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COOKBOOK REVIEW : The French Cookbook Paradox

August 10, 1995|ANNE MENDELSON

CHEZ NOUS: Home Cooking from the South of France By Lydie Marshall ; (HarperCollins: $25; 303 pp.)

CUISINE A LA VAPEUR: The Art of Cooking with Steam By Jacques Maniere, translated and interpreted by Stephanie Lyness ; (Morrow: $25; 318 pp.) *

The past few years have not been wonderful for primers of French cooking. And no wonder, seeing that some of its greatest glories now touch off reactions suitable to a mooning at a church social.

There is compensation, however, in other kinds of good French cookbooks, especially ones dedicated to provincial byways and lively personal approaches. These will probably continue to be the most interesting among the somewhat reduced ranks of French cookbooks for Americans.

Two recent efforts illustrate how the field branches away from the old mainstream. They have little in common besides being French and being highly idiosyncratic, underscoring how seldom publishers try to sell the classic verities. One is about as simple to use as a cookbook can get. Cooking from the other is a project requiring much forethought and preparation.

Lydie Marshall's "Chez Nous" is exactly what the title implies: a collection of dishes liked, and considered practical enough to show up regularly, in the Marshall household. "Our Kind of Grub" would translate the title neatly.

Because the author is a cooking teacher with homes in Manhattan and Provence, her notion of meals produced without extraordinary fuss might be expected to be a little grandiose. Not so. The surprise of this book is that most of the recipes involve simple ingredients put together in a way many of us could manage with ease.

As one who did much laborious script-following and running around after esoteric ingredients during former cults of "authentic French cuisine," I was initially taken aback by Marshall's approach. She doesn't seem to give a hoot about choosing the perfect pear or hunting for artisanal cheese, and she often has you unceremoniously chuck the simplest mixtures into a food processor before chucking them into the salad bowl or saucepan.

So just what is supposed to be French here, with so little attention to detail?

Keep looking--more to the point, keep cooking--and the picture will emerge like one of those magic-eye stereograms.

Marshall never pretends to be replicating any specific French tradition or patenting a one-of-a-kind style. But after she has cheerfully put together a few dozen straightforward and full-flavored vegetable dishes or simple salads, you start getting a glimpse of some busy, no-nonsense woman grabbing a fistful of useful fresh ingredients and fashioning them into a good family dinner with a certain reasonable investment of time but without one bit of gourmet affectation.

Call it French, French-American or Marshall-esque, it's a way of cooking that seems equally appropriate for a hard-pressed farm cook or a suburban homemaker trying to squeeze in real meals between job demands and family flak.

*

Making the most of "Chez Nous" does require spending time to prepare a few important items in advance. Anyone who skips these will lose the strong personal note with which Marshall invests her simple cooking. What she calls a "light broth," the mother stock that turns up in many dishes, is my idea of a concentrated, carroty, well-salted one. But what a kick it gives to her rich, intense soup of dried porcini and fresh white mushrooms!

The basic bread dough used in all the pissaladieeres and various other recipes is a potato-based formula that, as she readily admits, is "not at all Provencal." But if the eggplant pissaladieere is any clue, it's the best imaginable vehicle for the fresh, robust, Provencal flavors that one associates with the dish. (The leftovers of the dough made an excellent small loaf in their own right.)

But although Marshall does assume a commitment to constructing such foundations instead of buying them, what she purveys is still good plain cooking. Most of the time you will look in vain for recherchee seasonings and complex subtleties. The white bean stew is exactly what one expects from beans, olive oil, onions, garlic, tomatoes and a little salt; gardiane de boeuf is what happens when an uncomplicated stew is laced with black olives and fresh thyme; her puree of green peas and garlic is as straightforward and good as it sounds.

As with all cookbooks, the reader must grope past some editorial ambushes. Having a crucial sentence of the bread dough recipe break off in the middle on Page 77 is idiocy above the common measure. Even without such sabotage from the proofreaders, the Marshall approach to recipe writing is not for people who require heavily detailed instructions even on obvious procedures. It's a good bet that she cooks this kind of food all the time without a recipe; the ideal user would be someone who can pick up on an idea from very simple clues.

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