Hillary Davis, author of Cuisine Nicoise: Sun-kissed Cooking from the French Riviera and French Comfort Food has created another delicious, accessible guide to French cooking with her latest book “Le French Oven.” This time around, she focuses on using the venerable French oven to create a range of appetizers, soups, baked goods, and braised, roasted, stewed and fried dishes using different sizes of French ovens. Desserts, jams, and drinks are also covered. I was thrilled as soon as I heard from Hillary that her new book centered on French ovens; I easily have over 15 Staub pieces, including eight or nine cocottes ranging from 4-9 quarts, several mini-cocottes, a coq au vin roaster, vertical roaster, wok, and several decorative pieces (pumpkin, tomato).
Beginning with a guide to French oven brands (including some familiar names like Staub (my personal favorite), Le Creuset, Revol, Emile Henry, and Mauviel) and how to choose and care for your French oven, there is a delightful user’s guide. Most recipes were created for 5 to 6-quart ovens, but can be adapted for smaller (or larger) ovens. The beauty of French ovens is that they transition seamlessly from stovetop to oven, allowing you to create one-pot dishes that take advantage of searing, braising, baking, roasting and stewing. The cast iron distributes and retains heat beautifully, while cleanup is a breeze.
The beautiful photography by Steven Rothfeld will transport you to the cafes, markets, and gorgeous regional architecture of France. Ingredients are given in both US and metric measurements, with ingredients clearly labeled in red. I also appreciated that recipes were broken down into various steps (“prep,” “cook,” “ideas and suggestions”). A list of suggested resources (including retailers and manufacturers of French ovens, table linens, cutlery and glassware) provides a helpful starting point if you are new to the French kitchen.
The appetizer section makes use of mini-cocottes, which are perfect for individual portions. Gems include vegetable and feta cheese pot pies, fondue mac and cheese, marinated goat cheese with roasted garlic, and warm mushroom custards with garlic bread.
Soups include velvety pumpkin pie, Alsatian beer and munster soup (I substituted a Danish Havarti with caraway and used some Polish rye for the fresh breadcrumbs, which made it a perfect fall / winter dish), and French green lentil and toasted walnut soup (I used a drizzle of toasted walnut oil from France as a final garnish in an homage to the Perigord).
Classic French dishes such as beef stew with wine, cassoulet, and whole stuffed and poached chicken with apples and cider sauce are the perfect way to chase fall or winter’s chill from the air. I have poached fish in oil in the slow cooker, but had not attempted the stovetop method; here, poaching salmon in olive oil and Meyer lemons results in a silky, nuanced dish. The super creamy goat cheese vegetable lasagna is the perfect entrée for vegetarians, who will also find much to rejoice in with dishes like soft parmesan polenta with arugula salad and poached egg (substitute vegetarian bouillon cubes for the chicken), simply delicious roasted vegetables, braised leeks and Swiss chard with feta and raisins.
One technique that I enjoyed learning about was using the French oven to bake no-knead bread; this is the same “no knead” method popularized by Jim Lahey (My Bread: The Revolutionary No-Work, No-Knead Method), where dough is baked at high temperatures (450) in a cast-iron pot. The homemade basil garlic loaf is the perfect accompaniment to soups or light salads, while the date and raisin soda bread is the perfect morning treat or teatime pick-me-up.
Desserts include a range of custards, poached fruit, crumbles, and puddings, and even jams can be made in a French oven (I loved the fig and Port chutney with crumbly aged cheddar). French ovens can even be used to create a do-it-yourself hot chocolate bar, hot rum punch, and mulled wine – the possibilities are truly endless.
Overall, “Le French Oven” is another wonderful addition to my extensive cookbook library (which also includes Hillary’s “Cuisine Nicoise” and “French Comfort Food”), and one that I will find myself using frequently as we slip into winter. Nothing quite dispels winter’s chill like watching the steam curl up from a piping-hot dish served from a beautiful French oven.