This week we’re booking travel (armchair or otherwise) to France. Previously, I’ve waited until Bastille Day to focus on France, but these books were so good, I just could not wait. Later, we’ll look at two specialty guidebooks and an historical mystery novel , along with some pictures from our trip to France two years ago. Today it’s a novel cookbook that I fell in love with. Stay tuned the rest of the week for more France in brand new books.
Destination: Paris (and a bit of Texas for balance)
Regular readers of A Traveler’s Library may be wondering why in the world I’m talking about a cookbook? After all, we have an expert on food and travel, Brette Sember, who contributes to A Traveler’s Library every month.
The answer is simple. I’m selfish. When I got Cowgirl Chef in the mail from the publisher, Running Press, I did not want to send it to Brette. I wanted to keep it for myself. I wanted to read it, enjoy the pictures and mostly I wanted to cook from it.
Not every cookbook evokes such an emotional response from me. Some of them are practical, utilitarian, meet the needs of the moment. But Ellise Pierce is a real writer as well as a gifted cook and innovator. That makes Cowgirl Chef the kind of cookbook that you can sit down and read cover to cover. And the very talented photographer Steve Legato, makes me want to run right back to Paris and shop in an open air market. While the concept of mixing Tex/Mex and French cuisine may sound ridiculous on the surface, Pierce’s personal history explains how this unique approach came about.
Like all good stories, this one includes a handsome prince. Well maybe not a prince, but the next best thing…a French man. Pierce falls in love, travels back and forth from Denton, Texas (a suburb of Dallas) and finally moves to Paris. And like every good story, there’s a glitch in the second act. She misses jalapeños. French flour doesn’t behave the way she’s used to having flour behave. French cooking tends to measure things by weight rather than volume. Her freelance writing career falls apart. And she has to learn the language and think in metrics. And those tiny little kitchens, oh my!
But…and I’m not giving anything away here… the Frenchman and the cowgirl and her love of cooking all live happily ever after.
A personal story precedes just about every recipe. So we learn about the adjustments with unfamiliar ingredients and the slow realization that the French really do have some pretty good ideas about cooking—even if they don’t have jalapeños. And Pierce adapts by first learning to cook her familiar Texas foods and then setting up a cooking class to teach other homesick expats how to adapt their home cooking to French kitchens and ingredients. Then she moves on to cooking French–or almost French.
Like Julia Child, she experiments until she conquers French flour. Like David Lebovitz, she adapts to the tiny kitchen space. She finds her favorite markets. And after giving up her freelance career, she finds another way to use her writing skills…penning a cookbook.
A cookbook, to keep my attention, has to have:
- Tasty recipes that I can actually make in my own kitchen.
- Clear and concise directions.
- Info on additional ways to use the basic recipe, and possible substitutions.
- Pretty pictures.
- Readable text and a story that adds value to the recipes.
- An index that helps me find anything I’m looking for.
Cowgirl Chef passes all but one of those tests. The index would be more helpful if it were much more detailed. That lack is almost overcome by two very useful sections in the front. The first outlines the things that she finds indispensable in the kitchen, from the standard like various thermometers, to the unusual but totally sensible wooden ruler. The second outlines her general philosophy. When size matters, she’ll tell you, but most of the time a potato is a potato. How to use your own judgment rather than relying on time and temperature. And much more.
I didn’t ask permission to share any of the recipes, so I won’t. But the book is packed with what I consider home cooking with a touch of originality. And if I were sharing a recipe, it would probably be one of her adaptations of quiche, like the one with chorizo and green chiles, or a simple grilled brie, pear and prosciutto sandwich or…. but stop me or I’ll be telling you about every recipe in this book because I fully intend to cook every one. And then start on her website, which lists a lot of recipes, too.
But if you just want to read a book about cooking in France–that’s okay, too. But you can’t have my copy of Cowgirl Chef. ‘Cause I’m selfish.
Here’s a video that demonstrates perfectly the way that Ellise Pierce demystifies French cooking.
Disclaimers: The publisher gave me a review copy of the book. The links to Amazon are affiliate links which means that A Traveler’s Library makes a few cents every time you buy something using those links–even though it costs you more. Good deal, huh?