away from the classic cliche by working. (Because of this) a lot of women in my generation did not know how to cook and they really want to now. There are now lots of cooking classes, and the cookbook-publishing business in France is really thriving.
My generation sees cooking as something you can do to please yourself, as a hobby and for entertaining. They feel more free to experiment other cuisines.
Q: Do you think “Julie and Julia” returned French cooking to the front burner?
A: I do think it was a very good climate in which to offer another book on French cooking. French cooking has a bit of a problem, a mixed message. You have restaurant-style cooking that restaurants try to promote as something special. It does exist and it has its good things, but people tend not to differentiate between that and French home cooking, which is more basic and simple.
We have a lot of different regional cuisines. It’s not a large country, but it has very different identities in each region.
Q: Your blog produced a successful cookbook and you’ve been posting musings about cooking in Paris for six years while writing other books. Is the blog still important?
A: To me, it’s the spine of everything I do. It’s truly what started me in food and writing. A blog is such a dynamic thing for a writer. You cook, you write and people give you feedback.
If you aren’t surrounded by people who are passionate like you, you feel like you should tone down. You need people who understand why you are so excited about making your own English muffins. I still get excited when I press “publish.”
For the apple puree:
- 2-1/4 pounds cooking apples such as Granny Smith, Golden Delicious, Royal Gala or Pink Lady
- 1 pinch grated lemon zest
- Superfine sugar, to taste
- 1-1/2 tablespoons butter
For the meringue:
- 3 egg whites
- 1/4 cup superfine sugar, plus extra for sprinkling
To make the apple puree, cut the apples in quarters, remove stems and any damaged parts, but do not peel or core them. Put in a nonreactive pan with 1/2 cup water. Cover and cook over low heat for 15 to 20 minutes.
Process in a blender until smooth. Mash through a fine-mesh strainer with a wooden spoon to remove any seeds. Stir in lemon zest and sugar. Set aside.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F and grease an ovenproof casserole dish with the butter. Spread the apples out in the prepared dish. Beat the egg whites and sugar to stiff peaks and cover the apples. Sprinkle with a little more sugar. Bake for 15 minutes, or until brown.
Makes 6 servings.
Lamb Shoulder Provencale
- For the stuffing:
- 3-1/2 ounces pancetta, finely chopped
- 3-1/2 ounces ground pork
- 1 handful flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped
- 1 tablespoon cognac
- Salt and pepper to taste
- For the meat:
- 1 (2-1/4-pound) shoulder of lamb, boned
- 3-1/3 tablespoons butter
- 1 onion, chopped
- 4-1/4 ounces bacon, chopped
- 1 carrot, sliced
- 1 bouquet garni (see note)
- Salt and pepper
- Generous 2 cups any stock, hot
- Scant 1/2 cup tomato paste
Note: Bouquet garni is a bundle of fresh parsley, fresh or dried thyme and bay leaf wrapped in cheesecloth, tied together with kitchen twine.
To make stuffing, mix pancetta, ground pork, parsley and cognac; season with salt and pepper. Set aside.
Spread the stuffing over the lamb shoulder, then roll the shoulder up and tie tightly with kitchen string. Melt the butter in a heavy pan, such as a Dutch oven, add the onion and chopped bacon and cook over medium heat until browned.
Add the lamb, carrot and bouquet garni. Season with salt and pepper and pour in the hot stock. Add tomato paste. Cook, covered, for 2-1/4 hours, turning from time to time. Let rest for 15 minutes before slicing; discard bouquet garni.
Makes 6 servings.
Recipes from: “I Know How to Cook” by Ginette Mathiot (Phaidon, $45)
Janet Keeler worked in daily newspaper journalism for 35 years prior to joining the faculty at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. She spent 22 years at the Tampa Bay Times, serving as the paper’s food and travel editor for much of her tenure. She is the author of “Cookielicious: 150 Fabulous Recipes to Bake & Share.”