What do you look for in a cookbook? If you’re like me, you want a collection of recipes that reflect a consistent theme, are not overly intimidating, instructions that are direct- inspiring a feeling of confidence- and yet still challenge. The narrative has to be approachable and entertaining, setting a tone that makes you wish you could spend some time with the author, cooking in the kitchen, sharing some stories over a glass of wine while preparing something delicious. Above all, the cookbook should make you want to cook, eat, and share your efforts with people you love.
Dinner Chez Moi-The Fine Art of Feeding Friends is Laura Calder’s latest cookbook, and satisfies on all those counts, still managing to capture much of the spirit of the woman we have come to know from her acclaimed television series French Food at Home; graceful and elegant, humourous with a soupcon of mischief.
Based on its subtitle one understands that Ms Calder takes her job seriously. Elevating the task of cooking from chore to fine art, she underlines the importance of cooking for the most important of guests: friends. This is not to imply that the occasion need be stuffy or cause for a panic attack. Au contraire; as Calder states in her introduction, the art of cooking for friends may just be the realization “…that feeding friends is about food that comes from the heart, not about what kitchen you happen to cook it in….chez moi is a place within that you give out to the world and you can’t help but take that with you wherever you go any more than a tortoise can his shell.”
The book is comprised of two uncomplicated sections, “Mostly Warm Weather Menus” and “Mostly Cold Weather Menus.” Each menu, whether it is for lunch or dinner, usually has three or four courses, which is awesome because it means you don’t have to wonder if things will “go together.” Of course, you can pair whatever you want from any menu in the book and make your own splash of summer salmon in January or snuggle with the Midwife’s Molasses Cake in June.
The menus themselves are an eclectic group, shaped from dinners shared with different friends. “I quickly realized that food shares something in common with people; it resists being pigeon holed…what we cook is so much a reflection of where we are at any given time and who we have around us.”
With menu titles ranging from the Parentally Approved “An Unintimidating Dinner on a Reasonable Budget”, to the more titillating “Boy Bait” Calder lays out feasts for an estival “Afternoon Tea on the Lawn or a warm and sensuous repast for “Love in a Cold Climate”
All of the menus are prefaced with charming anecdotes which speak well of Calder’s talents as a writer, even when some of the menu items, may at first glance, fail to impress. My husband Kerry, for example, barely concealed a Dame Edna expression of haughty doubt when Ms Calder presented a dessert of prunes, (!) a look of skepticism that one adopts when confronted with the mundane. It is worth pointing out that the word mundane is derivative of the Latin “mundi’, meaning “ of the world”. So a word which originally meant “worldly,” even carnal or earthly, has since sunk into a lowly, common place. In short order, the bowl of Prunes and Figs in Armagnac Syrup transported Kerry to an otherworldly place.
Beautifully and tantalizingly photographed and with whimsical drawings by Calder herself, this book is as easy on the eyes as it promises to be on the palate.
Calder confesses that “Dinner Chez Moi” was written mostly while she was on the road, in hotels, or living out of a suitcase. Be that as it may, even if you don’t have a hook to hang your hat, if home really is where the heart is, Dinner Chez Moi is the sort of book you will want chez vous.
all photos by Phillipa C Photography
Prunes and Figs in Armagnac Syrup
Makes four servings
½ c (95g) sugar
1 piece orange rind, with pith removed
6 ounces (170 g) each dried prunes and dried figs
¼ c (60 ml) Armagnac or Cognac
Whipped crème fraiche or whipped cream with yogurt, for serving
- Put the sugar and orange rind in a saucepan; add 1 ½ cups (375 ml) water. Bring to a boil and add the fruit.
- Reduce the heat and simmer until the fruit is plump, 10 to 15 minutes.
- Transfer to a serving bowl, pour over the Armagnac, and let cool.
- Serve at room temperature, passing a bowl of cream for the topping.