How to Cook Like a Frenchwoman

·Food Features Editor
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Photo credit: Oddur Thorisson

What is maybe the most gorgeous cookbook of the year has hit stores. Bonus: It makes French cuisine sound easy as pie. (Or tarte tatin.)

Mimi Thorisson’s new cookbookA Kitchen in France: A Year of Cooking in My Farmhouseis a spinoff of her super-popular and equally handsome blog, Manger. The mother to seven children and owner of 14 (!) dogs somehow cooks frequently, too, and recipes showcasing her beautiful life (shot by husband and pro shutterbug Oddur) have fans on both sides of the Atlantic drooling. Thorisson espouses the virtues of cream and shallots, countryside rides in Citroëns, and why it’s worth taking the time to give food what she calls “the gloss” using—vive la France!—butter.

The daughter to a Chinese father and French mother was born in Hong Kong, but it wasn’t until her grandmother and aunt started taking her to markets in the south of France that she fell under the spell of that style of cookery. We spoke to her about how to stock the quintessential French pantry, how to style a meal with more Gallic flair (it’s so much easier than you’d think), and how to stay warm all winter long—like a Frenchwoman.

How did all this start?
“I had no intention to do this. I started to cook in this farmhouse kitchen, and it was so big, so inspiring. First I took pictures for the blog with my iPhone, behind Oddur’s back. Then he’d be like, ‘hang on a minute, I’m gonna do the fonts right… OK, I’ll start chipping in, I’ll start taking pictures.’ Suddenly I started seeing the blog stats, with lots of zeros after the numbers. A Cup of Jo pinned it, Smitten Kitchen started talking about it. ‘Who’s this new girl? She has five kids. Six kids. Look at her and look at this cake!’ People starting calling me. I had a book agent within three weeks.”

Who inspired your love of cooking?
“At the holidays I would see my mother’s relatives. My love of food came from French food. My grandma and aunt were very good family cooks. I admired them, and would go shopping with them. I had an extra special admiration for my grandmother’s food. Mom didn’t cook. Dad cooked when I was growing up, and loves eating. I grew up eating Chinese and French food. We ate out a lot. I don’t cook Asian food so much. I have a real admiration and love for France. Cooking was natural for me; the seasonal produce was so amazing. You’re there, it’s growing around you, the culture is so strong.”

What’s your #1 tip for how to cook like a French person?
“Be patient. Patience makes the best meals. Often the best meals are the slow-cooked meals. In France it’s called la cuisine bourgeoise: Meals are cooking for five to six hours.”

How is a woman with seven kids and a new baby able to cook so often?
“I have a deep love for food. I’m not exactly a patient person, but I love cooking. While I’m cooking I can do so many other things. I’m Zen.”

Which of the dishes in your book are best for winter?
“Beef cheeks with carrots. It lasts up to three days. It cooks all day long, You have some for dinner, for lunch, have for dinner again. And the garbure (a thick French soup). It’s so fortifying, it’s great. My friend shared one of his recipes, which was a big inspiration, for Parmesan soup. It’s a very scary soup; there’s a lot of cream in there. Just enjoy yourself. Don’t eat anything for next meal, or eat light for next meal. I always recommend it for entertaining. I feel like I’m at a restaurant.”

How can one stock a French pantry without breaking the bank?
“In French cooking, if you have shallots, butter, a bit of red wine, you’re off to a big place. It’s the little things that change everything.”

Sounds good. What’s the full list?
“Garlic. Shallots. Butter. Red wine: Save a bottle of red for a cooking wine. Parsley. Cream. Nutmeg. Flour. Cheese. Eggs.”

What’s your go-to quick meal?
“A soufflé. I have an obsession with eggs. Cheddar, Roquefort, Gruyère, whatever cheese you have, plus milk. Make a little soufflé. Serve with a little salad. There you have a great meal.”

What’s the secret to making a meal more French?
“Sauces are secret to French food. Covering food like a blanket. Beautiful and simple. You just need butter; it’s very important. I’m not scared of using butter, it changes everything—that makes French food so incredible.”

Did your Chinese father have any cooking tricks he taught you?
“Always have a very hot pan, have a sizzling hot pan, whether it’s to fry a steak or onions or garlic. Temperature is very important. Another thing he taught me is: When you cook, you always have to make things look glossy, to open the mind. There’s a special Chinese word that means “to make something glossy.” They use cornstarch and water. It gives it that gloss. I do the same with butter. Give it the gloss. Not only does it give it this soft velvety taste, but it also makes it look good. Like putting on lip gloss.”

More on Mimi: 

A bit more about her lovely new cookbook, A Kitchen in France 

The Parmesan soup that will make your dinner guests feel like they’re at a restaurant 

Mimi’s knockout 5-ingredient potato side dish

Do you ever cook French food? What’s your favorite recipe?