When a world-famous and beloved chef gathers together sixty years of the recipes he “love[s] the most” and stuffs them in a hearty cookbook that measures two inches thick, it’s time to make room on the bookshelf. This fall Jacques Pépin publishes his newest cookbook, Essential Pépin, and gives his hungry fans over 700 of his favorite recipes culled from his six decades as an apprentice cook, professional chef, and cooking school teacher.
Always the perfectionist in and out of the kitchen, Jacques didn’t go easy on himself when putting this book together. In his introduction, Jacques admits that he could have simply sent off all 700+ recipes to be published with no additional changes, however, he instead decided to reconsider each one and “adjust, correct, and retest [them] for a modern kitchen to make them usable, friendly, and current for today’s cook, while retaining the spirit and flavor of the originals.” Essential Pépin is essentially Jacques, and the recipes reflect his life in food from the fanciest French dishes to the homiest American comfort foods to his personalized approach to “fast food” cooking.
I don’t know what Jacques’ original recipe was for Onion Soup Lyonnaise-Style, but this one did me just fine on a pre-Autumnal evening. As I swim my way through a practically tangible haze of slowly simmering onions and browning mountain cheese, I will say that I wish Jacques had been a little more specific about what port is “sweet port.” To me, all port — ruby, tawny, vintage — is fairly sweet. It’s not like sherry where one is clearly sweet and one is clearly dry. I went with ruby for this recipe, but might try tawny another time just to experience a taste comparison. Also, I didn’t use canned stock. What with all the scary news about what is going on with canned foods these days, I buy cartons of stock not cans. Of course, that’s an even better excuse to make your own stock, which is Jacques’ primary suggestion.
Onion Soup Lyonnaise-Style
Serves 6 to 8
15-20 slices baguette, 1/4 inch thick
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 medium onions, thinly sliced (about 4 cups)
8 cups homemade chicken stock or low-salt canned chicken broth
1/2 teaspoon salt, or to taste
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 cups grated Gruyère or Emmenthaler cheese
2 large egg yolks
1/2 cup sweet port
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
Arrange the bread slices on a cookie sheet and bake for 8 to 10 minutes, until browned. Remove from the oven and set aside. (Leave the oven on.) Melt the butter in a large saucepan. Add the onions and sauté for 15 minutes, or until dark brown.
Add the stock, salt, and pepper. Bring to a boil and cook for 20 minutes. Push the soup through a food mill.
Arrange one third of the toasted bread in the bottom of an ovenproof soup tureen or large casserole. Sprinkle with some of the cheese, then add the remaining bread and more cheese, saving enough to sprinkle over the top of the soup. Fill the tureen with the hot soup, sprinkle the reserved cheese on top, and place on a cookie sheet. Bake for approximately 35 minutes, or until a golden crust forms on top.
At serving time, bring the soup to the table. Combine the yolks with the port in a deep soup plate and whip with a fork. With a ladle, make a hole in the top of the gratinée, pour in the wine mixture, and fold into the soup with the ladle. Stir everything together and serve.
I also tried one of Jacques’ pita pizzas — the one with red onion, tomatoes, Herbes de Provence, chives, and Gruyère cheese — and it’s definitely something I’m going to try out on my toddler. In fact, my husband was so taken with the pizza that I had to make another one right after we scarfed down the first one. I was out of tomatoes, so my second rendition was done up with slices of red onion, Herbes de Provence, chives, Gruyère, and a handful olive oil-dressed watercress I tossed on the pizza after it came out of the oven.
If I recall from my work on More Fast Food My Way, Jacques’ pita pizzas are part of his “fast food” oeuvre, and clearly the onion soup smacks of his classical French background, so I decided to round out my Essential Pépin sojourn with his roast chicken recipe, a classic American entry.
My experience with this recipe was somewhat rocky. While I loved Jacques’ tip about not covering the finished chicken with foil (because the steaming that ensues makes the chicken taste reheated), I did struggle mightily to keep the stubborn bird on its side during part of the roasting process. I ended up lacerating one of the drumsticks during the balancing act, but since the drumsticks go to my toddler, it wasn’t a huge loss.
As my husband and I stood over the warm chicken, tearing off crispy skin and strips of juicy breast meat with our fingers, he mumbled through a mouthful, “Best roast chicken you’ve ever made.” I then whisked some Grey Poupon into the pan of unstrained juices, warmed it slightly, and poured it off into a bowl. We continued feasting, this time dipping our fingerfuls of chicken into the sauce. In this book, there’s Jacques the Chef.
I leafed through the rest of the book, scanning other recipes, and suddenly realized I wasn’t even reading the recipes because I completely enthralled by the illustrations. In this cookbook, there’s no glossy photography showing rivulets of garnet juices running down a slice of steak, no crooked fingers of steam rising from hot-from-the-oven rolls, there’s just a gratin pan here, a curly head of Boston lettuce there, an occasional plump chicken pecking in the dirt — all lovingly rendered in watercolor by the chef himself. In this book, there’s Jacques the Artist.
Early in the book is a 3-page “General Information About Eggs” section, which is seeded with smidges of new-to-me information. Here Jacques shares a great tip about freezing individual egg whites in ice cub trays and how raw unbroken egg yolks should be covered with cold water for optimal refrigerator storage. However, the egg tip I find most fascinating is the idea that it’s not it’s necessary to bring eggs to room temperature before whipping up their whites. The master chef’s opposing opinion is that the texture of egg whites is “tighter, smoother, and better if the egg whites are cold, even though the volume after beating is slightly less.” Tucked among the 700 recipes are other snippets of advice, like how to make your own proof box for baking and ways to improvise your own fish smoker out of an old pot or roaster and a screen.
The next recipe I’m most looking forward to trying is the Grilled Squid on Watercress. Grilled squid is a dish I always order (sometimes in multiples) if I see it on a restaurant menu, but I’ve never had sufficient courage to try at home. With Jacques by my side, guiding me through each step, I think I’ll finally be able to attempt it. In this book, there’s Jacques the Teacher.
Packaged with the book is a 3-hour DVD of Jacques’ techniques, which really deserves its own review. The very first technique Jacques demonstrates is the proper way of tying your apron to insulate yourself against burns, and attaching your towel to your apron for attractiveness and ease of retrieval. Genius. There are other worthy techniques, of course, and some are difficult — making butter roses and gilding them with paprika for color — and some are easy, like peeling broccoli stems for cooking.
Also not to be missed is KQED’s 26-episode TV show, Essential Pépin, which starts airing on October 15th. KQED’s specially designed website will feature 2-4 printable recipes from each episode along with delectable photographs of the finished dishes. The website also enables you to watch full episodes online a week before they air on TV.