A Kitchen in France: A Year of Cooking in My Farmhouse
“A Kitchen in France gives a cook a reason to get back into the kitchen . . .”
In the in between season when winter has begun to retreat and we cooks are expectantly awaiting the arrival of the first tender harvest of spring, passing the time with an inspirational cookbook filled with beautiful photographs of homey food and luscious ingredients eases the wait. Which is why—if you haven’t already done so—spending some time with Mimi Thorisson’s debut cookbook, A Kitchen in France, will sooth the most winter-weary cook among us.
Visually, the book is stunning. How could it not be? Mimi Thorisson’s husband is a professional photographer, and he took all the photos. Ms. Thorisson herself is also stunning. How could she not be? She is the product of a French mother and a Chinese father. Add to that the supporting roles of the French countryside of Médoc complete with a farmhouse, six children, and four dogs and you have all the right ingredients for an evocative cookbook that will fuel your food fantasies and make you forget all about the winter of 2015.
The book grew out of Ms. Thorisson’s popular food blog, Manger, which she began after she and her growing family left Paris and moved to a farmhouse in Médoc. She grew up in a food-centric family in Hong Kong and spent her summers in the south of France where daily food shopping with her grandmother taught her that taking the time to choose the best ingredients was a matter of importance.
Though she grew up around food, it wasn’t until she began a family that Ms. Thorisson began to cook seriously herself. Coming to cooking out of necessity and discovering her passion for it brings to mind another cook who found her calling later in life when she took up French cooking as a means to pass the time as an expat wife in Paris.
There is an iconic photo of Julia Child (taken by her photographer husband, Paul) that shows her circa 1950 in their Paris kitchen towering over her diminutive French stove that reaches only to her mid-thighs. She stands, smartly dressed in a skirt and blouse with a fetching scarf tied around her neck and an apron neatly tied about her waist with one hand on her hip and the other assiduously stirring a sauce on the stove. She is all business with her face in profile looking down at her saucepan.
Fast-forward 60-plus years and you have the photo of Mimi Thorisson on the cover of A Kitchen in France (taken of course by her husband, Oddur) showing her similarly posed in their farmhouse kitchen towering over a work table that comes up to her mid-thighs, head bent to the task of slicing an onion while prettily clad in a flowery dress and crisp white apron, her long, black hair cascading over one shoulder with one foot daintily posed behind the other.
While they are both tall in stature and each partnered with adoring, collaborative, photographer husbands, their approach to cookbookery (as Julia called it) could not be more different.
Whereas Julia emphasized technique, Mimi highlights ingredients. And while Julia is all substance, Mimi is mostly style.
As stylish as the book is, it would be tempting to fall down the rabbit hole of lifestyle envy while perusing all the gorgeous photographs idealizing family life in La France profonde with page after page of rustic French food served on country French tableware eaten around a farmhouse table full of well behaved children, the occasional dog and a serenely beautiful mother who looks as if she has pulled it all off without breaking a sweat.
But let us pause for a moment to consider this: Mimi Thorisson has four children, two stepchildren, and four dogs underfoot. And she lives in a remote area of France where entertainment outside the home must be scarce to none.
Let us now turn our attention to the recipes. (This is a cookbook, after all.)
First and foremost, A Kitchen in France is a seasonal, ingredient driven cookbook. If there are any feelings of envy to be had, this is the better place for it: Most of us don’t have access to wild mushroom we forage ourselves or freshly picked fava beans and artichokes. Nor are we able to grill meat over grapevines or have access to affordable, fresh foie gras. Still, a cook can dream.
With just under 100 recipes, A Kitchen in France is not an encyclopedic cookbook. Rather, this is more of a snapshsot (no pun intended) of rustic, French country cooking—some of which is far from the usual fare.
Like Roast Chicken with Crème Fraîche and Herbs, for example: Instead of coating the chicken with butter or fat, you slather it with a masque of crème fraîche mixed with chopped parsley, thyme, and garlic that is also placed in the cavity. Sure, you sacrifice a crispy skin, but the fresh-as-spring herby flavors and delicate jus that pours out of the cavity more than make up for it. And if you are lucky enough to have any leftovers (even if it means just picking the meat off the carcass) it makes a terrific chicken salad the next day that needs nothing more than a dollop of mayonnaise to do it justice. Seasonally placed in spring, it is absolutely a hopeful, refreshing dish to shake off the winter doldrums.
As wonderful as the recipes are, though, they could be better written. Experienced cooks will know how to work around them, but novices or cooks who slavishly follow a recipe to the letter might get tripped up.
For example, in the Duck Confit Parmentier the recipe (which serves four) calls for four duck legs confit that are used in a filling that gets spread out in a 9 x 13 inch baking dish. I made the dish for two using two legs and it wasn’t enough to fill the bottom of an 8 x 8 dish (if you want a substantial layer of duck underneath the mashed potatoes—and who wouldn’t?). Also, only ¼ cup of crème fraîche is called for to moisten the potatoes. They needed the addition of some milk or cream to make them less dry. And finally, at 350° the oven wasn’t hot enough to brown the potato and cheese topping even after 35 minutes (the recipe says they should be golden brown in 25 minutes). A very satisfying dish, but the recipe needs tightening up.
Or as in Watercress Velouté where depending on the size of the bunch of watercress you use, two cups of chicken stock may not be enough to cover the vegetables. I used four cups and the soup was still as thick as it is intended to be.
And it would have been so very helpful for Ms. Thorisson to tell readers that the puff pastry recipe on page 28 makes enough for three tart shells. It’s a long but not difficult (unless you count the considerable upper arm workout you get from rolling the dough numerous times) process, and halfway through you might start to wonder whether all the work is worth it for one tart. Then you read the recipe for the Onion Tart that follows and realize that it only requires 8 oz. of the nearly 24 ounces you have just made. The rest can go in the freezer for later use.
You know a dish is a success when you are still thinking about it the next day. The buttery, flaky puff pastry crust was, in a word, heavenly and the filling of caramelized onions, good smoky thick bacon drizzled with honey and the best quality aged balsamic vinegar you can get your hands on made the Onion Tart an instant hit. (Knowing that you have banked enough puff pastry dough for two more tarts is, as they say, gravy. Just promise yourself that after all that work you will only serve it to people who really love you—and your cooking.)
In this in between season, A Kitchen in France gives a cook a reason to get back into the kitchen (even if the first local asparagus has yet to arrive). And it is a promising debut for Mimi Thorisson whom we hope will continue to grace us with more of her memorable recipes—not to mention her husband’s gorgeous photos—in years to come.