Some cookbooks languish on my shelf because I don't like them, even if I once did. Some languish because they were training wheels. Some languish because I don't do a lot of Indian cooking anymore. But most languish for no conscious reason. Every now and then, as I rummage through my shelves, a few venerable books sit up straight, waving "call on me, call on me."
I spent an unreasonable amount of time in the late '70s querying used bookstores for the out-of-print, legendary, French Menu Cookbook by Richard Olney. Store owners shook their heads before I finished, having always already heard the request dozens of times before. Finally I resorted to inter-library loan, which, after some difficulty, located a copy in some small public library some states away. No, I didn't steal it. I photo-copied it. I hole-punched the pages, and put the sheets into a looseleaf binder. After which expense and labor, of course, a friend offered me a serendipitous copy. And then, in the mid-'80s, it was republished, revised and updated. And how, after all that, was it? Very good. Not the wonderfully timeless and fluid Olney of Simple French Food. So, it's only my second favorite Olney book, still putting it near the head of the class.
The book is organized by seasonal menus. The menus, even the informal menus, tend to have hors d'oeuvres, first course, main course, salad course, cheese course and dessert. And each course has its wine suggestions. Not only don't we eat like that (anymore?), but we freedom-loving Americans don't like cookbooks organized into menus. Worse yet, the recipe choices are a little too classical, a little too dependent on uncommon ingredients. And this is a great pity, for the recipes are marvelous, with impeccable detail and less elaborate than first glances would indicate.
So, while the turban of sole fillets with salmon in a sorrel sauce is actually quite simple (six ingredients), it seems of another time, as do the artichoke bottoms with mushroom puree. The poached chicken mousseline (i.e., a boned chicken reformed around a forcemeat made from chicken breasts and poached in a rich stock) begins:
"These instructions are for a bird that has not been gutted or for one, as prepared for the French market, whose intestines have been untwirled through the anus, the skin pierced at no point. The boning process is identical for a bird whose abdomen has been slashed for gutting, but the slash must be sewn up before the bird is stuffed, leaving an unsightly scar. ... If the feet have not been removed, blister the skin over a flame at the time that the chicken is singed, slip off the blistered skin with paper towels, cut off the extremity of the central toe ..."
There's more. All of which I love to read, but we are not in Emerilville here. This is a book with four recipes for tripe. And there's a melancholy aspect to a book that has a wonderful recipe for apricot fritters, in a era when good apricots are rarer than good chickens.
OK, what's the good news? The first 84 pages, on basics, are a short, well-written introduction to cooking that anyone can benefit from. And, of course, one can simply ignore the menus and cherry-pick the likely dishes. That sole fillet recipe is simple. The recipe for shrimp quiche is wondrous, made great by the flavor-intensifying trick of pounding the shrimp shells in a mortar with the cooking juices. The directions for classics such as gratin of potatoes, pot-au-feu, lamb stew are rich and informative, with useful and clear details about ingredient quality and technique.
Furthermore, should we get lucky about high-quality ingredients (more likely this time of year with the farmers' markets in full swing), Olney is a great source of truly simple recipes: strawberries in Beaujolais (macerate strawberries with a sprinkling of sugar for hour, cover with wine), stewed cucumbers (peel, quarter, seed, cut to one inch, blanch, cook in butter over low heat for seven minutes), warm salad of green beans, marinated raw sardine fillets (substitute fresh smelts), and deep-fried beef tripe with remoulade sauce (ooops).
One of the real pleasures of this book, as I've been rereading it, is the (now) off-beat nature of the dishes, a little trip in the way-back machine. And so what if you know you'll never make half the recipes; the other half are worth it.