Lessons in Eating Well From Simca's Cuisine Still Resound 40 Years Later
Spirited Friends are the only kind we like to dine with
All illustrations from Simca's Cuisine
Publishers love to send us cookbooks here at Fork in the Road, and often those books come straight from the chefs at some of New York's best restaurants. So we decided to share the love, and each week, we'll feature a new book, a recipe, and a few thoughts on cooking from the authors. Check back every Tuesday for a new book.
THROWBACK EDITION: Simca's Cuisine By Simone 'Simca' Beck, 326 pages, Borzoi Books/Alfred A. Knopf (1972/First Edition)
In 1961, Julia Child, Simone Beck, and Louisette Bertholle published Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Child's seminal work and the authoritative tome on its subject. The authors released a second volume in 1970. A year later, Beck published her own book sharing her own personal body of work, built on family recipes from Normandy, Alsace, and Provence and her own creations developed from the time of her youth through her decades cooking with American chefs like Child.
Beck's book is geared to entertaining and looks at dining as a whole experience. Most of the recipes (helpfully indexed by ingredient at the back of the book) are incorporated into menus for every affair -- picnics and lunches, dinners and buffets -- and in structuring it this way, Beck teaches us how eating well depends on so many things: the season, location, affair, company. Every chef I know who cooks French cuisine carries this book on their shelf.
A "spectacular dinner" with champagne calls for salmon or striped bass in brioche, jellied rolled roast of veal, assorted cheeses, whole lettuce salad with vinaigrette, and Bavarian cream with pears and raspberry sauce...With Brut champagne throughout. But see how she balances the meal -- a light, fluffy first course; a heavier main; palate-clearing cheeses (heavy) and salad (light); and a bright dessert of both fruit and cream. On lesser nights, she lets season dictate the menu, offering, perhaps, a "spring dinner from Touraine" with pureed asparagus soup and fresh strawberries or a meal for "after a winter walk in the woods" with oxtails, hearty Provencal stew, and, Beck writes, since "nothing could leave more of a glow on a cold day than [a] banana souffle with warm apricot sauce," that.
With panache, indeed.
Balance extravagance with simplicity. Along with that hearty Provencal stew, Beck serves plain buttered noodles; for fowl grilled with Madeira and cream, she prescribes potatoes sauteed with unpeeled garlic; with curried pork ragout, saffron rice. She answers the question of pairing starch and protein, but her nuance for matching the flavors draws on centuries of French cooking, still the bedrock of all modern cuisine.
Eat with wine. Beck punctuates each menu with wine pairings. With a crab souffle, a dry, white, Loire valley wine; a dinner of cheese souffles; chicory, beet, and endive salad; rich, soft cheeses; and almond tart matches a red Bordeaux. Take her pairings as scripture -- they're classic and foolproof -- or play around and substitute a restrained California Cabernet for the Bordeaux.
Make cassoulet. It's winter, which means beans and meats are in, and the city has been feeding a mounting cassoulet craze for several seasons now. Beck's version of this Provencal standby is comparatively easy -- her duck is neither properly confited nor aged -- yet the dish remains classically French.
After dinner: a stiff drink. "'A good cognac is the inevitable conclusion to a fine dinner with fine wine,'" Beck quotes a "great connoisseur of cognac" as saying at the end of the book. For "'what is more agreeable than warming a beautiful glass in which the master of the house has just served you a fine old cognac?' In these thoughts I concur," and we'll take her at face value on this. Let's bring some gentility back into dinner, shall we?
Soupe Normande (Pureed soup of beans with butter & cream Serves Six
1 pound flageolet beans, dried pea beans, or dried baby lima beans 1 cup celery, sliced 5 tablespoons butter 2 medium onions, to make 1 cup, sliced 4 medium carrots, sliced ½ cup leeks, sliced 2 tablespoons flour 3-5 tablespoons heavy cream or evaporated milk Bunch of Chervil, finely chopped (2-2 ½ teaspoons if dried salt black pepper
Put the beans into a heavy-bottomed three-quart saucepan and cover them liberally with cold water. Bring slowly to the boil, add two tablespoons of salt, and simmer until the beans are tender and slightly in puree (about 1-1 ½ hours).
Remove the beans with a slotted spoon and set them aside. Add the sliced celery to the cooking liquid, and simmer until it has reduced to seven cups. Strain the cooking liquid into a bowl, set the celery aside with the beans, and clean the pan.
Heat three tablespoons of butter in the pan, add the sliced onions and carrots, and saute them slowly for about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally to cook them evenly. Then add the sliced lieeks and cook for about five minutes longer. Sprinkle on the flour, and stir for two to three minutes to coat the vegetables with the flour. Remove from the heat.
Pour in the cooking juice from the beans, return to the heat, stirring until smooth, add a little pepper, bring to the boil, cover and simmer for 20-30 minutes until all vegetables are tender.
Add the celery and the beans, reserving 18 beans for decoration, and reheat the soup. Then put it through a food mill or spin briefly in the blender at low speed. Pour the puree back into the pan, set over medium heat, and stir in the cream or milk by spoonfuls. Remove from the heat, season with salt and pepper, and add half of the chervil.
Serve in warm soup cups or a tureen, decorated with the remaining chervil and the reserved beans.
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