Thursday, October 20, 2011

Lessons from a Master

The Storefront in Paris

Yesterday's New York Times Dining section (which I love to read) featured an article on Jacques Pepin and his new book, about to be released, The Essential Pepin. Since I began to cook seriously in the 1980s, nearly 30 years ago now, I have loved Pepin as a teacher and master. There is no better chef.  I remember well his early books, La Methode and La Technique, and I spent months and months working my way through each until I had mastered the techniques he demonstrated.  Even today, when I cook, I hear his voice in my head, exhorting this or that method.  The original books were combined several years ago, and are now sold as one volume: The Complete Techniques. He is by far the best of the best of teachers, and his consistent insistence on mastering technique to release your artistry has been a source of inspiration and correction to me for many years. It is important to have Masters, I believe, and selecting the right ones is as important as having them, if not moreso.  I think this has been true in my spiritual life as well, and I have tried to be more deliberate about this more recently.  I know that my cooking is indebted greatly to the wonderful masters at whose feet I have learned, and the same might be said for any appreciation I have for what it means to Live a life hidden in Christ.  Having guides along the path is tremendously valuable.

When someone tells me they want to learn to cook seriously, Pepin's Complete Techniques is the first book I give them. Inevitably, there is some disappointment, because it doesn't seem sexy to practice julienne or making stock when the making of complicated recipes is so much more exciting and rewarding, but this is exactly what will lead to great food.  Pepin himself apprenticed as a teenager in an array of French restaurants, to learn the basics, and he has written about the hard years of long hours and stressful work that honed his skills.  Properly cut vegetables not only look beautiful, but cook evenly. Great stocks and reductions are the secret to the complex and deep flavors of the professional kitchen. Sometimes I think it is particularly difficult for Americans, as we are trained in a culture of immediate gratification, and we are not always willing to invest in a long term apprenticeship that will yield results over time and requires patience. I spoke recently to the owner of a cooking school targeting housewives and weekend cooks, and she told me that it has been difficult for her because all her students seem to want are recipes that can be done quickly and learned quickly, and they don't want to invest any time in learning and mastering technique. I think this is often the case spiritually, too. We want quick results, mountaintop experiences, instant spirituality that's easy and "enhances" life rather than Gives Life, and we are often unwilling to embrace the idea that spiritual growth comes most often through difficulty rather than ease.

Mastering the basic skills, along with learning to shop frequently, seasonally and carefully are the basic building blocks of great food   In the New York Times article, Pepin mentions chefs I admire particularly, and says "All the great chefs I know--Thomas Keller, Jean-Georges Vongericten--they are technicians first."  If you want to be a great cook, start with the basics.  By all means have fun, and cook with all your senses engaged in pleasure, but it can be terrific fun to master these skills and practice them at home while you are cooking dinner at night or a feast on the weekend.  My kids have great fun doing this, and are anxious to finish their homework so they can help cook dinner. My nine year-old daughter is now quite skilled using a chef's knife and though her mother is often anxious that she will cut herself, she is careful and competent, holds the knife properly and uses her fingers properly. My theory is that children will use knives any way; they may as well be taught how to do it properly and much more safely!

Another thing Pepin taught me early on, before I began working in kitchens and with chefs, was the importance of a very sharp knife. Without a sharp knife, kitchen tasks which should be easy and easily mastered are virtually impossible, and worse, they will damage the food you are attempting to cut or carve or filet or bone as well as pose a safety hazard. Most people know this is true, but life is pressing, and time to sharpen knives can often be difficult to carve out, especially when dinner is cooked on the fly and the time is critical.  But this is why it has to be viewed as a priority. If there is one thing I fail to do enough, it is to sharpen my knives.  Contrary to what most people think, a dull knife in the kitchen is far more dangerous than a sharp one.  A sharp knife should glide through a tomato with ease, and if you have a chef knife and can't use it to cut tomatoes, it is not sharp.  From this book on technique, I learned to sharpen knives using a grinding stone, but my husband is still far better at this than I, and I usually use a steel to sharpen the edge before each use, while he uses the grinding stone periodically to keep them in shape.

A friend often reminds me that it is important to have around you friends who are close enough to sharpen you as well, challenging you, holding you accountable, lending a ready ear for confession.  I have found this to be especially helpful in my life, and went too long without it, too prideful to reveal any weakness. It is akin to trying to cook with dull knife.  The resulting dish will suffer. Proverbs 27:17 says that "Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another."  As hard iron, steel will bring a knife to a better edge when it is properly whetted against it: so one friend may be the means of encouraging another to reflect, dive deeply into, and illustrate a subject, without which whetting this would not occur.  This is the basis for the concept of having a spiritual director, really nothing more than a very good friend, in whose faith and heart you have great respect, who can advise and challenge you in your walk. Ideally, perhaps they are further along in their growth, but this is not always possible. Scholars have often wondered if the Roman lyric poet, satirist and critic, Horace, who had studied Greek literature and philosophy in Athens, had seen this proverb in the Septuagint ( the ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible) when he wrote his "The Art of Poetry, an Epistle to the Pisos," saying:  "Ergo fungar vice cotis, acutum, Reddere quae ferrum valet, exors ipsa secandi."  (Hor. Ars. Poet., ver. 304.)  "But let me sharpen others, as the hone gives edge to razors, though itself have none."

Several years after I began to cook seriously, when my career began to be rewarding enough for me to start thinking seriously about a batterie de cuisine that would serve me well and long, I consulted Pepin again, and he was insistent on buying the best.  I still remember his comments about how some people will think nothing of spending a small fortune on a restaurant dinner without blinking an eye, but won't spend the same amount on a few pieces of equipment that might make every dinner substantially more enjoyable and delicious. It is amazing how much difference the right pan can make to a result. Making delicate sauces in a pan that won't cool rapidly can be nearly impossible, and pan searing in the wrong pan can make mush rather than caramelization.  Of course, I had read all the reviews of the various options, as well as cooked with all of them in various places. I knew I didn't want to cook with aluminum because of potential health concerns as well as the often graying impact it can have on food, so I was choosing between copper (Mauviel, French of course!) and stainless steel (All Clad, which I like very much).  It was Pepin whose comments on both convinced me to buy copper. I now have a very large collection of copper pans and pots, gratins and bowls, and though they require a little more effort to polish, they are worth it, in my view. I even have copper pots and pans in my holiday house in Big Sur, where I cook as much as I do at home and where I have more time to do wonderful feasts, which is great fun, in a small, but well equipped kitchen by the Big Sur River, with the sound of the river faeries keeping me company.

I made my first few copper pan and pot purchases on a trip to Paris, at one of my favorite stores, E. Dehillerin.  Long Paris’ legendary cookware store, the visit of which is a step back in time, Dehillerin is a ramshackle shop with high ceilings, wooden plank floors and open shelves where merchandise is stacked haphazardly and appears not to have changed much since it was founded in 1820.  I love these sorts of shops.
Two aisles at E. Dehillerin, wherein I once heard a lady,
the wife of an American professor, lecturing the staff, in very laboured
French, on the lack of proper organization of the store!  The shopkeeper
 suggested that the store had survived and prospered as long
as it had because the French preferred it this way!

The reports of rude behavior from the overall-clad staff are legendary, but I have never found this to be so. I have spent hours in this store, nearly every time I have been to Paris, and the staff were always polite and helpful. I think perhaps if the many American housewives who flock to this shop, often disappointed in the appearance, accustomed as they are to Williams Sonoma (which is a wonderful shop as well) or Sur La Table (though it is not dissimilar to the old and far more wonderful Sur La Table) and their impressive marketing and merchandising, might do well to try a few niceties in French when they arrive.  It is unlikely there will be olive oil tastings at a central kiosk, but the selection of cooking tools, implements, pots and pans is unrivalled.  I suspect the reception would be altogether different.  I still have those beautiful copper Mauviel pans I purchased that first day I visited, as well as a chinois and a tamis, and I remember even more the groans from my husband as he was carrying the heavy bags and wondering how we were going to get them in our bags on the return flight!  Copper pans are heavy! Several years in a row, I would set aside a part of my bonus for a little gift for myself, and I nearly always purchased more copper pans and pots until I had the pieces I needed, and a few I loved!  Look them up:

A wall of copper pots, pans and molds at E. Dehillerin

And now to FOOD!  Perhaps the most important thing I learned from Pepin, however, was not technique, as important as this is, but his ability to cook wonderful meals using up all the little bits of leftovers from other dishes. Although my grandmother did this as well, Pepin always fascinated me with his ability to make beautiful things from the "restes".  Several times a week, I use his canape technique to make elegant and gorgeous little open faced sandwiches from a pullman loaf, to serve with an aperitif before dinner, using up bits of leftovers not enough of which is left from which to compose a meal.  My family adore these, and as I have written before, my son is now very skilled at making them, and his combinations are often amazing.  Often, I make a bechamel sauce, which is a white sauce, or a roux with stock. Then I add bits of meat and sauce leftover from a dinner to it, and fold it into buckwheat crepes, which I make from an old French recipe, and gratinee them in the oven. Served with a salad, this is a wonderful supper. Leftover cheese fondue can make lovely croque monsieur or madame sandwiches, and one night I made about 30 of them, all devoured by visiting friends of my children, staying unexpectedly for dinner.  These sandwiches also make wonderful afterschool snacks, if your children are like mine and prefer something "substantial" before any sweet.  I thought I might talk a little bit today about the concept of "restes" (leftovers) and how you can use a great weekend dish to make several meals or parts of meals during the week, wasting nothing.

On Sunday I cooked Ossobuco Milanese, which means, simply, braised veal shanks cooked in the style of Milan.  There are other kinds of braised veal shanks, which are also delicious, such as the white one which uses anchovies, which I like very much,  but my family particularly loves the Milanese version, which uses tomatoes in the braising liquid.  This is a sublime dish, perhaps the greatest of all braises, and it really is very easy to make and almost cooks itself after the initial browning of the meat. If you haven't made this dish for your family or yourself, you should learn to make it.  I have tried many different recipes, but I like best the old recipe of Marcella Hazan in her book The Classic Italian Cookbook with some alterations I have developed over the years.  I agree with her that gremolata, which is a condiment I adore, does not add to the glorious balance of the dish and the subtlety of the veal, and is better suited to other things. One of the things I do is to remove the meat, and then puree the liquid with a stick blender.  The vegetables thicken the sauce naturally, and the result is spectacular. You can do this with any braise, and you will find the resulting balance is worth the effort.  If you allow the liquid to cool a little first, you can remove some of the fat as well, if you wish.  With the ossobuco, I served risotto milanese, which is a risotto made in the style of Milan, a very simple and gorgeous risotto flavored with saffron. My daughter is very skilled at making risotto now, and she stands on a stool over the big Viking range, stirring away and adding stock.

Ossobuco Milanese with risotto Milanese: Scrumptious!
After this delicious dish was consumed, there was a considerable amount of leftover meat, braising liquid and risotto. So the next night, I seared some sliced mushrooms on very high heat, not moving them until they were turned, cooking them in small batches, to which I added seasalt after they were turned. I then added to the pan the "restes" of the ossobuco, and all that wonderful braising liquid,  warming it gently, and made a batch of fresh egg noodles in the way my grandmother did, tossing them with creme fraiche after they were cooked in salted, boiling water.  I put the mushroom and ossobuco sauce over the dressed noodles on a big white Apilco platter, and we had a very delicious (and untraditional) version of Stroganoff, a dish I don't usually make, but for which my son asks.  This could be done with many other braises as well, to great advantage. I also regularly make macaronades with the braising liquids, baking the macaroni, moistened with the braising liquids and some gruyere cheese in a gratin dish, sprinkled with seasoned bread crumbs and butter and chives and baked.  When I go away for the evening to supper club or to dinner with friends, I invariably leave some sort of gratin in the oven for my family, along with a big green salad, some crusty baguette, a fruit tart and a cozy table set in the kitchen, candles and all.  And my husband, after a long day, always feels fortunate for a night with the children that is nearly all prepped, leaving him free to enjoy their company. They don't feel deprived!  More often than not, the gratin (I adore gratins of all sorts) is a macaronade, made from braising liquids from Sunday dinner.  Easy and fast.

You will have noticed I haven't mentioned the risotto. First of all, most restaurant risotto is not worth ordering. It is precooked and given the risotto "treatment" at the end, but, although it can be tasty, it is simply not the same dish at all. So if you don't make risotto, teach yourself to do so. It is a wonderful meal that can be a terrific means of using up little bits of meat or an abundance of garden vegetables. There are three things I love to do with leftover risotto. The first is to fry it in little cakes for breakfast, over which I serve a poached egg.  Try it, you will find yourself making extra just to have it this way, and it's good for dinner too. The second, is to make little risotto cakes, adding fresh chives and a little egg and breadcrumb to bind the cake, sauteing it lightly until nicely browned in a pan with some olive oil.  I usually serve this with aioli for a little sauce, and a green salad with a garlicky vinaigrette. Again, this is a lovely supper dish and takes on a new flavor cooked this way  It is often more delicious than the original.  Finally, I love to make arancini, "little oranges," literally translated. I add an egg again, to bind the risotto, then form them in little balls and roll them in seasoned breadcrumbs, and saute them in olive oil or deep fry them in peanut or vegetable oil. These can also be served with a little aioli as an appetizer course, and when I make them, my children as well as any visiting urchins, devour them rapidly!

Last night I cooked some grilled leg of lamb "steaks" for dinner, with socca pancakes flavored with cumin, olive oil and thyme; annie's tomato jam, and grilled asparagus. As my son, the great meat eater, was not home, there was a considerable amount of leftover lamb. Tomorrow I will describe what I plan to do with this lamb, and the many choices it offers for delectable dinners. 

Happy Cooking, mes amis. A Bientot and a salute to Jacques Pepin!

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