Don’t expect Essential Pepin (Houghton Mifflin 2011) to be the last cookbook penned by Jacques Pepin. He is too energetic and imaginative a chef to stop dreaming up ways to create good food and too dedicated an educator to stop communicate his passion to others.
This is a new book – everything has been rethought and updated – but it is familiar as well: it’s like meeting up with an old friend, because it goes back to the beginning of my culinary writing. It is “essentially” the way I have cooked as a young man, as a mature man, and, now, as an older man. (p. xi)
This is, in essence, a book of taste memories. Each recipe was chosen carefully, updated, while keeping its essential character. Read his introduction for a taste of the fascinating story that makes up his biography, The Apprentice, and set the background of this book: a life started in the kitchen by learning technique and adding creativity.
Turning to the recipes, many of the head notes inform readers of when the recipe dates – others do not. In the chapter on Poultry and Game, recipes that are longer and more complex, typically date from earlier in Jacques Pepin’s sixty-year career, while ones that that have few ingredients are more recent. Have fun figuring out when they date – have more fun making and eating them. The first recipe, of course, is for Roast Chicken (p. 248) that, one guesses, has changed little from his earliest days as an assistant to his mother and aunt. He follows with Chicken with Cognac Sauce (p. 28) a far richer dish from Le Pavillon restaurant with white wine, heavy cream, and cognac.
While Roast Turkey with Mushroom Stuffing (pp. 280-281) could only be from his American years since the French do not celebrate Thanksgiving, and typically do not roast a whole turkey as Americans do. They would more typically eat Turkey Cutlets in Anchovy-Lemon Sauce (p. 281) or Turkey Scaloppini (p. 282) though this recipe might be more recent since it contains shitake mushrooms. We are told in publicity notes that Jacques especially like Skillet Duck with Red Oak Lettuce Salad (pp. 287-288) in which the duck is Southern fried and then its fat becomes the basis for the salad dressing. The garnish of soft scrambled eggs makes it utterly French.
There are no photographs of dishes or techniques – but that hardly matters, since Jacques is a skillful writer and it is clear what finished dishes should look like. There are illustrations – a French terrine topped with a duck’s head in repose for Duck Liver Pate (p. 290) and a long eared bunny for the Rabbit with Prunes (p. 206). All are by the author, including some wonderful chef’s head in the front of the book (self portraits?) At the back of the book is a DVD featuring all the techniques you’ll need to master the recipes in the book.
Give Essential Pepin as a holiday gift to an aspiring young cook, or keep it on your shelf as your own private tutor.