Sunday, June 24, 2012

You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman: Alain Ducasse's New Cookbook

I love food – thinking about it, talking about it, preparing it, eating it, and even cleaning up after it’s all gone. I also love trying new recipes. Food is such a compelling metaphor for the way we live; we constantly use phrases like “sugar coat it,” “trim the fat,” and “half-baked idea.” The very way ingredients interact is relational, just like people. There’s something magical about combining and modifying raw ingredients to create a delicious finished dish.

Of all the world’s cultures and stereotypes, no one worships food like the French, which is perhaps why I’ve always felt an affinity with them. However, typical French cuisine tends to be too rich, too bready, too meaty and creamy for my palate and sensitive tummy. This is exactly why I was thrilled to hear about Alain Ducasse’s new cookbook Nature: Simple, Healthy, and Good on the site Q by Equinox. Reviewer Eimear Lynch sums it up perfectly: “co-written with nutritionist Paule Neyrat, the book is filled with nutrient-rich, veggie-based recipes that, while healthy, are still decidedly fancy and French.”

Nature is not a 30-minute weeknight dinner cookbook. To use this book effectively, you need to let go of the North American stuff-your-face mindset and move towards the Provençal savor-the-moment mentality. This cookbook demands that you immerse yourself. Each recipe is laid out not as a series of ingredients and instructions, but as a story – beginning, middle and end. Although there are many tempting recipes, it’s difficult to pick one and make it spontaneously. You need to set aside a few weeks to cook only things from the pages of Nature.

I could easily spend weeks gazing at the pictures, pouring over recipes and reading the interspersed gastronomical witticisms. But the monograph itself is a call to action. Browsing your local farmers’ market (or “marketing”, as Julia Child would say) is an imperative. There is something for every season in Ducasse’s culinary text and he emphasizes that you must cook in tandem with nature – the seasonal names of many dishes make this explicit. After you’ve been to market, you must then make a series of Staples, foundation dishes such as Salt-Preserved Lemons and Chicken Stock, which will be used in more complex recipes. These recipes take time, but they’re worth it.

Alain Ducasse
Cooking à la Nature also takes money. It’s expensive to stalk your kitchen with different varieties of vinegars and fresh herbs, of which Ducasse calls for many. Again, it makes no sense to cook one recipe from the cookbook. What are you going to do with the leftover bunches of thyme, rosemary and cilantro after using only a few springs? However, many herbs and spices he uses over and over  Piment d’Espelette is a common theme, for example.

The recipes themselves are not foolproof and require commitment. Many of them look intimidating to begin, but are actually not so daunting when you get into them. My method of tackling this cookbook, (a cookbook that was honestly more of a coffee table book for the first few months) was to go through and choose a few recipes from each of the chapters: Staples; Condiments; Grains, Breads and Pastas; Soups; Vegetables; Sea; Land; and Desserts. I found about 40 recipes that looked sufficiently simple, healthy and good enough to start with.

Ducasse’s recipe for Hummus intrigued me because it was made with dried chickpeas, not canned. I’ve been struggling with homemade hummus for a while, so I thought I would give it a try. Not bad, but rather time consuming for what should be a simple dish. Next time I would roast the chickpeas rather than boiling them for a smoky aroma. Vegetables à la Barigoule with Vanilla is another dish I couldn’t resist. I love combining typically sweet flavours with savory ingredients. Again, it’s a testament to the French lifestyle that the recipe says it takes “only about 40 minutes to prepare” (my emphasis). But it’s worth it. Chicken Breasts in Yogurt with Stir-Fried Vegetables is one of the more pedestrian meals in Nature, but also one of the more accessible, and no less tasty.

I didn’t get a chance to make any of the desserts, but fruit-based concoctions like Pan-Fried Summer or Winter Fruits and Pears in Red Wine look divine. You won’t find any pound cakes or sky-high cheesecakes in this book, but you surely won’t miss them either. I’ve been trying to get Ducasse’s ideas about dessert (“sugar overloads the taste buds and destroys the flavours”) through to my glucose-addicted family for years.

Pan-Fried Summer or Winter Fruits

Like most things worth doing, these recipes take time, money, and energy. Part of the secret of the French and their paradox is to enjoy both the process and the outcome. Try putting on some Carole King, start cooking, and you might just  feel natural, healthy and good in no time!

Mari-Beth Slade is a marketer for an accounting firm in Halifax. She enjoys hearing new ideas and challenging assumptions. When not hard at work, she appreciates sharing food, wine and conversations with her family and friends.

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