Monday, December 19, 2011

The Return of an Old Friend: Essential Pepin


Those of us who came of culinary age watching Jacques Pépin's many cooking series on public television grew up believing that French cooking was actually something accessible. Over the years, Pépin has turned us on to the beauty of salads and maybe introduced us to the Niçoise. We learned the true way to make a creamy smooth omelet with fines herbes. He hooked us on ratatouille--before the animated rat--and to a beautifully roasted chicken. Pépin wooed us with his charming French accent and ready smile--and recipes that worked. Over the years he continued to charm us as he engaged on camera with the venerable Julia Child, often acceding to her preferences. And, his shows with daughter Claudine won us over again. Who can resist a sweet father-daughter repartee?

To think that 60 years have passed since Pépin first began a career as a cook and professional chef is astounding. But the freshness of what Pépin does in the kitchen continues. Yes, his newest book, Essential Pepin ($60/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), revisits favorite recipes. But, as he explains in the introduction, he doesn't just let the recipes molder in the past; he's updated them for the modern kitchen and sensibility. As a result, he writes, this book represents him more today than at any other time in his life.

Essential Pepin is filled with 700 recipes that span the food category continuum--soups, salads, eggs and cheese, pasta, and meat all the way through frozen desserts. There are also little sidebars with useful tidbits of information. You'll learn how to select and prepare chestnuts, the differences between European and American eels, ideas for using that leftover ratatouille, and how to salvage curdled Hollandaise.

There are pretty little illustrations, also by Pépin. What you won't find here is photographic food porn. Non-decorative visuals are reserved for the accompanying DVD, which showcases the chef as he demonstrates techniques such as how to shell peas and fava beans, how to cut potatoes, how to shuck oysters and clams and scale fish, how to clarify stock, and how to make and pipe meringue. In essence, it once again puts Pépin back in your home to give even the beginning cook the confidence to go forth in the kitchen.

Essential Pepin is perfect for two audiences: longtime fans of the "other" and literally French chef and beginning cooks who aspire to the authentic and sophisticated in the kitchen. I'm eager to try his Black Sea Bass Gravlax, Braised Pork with Chestnuts, Artichokes with Ravigote Sauce, and Homemade Orange Liqueur (orange rind and sugar in brandy). It's a book with recipes you can follow literally or use as a jumping off point for your own creations. In this way, too, Jacques Pépin is an inspiration.


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