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Macarons from French Comfort Food. Steven Rothfeld photo, courtesy Gibbs Smith.




French comfort food from a NH writer
Hillary Davis shares the flavors of France

09/04/14



Before writing for New Hampshire Magazine, and before she lived in the Granite State, Hillary Davis spent her days in the villages of Europe and primarily in southern France. She still visits Cannes and Nice for one or two months out of the year to catch up with friends. Her second cookbook, French Comfort Food, which was released in August, was a labor of love inspired by the recipes of those friends and villages of France.
 
“It was as much work, but it was easier,” Davis said. “The first time I was so worried, every recipe was tested about 13 times for that cookbook. I did the same amount of testing this time, but I asked my food blogger friends to help me, and my neighbors.”
 
For her first cookbook, Cuisine Nicoise, Davis traveled to France to prepare the recipes and have photographer Steven Rothfeld take photos. Her second cookbook appeals more to the American kitchen, with French cuisine recipes made in America with American items.
 
Davis spoke with the Hippo to talk about her recently released cookbook and to demystify French comfort food. 
 
 
Some of these recipes are quintessentially French, and others seem so familiar to what you’d make in an American kitchen. What is it about comfort food that transcends borders (or even continents)?
 
It’s two answers. I think if you’re a child, comfort food is anything sweet. Children just love sweet or something that’s visually exciting to them. But if you’re an adult buying a cookbook, cooking from it, or going to a restaurant and you need comfort, I think comfort for an adult [is] food that brings back happy memories. It has a lot of nostalgia to it.
 
 
Are there any particular trademark characteristics about French comfort food?
 
In France — and the way I picked the recipes — comfort food for them is different in any region. Every region has their own comfort food, because if you go to Alsace, it’s very German. So their comfort food would be very heavy, whereas if you’re in the south of France, where I lived for a long time, it’s very light. It would be a socca chickpea crêpe. … If you go to Normandy, it’s cold there so everything is cream and butter — cream and butter would make them very happy. ... If you go to Burgundy, you’re getting heavy food. They make great pâtés and they love their pâtés on a big thick piece of baguette. … I think France is very different than America in that it’s a melting pot, but it’s not. Each region has its really strong identity. Like New England, I think of comfort food for our identity would be baked beans — and I put lots of maple syrup in mine so it’s very New England.
 
 
You say in the introduction to French Comfort Food that the French “raise the bar on comfort food.” Culturally, I think we have this idea that French cooking is simultaneously simple and extravagant all at once. Is that a bit of what’s going on with French comfort food?
 
No, because French food is a couple of things. It’s simple, meaning there’s two things under that, because it went through a minimalist nouveau cuisine for a long period of time where it simplified the cooking and took away the extravagance. And the other side is the extravagant cooking. … They will cook for days to cook for you. It’s like this new movie, The Hundred-Foot Journey; it’s great, you’ll get the feeling of French extravagance. I think what I meant with that quote is they they take something like … mashed potatoes show up a lot in France, but when they want to do something comforting for the family, they raise the bar and they make something like aligot. They make mashed potatoes, mom goes in with heavy cream, tablespoons of garlic and handfuls of grated cheese. … You come out with this mind-blowing dish. It’s like this elastic mashed potatoes, you put your fork in it and it’s all cheese. To me, that’s raising the bar; to me, mashed potatoes is comfort food, but that’s raising the bar on it.
 
 
Not only are there mouthwatering recipes in the cookbook, but the book itself is pretty mouthwatering, too. Can you tell me a little bit about how you designed the book with photographer Steven Rothfeld?
 
The publisher asks me before to pick what recipes I want the photos of. ... There’s this ancient omelet cake that’s called crespéou — it’s visually stunning, so I knew I wanted a picture of that. … I tried to pick the prettiest food, so I did that and I asked to have Steven again — he’s amazing and the publisher wanted to have him as well. ... We met and it took us 12 days. … So I have to buy all the food each day for all the dishes. … I start cooking when he shows up on the set, and he and I bring props — so all year I’m collecting props like linens and pretty dishes and things all from my private collection. 
 
 
Do you have any personally preferred region of France and its dishes?
 
I love all French food. You couldn’t make me happier than to put me in a car and tell me to go to every village in France just to eat. Just their culture, they wake up in the morning thinking about what they’re going to make for dinner. ... The whole family pitches in and loves to cook, loves to eat, and loves food and can’t wait to share their recipes with their neighbors — even though they’re busy and they’re working just as hard as we are. They’re focused less on making money or business, and it’s more on their personal life. ... My village I lived in, we were very community oriented, because everybody shared. If you had extra vegetables, you ran it up the street to Suzie. If you made too much food that night, you’d share it with your neighbors. 
 
 
What are some ways you can adopt a French comfort food approach to any kitchen?
 
If you’re lucky enough to have your grandmother’s recipes — I mean, I cry when I open my [recipe box]. … My mother-in-law used to cook very well, she was Dutch, and I have all her handwritten recipe cards she made for me. I have my grandmother’s recipe cards, I have my recipe cards from my grand-maman, my French-Canadian grandmother, and recipes from all my friends in Europe. What I love so much is treasuring those little slips of paper from my family and friends. That’s my comfort food. ... I think that would be a mindset because the French, when they want comfort food, they know it by heart — they’ll get out the stuff for their grandmother’s pâté and just make it. 
 





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