An Interview with French Food at Home’s Laura Calder: Part I

Laura Calder

Photo from the Dallas Observer

A year and a half ago, I had the chance to interview Laura Calder, host of French Food at Home on the Cooking Channel.  She had lost her voice, because the night before, she had won her James Beard award.  Over the hour-or-so that I talked with this Canadian cook, I found out that Laura became serious about cooking only once she arrived in France (some things are inevitable).  That she hates tripe and horse meat (who can blame her?). That she has stick-to-your-ribs tastes (like her even more…).  And that Laura truly believes French food is unpretentious (after my own heart).  Here, the first of two parts of the interview.

This interview has been edited for brevity.


Kerry Saretsky: Why French?

Laura Calder: Well French was easy for me because… I grew up going to French school so I spoke French already, it wasn’t an intimidating place to go, and I love food.  So to me there’s no better place.

KS: How would you describe French cuisine to someone who had never encountered it before?  What makes it different?

LC: I think what’s nice about it in the modern world right now is it’s a very coherent cuisine and it’s not all over the place.  In North America right now, we’re trying out so many new things, sometimes we really need some grounding in something that’s not all fusion or confusion—as some of might say, confusion food.  It’s really solid back-to-basics cooking.

KS: What surprised you most about French cooking as you encountered in France?

LC: Well I think I saw it probably like a lot of people think—that somehow it was fattening or heavy or old-fashioned. What I discovered is that it isn’t any of those things; it’s incredibly healthy.  It’s very suited to the modern world.  It’s not like we think of French food as being what people made fifty years ago or a hundred years ago.  They’ve modernised just like us.  Women are working hard at home every day, people work, they’re busy.  So, you know, the cuisine has evolved along just like ours.

KS: So in what way do you interpret or impact traditional French cooking and what is your style or signature that you bring to it?

LC: Well my style is home cooking for one thing.  You know, what makes French food so exciting is it has so many layers, right?  You have the regional layer, the regional side of the cuisine.  You have home cooking.  You have haute cuisine.  My focus is home cooking, and I think that’s a side of French food that hasn’t often been focused on.

KS: What defines French home cooking?

LC: It’s not as foreign as people think.  It’s got a real style, but at the same time they use ingredients that I grew up with: apples, carrots, potatoes, milk, cream, eggs.  I don’t have to run around with a dictionary trying to find these ingredients and it’s really easy to get them anywhere in Europe or North America.  So I think that makes it really appealing; you can do something that’s different from, you know, English or American cuisine, but it’s very accessible.

KS: How will your show translate to an American audience?  I believe it’s the same show that was filmed for the Canadian audience to begin with?

LC: Yes, the Canadians really liked it.  I think everyone was just shocked to see that French food was actually not difficult… That they actually wanted to eat everything they saw.  It’s incredibly healthy, it’s all natural ingredients, nothing’s fake.  It’s [also] not only what the French eat, but how they eat. Meals three times a day.  And you sit down.  I think that kind of lifestyle around food is also part of what makes us healthy.

KS: What is the difference between the way the French and the Americans approach food?

LC: Oh, I think the French approach it with love and lust sometimes.  But I think in America it’s approached very much with fear.  People are very afraid to eat, they’re afraid they might get fat, they’re afraid there’s going to be something in it that’s not good for them, they’re afraid to cook because they don’t know how.  People are afraid of making fools of themselves because they’re not going to be able to cook like a chef.  But in France, when you go in to someone’s house, it’s very much home cooking and they’re not trying to impress you.  What’s important is bringing people together and making something delicious and hearty and homey.

KS: How can we all be more French in the kitchen?

LC: Do a lot less.  You know, just take the aperitifs for example.  In France the aperitif will be someone opens a bottle of Champagne, and you would have a glass of it, and there’s a bowl of olives and a bowl of pistachios or something…or just slice some sausage, and that’s the aperitif.  Completely unpretentious.

KS: Do you think [the fact that French food can be simpler than American food] is a result of the fact that the produce and the meats are superior, at least in flavor, in France?

LC: Yes.  That’s a big part of it.  It’s really easy to cook well in France because the food’s so good to start with.  I always look like a bloody genius when I’m cooking in France, but I have to work a lot harder when I come back.  And people don’t like to hear that, they don’t want to hear that the food isn’t as good here, but it just frankly is not.

KS: You went to a French school, but are you from a French background in Canada?

LC: My name Calder so I have a very English background, but I did grow up in a bilingual province.  I went to a French school from age twelve.

KS: Do you remember what you were eating when you decided to make this transition in your life to cooking?

LC: I grew up on the east coast of Canada.  The food I grew up with was, you know, chowder, milky fish chowder, brown bread with baked beans, that kind of sort of thing.  That’s another thing about French food that people forget, is that you don’t have to have it in isolation.  I have a new book called French Taste where I talk about this, where I say, you don’t have to – this is nothing against Julia Child because I love Julia Child…

KS: Right.

LC: But mastering the art of French cooking, holy Moses, that’s a commitment.  It’s a vast cuisine, I wouldn’t cook anything either if I thought I had to master all the bloody cuisine to make a chocolate mousse.

KS: Right.

LC: Whereas I say make a chocolate mousse and have it after your pasta or make a coq au vin and have tiramisu.  I mean these cuisines in the Western World really work very well together.  So I think we could mix it up a bit more.  Duck à l’orange doesn’t mean that you have to have strawberry soufflé for dessert.

KS: What do you see as the relationship between writing and cooking?

LC: I really love studying languages even just to keep my brain going, but I think it’s an obsession with my mouth, I love everything that goes in and I love what comes out and I love listening to different ways people speak.  I love poetry, I love literature, I love accents, but writing was my first love and I wanted to write about food.

Check back for the second half of the interview tomorrow!

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The Secret Ingredient (Ginger Jam) Part III: Sweet Ginger-Seared Tuna

RECIPE: Sweet Ginger-Seared Tuna
Sweet Ginger-Seared Tuna

Sweet Ginger-Seared Tuna

Get the whole story at Serious Eats.

What I love best about ginger jam is the spicy caramel. Put it on anything, and add some sharp heat; the jam bubbles up, and darkens, and sticks, and turns straight to caramel with all that ginger flavor in the background. To me, there’s nothing like ginger and tuna.

Growing up, I always thought of ginger as medicine. When I was sick, my mom would smash together fresh ginger and garlic, and slather it into spoonfuls of honey I was forced to down by the hour. And when I flew and inevitably found myself nauseous, I would down cans of ginger ale. It was never a flavor I would turn to for fun, after all of those punishing applications. Until sushi.

I remember going out for sushi twenty years ago and thinking it was the most exotic thing in the world. Now, it’s a flavor and an experience that, when abandoned for too long, is as familiar as missing hamburgers or an all-American blue cheese wedge. For years, I shied away from the pickled ginger mounded in that little lump on the side of my sushi platter, but as I’ve started getting more and more into raw tuna (salmon was always my raw fish of choice), I’ve come to love how that slight sweet spicy zing cuts through the almost metallic flavor of the fish.

For this recipe, I soak tuna in a combination of ginger jam, soy sauce, and a touch of sesame oil. Seared quickly on the grill, the ginger jam bubbles up and forms that sticky-spicy-sweet caramel. Slice the tuna up, serve with extra soy sauce and a high pile of pickled ginger. It’s a unique, funky little take on the traditional seared tuna.

Buy Ginger Jam

Sweet Ginger-Seared Tuna
serves 2 to 4

Sweet Ginger-Seared TunaINGREDIENTS

  • 1 1/2 tablespoons ginger jam
  • 1 tablespoon soy sauce, plus more for serving
  • 1 teaspoon toasted sesame oil
  • 1/3 pound sushi-grade tuna steak
  • Pickled ginger, for serving

PROCEDURE

In a bowl, whisk together ginger jam, soy sauce, and sesame oil.  Marinate the tuna in the sauce for 1 hour, covered in the fridge.

Heat a grill pan over medium-high heat.  Sear the tuna 2 minutes on each side.  Thinly slice the tuna, and serve with pickled ginger and soy sauce on the side.

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Categories: 15 Minutes, Appetizers & Hors D’Oeuvres, Eat, Fish, For a Crowd, Individual, Main Courses, Recipes, Series, The Secret Ingredient
 

Franglais: Garlic-oholic Roasted Haricots Verts

RECIPE: Garlic-oholic Roasted Haricots Verts
Garlic-oholic Roasted Haricots Verts

Garlic-oholic Roasted Haricots Verts

This is one of those un-photogenic recipes that gets little fanfare.  But it is so good.  If you want an easy veg, this is the one.  Green garlicky goodness.  Mr. English asks for it every night.

Get the whole story at The Huffington Post.

This recipe is not particularly beautiful, or especially complicated. But that doesn’t mean it’s not one of the best. It completely debunks the myth that effort and deliciousness are proportionally related. Continue reading

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Categories: 15 Minutes, Cheap, Easy, Eat, Franglais, Recipes, Series, Sides, Vegetables, Vegetarian
 

Some Favorite French Restaurants NOT in France

For those of us who have to eat from afar.  Most of these are in NYC and London, so if you have other local favorites, please add them in the comments!  This way, if you want to go out next Thursday night, you can get your reservation in, in plenty of time.

True Favorites

La Fromagerie (London, Marylebone)

Amazing cheese and produce, the best French yogurts, and an adorable market-table atmosphere.

2-6 Moxon Street, Marylebone London W1U 4EW

La Petite Maison (London, Mayfair)

Elegance and refined Provençal fare, all done to the height of Mayfair sophistication.  I love this place: the grilled langoustines and ratatouille are to die.

53-54 Brook’s Mews,London W1K 4EG

Le Bistro d’à Côté (New York, Upper East Side)

A casual, neighborhood place with really great food and a lovely atmosphere.  I love their French Onion Soup.  And anyplace that serves merguez is in my good books.

1590 1st Ave #1, New York, NY 10028

Pastis (New York, Meat Packing District)

My Mecca.  Late night croque monsieurs are not the same anywhere else.  And they have great cocktails, and a Belle Epoque-meets-the-future ambiance.  A must.

9 9th Avenue, New York, NY 10014

Artisanal (New York, Midtown/Murray Hill)

Cheese, cheese, cheese.  Mouse heaven.  The fondue is ridiculous—I get it every time I go, and it’s the best I’ve ever had.  If you don’t want fondue, I can heartily recommend the tuna carpaccio with ratatouille vinaigrette, the mac and cheese, the croque monsieur, and the cheese plate.  All fabulous!

2 Park Avenue, New York, NY 10016

Balthazar (New York, Soho)

The best lentils I’ve ever had.  Lentils, lentils, and more lentils!

80 Spring Street, New York, NY 10012

Kappacasein (London, Bermondsey)

This AMAZING racelette place used to trade a Borough Market.  They also do Montgomery cheddar grilled cheeses.  Literally the best.

1 Voyager Railway Arches, Bermondsey London SE16 4RP

Le Relais de Venise L’Entrecote (London, Marylebone; New York, Midtown)

I love this place in Paris, and have written about it a zillion times.  There is no menu, only sliced steak in this delicious secret sauce, fries, walnut green salad, and dessert (profiteroles are a must).  The best part?  You get two servings of steak frites!  I’ve been to the London restaurant, and it’s just as good as the Paris one.  I imagine the New York location is similar.

590 Lexington Avenue, New York, NY 10022

120 Marylebone Lane, Marylebone London 
W1U 2QG

Table d’Hôte (New York, Upper East Side)

Tiny, tucked away around a corner, and ever-so-charming.  I love the mussels.  No fuss, and the perfect quaint date place.

44 East 92nd Street, New York, NY 10128

Tried and True

La Poule au Pot (London, Pimlico)

Authentic, cozy little homestyle auberge.  I love this place—the food tastes homemade.

231 Ebury Street, London SW1W 8UT

Bouchon (Yountville California)

The French Onion Soup here is so thick, so flavorful—it must have some kind of prize.

6534 Washington Street, Yountville, CA 94599

Bisous Ciao Macarons (New York, Lower East Side)

The only place in the States so far where I’ve found true French macarons, replete with super-original flavors like lavender-honey.

101 Stanton Street, New York, NY 10002

Les Halles (New York, Midtown)

A stalwart, owned by Anthony Bourdain.  I go there for lunch, and love any of the meat.

411 Park Avenue South, New York, NY 10016

Tartine (New York, Greenwich Village)

Ambiance is half of it—a darling, terraced little café in the Village?  How can you not love?  Also good for celebrity sightings (as is Pastis).

253 West 11th Street, New York, NY 10014

Bistro Vendome (New York, Midtown)

The atmosphere is simple, but the moules provençales, on the half shell and baked with butter and parsley and garlic, are delicious.  And it’s pretty hard to find traditional fish soup in Manhattan.

405 E 58th St, New York 10022

Old Standbys

Demarchelier (New York, Upper East Side)

I like this cozy neighborhood place, for its windowed front room and bustling bar.  I always get the mussels, and the artichoke vinaigrette.

50 E 86th St #1, New York, NY 10028

L’Express (New York, Midtown/Murray Hill)

A late night or early croque monsieur never disappoints.

249 Park Avenue South, New York, NY 10003

La Grenouille (New York, Upper East Side/Midtown)

Fancy shmancy!  Where else are you getting to have a strawberry and thyme soufflé?

3 East 52nd Street, New York, NY 10022

La Mangeoire (New York, Upper East Side/Midtown)

Another restaurant that makes real Provençal home cooking.

1008 2nd Avenue, New York, NY 10022

RIP

Florent

A fabulous French diner in Meatpacking.  I miss it always!

La Tour

All you can eat moules-frites on the Upper East Side for $18.  And they always gave me a free glass of Sancerre.  How I miss…

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Categories: California, London, New York, Restaurants, Voyages
 

French in a Flash: Lentil and Sausage Soup

RECIPE: Lentil and Sausage Soup

Lentil and Sausage Soup

Lentil and Sausage Soup

It may seem strange to make soup in the summer, but I actually find soup suppers to be light, but satisfying.

Get the whole story on Serious Eats.

There’s nothing so French as a lentil.  So lowly, cheap, simple.  And yet, in the hands of the French, so elevated, perfect, and enhanced.  I think most American girls wish they had the same know how about what to do with themselves as the French have with what to do with a lentil.  At least I do.  If you can turn a dried bean from a pebble to a gem, imagine what you can do with a person. Continue reading

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Categories: Cheap, Eat, French in a Flash, Recipes, Series, Soup, Soup & Salad
 

Interactive Paris Playlist

A party is nothing without music.  But I’ll admit it.  My taste in French music borders on antiquated, but I just love that gilded, moonlit, Midnight in Paris view of France, and that is encapsulated, for me, in the classics, with a bit of modern tossed in for good measure.  But, the best playlists are a collaborative effort.  So I thought the list can continue in the comments!  Leave your favorite French or French-leaning songs, and we can start our own interactive playlist, so our iPods will be prepped and ready for Bastille Day parties.  My beloved and very cool Parisian teenage cousin Giada helped me find some new stuff.  Here are some of my absolute faves, my most beloved in bold:

The Interactive Paris Playlist

Quelqu’un m’a dit—Carla Bruni

Le plus beau de quartier—Carla Bruni

Raphael—Carla Bruni

L’amour—Carla Bruni

La belle et le badboy—MC Solaar

Je cherche un homme—Eartha Kitt

C’est si bon—Eartha Kitt

La Vie en Rose—Louis Armstrong

La Vie en Rose—Edith Piaf

Milord—Edith Piaf

Non, je ne regrette rien—Edith Piaf

L’anamour—Jane Birkin

En relisant ta lettre—Serge Gainsbourg

Qu’est-ce qu’on attend pour etre heureux—Patrick Bruel

Boum—Charles Trenet

Le Poinçonneur des Lilas—Serge Gainsbourg

Il y a un cauchemard dans ma placard—Birdy Nam Nam

Brandt rhapsodie—Benjamin Biolay

I love Paris—Ella Fitzgerald

C’est magnifique—Frank Sinatra

Si tu vois ma mere—Sidney Bechet

Parlez-moi d’amour—Juliette Greco

Add your own!

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Working Girl Dinners: Moules Marinière!

RECIPE: Moules Marinière
Moules Mariniere

Moules Marinière

In honor of Bastille Week here on French Rev, I’m doing a francophile Working Girls this week.  I surveyed some of my friends who inspired the series, and they told me they did sometimes want to learn how to make something that intimidated them, and mussels were mentioned in that category.  We can’t have that!  We can’t have brains and beauty dwarfed by brawn!  Flexing your mussels in the kitchen is one of the easiest things you can do.  Mussels are cheap, they are so easy to make that you literally can’t mess them up, and they look so gourmet.  And they cook in one pot in under 10 minutes.  They also have that great, but rarely seen, dichotomy of being stewy and comforting while being light enough for summer.

Moules Marinière, or mussels in the sailor’s style, is the classic–white wine, onion, garlic, a bit of thyme, and a stir of cream.  The broth is gorgeous, you soak it up with some whole wheat baguette.  And in the video, I show you how my stepfather from Normandy, home of this dish, taught me to use mussels shells instead of a fork to eat these babies.  Pretty nifty trick.

The point is, there is no reason to be intimidated by mussels.  If you fear seafood, this one comes with a simple rule: BEFORE COOKING, THROW AWAY OPEN MUSSELS.  AFTER COOKING, THROW AWAY CLOSED MUSSELS.  If you follow that rule, you’ll know that any mussel opened after cooking is cooked and safe to eat, and you won’t run into trouble.  Now get out there and flex those mussels!

Moules Marinière
serves 2

Moules MariniereINGREDIENTS

  • 2 pounds mussels
  • 4 teaspoons olive oil
  • 1 Spanish onion, chopped
  • 6 cloves garlic, minced
  • Salt and pepper
  • 8 stems thymes, leaves plucked and chopped
  • 1 cup dry white wine, like Sauvignon Blanc
  • 1/2 cup heavy cream
  • Bread for dipping (a must!)

PROCEDURE

An hour before you want to make your mussels, put them in a big bowl filled with water and a heaping spoonful of flour.  Put the bowl in the fridge until you're ready to work with the mussels.  This just ensures that the mussels spit out any sand they might be chewing on before they go into the pot.

When you're ready to make the mussels, drain the mussels from the water, and rinse off the flour.  If any mussels are open, throw them out.

Preheat a large pan with high sides to medium heat.  Add the olive oil, and the onion and garlic.  Season with salt and pepper, and sauté, stirring often, until the onions are soft, fragrant, and translucent: about 4 minutes.

Add the wine and thyme and mussels to the pot, and season again with salt and pepper.  Leave the heat on medium, and cover the pot.  Leave the pot alone: once all the mussels have opened, after about 5 minutes, the dish is done.  If any mussels are still closed, throw them out.

Take the pan off the heat, and stir in the heavy cream.  Serve with bread!

Note

Just double the recipe for 4!

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Categories: 15 Minutes, Appetizers & Hors D’Oeuvres, Cheap, Easy, Eat, Fish, For a Crowd, Main Courses, Recipes, Series, Watch, Working Girl Dinners