Mimi's Médoc life and autumn recipes
Instagram sensation and author Mimi Thorisson talks about her love for Médoc life and presents some classic autumn recipes
For some reason a lot of people seem to be unclear about exactly what French food is. While they seem pretty certain (though are not always correct) about, say, Chinese food, Indian food and Italian food, French food seems to remain a mystery. Many are familiar with the clichés, like escargots and frogs’ legs, oysters and onion soup, but they don’t always know what makes a dish French. How is a steak French, for example? What do you have to do to it to make it so? And French fries, aren’t they sort of American by now? Maybe a recipe is French if you put enough butter and cream into it, and wine? Maybe it’s all about the sauce?
France is a country with many regions, and though its cuisine is not as localised as in Italy, where the country wasn’t really united until quite recently, France has some strong regional specialities that make this question even harder to answer. In some ways you could say that Paris has played a key part in what the world sees as French cuisine. Historically, if someone tasted something delicious somewhere in France, the king and his court would probably want to have it. Someone would always, in the end, bring the recipe to the capital – and then others would want to try it, too.
Of course, there have been outside influences, too, like couscous from North Africa and oranges from Spain. And we aren’t immune to fads: nouvelle cuisine in the 1980s introduced inventive pairings and teeny tiny portions that would never have been a match for the appetites of old.
To me, French food is what I like from the whole country, and though living in one (rather remote) region emphasises certain things, like game and oysters and grilling over grapevine branches, I like to include recipes from all of France in my cooking. There is just so much good food, so many good techniques and traditions, and I never want to miss out on any of them.
And so I seek out the best possible seasonal ingredients, cook them thoughtfully and often simply (yes, frequently with butter and wine and garlic), eat just enough to satisfy myself, drink wines to complement my meal, and never count calories. Roast chicken with French fries could be made anywhere, but a really juicy one, perfectly seasoned, with the crispiest fries and the tastiest sauce, was invented in France, and I believe that, at least on a good day, nobody does it better.
Because we live in a world that moves at a faster pace than ever before in history, sitting down to dinner has never felt more important. No matter what kind of day everybody has had, we always try to have dinner together. It’s not at a fixed hour (we’re not that organised), but nevertheless it’s something we do almost every day of the year. Sometimes these dinners happen in one of our many dining rooms (one of the perks of living in a house that is sometimes also a restaurant), but most often we eat together at the big kitchen table, which doubles as prep station and dinner table.
These family meals aren’t necessarily fancy, but we always try to make them tasty and fun. At weekends, or generally when I have time, the whole day could be a prelude leading up to the big moment, a trip to the market that turns into a cooking feast and culminates in culinary glory. Other days I might make a simple soup, fry some eggs, or roll out the cold cuts and cheeses. It’s where we try (try) to teach the children table manners, but even more important, it’s where matters big and small are discussed, plans are made – like family briefings . . . with food. ‘Have you all finished your homework?’ Check. ‘Why was Hudson mean to his sisters? Wait, oh, why were they mean to him?’ ‘Who broke the doorknob in the living room? Nobody? Must have been the ghosts again, then.’
Our children, especially the youngest ones, have a favourite topic. It’s called ‘What’s for dessert?’ Every single night Gaïa and Louise sit at the edges of their seats, trying desperately to prevent the words from escaping their little red lips. Their father, who eats more slowly and more, period, than they do, gives them a look that says, nobody mentions dessert while the rest of us are still having the main course. That’s when they make a note to self to find a spouse who agrees to start the meal with dessert. I tend to side with the girls, albeit silently. I’m the impatient gourmand; my husband is the one who relishes delayed gratification. I know he’s right, sort of. Over the years we’ve worked out a compromise: If he takes too long, we just go for it!
Every night is like a shorter version of life. My husband Oddur and I set things up, sometimes with the help of little hands, and for a while we share a moment. Then the kids fly away one by one, and finally it’s just the two of us, having a last sip of wine, listening to music. Because I usually cook, I tend to escape and leave him with the dishes and the dogs.Then we start again.
There is food and there is dessert. Food we have because we must, because we have to. It’s often delicious, but ultimately we can’t live without it. Desserts we have only because we want to. It sets them apart, makes their lives easy. Which is why I never worry about them. People send back under- or overcooked meat. They send back wine. But does anyone ever send back dessert? I don’t think so. A waiter brings a dessert to your table. You taste it. You thought the soufflé would be softer inside and you discuss this with your tablemates. Then you take another spoonful. It’s still pretty good. Then another. When the waiter finally comes back to your table the soufflé is gone – that’s the only bad thing about it. He asks if he can get anything else for you. You think for a minute: would it be possible to have another soufflé, please?
I know I am exaggerating slightly – there are certainly bad desserts – but by that time in the meal, if the dessert is any good at all, people tend to be more forgiving. They’ve had good food, they’ve had wine, and by now they’ve mostly made up their minds about how they’d rate the experience. A great dessert can lift it, and while a terrible one can sour it slightly, it won’t make them leave; after all, they are leaving anyway.
I see this as a challenge. In life you can do just enough, or you can do a little bit more, give a little extra – even when it’s not necessarily needed. You can, as they say, kill it.
Dessert is where I kill it.
Pearl Onion Tartes Tatin
If my kitchen were a stage and my cooking a musical, then the chorus would be tartlets – never really the star but somehow the catchiest part of the play. During our restaurant days and nights, I think we had some sort of tartlet on the menu every single time. The sheer abundance of kale in our vegetable garden meant that often we had kale tartlets with sour cream and bacon. When we could get our hands on chanterelles, they’d replace the kale. But when we tired of kale, and when there were no mushrooms, we made this third version, which requires a little more work but more than makes up for the effort with pure tastiness. While caramelised onions and puff pastry are delicious as a pair, syrupy balsamic vinegar provides the magic finishing touch.
1 pound 2 ounces / 500 g pearl onions
8 ounces / 230 g frozen puff pastry, thawed
2⁄3 cup / 70 g icing (confectioners’) sugar
8 teaspoons / 40 g unsalted butter
balsamic vinegar, for serving
1. Preheat the oven to 400°F / 200°C.
2. In a large saucepan of boiling water, blanch the pearl onions for 5 minutes to loosen their skins and partially cook them. Drain and set aside to cool. Peel the onions.
3. Roll out the puff pastry as thinly as possible and cut out 8 rounds (large enough to fit into 4-inch / 10-cm tartlet tins). Set the pastry rounds aside.
4. Generously sprinkle icing sugar into each of 8 empty tartlet tins until you can’t see the base of the tin, and put a teaspoon of butter in the centre. Press gently with your finger so the butter is slightly spread. Spoon the pearl onions on top in an even layer.
5. Top the onions with the puff pastry, tucking the edges around the onions and into the tin. Using the palm of your hand, flatten the dough so you can see nice little onion bumps.
6. Put the tartlets on a baking sheet and bake them until golden brown and bubbling, 12 to 15 minutes.
7. Invert the tartlets onto plates and serve hot with a drizzle of balsamic vinegar.
Wine Harvest Pot-au-Feu
Sometimes in winter when I’m buying vegetables at the market, I see elderly men in old sweaters buying vegetables. They always buy the same things: potatoes, leeks, carrots, turnips, parsnips, some cabbage. I know that when they get home, they or their wives all cook the same things, too: blanquette de veau or pot-au-feu. It’s hard to imagine a more familiar dish than pot-au-feu, a humble but delicious meat stew. Sometimes I even forget it exists; there are so many other, more exciting, recipes to cook. But once in a while I cook this classic and I’m always happy I did. A dimly lit kitchen, a hot pot-au-feu in a cast-iron pot in the middle of the table, a jar of strong mustard, a carafe of simple table wine, some candles. As they say, comme autrefois.
2 pounds / 900 g veal shank
1.5 pounds / 750 g tender beef shoulder or brisket
2 pounds / 900 g boneless beef brisket, rolled
8 whole cloves
2 large onions, unpeeled and halved
1 pound / 450 g carrots, peeled and halved
1 pound / 450 g leeks, white and pale green parts, cut into chunks
3 celery stalks, halved
1 turnip, peeled and cut into chunks
2 garlic cloves, sliced 1 bouquet garni
1 bay leaf, coarse sea salt and black pepper
5 medium potatoes, halved
half a head of savoy cabbage, sliced into large strips
cornichons, for serving dijon mustard, for serving
1. Individually tie the veal shank, beef shoulder and brisket firmly with kitchen twine so the pieces keep their shape during cooking. Put them in a very large saucepan and add enough water to cover.
Bring the water to the boil over a high heat. As soon as the water boils, remove from the heat and discard the water. Remove all of the pieces of meat, set aside on a large plate, and rinse the pan to get rid of any traces of scum. Return the meat to the pan.
2. Stick the cloves into the onion halves. Toss them into the pan along with the carrots, leeks, celery, turnip, garlic, bouquet garni and bay leaf, and cover with cold water. Season with salt and pepper. Bring the water to the boil over a medium-high heat. Cover the pan, reduce the heat, and simmer for 3 hours, checking from time to time to skim off any scum from the surface and to add water if necessary to cover the ingredients.
3. Add the potatoes and cabbage and continue to simmer until they are tender, about 45 minutes. Adjust the seasoning to taste.
4. Take out the meat and vegetables and transfer to a large serving plate. Slice the meat. Spoon a few ladles of the broth into bowls, add some meat and vegetables, and serve with the cornichons, mustard and some salt.
Baked Pears with Chocolate
In the early days of our marriage I spent a few Christmases in Iceland [Oddur is Icelandic] and got to know the local traditions. On Christmas Day Icelandic people like to have very salty lamb, which they call ‘hanging meat’, and serve it with a creamy potato stew. On the side they always have flatbread that families bake and decorate as part of the holiday preparations. Dessert is often a rich meringue cake, stuffed with cream and all sorts of sweets, like chocolate-covered raisins and pralines. But there are also other classic desserts, like the one my mother-in-law makes with canned pears, melted After Eight chocolates, and whipped cream. Her version doesn’t really need to be improved on, but I do like to make it with fresh pears, now that most of us can get them at Christmas time.
8 firm-ripe medium pears
3 tablespoons / 45 g unsalted butter, melted
2 tablespoons honey
5 ounces / 150 g dark chocolate (at least 70% cocoa), coarsely chopped
a handful of fresh mint leaves
1. Preheat the oven to 350°F / 180°C.
2. Peel the pears, if desired (pears are better unpeeled), and halve them, scooping out the seeds but leaving the stems intact. Arrange the pears cut side up in a baking dish just large enough to hold them. Drizzle melted butter and honey on each halved pear.
3. Bake the pears until tender and golden, about 25 minutes.
4. Pour a couple of inches of water in a saucepan and bring to a simmer over a medium-high heat. Put the chocolate in a heatproof bowl and set over the saucepan of simmering water to melt. Remove from the heat and stir until smooth and glossy.
5. Just before serving, drizzle the chocolate sauce over the pears and scatter the mint leaves on top. Serve warm.
French Country Cooking by Mimi Thorisson (Hardie Grant, £25)
Photography: Oddur Thorisson.