Remember a great meal you've had? Was it the food you remember, or the company? Laura Calder, known to Canadians for her culinary/lifestyle books and tv series French Food at Home, poses such questions in her latest book, Kitchen Bliss. Part essay, part recipes, the prose is thoughtful and thought-provoking, written during the pandemic when the east-coast native says she turned to the kitchen and--especially--the kitchen table to help keep her sane.
"When I ask people about memorable meals, it's never about the food--the good is the gathering; dinner is the side," said Calder ahead of her book launch this spring. "Every essay in the book pokes questions about food, cooking, eating. It always comes back to the many ways we're nourished: food is one, of course, but it's a mixed bag."
Calder says Kitchen Bliss is a read more than a cookbook but recipes dotted throughout do include classics that have been tested many times; traditional favourites like her Mum's bread rolls, and new ones like a light, refreshing Asian carrot salad.
"I think recipes should be shared. Some people hold onto them, but why?" asked Calder, adding she's geared toward home cooking despite her past foray with culinary school. Surprisingly, she doesn't cook much French food anymore, she adds, and has gone off meat too.
"It's about where you are in life, geographically or mentally. I suddenly stopped wanting to eat meat," she said, though not to worry: readers will still find plenty of carnivorous options scattered through the pages. Lemon roasted chicken with dill, Romanian sausages, Lamb Navarin and Spring Vegetable Ragout with Shaved Ham all make an appearance.
"The book is for anyone who wants to look at their daily lives and do the simple things thoughtfully, as a tool for wellness. That can be setting a nice table (which Calder says she does every night; candles, napkins and all). "The table is a literal and symbolic gathering place; restorative and healing; a calming space to make order out of chaos."
Calder is an advocate of l’art de vivre, the French idea of getting the most out of everyday life by putting care into everything we do. It's apparent in every aspect of Calder's life and something she addresses in Kitchen Bliss, blogs and at her website, lauracalder.com.
"The pandemic reminded me how important a healing oasis the kitchen is," she continued. "And the table is a civilizing place. There's a crucial aspect of self-care that happens when dining with family and friends. Even literally, everyone turns inward at the table, with their backs to the rest of the world for that special moment of dining and sharing. It's a special and undervalued thing."
Kitchen Bliss is available now.
Mum’s Bread Rolls
These delicious milk-rich rolls have always been a family staple for serving with soups and also for making lunchtime sandwiches, such as roast beef and horseradish or cheddar and lettuce. They travel well. Makes 24 to 30 rolls.
2 cups/500 ml milk
1/4 cup/60 g butter
1/4 cup/60 g to 1/2 cup/100 g sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1 package yeast (21/4 teaspoons)
1/2 cup/125 ml warm water
6 cups/750 g flour, plus more as needed
2 tablespoons melted butter, for rolling and brushing
Heat the milk and butter in a saucepan until the butter has melted. Remove from the heat and stir in the sugar and salt. Pour into a large mixing bowl and set aside to cool until tepid. Dissolve the yeast in the warm water and let sit for about 5 minutes until foamy, then stir into the cooled milk mixture. (Make sure it’s not hot or you could kill the yeast, which will prevent the dough from rising.) Stir in half the flour, then mix in the rest. The dough should be quite sticky, but not unmanageably so. If it is, you can add another handful of flour so that the dough pulls shaggily away from the side of the bowl. (You are not looking for a smooth dough that forms a ball. That would mean you’ve added too much flour and the rolls will be heavy.)
Put the dough in a clean bowl, cover with a tea towel, set in a warm place, and let rise to double, 1 to 11/2 hours. Punch the dough down, cover again, and let rise to double a second time, about 30 minutes. Grease 2 large baking sheets. Heat the oven to 350°F/180°C.
Have the melted butter in a small bowl by your side. Dip your fingers into butter and tear a piece of dough from the mass, about 60 g. Shape into a ball and set on baking sheet. Space balls slightly apart. Brush tops with melted butter. let rise to double yet again, about 30 minutes then bake, one pan at a time until golden 18 to 20 minutes.
Asian Carrot Salad
Fresh and addictive, this is my favourite carrot salad. Serves 4.
4 carrots (14 ounces/390 g), grated
2 tablespoons lime juice
1 tablespoon Thai fish sauce
1 Thai red chili pepper, seeded and minced
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
Two handfuls of roughly chopped fresh coriander leaves
A handful of fresh mint leaves, torn
1/4 cup/40 g roasted, salted peanuts, roughly chopped
Put the carrots in a bowl. Whisk together the lime juice, fish sauce, chili pepper, sugar, and salt, then toss with the carrots. Add the coriander, mint, and peanuts, and toss to distribute evenly. Taste and adjust the seasonings, then transfer to a serving dish.