Cookbook review: Cowgirl Chef by Ellise Pierce

A homesick Texan finds home in Paris by recreating Tex-Mex favorites with Parisian ingredients.

Kitchen Report
French lentils with creamy goat cheese, toasted pine nuts, and topped with cherry tomatoes and poached salmon makes for a delicious meal on a chilly evening.

France, it has long been known, has the power to ignite a passion for food.

Julia Child overcame prejudice and disdain for Americans to earn her culinary badge from Paris Le Cordon Bleu cooking school in the 1950s. Her memoir, “My Life in France,” details her love affair with the country and its culinary masterpieces. Food writer Amanda Hesser wooed a grumpy peasant caretaker in a walled kitchen garden at Chateau du Fey in Burgundy, France, and wrote about it in “The Cook and the Gardner.” And even food blogger-turned author Molly Wizenburg of Orangette fame traces her food writing epiphany to the streets of France in “A Homemade Life.”

There are countless other Americans who traveled to France and suddenly found a new direction in life centered on food. So revered is French cuisine that its principles are a bedrock in Western culinary schools. In November 2010, French gastronomy was added to UNESCO’s “intangible cultural heritage” world list.

And then there is Ellise Pierce, the Cowgirl Chef, who followed a Frenchman to Paris only to get homesick for Texas. There, in the romantic culinary capital of the world, the former journalist found herself yearning for cornbread, hot chilis, and even – gasp – Milky Way candybars.

Unlike Child who started L’Ecole des Trois Gourmandes, an informal cooking school that taught American expats how to cook French dishes, Ms. Pierce created and started teaching other homesick expats how to cook Tex-Mex.

“I taught them the differences between jalapeños and habañeros, and explained the importance of corn in Mexican cuisine,” writes Pierce in her cookbook, Cowgirl Chef: Texas cooking with a French accent, (Running Press, 2012, 333 pp.). “We rolled out flour tortillas, pressed corn tortillas, and made enchiladas. We made guacamole and salsa, too.”

The success and friendship from those classes opened her heart and then her eyes to the possibilities found in neighborhood markets and restaurants. Soon she began to meld Southwest and French traditions into one – the raucous and large-portioned with the petite and refined. Think: cornbread madeleines and buckwheat crepes.

Pierce has plenty of traditional French recipes, too, but she always manages to stir in just a little bit of home. Her efforts come at an interesting time in Paris, when Parisians are delicately embracing American food trucks, hamburgers, and even American-chef-run restaurants.

Somehow a Texas girl in cowboy boots, plaid shirt, and a carefully draped silk scarf cooking up a storm in a tiny French apartment works. If anything, you’ll feel like a good gal-pal has told you to pull up a chair and eat. You’ll be glad you did.

I decided to try Pierce’s recipe for Salmon and Lentils. She says they are good anytime, even though in France, lentils “are mostly a winter thing.” I loved this dish with its hearty lentils, creamy goat cheese, topped with poached salmon, roasted pine nuts, and cherry tomatoes. If you’ve prepared your lentils ahead of time, it’s the perfect quick, one-dish meal.

Can I say it? Bon appétit, y’all!

From “Cowgirl Chef” by Ellise Pierce
(Running Press, 2012)
Reprinted with permission

Salmon and Lentils

Makes 2 servings

I love this dish best in the summer, served at room temperature, but you may also eat this warm.

1/2 cup/120 ml of dry white wine, such as Sauvignon Blanc or Chardonnay [editor's note: substitute cooking wine]

2 5-ounce/150 gram salmon fillets

2 pieces of lemon zest, each about 3 inches/7.5 cm long

1 teaspoon of peppercorns

a sprig of fresh basil, plus a few leaves for serving

sea salt

2 cups/ 470 grams of cooked French Lentils (recipe follows)

a handful of cherry tomatoes, halved

2 tablespoons of fresh goat cheese

a small handful of pine nuts, toasted

balsamic vinegar, for serving (optional)

1. Put your wine, 1/2 cup/115 ml of water, salmon, lemon zest, peppercorns, and basil sprig in a shallow skillet with a big pinch of sea salt. Turn the heat to medium and when it starts to simmer, cover and set the timer for 5 minutes. Check for doneness and if you need it to go a little bit more, just reset your timer for another couple of minutes—this really doesn’t take long. When the salmon’s cooked, remove it from the liquid then pop it in the fridge, let cool, until you’re ready to eat.

2. To serve, get out a couple of soup bowls, and put about a cupful of cold or room temperature lentils in each one. Flake your salmon over the lentils, add the cherry tomatoes and 1 tablespoon of goat cheese to each bowl, tear up a few basil leaves, and sprinkle on the pine nuts. I usually add a little splash of balsamic vinegar too—it goes really nicely with the lentils.

French Lentils

Makes 6 to 8 servings

olive oil

1 onion, diced

2 cloves of garlic, minced

2 carrots, diced

3 cups/720 ml of Save Your Scraps! Veggie Stock (recipe follows), or you may use store-bought

1 pound/500 g of lentils du Puy or small green lentils, rinsed

1 bay leaf

a couple of sprigs of fresh thyme

sea salt and pepper

1. Drizzle a bit of olive oil in your heavy stockpot, add the onions and garlic, and turn the heat to medium-low. Let this cook just until the onions become translucent, just a few minutes, then toss in your carrots. Stir them around and let them cook for a few minutes, too.

2. Add 4 cups/1 liter of water and your veggie stock along with the lentils, the bay leaf, thyme, and a big pinch of salt and pepper. Put the lid on and turn the heat up to medium. When it boils, turn the heat back down to a simmer and cook until the lentils are tender but not mushy, for about an hour. Taste for seasonings and serve hot, cold, or at room temperature.

Save Your Scraps! Veggie Stock

Makes about 4 quarts/4 liters

1 (1 quart/1 liter) plastic bag filled with scraps (carrot peelings, onion skin, celery leaves, zucchini ends, or

whatever you’ve collected)

3 bay leaves

20 peppercorns

a few sprigs of fresh herbs, such as thyme, basil, and parsley

5 quarts/5 liters of water

a big pinch of sea salt

Put everything in a large stockpot and bring this to a boil. Cover, turn the heat down to a simmer, and cook for 4 hours. Taste, and add more salt if needed (or you may simply leave out the salt if you’d rather).

Strain the stock through a piece of cheesecloth placed over a colander on top of a large bowl. Let your stock cool completely and either use right away or freeze.

Cowgirl Tip: I like to freeze my stock in 2 cup/1/2 liter and 4 cup/1 liter containers, since those are the sizes that I use the most when making soups.

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