I had the pleasure of sharing Sunday Supper with Laura Calder while she was in Vancouver last July promoting her latest book, Dinner Chez Moi ~ The Fine Art of Feeding Friends. The registration fee for the event included the opportunity to meet Laura, as well as a three-course dinner, and an autographed copy of Dinner Chez Moi. Since then, I’ve had time to read my copy cover-to-cover and try some of the recipes at home.
Laura Calder is best known for making French food accessible to home cooks on this side of the Atlantic, and with a title like Dinner Chez Moi you might expect more of the same. Her third book, however, is not a book about French Food. It’s an eclectic mix of recipes and cuisines (some from France), organized into menus, then grouped together as either Mostly Warm-Weather or Mostly Cold-Weather meals. The table of contents only lists the menu names (some of which are quite enigmatic) – an unusual and potentially frustrating arrangement. Imagine for a moment that you have a bin full of apples, and you remember seeing what looked like a delicious recipe for apple pie somewhere in Laura’s book. You set out to find it again. The table of contents won’t help unless you also remember the name of the menu the apple pie recipe you’re looking for appears on (in this instance, Just Plain Good). It would have been more useful if the table of contents included the names of the recipes underneath each menu. Fortunately, the book is very well indexed. You won’t find John’s Apple and Ginger Pie in the table of contents but you will find it in the index under apple, ginger, pie, dessert, and John.
Dinner Chez Moi celebrates the kind of casual, relaxed dinner parties where guests gather in the kitchen with a glass of wine, enjoy each other’s company and even pitch in with the cooking. The menus are fashioned around familiar ingredients, and the food is comforting; satisfying. The informal menu at the Vancouver event featured Tuna and White Bean Salad on Toasted Baguette, Apricot Ribs, Quinoa with Spinach and Hazelnuts, and Pistachio Semifreddo with Poached Peaches - each one from the pages of Dinner Chez Moi ~ The Fine Art of Feeding Friends. As the title suggests, this book is as much about spending time with family and friends as it is about food. Laura sums up her dinner party philosophy as follows,
“In my world, ‘dinner party’ just means eating with others. It can be as simple as an omelette or a baked potato, but if I’m not stuck eating it alone, that’s party enough for me!”
Besides tasting the delicious food served at the Vancouver event, I’ve since cooked two recipes from the book at home. The first, Roquefort and Walnut Shortbreads, is a variation of Laura’s recipe for Cheddar Shortbreads. If your guests have never tasted a savoury shortbread, they’re in for a treat, and if they aren’t ready for the lack of sweetness, they’re in for a surprise! (One of my tasters thought I forgot to put the sugar in the cookies – then she noticed the peppery kick from the cayenne and thought I’d lost my mind.) The second recipe I tested (prefaced by a charming anecdote about applying for a job as a crocus warden in England) was Laura’s Saffron Risotto. Both recipes were easy to follow and the results were impressive. I did spot a problem with the instructions for one of the other recipes in the book. The recipe for Carrot and Cheddar Soufflé with Dill explains how to make a carrot purée but then fails to include any direction about how or when to add the purée to the soufflé batter.
If you’ve read my piece on Sunday Supper with Laura Calder you already know I’m a fan of her work, and that includes Dinner Chez Moi. She’s a talented writer and, as her friend Ivan says, “a real wordsmith.” While the recipes and menus in this book are splendid, it’s the writing that makes it exceptional. (No one in their right mind would ever accuse Laura of using a ghostwriter - unlike some celebrity chefs!) Her charm and style shine brightly in each personal story, memory, and sketch that she shares, creating the impression that you’re not just reading a cookbook. You’re spending quality time with a friend. (Be sure and take a peek at the whimsical art hidden away behind the shiny paper jacket. I bet you’ll smile.)
ROQUEFORT and WALNUT SHORTBREADS
†Adapted from Dinner Chez Moi ~ The Fine Art of Feeding Friends
Yields 40 Biscuits
4 ounces crumbled blue cheese
1 cup flour
A pinch of cayenne pepper
1/2 cup butter, cubes and at room temperature
1 teaspoon water
40 walnut halves
Mix all ingredients until they just clump together. Turn out on a board and pat into a smooth dough, without overworking. Shape into a 1-inch log, wrap in plastic wrap, and refrigerate 2 hours or until firm enough to slice neatly. Slice into 1/2 inch rounds.
Combine egg and water and beat lightly. Brush tops with egg wash, then place a walnut half on top of each.
Bake at 350°F for about 12 minutes.
†Adapted from Dinner Chez Moi ~ The Fine Art of Feeding Friends
Makes 6 Servings
About 6 cups (1.5 L) chicken stock
1/2 teaspoon (2 mL) saffron threads*
1/4 cup (60 mL) olive oil
2 onions, minced
2 cups (400 g) Arborio rice
1 cup (250 mL) dry white wine
Salt and pepper
2 tablespoons (30 mL) butter
1 cup (40 g) finely grated Parmesan cheese
In a saucepan, bring the stock to a simmer; keep hot.
Place saffron threads in a small bowl. Cover with 1/2 cup hot stock and allow to bloom for about 5 minutes.
Heat the olive oil in a sauté pan over medium heat. Sweat the onions gently until soft and translucent. Add the rice to the pan and cook, stirring to coat the rice with the oil, about 3 minutes. Add the wine and cook, stirring constantly, until it’s absorbed. Add the saffron and its liquid.
Add 1/2 cup hot stock to the rice, stirring, until the liquid is completely absorbed. Add another 1/2 cup stock and cook until it is absorbed. Continue to add stock in 1/2 cup increments until the rice is al dente and the mixture is creamy, about 20 minutes. Remove from the heat.
Stir in butter and parmesan. Taste and add salt if needed. Spoon into warm bowls and grind over black pepper. Serve immediately.
*Depending on the quality of your saffron, you may actually need a pinch more than the 1/2 teaspoon this recipe calls for.
Dinner Chez Moi – The Fine Art of Feeding Friends
Author: Laura Calder
Cost: $39.99 CAD
Laura is also the host of French Food at Home on the Cooking Channel and a member of the judge’s panel on the Food Network‘s reality series Recipe to Riches. She is currently living in Paris, France where she’s working on a new book and TV show.
†I wrote to the publisher to ask permission to reprint both recipes exactly as they appear in Dinner Chez Moi but I haven’t received a reply. I chose to adapt the recipe instructions to my own words instead of continuing to delay my review.