Saturday, August 7, 2010

Book Review: Clémentine in the Kitchen, by Samuel Chamberlain

Clémentine in the Kitchen by Samuel Chamberlain (Author), Ruth Reichl (Introduction)
Publisher: Modern Library; Revised edition (February 20, 2001
ISBN-10: 0375756647
Rating (1 to 5*): *****

Samuel Chamberlain (aka, Phineas Beck) and his wife, Narcissa (aka Diane), were fascinating people. He wrote a number of books on architecture and on historical interiors, and, with his wife, he produced three travelogue/cook books published by Gourmet Publishing in the 1960s. He also wrote a wonderful little book called Clémentine in the Kitchen that is again available through the Modern Library Food series of books.

Clémentine in the Kitchen tells the story of the American Beck family living in France in the years prior to World War II. Because they live in France, they fall in love with food, and once their appreciation of the local food begins to blossom, they are blessed with the presence of the talented French cook, Clémentine. Through her years of service to them, the entire family quite falls in love with her and they are utterly spoiled by her wonderful cooking and her delightful demeanor.

This book is a delightful read, and readers will fall thoroughly in love with Clémentine and with the Beck family, and they will share their heartbreak when they part. It is a short book, good for an afternoon's read, and the special treat is that the last third of it is recipes! Much of the mouthwatering food lovingly described in the book has a recipe offered as well, making this a treasure trove for lovers of real French cuisine. Please note, however, that the recipes are written in an old-fashioned style, instructing the method of preparation and giving ingredients as the method progresses. As a result, cooks will have to read through the recipe and make notes in order to prepare their mis-en-place. This style of recipe writing, though antiquated, is one that I am quite fond of, though it does not lend itself to speed in the kitchen.

From Clémentine in the Kitchen, p. 89:

 Boeuf Bourguignon

For four people: In an iron cocette or heavy casserole, bubbling with 2 tablespoons of hot butter, brown 2 pounds of good lean stewing beef cut into 1 1/2-inch cubes, a few pieces at a time, until the meat is "closed." Remove the pieces to a bowl as they are browned. Stir a tablespoon of flour into the juices in the cocette and simmer, stirring, to make a roux brun. Add salt and pepper and 1 1/2 cups of good red wine.

Brown apart in a skillet 2 coarsely chopped onions in 1 tablespoon of butter. Return the beef and its juices to the cocette and add 1 carrot, another onion, 1 clove of garlic, and 2 shallots, all finely sliced, and a bouquet garni, a piece of cracked veal knuckle, and the browned onions. Add then 1/2 cup of Madeira and enough water to bring the liquid just to the level of the meat.

Put the lid on this poetic ensemble and allow it to simmer very gently, covered, for 2 1/2 hours or more, until the meat is tender and the sauce is a rich, dark brown. One half hour before the dish is done, add a liqueur glass of brandy and 1/4 pound of raw mushroom caps. Finish the cooking with the lid on the cocotte, unless you judge the sauce not to be reduced enough.

Steamed new potatoes are the best companion piece, and so is a vigorous red wine, such as Corton Pommard, or California pinot noir. A cold winter's night can be brightened in many ways, but rarely in a more earthy and satisfying manner than this.

Ruth Reichl, the last editor of the now defunct and much missed Gourmet Magazine, wrote an introduction that not only prepares the reader for the joyful reading experience at hand, but ties it to her own life in such a way that readers experience the story that much more personally.

I love this book. It is one of my favorite summer afternoon reads, and it breaks my heart that it is so very short. It is a true gem of foodie literature, and it should not be missed. Read it – you too will fall in love with Clémentine!

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