Noted cookbook author, food writer and cooking teacher Patricia Wells spoke at the Wilton Library as part of her book tour promoting her new book The French Kitchen Cookbook, subtitled “Recipes and Lessons from Paris and Provence.”Arriving late, she gave a brief 15-20 minute talk of the sort she usually gives at the beginning of one of her classes, and then took questions for the next half hour. Wells teaches classes regularly at her homes in Paris and Provence (5 days for $5500 plus lodging and dinners), and gave us some useful tips that we could use if we didn’t have the means to attend her well-regarded classes.
“Learning cooking,” she said, “is just like learning to play tennis or the piano.” It takes a lot of practice. She suggested that you make a list of ten things you’d like to learn to cook (not all desserts) and cook each one “over and over.” Then, go on to the next one. When you are done, you’ll have a repertory of dishes you can serve to company.
Read the recipe. Recipes are much more than an assembly manual, she asserted. They tell you exactly how to make the dish.
Assemble your mise en place. Set out all your ingredients, measured out, on a little tray before you start, and then put all the boxes away. This prevents you from turning your kitchen into a “pig pen,” which would surely keep you from cooking effectively.
Make a shopping list as you cook. If you run out of something as you are cooking, put it on your shopping list, so you will have that ingredient the next time you need it,
Use the right knife or pan. Think big. If you have a large roast, don’t use a paring knife, and if you want to boil down a quart of stock, use a big pan so it doesn’t boil over.
Taste as you go. Make sure all the seasonings, not just the salt, are what you want. Don’t wait until then end.
Use cold plates for cold dishes and warm plates for hot dishes. Keep some little bowls in your freezer to use in serving sorbet or ice cream, and keep the plates warm for meats, in your oven, or maybe your dishwasher.
Think about how it looks and goes together.
Rote recipes are easier to shop for. Once you have a repertoire of 10 or so recipes, you’ll find it much easier to shop for them.
Make recipes ahead. Make anything you can ahead of time so you can be a guest at your own dinner and not jumping up every few minutes.
Esthetics are important. Serve food outdoors when you can. Food tastes better when you dine outdoors.
Grow at least one thing. Even if you have no space for a garden, try growing a rosemary plant/bush.
Questions and answers
After her mini-presentation, Wells took questions from the audience. Here are some of the questions and her answers.
Q: Europeans linger at mealtimes much more than Americans do. How can I get people to linger here? A: Serve several courses and talk between them.
Q: What about all those colored salts? Do you believed in them? A: They are basically a fad, but there are a couple you might want to use for finishing or garnishing. I like the saffron salt, and one with pepper in it. I also think the black salt is a nice garnish on white foods like fish.
Q: How do I keep people from filling up on hors d’oeuvres? A: Serve small amounts. Avoid cheese and crackers. You want them to come to the table hungry.
Q: What do you like to serve? A: Soups. Cold ones in the summer. And then maybe a roast chicken or lamb.
Q: What to do about the terrible winter tomatoes. A: Give up having them year round. Sometimes I’ll core fresh tomatoes and throw them in a freezer bag. Even after freezing they still have some flavor you could use in a sauce.
Q: Do you feed your sourdough starter all the time? A: No, if I’m not going to use it again soon, I’ll freeze it. When I make sourdough bread, I use a lot of starter: about a pound to two pounds of flour. Then, I take that pound back out before adding the other ingredients. The San Francisco Bread Baking School says you shouldn’t be afraid to add a little yeast if it isn’t lively enough. This varies from time to time, but flours really aren’t that different.
Q; What are your favorite cooking styles? A: Provence, Brittany and Basque.
Q: How do you serve cheese courses? A: I usually serve 3 or 4 varieties of a single type of cheese, goat one time, bleu another and so forth. The French serve salad courses separately, but since I am not French, I can serve them together if I want to.
Q: How do you roast your chicken? A: I cook it breast up for 1/3 of the time, turn it over for 1/3 of the time and back up again. Let it rest for 10 minutes or so, tented in foil.
Q: Butters? A: I bake with salted butter. I prefer French butter, as it contains less water than, say Land of Lakes.
Q: Stoves? A: I mostly cook with gas, but I love my induction range, too, if I have the right pans. I’ve never used electric.
We noted that Wells didn’t talk about her cookbook at all, although it was available in the lobby for sale courtesy of Elm Street Books. The price there was $37.65 and a portion of the sale went to the library. You can buy it on line at Amazon for $22.71 and just make a donation to the library instead.
We looked through her cookbook, as you can browse it on line at the Amazon site. It is apparently a collection of some of her favorite recipes. We have her Bistro Cooking book already and love using it.