Sometimes I fall behind in writing about cookery books I’ve accepted for review. There is always a stack of books waiting for my attention, and I often feel vaguely guilty that I have already covered books that came in more recently than books that have been waiting a while. So I was delighted when a new friend agreed to take one from the pile and write a guest review about how she got on cooking from it. She chose French Food Safari by Maeve O’Meara and Guillaume Brahimi. Over to Tara Dean and her friend Dawn.

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I met Kavey through a friend when we needed somewhere to crash for the weekend whilst we went to Last Night of the Proms in Hyde Park. I had heard much about Kavey, it was a delight to eventually meet both Kavey who eats and Pete who drinks. I live in Bristol and keep myself very busy. I work for an international sexual health company, run my own sports massage business and am studying for my Masters in Occupational Psychology which I will complete early next year. In my spare time I do Bikram yoga, go to the gym and spend time with my amazing friends.

Whilst at Kavey’s I raided her sweet and chocolate box, as a blogger she gets sent lots of samples and so I had a great time, we inevitably got to talking about food and blogging. Kavey had been sent a recipe book to review and was finding her time limited, I was excited and up for the challenge so she asked me to take the book, cook, eat and review. So here we are, I hope you enjoy reading about my experience.

I have a wonderful friend called Dawn who writes the dessert part of this review, we met a few years ago as we both started out our studies in Psychology. As a fellow northerner, she’s from the east I’m from the west, we both love good homely food that fills your belly and makes you feel nice and warm inside. I take my food seriously and don’t like to eat too much junk food. I am known in the office for my interesting concoctions, when I work late on a Thursday my manager stops by the kitchen specifically to inspect what I’m eating. I’ve often been asked at work if I’m vegetarian even when there is meat in the dish because I am eating something homemade which contains vegetables. People are taken aback when I start work at 8am and I have managed to cook a curry or soup for my lunch before arriving. Life’s too short to eat food that does not taste good. I pride myself in making quick, inexpensive and healthy meals. Now that’s not quite how things happen when you cook from a French cooking book. My point is I can relate to people taking food seriously.

I cooked the main and thankfully Dawn did the dessert. We both thought we had picked a fairly easy none complicated dessert for her. One of the phrases I remember from the evening was from her husband Marc when she asked him to help her with the puff pastry. His reply was ‘No. I’ve made puff pastry once’. He meant you only ever made fresh puff pastry once, learn your lesson, and then buy pre-made ready to roll forever more. Knowing that, there are far more fun and less stressful ways you can spend your Saturday afternoon.

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Lamb Navarin

I chose the Lamb Navarin recipe which in our terms is a French Lamb Stew. First stop was the butchers. The recipe calls for 1kg boned lamb shoulder and 1kg forequarter lamb racks, cut between every second rib. After showing my butcher the recipe book we decided it would be half the price, more meat and much easier to have 2 kg of lamb shoulder which he boned and then I could dice. This was very simple to cut and led to a much less messy eating experience and left me with more money to spend on red wine which fits into my northern values. The recipe says to use chicken stock for which it provides a recipe for – ain’t no one got time for that – or water – I compromised and used stock cubes which I do not think took any flavour away. I had never heard of Kipfler potatoes and neither had the assistant at my local greengrocers. I did a quick internet search and up popped a picture of a long nobbly potato. We ended up with Anya potatoes which hopefully did not take anything away.

I found the recipe well written and easy to follow other than wrestling with Dawn for page viewing. There is a point in the recipe which instructs you to strain the sauce through a fine sieve. I really did not see the point of this and as I was cooking in a piping hot, very heavy, cast iron casserole dish I declined to follow. The result was a beautiful navarin with succulent meat and flavoursome sauce. The celeriac puree containing almost a full pack of butter was the perfect accompaniment. As much as the guests enjoyed the navarin the puree enjoyed the most praise. One guest commented that if I made it again he would like to be on the guest list.

Along with preparation you are looking at a good 3 hours to make this meal. That is without an dessert or starter. The recipe claims this dish can serve 8 – 10 people. We had 7 people to feed, no one behaved like a piglet and overfilled their plate and we had very little in the way of leftovers. I think the writer has been overly optimistic. Unless in France they have extremely small portions to allow for the many courses you would normally expect at a dinner party, which of course is entirely possible, however as a northerner I would like my main course to feel like a main. We did serve cheese between the main and the dessert. Although I have always experienced cheese to be served after dessert the author of French Food Safari says any French person knows that the cheese is served before dessert. Not wanting to appear as amateurs we stuck to tradition.

The book itself is well presented and inviting. There are sections on cheeses, meat, and very fancy desserts which you need specialist equipment to attempt. The recipes do look very inviting and I’m looking forward to trying some more…….. maybe for the next dinner party!

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Tarte Tatin by Dawn

A super friend of mine called Tara invited me to do a joint review of the new ‘French Food Safari’ and with the chitchat of good friends it was quickly decided: there would be a dinner party and it would be held in my kitchen. I offered to make dessert since this is a dish I always feel I do in a hurry when I have a dinner party. The idea of oodles of time without distraction from other dishes to prepare, felt like finally, without neglect, I was in a position to consider this dessert’s every need!

The dessert? Tarte Tatin…The perfect antidote to the autumn air. This is a dish I have enjoyed without fail on numerous occasions during my time spent living in France as a student in the 90′s. My husband is part French and always holds a certain nostalgia for this dessert since his French grandmother would often make it.

On first sight, the recipe seemed fairly straightforward. I have, on several occasions baked a Tarte Tatin so thought it near impossible that I should find myself in troubled waters. Oh how I was wrong! The recipe required me to make puff pastry. Although I have experience of making shortcrust pastry I knew straightaway that to make puff pastry you need inherent qualities such as patience, determination and time. With a flick of my hair I decided I had time on my side and should not focus on the aforementioned qualities!

Some points regarding the recipe quantities: the pastry recipe required 500ml water, 250 ml of which needed to be ice-cold. After 250ml water I found my dough to be all pasty and did not even dare to add the next vat of water. I became a little disheartened at this and wondered how on earth I could possibly inject more water into it, considering all my quantities again-had I put too little flour in? All the quantities were right so with deep breath and without further ado I made a pledge to move on and get cracking with peeling the apples. With an eye on the time and my pastry in mind, I looked forward to what I thought had to be the more straightforward part of the recipe.

After peeling, de-seeding and coring the apples I made the caramel. On the previous occasions I’ve made Tarte Tatin I have added the sugar and butter to the fruit at the time of cooking so i was a little surprised that the caramel was made separately but appreciated trying out new methods! I know that you have to e very attentive to a caramel to stop it burning so I gave it my full attention despite the knowledge my pastry was going to be crying out for affection in the fridge before long. Unfortunately what I found is that there was not enough direction in the instructions. i was starting to feel concerned about the caramel bubbling away for 8 mins with apples and then being turned up to full heat until the apples became caramelised. I was also using a cast-iron pan which does, of course, retain a lot of heat in comparison to other materials.

The apples looked golden and caramelised and picture-perfect. Time to return to the pastry again…

I started to become aware of time: with guests arriving at 8pm I was not going to have this dessert done and dusted before their arrival even though I had started at around 5:15pm. I estimated that by 8:15pm the Tarte, pastry in tow, would be ready to put in the oven. One aspect which would have really helped in making this pastry… photos. There weren’t enough photos of the various contortions this pastry required during the rolls. A picture of all four corners folded in would have been welcomed with open arms.

Three hours and 15 minutes later saw the birth of my Tarte Tatin. It looked amazing.

The taste was disappointing. Everyone agreed it tasted a little burned. A slightly burned caramel sullied the whole dish and those melt in your mouth apples were suddenly left without a plan B. The pastry was ok but nothing special, not quite what I’d expect from having toiled and troubled over it for hours… I kicked myself for not buying ready-made pastry. At least I would have had an easier time coming to terms with a burnt caramel not to mention extra time to prepare for guests.

With more handholding I could have tackled this dessert. I cook and bake a great deal with 2 small children and a husband to feed but this recipe needed a chef (as well as more photos, directions and bags of time) and that, I hasten to add, I am definitely not.

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With thanks to Tara and Dean for their review, and to Hardie Grant for review copy of French Food Safari.

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