Her latest book Around my French Table (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) being such a runaway success, I am grateful that Dorie Greenspan managed to find time to answer my questions.
Having lived in France until my early 30's influenced how I approached this interview.
Q: Dorie, reading your introduction and browsing through your book, I wonder if the 'wow' factor you had on your first trip to France could have been experienced as well by a French visitor to New York?
I think you can get the ‘wow’ factor anywhere. What was so extraordinary about my reaction to Paris on that first visit was the strong sense that I belonged there. I’d never had that feeling before and now, so many years and so many voyages to so many places later, I’ve not had it since. For sure I think a French visitor could have that feeling about New York.
Q: When I was a young kid, every Friday, the whole family had a meal at the Creperie up the street, did your family visit a neighborhood place for local fare?
I grew up in Brooklyn and every Sunday we had Chinese food. It was hardly local fare in the sense that we know it now, but the restaurant was certainly local – so local that everyone in the place knew everyone else.
Q: Was no one at the time of your first visit to France offering Galettes de Ble Noir (buckwheat 'crepes) in New York?
You know I can’t remember. I think there was a chain of crepe restaurants in NYC, I can’t recall the name, but I know it had some form of ‘crepe’ in it, and they might have served buckwheat crepes. Certainly such crepes were not something I ate regularly in New York.
Q: Do you think Americans romance the French or Italian experience?
I think we Americans do have a somewhat romantic view of France and Italy, but like all sentiments that hang on, they’re based in some measure in reality and I think they remain because of love.
Q: When the English edition of the Ginette Mathiot cookbook came out, I realized I had a tattered copy of a paperback by her that must be 25 years old now. Were there books in your pre-France love affair that were central to your home cooking?
I learned to cook from The New York Times Cookbook by Craig Claiborne. I’m sure it’s as tattered as your Mathiot. My copy has lots of penciled-in notes about what I thought of a recipe, whom I’d made it for and what, if anything, I’d want to change.
Q: Your au pair Marie-Cecile Noblet, did not make a big fuss about the food she cooked. I grew up on my grandmother and mother's cooking. Seeing them in action in the kitchen, do you think visual memory of how things get done matters?
I wasn’t lucky enough to come from a family of good cooks – or even of cooks – so I can’t really respond to your question. If I were to answer your question based on my experience, I’d have to say ‘no’, since I learned to cook from books. However, I always learn a great deal when I watch someone else cook – even when that person is making something that I know how to make very well – and I have food memories, of course, and these inform my style of cooking.
Q: Since your first trip to France, have you noticed a big change in what people cook at home and for friends?
I think that over the years that I’ve been traveling to France, the style of cooking for friends at home has become more easy-going. People everywhere are busier than they were 30+ years ago, and more women are working, but no one wants to give up the pleasure of sharing a meal at home with friends, so the dishes have become simpler, I think.
Q: Looking back, growing up, there was a form of insularity, food traditions were very different from one region to the other. I had lamb chops for the first time while vacationing in the Pyrenees. Do you see these regional traditions as still strong?
I do see that regional traditions are strong and the romantic in me hopes that they will always remain strong. But what I find so interesting is the way that food in France is changing today. I think that French food has never been more recognizable to Americans than it is today. The French have found a way to keep their traditions and to add new flavors, exotic ingredients and foreign influences to their food and I love this about today’s cuisine. I also love that the food is getting simpler and very easy for Americans to make in their own homes.
Q: Can you share a few dishes from 'Around my French table' that reflect their region of origin?
I love recipes that have stories and so many regional recipes have interesting stories. Among my favorites are Gougeres, cheese puffs that are often served with Kir from Dijon; Socca, a chickpea pancake/crepe from Nice; Provencal Vegetable Soup, finished with pistou (pesto’s cousin); Gateau Basque, a cherry preserve- or pastry cream-filled cake from France’s Southwest; and Sable Breton, butter cookies from Brittany.
Q: When you bought a place in Paris 13 years or so ago, did your language skills stand in the way of communicating with local shops, did they at least give you an A for effort?
I spoke French when I moved to Paris as a part-timer, so that was never a problem. But I’ve noticed that more and more merchants speak English these days, so it’s easier than ever for Americans to make their way in the city. Also, you’re on to something with the ‘A for effort’ – if people smile and say nothing more than ‘bonjour’, I find that most merchants are happy to make an effort on their end.
Q: The 'Salted Butter Break-ups' could be a version of Galettes de Pont-Aven, maybe?
No, I’d say that the thick, salty, butter cookies known as Sablé Breton are closer to the Galettes de Pont-Aven than are the Salted Butter Break-ups. The Break-ups – I love this recipe – are a cross between a butter cookie and pie dough. They’re both crunchy and tender and fun to eat: you roll the dough out any which way, bake it and then bring it to the table whole and let everyone break off pieces. It’s easy and it’s a great party treat.
Q: Where have you had your best Steak Tartar?
The best one I’ve had recently was at T-Bar Steak and Lounge on Third Avenue and 73rd Street in Manhattan.
Q: Would sardines on toast with whole grain mustard cut it for you?
Absolutely! I also enjoy Sardine Rillettes. I have the recipe in Around My French Table and it’s a cinch to make. I mash together sardines and cream cheese, shallots, herbs and lemon juice and serve it as a spread on baguette slices or crackers. (It’s surprisingly good on Thin Triscuits!) This dish has made sardine-lovers out of people who’ve sworn they wouldn’t go near the little fish.
Q: Where did you get your best couscous? Was it vegetarian or with meat? Spicy? Were you offered Sidi Brahim to go with it?
I never go out for couscous in New York and rarely in Paris. Although, every once in a while I’ll go to a café on the Boulevard Raspail, where they serve couscous on Sundays after the market. The couscous is only so-so, but the ambience is wonderful. And I make couscous at home, usually with chicken and usually fairly mild, and then I pass harissa at the table so that everyone can season the dish to his or her liking.
Q: I don't see any Rabbit dish in your new book, any reason why?
The answer’s simple: My husband doesn’t like rabbit, so I don’t cook it and, oddly, it wasn’t a specialty or a favorite of any of my friends whose recipes I include in the book.
Q: What is the best part about Marie-Helene's apple cake?
That the cake’s so easy to put together – mix a few ingredients in a bowl, bake and serve? That it looks so homey and inviting? That it tastes so good?
Q: If you had to pick a last meal, what would it be?
I’ve been asked this question several times and I’ve never really been able to answer it well. Maybe it’s because I hate to think about a last meal. I’m not sure what the meal would be, but I’d want it to include Mont d’Or (cheese), great ice cream, World Peace Cookies, Vanilla Sablés with salt and Chateau d’Yquem, not that it’s the best match with ice cream, but it’s such an amazing wine. As for what would come before? I still haven’t figured that out.
Thanks for your time, Dorie!
(* Photos of endives, apples and grapes (page 338) and smoked salmon waffles (page 171) by Alan Richardson, reproduced courtesy of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, the publisher)