One of the many lovely presents I got for my birthday this year was the English-language edition of the classic French home cookbook, Ginette Mathiot's Je sais cuisiner(I Know how to Cook), which my three wonderful grown-up children, Pippa, Xavier and Bevis gave me. It's a huge tome, which covers absolutely everything you could possibly want to know, and is written in a direct, charming and unpretentious manner. Nothing is assumed and yet no-one is talked down to. It was first published in 1932, and hasn't been out of print since. Generations of French home cooks have grown up with it, and kids are given it as a leaving-home present.
Ginette(Genevieve was her real first --Ginette being her nickname) was only twenty-five and a home economics teacher when she was asked by a publisher to compile a book of recipes that would be of use both to young people starting out and for more mature home cooks looking for more ideas. Actually it's more like a combination of cookbook and cooking encyclopedia! The freshness of her style and the fact her recipes can indeed be within the range of beginners as well as those more experienced, have assured the book's longevity. There are recipes for everything from making your own chestnut puree from scratch to how to boil the perfect egg, from the most spectacular of cakes to the simplest sauce, and it is also remarkably well-organised and carefully explained yet not in the least bit precious. There's also advice on wines, table settings, menu planning and more, and lots of mouth-watering photographs. This lovely English-language edition by Phaidon Books also features menus and recipes from celebrated French chefs practising around the world, including our very own Guillaume Brahimi from Bennelong restaurant at the Sydney Opera House!
Anyway I've always heard lots about this book but this is the first time I've owned a copy--and how much I'm enjoying trying out new things and cooking up variations on old themes. And you can adapt Ginette's recipes very easily to your individual needs and likes and as the inspiration strikes you--there's nothing of the precious 'don't change a grain of salt' feeling about her work, which suits me just fine as I'm constitutionally resistant to following orders!
Here's a couple of (adapted) very simple and delicious recipes of hers I cooked recently, which worked brilliantly:
Fresh mushroom soup (serves two)shown in foreground of photo:
Ingredients: 1/2 kilo small field mushrooms, couple sprigs fresh thyme(dried thyme can also be used),a little butter, some chives, chopped, salt,pepper, chicken or vegetable stock, 100 ml cream, a tablespoon cornflour or potato flour or rice flour, 1 egg yolk.
Slice most of the mushrooms thinly, reserving some for putting later in the soup as decoration. Fry the sliced mushrooms in butter, add half the chopped herbs, then salt, pepper, chicken stock. Simmer for about fifteen minutes, then blend soup till smooth(or mash with a masher). Beat the egg yolk into the cream, dissolve the flour in the liquid(there should be no lumps) and add to the soup blend, stirring through on stove till well-blended and thickening. Separately fry the remaining mushrooms(sliced) and add to the soup, stirring through with remaining bits of herbs. Serve. It's absolutely delicious the day it's made but is even better the day after!
Perch fillets in a milk anchovy sauce(I've adapted this from a couple of recipes of hers--so you won't find that title in the book!)--photo of dish just behind the soup. Also serves two.
Ingredients: To poach fish: 4 small ocean perch fillets, a little butter, court-bouillon(I use a French court-bouillon stock cube for this but you can make a version using some sliced onion fried in butter, with a little splash of white wine added, salt, pepper, tarragon or thyme, and some water, boiled together and then a squeeze of lemon juice in it.) For milk anchovy sauce: a tablespoon soft butter, some finely chopped parsley, pepper, about five or six flat anchovy fillets, crushed, one garlic clove, crushed, a little more butter for the roux, teaspoon flour(wheat or rice or cornflour etc), some milk.
Melt a little butter in pan, quickly sear fish then add the court-bouillon liquid to just cover the fish. Simmer. It only needs to cook for about 7 mins or so. Meanwhile make some anchovy butter with the crushed anchovies, garlic, parsley, pepper, mashed into the butter. Make a roux, melting the butter, adding the flour, and then the milk till nice and thick. Take off stove, and add the anchovy butter to the milk sauce, stirring well till the butter has melted and everything is all blended in. Serve on top of the fish.
(I served the fish with carrots cooked in a little stock too and some sweet and sour red cabbage, which worked very well. But it'll go with pretty much anything you like--good mashed potato made with waxy spuds would be lovely for instance.)