Articles in Chefs
Culinary icon Anne Willan has just released “Secrets From the La Varenne Kitchen,” a brief compendium of “50 Essential Recipes Every Cook Needs To Know.” This amazing book includes the recipes that are the backbone course for professional chefs and that Willan’s legendary school Ecole de Cuisine La Varenne in Paris has been creating since 1975.
Among the dishes are fish aspic, exquisitely specific details on puff pastry and 10 types of sorbet. But one recipe caught my eye: Court Bouillon — or in rough English translation: “Quick Broth.” As a mom who doesn’t have the time for more intricate recipes and whose two young girls don’t have the palates for aspic yet, I liked the sound of that. I called Anne Willan to get her thoughts.
“It’s very interesting that you’ve chosen court bouillon,” Willan said from her home in Santa Monica, California, “because it’s not something anybody thinks of using nowadays. It really is right in sync with contemporary cooking,” she continued. “It’s very useful because today people always want to cook things healthfully and simply.”
Willan’s definition of court bouillon is simple and clear: “It’s a meatless and fatless broth, so very simple, but something that just adds flavor to whatever’s cooked in it.” The recipe, which is included below, is easy, but I was hoping to get some insider secrets. Willan was happy to comply, although clearly none of this seemed like a big secret to her: “Thinly slice the carrots,” she told me, “so that they give up their flavor in 15 or 20 minutes. Slice the onions fairly thinly, but not to worry about it. The green herbs you just drop in, keep the stems, they have lots of taste.”
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The real secret of court bouillon is properly pairing the food being cooked in the broth with a sympathetic acidic ingredient. Traditionally, the acid used in court bouillon would be vinegar, wine or lemon juice. Willan provided more nuanced distinctions: “For whitefish, I’d probably go for wine, because you don’t want too strong a flavor. For darker fish, possibly lemon juice or vinegar because it balances the stronger flavor of the fish.”
In traditional French cuisine, court bouillon is a liquid used for simmering, and then it’s tossed out. But as we discussed using the broth as a part of the meal, Willan became intrigued, because that’s simply part of her cooking ethos. “Never throw anything away,” she said. “When you’ve got lovely cooking liquid from something like a big salmon, do something with it — fish soup with the leftover.”
I could hear her brain begin to click as she explored the Culinary Thought Experiment: “The liquid will have acquired the flavor of what’s been cooking in it,” she said. “So what I would like to do is boil it down, and make a little sauce with it, mount it with butter or something.”
Then her brain went into high gear: “You could do lovely experiments with it. I certainly haven’t gone into it myself, but you could do an Asian court bouillon, or a hot court bouillon. You’d use chili peppers, wouldn’t you? It’s got to be something pure, hasn’t it?”
From the wisdom behind La Varenne
This was more intriguing than interview questions: Willan was asking and answering herself, giving me a view into a creative culinary mind that has long fascinated me as I’ve gobbled up her writings and her recipes from the classic “From My Château Kitchen” to her dish-y memoir “One Soufflé at a Time.” As she brainstormed the possibilities for court bouillon, her encyclopedic knowledge of cooking became clear, as did her passion for food and good eating.
“Perhaps I’d use coriander instead of parsley. And then, what would you use it for? If you push it a little bit, you could use it for a risotto or cooking quinoa. Or even grits or corn meal.”
By the time we were done, Willan had improvised a court bouillon for down-home Southern cooking and an Asian-influenced broth with the addition of soy sauce, cilantro and rice wine vinegar. She cautioned me against using too much chili pepper if I wanted to try a hot version because the flavor of the pepper would concentrate as the broth cooked down. It was an invigorating conversation — an insight into a culinary mind-set deeply rooted in the basics, but excited to jump in and experiment.
I love my copy of “Secrets from the La Varenne Kitchen,” and I intend to use it to build those basic skills that every cook needs to know — whether they’re a chef at a high-end restaurant or a mom with kids to feed. And court bouillon seems to be an inspired place for me to start. Check out the slideshow that includes Willan’s secrets and two dishes that riff on the recipe.
By Anne Willan, courtesy Spring House Press
Prep time: 10 minutes
Cook time: 15 minutes
Total time: 25 minutes
Yield: 1 quart
1 quart water
1 carrot, sliced
1 small onion, sliced
1 bouquet garni
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup white wine or 1/3 cup vinegar or 1/4 cup lemon juice
1. Combine all the ingredients in a pan (not aluminum), cover and bring to a boil. Simmer uncovered 15 to 20 minutes and strain.
Main photo: Court Bouillon is tap water with a little bit of salt, peppercorn, sliced onion, parsley, bay leaf, sliced carrot and something acidic — often lemon juice, but equally often white wine and occasionally vinegar. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz
There are more than 25,000 cookbook titles listed on Amazon. It’s certainly a buyer’s market. But which ones to buy, either for use in the kitchen or viewing on the coffee table?
The International Association of Culinary Professionals (IACP) — a worldwide forum for the exchange of information, knowledge and inspiration within the professional food and beverage community — last week narrowed the field for cookbook lovers with its selections of what it considers the best cookbooks published in 2014.
The awards program received more than 500 submissions in 20 categories, including American and international sweet and savory cooking; restaurant- and chef-centered books and those homing in on culinary travel; e-cookbooks and culinary history; and literary food writing and photography. The program is widely lauded as the most selective in the industry due to its two-tier judging process that requires recipe testing in all relevant categories.
One cookbook is selected as the Cookbook of the Year. All winners will be announced at the IACP annual conference March 27-30 in Washington, D.C.
This slideshow provides a snapshot of the finalists in each category.
More from Zester Daily:
» No baking required to savor writer’s bread odyssey
» From wicked to inspired, ‘Grilled Cheese’ inspires
» Dan Pashman’s ‘Eat More Better’ makes dining delicious
» ‘Prune': A glimpse into a chef’s untamed cooking mind
Photo collage: All winners will be announced at the IACP annual conference March 27-30 in Washington, D.C.
“Many’s the long night I’ve dreamed of cheese — toasted, mostly” Robert Louis Stevenson famously wrote. I share his feelings. Gorgeous, gooey melted cheese is still the top go-to comfort food in my book when Jack Frost is nipping toes and all you want to do is hibernate underneath the duvet.
“Grilled Cheese: Traditional and inspired recipes for the ultimate toasted sandwich”
By Laura Washburn. Ryland, Peters & Small, 2014, 64 pages
» Click here to buy the book
I think Stevenson would have enjoyed this small but perfectly formed volume on the art of the ultimate toasted sandwich. The toastie with the mostie can only be made with cheese as the author so wisely knows. It is a universal truth: Grilled cheese never disappoints.
Laura Washburn was born in Los Angeles, studied in Paris, trained at La Varenne and worked with Patricia Wells. She now lives in London, where she works as a cookery teacher and food writer, and she has brought her international experience and professional skills to bear on this seemingly simple equation of cheese, bread and pan.
The wonderful thing about this basic trinity is that it can be equally good — depending on mood and moment — whether toasted sliced white bread and ersatz block cheese satisfies a case of the munchies at midnight, or Poilâne sourdough bread and three artisan cheeses makes for a legendary lunch at London’s Borough Market.
The book divides into simple, global, wicked and gourmet sections. Leek and Gruyere is an elegant idea to be served with a glass of chilled white wine, and Brie and Apple-Cranberry Sauce on Walnut bread is a brilliant seasonal suggestion.
Chorizo, Mini Peppers and Manchego is a spicy, smoky treat with a Spanish accent, and Avocado, Refried Bean and Monterey Jack would make a great brunch. The purist in me questions a Welsh rarebit made with two slices of bread (traditionally it lacks the top slice), but Washburn nails the filling — and doesn’t forget the ale, mustard powder and Worcestershire sauce that gives the rarebit its feisty character.
Wicked grilled cheese sandwiches are mini meals (Burger Scamorza or Meatballs, Garlic Tomato Sauce and Fontina, for example). But the gourmet section really takes off with zingy concepts such as Pickled Beetroot, Goat’s Cheese and Chilli Jam, and a decadent Brioche-based Lobster Tail, Tarragon and Beaufort. That’s the one I’m going to dream of tonight.
Recipes from “Grilled Cheese” by Laura Washburn, photography by Steve Painter.
Basic Grilled Cheese
This is the basic grilled cheese method, which can be used as a blueprint for all sorts of experimentation. For a more complex taste, it’s a good idea to combine two relatively mild cheeses, such as a mild cheddar and Monterey Jack.
Yield: 2 servings
4 large slices white bread
Unsalted butter, softened
3 1/2 cups mixed grated/shredded mild cheeses, such as mild cheddar, Gruyere, Monterey Jack or Gouda
1. Butter each of the bread slices on one side and arrange buttered-side down on a clean work surface or chopping board.
2. It’s best to assemble the sandwiches in a large nonstick frying pan/skillet before you heat it up. Start by putting two slices of bread in the frying pan/skillet, butter-side down. If you can only accommodate one slice in your pan, you’ll need to cook one sandwich at a time. Top each slice with half of the grated/shredded cheese, but be careful not to let too much cheese fall into the pan. Top with the final pieces of bread, butter-side up.
3. Turn the heat on medium and cook 3 to 4 minutes on the first side, then carefully turn with a large spatula and cook on the second side for 2 to 3 minutes until the sandwiches are golden brown all over and the cheese is visibly melted.
4. Remove from the frying pan/skillet and cut the sandwiches in half. Let cool for a few minutes before serving and dunk to your heart’s content in a lovely steaming bowl of tomato soup.
Pickled Beetroot, Goat’s Cheese & Chilli Jam
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A zingy combination of colors and tastes — perfect for brunch or a late-evening snack. Use an ordinary mozzarella for this sandwich, as its presence is merely for added ooze and to help hold the sandwich together.
Yield: 2 servings
4 slices white or brioche bread
Unsalted butter, softened
1 3/4 ounces soft goat’s cheese
2 to 4 tablespoon chilli jam, plus extra for serving
6 to 8 slices pickled beet
Freshly squeezed juice of 1/2 lemon
1 to 2 sprigs fresh dill, leaves chopped
4 1/2 ounces mozzarella, sliced
1. Butter each of the slices of bread on one side.
2. This is easiest if assembled in a large heavy-based, nonstick frying pan/skillet. Put two slices of bread in the pan/skillet, butter-side down. If you can only fit one slice in your pan/skillet, you’ll need to cook one sandwich at a time. Add half of the goat’s cheese to each slice. Top with half of the chilli jam, spread evenly to the edges. Arrange half of the beet slices on top, squeeze over some lemon juice and scatter over half of the dill. Top each slice with half of the mozzarella and cover with another slice of bread, butter-side up.
3. Turn the heat on medium and cook the first side for 3 to 5 minutes until deep golden, pressing gently with a spatula. Carefully turn with a large spatula and cook on the second side, for 2 to 3 minutes more or until deep golden brown all over.
4. Remove from the pan, transfer to a plate and cut each sandwich in half. Let cool for a few minutes before serving. Repeat for the remaining sandwich if necessary. Serve with additional chilli jam, for dipping.
Main photo: Pickled Beetroot, Goat’s Cheese & Chilli Jam. Credit: © Ryland Peters & Small/Loupe Images/Steve Painter
“Don’t use anything better — no brioche! no pain de mie! — in some attempt to make this ‘gourmet.’ We are not that kind of restaurant.” – Gabrielle Hamilton, in “Prune” (Random House, 2014).
It’s not every day a James Beard Award-winning chef wields the word “gourmet” as a barb, or exhorts you to use Pepperidge Farm bread instead of fancier alternatives, but Gabrielle Hamilton is not your average high-profile chef. Since 1999, when she opened Prune, her tiny restaurant in New York City’s East Village, she’s gone her own way, and the same can be said of her first cookbook, “Prune.”
By Gabrielle Hamilton, Random House, 2014, 576 pages
A companion piece to “Blood, Bones & Butter,” her critically acclaimed memoir, “Prune” deftly captures Hamilton’s personality as well as that of the restaurant, neither of which are easy to pigeonhole. She’s a self-taught chef who has a master’s degree in fiction writing, while Prune is the kind of place where a bar snack of canned sardines with Triscuits confidently holds court on the same menu as Tongue and Octopus With Salsa Verde and Mimosa’d Egg.
The cookbook was written as if Hamilton is addressing her staff. It has been designed to look like a stylized photocopy of the recipes she types up for their regular use, complete with re-creations of the handwritten notes she pens when she’s forgotten some helpful detail. “If (the braising liquid) tastes too bright,” she scribbles at the end of a lamb recipe, “heavily char — almost burn — 2 slabs of peasant bread on the grill … push the burnt toast down into the liquid to soak it. … It will add body to the braise and soften the astringency.”
In its earliest days, Prune served only dinner, so that’s where the book begins, too. Tables of contents lead into the various subsections, but there’s no general index (though one will soon be available for download). Instead of lyrical head notes about a dish’s story of origin, Hamilton dives right in to the steps, though her voice is unmistakable when she directs you to “fully enclose the butter inside the dough, as if you were hastily wrapping a Christmas present.”
When I visited her at Prune recently, she explained the thinking behind the book’s form and content. “I tried writing it the conventional way for about five minutes, and it was immediately clear that I was lying my brains out, because I don’t use that language. The imperative was to tell the truth as I live it and experience it. I knew people would get it.”
The unique structure and tone are not the only things that set the book apart. There’s also a section called “garbage,” which details how the restaurant repurposes oft-discarded items such as zucchini tops and bacon rinds. At a time when Americans throw away nearly 40% of the food they buy, this chapter seems especially appropriate.
“Prune” includes many of the restaurant’s marvelously layered dishes, like Warm Lentil Salad With Fried Chicken Livers, Poached Egg, and Smoked Tomato Vinaigrette, as well as directions for assembling the more minimalist offerings (such as a bar snack of radishes with sweet butter and salt) whose unassuming appearance belies the care that underpins them. The first time I ever interviewed Hamilton, five years ago, we discussed the reaction to these “three-ingredient recipes,” a subject we revisited during our recent chat.
“They’re the ones that set you up for failure,” she says, “because there’s nothing to hide behind. Only radishes and butter and salt — what could possibly go wrong? And yet. You have overgrown, cottony, spongy radishes that have soaked in too much water, and they’ve lost their flame. Or the butter is over-tempered and greasy. Or you’re using the worst, overly granulated, way-too-salty salt. But when you have the right crispy-firm, hot-on-fire radish, the cool waxy butter, which not only tempers the heat but lets the salt adhere, and the salt, which brings back the flavor that the butter has started to tame.” She smiles. “I know it’s just three things, but can you believe what goes in to simplicity?”
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There’s much to like about “Prune,” starting with Hamilton’s mouthwatering food, but what’s most appealing is the respect she shows her readers, a quality that took on paramount importance for her after she visited home kitchens during a road trip a couple of years ago. “I had lost track of who we were talking about when we use that phrase ‘for the home cook,’ and it turns out the home cook is incredibly diverse. … I think the cookbook industry in the main tends to underestimate them, and it’s time to stop.”
When she directs you to garnish a dish with a “lime cheek,” she trusts you’ll get it, and if not, you can figure it out from the photos. Even when her insider notes are not directly relevant to your kitchen reality, they often get you to reconsider some element of how you prep, cook, serve or store your food. And at their least practical, the asides to her staff (“If Health Department comes, take the serrano [ham] off the carving stand and throw in the oven.”) still offer us a peek behind the scenes, which is one of the reasons people buy chef cookbooks in the first place.
Ultimately, it’s that sense of transparency that remains at the heart of the whole endeavor. “The book is the same as Prune and me in every way,” she tells me. “We’re not to everyone’s taste — our food, our gestalt — and neither is the cookbook. We love you, and we hope you love us, too, but we’re not gonna lie about who we are.”
Farmhouse Chicken Braised in Hard Cider
[Excerpted from “Prune” by Gabrielle Hamilton. Copyright © 2014 by Gabrielle Hamilton. Excerpted by permission of Random House, A Penguin Random House Company. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.]
Even though it’s best to use homemade chicken stock, I opted for a high-quality, low-sodium supermarket brand, which produced good results. If you are using store-bought stock, be sure to factor in the sodium level when seasoning the dish. Since I mistakenly purchased a package of drumsticks instead of whole chicken legs, I cooked a total of eight drumsticks, two per serving.
Yield: 4 servings
4 large whole chicken legs
Extra virgin olive oil
3/4 cup slivered garlic
1 cup thinly sliced shallots
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1/2 cup cider vinegar
1 cup hard cider
1 tablespoon honey
1 cup chicken stock
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1. Season chicken legs all over with more pepper than salt.
2. Brown chicken legs in mixed fats, more butter than oil. Brown perfectly, on both sides; don’t crowd and don’t crank it, either. Keep heat at medium-high and do a careful job. Remove chicken, pour off fat.
3. Add a good hunk of butter, the garlic and shallots to the same pan, reduce heat, and sweat.
4. Add tomato paste and stir to fully blend, melt, even toast a little.
5. Deglaze with cider vinegar and hard cider.
6. Add the honey. Simmer to cook off alcohol and reduce slightly, by no more than 1/3.
7. Stir in chicken stock.
8. Neatly nestle the chicken legs in the pan and be sure to taste the braising liquid for salt, acidity, sweetness. Adjust now or never.
9. Cover with parchment and tight-fitting lid, if you can find one that isn’t too warped. Check after 25 minutes. You want loose joints but not falling off the bone.
10. At pickup, reduce sauce per portion, to have body, but not to become viscous.
11. One leg per portion. Good bit of sauce. Shower with parsley, freshly chopped, at pass.
Main photo: Chef and “Prune” author Gabrielle Hamilton and the cover of her cookbook. Credit: Hamilton photo by Melanie Dunea
As far as I am concerned, we New Englanders own the winter kitchen, from the cranberries and pumpkin pies of Thanksgiving all the way to the corned beef and cabbage of St. Patrick’s Day. Our regional cooking is reliable and time tested, but possibly also a bit dated — in need of a pick-me-up, a refresher that catches us up with the way the rest of the country eats. Chef Jeremy Sewall is offering that refresher course in his new cookbook, “The New England Kitchen: Fresh Takes on Seasonal Recipes” (Rizzoli, 2014).
Sewall is one of the best chefs in Boston. A true New Englander (he descends from a family of seafarers and lobstermen), he is the chef and partner at four top Boston restaurants (Lineage, Eastern Standard, Island Creek Oyster Bar and Row 34). Following in the great tradition of Fannie Farmer, Jasper White and Lydia Shire, Sewall is widely seen as the new face of classic New England cuisine: heavy on the seafood, aware of the seasons, conversant with the flavors of the globe. This is his first cookbook, and it’s a modern classic — and a keeper.
New England fare for all seasons
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Here’s my test for a new cookbook: If I’d instantly start prepping the first three entrees I come across, I know I’ve got my nose in a new classic. I hadn’t even finished the introduction before I started rummaging in my fridge, freezer and pantry to see if I could make the Steamed Mussels With Pilsner, Garlic and Fresno Peppers. I moved on to the Mushroom Ragout and the English Pea Soup before I acknowledged that I was getting very excited about ingredients that wouldn’t truly be available until early spring. So I thumbed deeper into the book and made Sewall’s recipe for Seared Sea Scallops With Creamy Turnip Puree and Crisp Shiitake Mushrooms. That held me for a while.
Sewall is a prodigiously talented, hardworking and remarkably humble chef. Not a TV commodity, he picked time in the kitchen over time in front of the camera, so you may not know him. But if you begin to work through his recipes, you’ll appreciate the skills honed over decades on the line.
For this book, he smartly teamed up with food writer Erin Byers Murray, the author of “Shucked.” The two share a connection to Island Creek Oysters, where Murray worked for a year as an oyster farmer, taking a sabbatical from her day job as a food writer and editor, and Sewall is the executive chef at two Island Creek Boston restaurants. The two seamlessly present a voice that is warm, confident and so infused with New England roots that you can hear the broad vowels as you read.
But there’s nothing provincial or backward looking in “The New England Kitchen.” It is stocked with food you want to eat because you love the flavors of New England and you live in this century. Razor clams and pot roast. Fried clams (of course) and a mussel dish that puts the French to shame. Pan-roasted hake and roasted duck confit. A recipe for skate wing I’ve made twice so far, and it’s made me a kitchen hero both times. A gorgeous lemon tart with lavender cream.
Each recipe is illustrated with a gorgeous large-format photo by Michael Harlan Turkell, making you believe that you can deliver on the promise of a perfect meal.
Reading through the book, you will get a good sense of the local bounty of New England season by season, and how a top-tier regional chef makes the most of it.
If you need a new cookbook to get you through the New England winter, this is the one.
Spiced Skate Wing
Recipe courtesy of “The New England Kitchen: Fresh Takes on Seasonal Recipes.”
Sewall’s note: “Skate might seem like an unusual choice for the home cook, but it has a nice firm texture and a really sweet flavor. Here, I toss it with a seasoned flour and quickly sauté it for an easy weeknight dish. Buy skate from a trusted fishmonger and give it a sniff before bringing it home (it takes on an ammonia smell when beginning to go bad). If you can’t find skate, freshwater trout is a great substitute, but it might require a minute or two longer to cook, depending on the thickness.”
Yield: Serves 4
4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 garlic clove, crushed
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 tablespoon dry mustard
1 tablespoon ground turmeric
1 teaspoon freshly ground white pepper
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon curry powder
4 tablespoons canola oil
4 (6-ounce) skate wing fillets, trimmed, skin removed
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1. In a small sauté pan, heat the olive oil and garlic over medium heat until the garlic starts to brown just a little, about 3 minutes. Remove from the heat and place in a small bowl. Let cool for 1 hour. Just before serving, whisk the lemon juice into the garlic oil.
2. In a large bowl, combine the flour with the cumin, dry mustard, turmeric, white pepper, coriander and curry powder. Set aside.
3. In a cast-iron skillet or large sauté pan, heat 2 tablespoons of the canola oil over medium-high heat. Dredge the skate in the flour mixture and shake off any excess. Season the fish with salt and black pepper. Place two pieces of fish in the pan and cook until they begin to brown lightly, 1 to 2 minutes. Flip over the fish and immediately remove the pan from the heat; let the fish rest in the pan for 30 seconds before removing it. Repeat with the remaining 2 tablespoons oil and the remaining fillets.
4. Place the fillets on individual plates. Drizzle with garlic oil just before serving. Serve with Toasted Orzo With Spinach and Chorizo (see recipe below).
Toasted Orzo With Spinach and Chorizo
Recipe courtesy of “The New England Kitchen: Fresh Takes on Seasonal Recipes.”
Sewall’s note: “I often pair this pasta dish with Spiced Skate Wing, but you can try it with other fish, chicken, or on its own. Chorizo is a spicy sausage that comes fresh or dry; for this recipe I use dry chorizo and cook it lightly. The heat from the sausage mellows when tossed with spinach and pasta.”
Yield: Serves 4
1 cup orzo pasta
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1/4 cup canola oil
6 ounces dry chorizo sausage, cut into thin rounds
1 red onion, cut in half lengthwise and then into 1/4-inch-wide strips
1 teaspoon grated lemon zest
3 tablespoons vegetable stock
2 cups lightly packed baby spinach
Freshly ground black pepper
1. Preheat the oven to 350 F.
2. Toss the orzo with the olive oil in a baking pan and toast in the oven for 7 minutes, stirring halfway through. The pasta should be lightly toasted and have a nutty smell to it.
3. Bring a large saucepan of salted water to a boil and add the toasted orzo, lower the heat and simmer until tender, about 12 minutes. Drain and spread on a baking sheet to cool.
4. In a large sauté pan, heat the canola oil over medium-high heat and add the chorizo and onion. Sauté until some of the sausage fat starts to render out and the sausage begins to lightly crisp around the edges, about 6 minutes. Remove from the heat and drain off any excess fat. Add the orzo, lemon zest and stock to the pan and warm through over medium heat. Add the spinach and immediately remove the pan from the heat; the spinach should be slightly wilted. Toss together and season with salt and pepper. Serve immediately.
Main photo: Chef Jeremy Sewall and his new cookbook, “The New England Kitchen.” Credit: Michael Harlan Turkell
Although it has been a while since I set foot in a formal classroom, each year at this time, with the beginning of school fast approaching, I tend to think about new skills I can learn or old ones I can improve upon. It seemed fitting, then, that I recently received an email from a friend asking which cookbook he should purchase to help him become a better cook.
For me, the choice was quick and easy: Anne Willan’s classic cookbook “La Varenne Pratique.” Ever since I acquired it on my first day of chef’s school 18 years ago, it’s been my go-to resource whenever I’ve needed to reference a cooking technique or learn more about a specific ingredient.
The original volume, weighing close to 5 pounds, was published in 1989 and has sold more than 500,000 copies worldwide. Thankfully, this essential book, long out of print and challenging to find in a secondhand store, was recently reissued as an e-book.
During the first half of her 30-plus years running the legendary France-based cooking school La Varenne, Willan, a Zester Daily contributor, and her staff continuously researched and wrote about essential French cooking techniques and the importance of understanding every aspect of an ingredient. The laborious effort of distilling all this culinary information resulted in a 528-page tome that provides in-depth knowledge of how to choose, store, identify and handle ingredients. This knowledge of good ingredients is paired with clear, encouraging instructions and action photos of foundational cooking techniques, such as how to dice an onion, fillet a fish or prepare different types of meringues.
Willan’s cookbook goes beyond the surface
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Many cookbooks these days take us on a wonderful culinary journey, tasting a region’s or country’s culture and table, yet only provide us with a fixed GPS map of how to get to the finished dish. When you get to a point in your culinary journey where you want to veer off course and understand why certain time-honored gustatory routes are so adored, “La Varenne Pratique” is the culinary guidebook to help you navigate your or any country’s kitchen.
The new e-book has been sliced and diced into four parts, each sold separtely. Part 1: The Basics discusses herbs and seasonings; soups; stocks; and sauces, as well as eggs, dairy and oils; Part 2 covers meat, poultry, fish and game; Part 3 examines vegetables, pasta, pulses and grains; and Part 4 dishes on our sweet tooth with baking, preserving, desserts, fruits, nuts and freezing. Each part also comes with a weight-and-measurement table (worth bookmarking for regular reference), list of cooking equipment, glossary of cooking terms and bibliography.
Because the book was written before the advent of modernist cooking, it does not include these techniques. However, if this is an area that interests you, I am sure Willan would recommend you check out her onetime student Nathan Myhrvold’s exhaustive six-volume series, “Modernist Cuisine.”
Having used the e-book version on both an iPad and laptop for the past month, I can vouch that the electronic version is reliable when adapting to different formats and layouts. Simply adjusting the font size or page orientation offers you a variety of almost personalized layouts. Because the images are scans of the original book and not high-resolution digital photographs, they can be enlarged only to a certain point. This is not much of a problem, as the images are large and easy to view.
How to purchase
The e-book version of “La Varenne Pratique” can be purchased through many major online retailers, including iTunes, Amazon, Sony, Barnes & Noble, Kobo and Copia. Each of the four parts is $6.99.
The greatest challenge I’ve encountered is using the search function. In this day and age where we type anything into a search engine and get countless results, using an e-book’s search function can initially frustrate. If you type in a technique such as “how to cut up a chicken,” zero results show up. However, if you are more specific and type “cutting a bird in pieces” the exact result pops up. I’ve found eliminating the term “how to” and being more direct with your keywords drastically increases the likelihood of getting precise hits. It’s also just as easy to simply thumb through a section’s e-pages to find the specific subject you’re searching for.
Aside from the comprehensive information about ingredients, the best thing about this book is the countless technique shots that teach you lifelong, fundamental cooking skills. It would be fantastic to have a single website that aggregates all the “how-to” photo instructions “La Varenne Pratique” demonstrates as videos. But until someone invests the time and money to produce those videos, you will need to visit many websites to find all this information.
Simply put, “La Varenne Pratique” is a cooking school in a book, and certainly cheaper than tuition. It is the best gift you could give a new culinary student, a child heading to college, a newly married couple or your friend who writes a food blog. Fortunately, the e-book version is both lightweight and affordable and will not take up much space or weight in their culinary backpack.
Main photo: Anne Willan’s “La Varenne Pratique” is now available as an e-book. Willan photo by Siri Berting; e-book photo by Cameron Stauch
In Julia Reed’s foreword for “Mississippi Current,” the new book by chef and restaurateur Regina Charboneau, she tells how she visits Charboneau’s Southern home to get doses of “biscuit love.” It’s an apt metaphor for the chef’s graciousness and hospitality, which she conveys, in part, through her croissant-influenced biscuits. If that sounds like an unlikely fusion, think again, for “Mississippi Current” gently merges the many culinary cultures found along the mighty river’s path.
One of Charboneau’s roles is culinary director of the American Queen, a luxury paddleboat that sails the Mississippi. When I asked her recently about her inspiration for the book, she said, “It was a confluence of my experience growing up in Natchez, traveling along the river with the American Queen and time spent with my husband in his hometown of Minneapolis. The American Queen played a huge role, as I was introduced to so many towns and stops along the river all with different cuisines and menu staples.”
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By Regina Charboneau
Lyons Press, 336 pages, 2014
Each chapter represents a gastronomic region along the Mississippi with recipes laid out as menus for different meals. The journey begins at the headwaters in Minnesota. The river’s culinary melting pot includes Native American, European, Jewish, African-American and Vietnamese cuisines, using ingredients that include wild rice, corn, lemongrass, cabbage, specialty greens and herbs. Her menus feature pork bánh mì style sandwiches, pirogi made with bacon and sweet potatoes, fried walleye, and wild rice and corn fritters — to name just a few.
Next stop is “Twain Country,” which encompasses Missouri down to where the Arkansas River meets the Mississippi. Beyond the history and heritage of Mark Twain, French, German, Irish, Italian and, most recently, Bosnian influences help define the area. Ingredients such as black walnuts, figs, catfish and locally produced Missouri wine find their way into recipes with Charboneau’s signature touch. The inspired dishes in this chapter include a jazz brunch featuring Eggs Sardou, black walnut cake with brandied plum sauce, and toasted ravioli — a St. Louis classic.
In the lower Mississippi area, stretching from Memphis into the Louisiana bayou, dishes include ingredients such as shellfish, cornmeal for bread and tamales, pork, bacon and grits. Oh, and bourbon, lots of bourbon. You can almost feel the soft breeze off the river reading through the menus with names like “Blessing of the Fleet Lunch” and “Gulf Seafood Dinner.”
A native Southerner with French training
Charboneau’s background as a native Southerner influences her dishes as does her French training in the kitchen. “Most are inspired by classic recipes and the agriculture of each region of the river,” she said. “But I brought in modern and personal twists to all of the recipes. For example, deviled eggs, a Delta tradition, have my personal and nontraditional touch by adding the crab meat and wasabi caviar.”
This style carries over into the cocktails and use of bourbon, Herbsaint and other types of alcohol throughout the book. A classic New Orleans Ramos Fizz is updated using Magellan gin flavored with iris and rosewater, bourbon is infused with figs and used to make a classic sidecar, Herbsaint shows up in hollandaise and a martini is enlivened with limoncello.
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Asked for her favorite recipe in “Mississippi Current,” she said, “The sweet potato pirogi is one because it is the epitome of what I have tried to do with the book: taking something traditional and experimenting with the ingredients to make something that feels simultaneously old and new. The shrimp and smoked tomato cream over savory grits because it is the way I cook and a tradition in my own home for friends and guests. It feels like the dish is catching up in popularity to my biscuits!”
Her biscuits are legendary, layered with a pound of butter and margarine making each bite puffy, flaky and crisp. The dough is barely mixed so that big lumps of margarine get incorporated by folding and rolling, similar to the French lacquered doughs of croissant and puff pastry. She shares the recipe in the book with copious notes about her technique. The dough is frozen after being cut in biscuit shapes, a step that Charboneau said is crucial to the flakiness of the final product.
Charboneau frequently says Mississippi River water runs through her veins. In “Mississippi Current” she shares her passion for the history, culture, heritage and food of the regions along the banks of that mighty river.
- 4 cups flour
- ¼ cup baking powder
- ¼ cup sugar
- 1½ cups (3 sticks) salted margarine, chilled and cut in ½” cubes
- ½ cup (1 stick) salted butter, chilled and cut in ½” cubes
- 1¾ cups buttermilk, chilled
- Put the flour, baking powder and sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer. Turn the machine on low and blend the dry ingredients for 15 seconds.
- Add the magarine and butter cubes and the buttermilk to the flour mixture before turning on the mixer. Turn the mixer on medium and count to 10. This goes very quickly; the key is to not overmix the dough. There will be large chunks the size of quarters of butter and margarine in the dough. That’s just how it should be. Don’t mix it any more. Once the dough is rolled and folded, it will become smooth.
- Scrape the dough from the bowl onto a generously floured work surface and shape into a rectangle about 2 inches thick. Fold the dough into thirds and with a rolling pin, roll the dough out to a 2 inch thickness. Fold it again into thirds, give the dough a quarter turn, and roll it out again to a 2 inch thickness. Continue folding, turning and rolling the dough until it is smooth and the dough has yellow ribbons of butter and margarine. This is a sign that the biscuits will be flaky.
- Roll the dough to 1½ inch thickness. Using a 2 inch biscuit cutter, cut the dough into rounds. When rerolling the dough, gently stack it to retain the layers. Do not overwork the dough.
- Place the biscuits on a baking sheet and freeze. Once frozen, transfer the biscuits to plastic bags. The unbaked biscuits can be frozen for two months.
- To bake, preheat the oven to 350F. Place however many frozen biscuits you want to serve in the cups of muffin tins. Let thaw in the refrigerator for 20 minutes. Bake until golden brown, 23-25 minutes. Serve right out of the oven – biscuits are best freshly baked. Baking them in muffin tins is key as it helps the biscuits keep their shape and get the perfect crispness on the bottom.
Main photo: Chef Regina Charboneau’s new book about Mississippi River cuisines includes the recipe for her legendary biscuits. Credit: Brooke Jackson
Ruth Reichl’s engaging books talk of her growing up years, her family and how she learned to cook. In her nonfiction titles she has written about waitressing in a restaurant where every worker was an owner and about her work as a food critic with the Los Angeles Times, as a food writer for the New York Times and as editor-in-chief at Gourmet magazine.
In one of her books I remember Reichl saying she learned early on that the most important thing in life is a good story. And that’s what we get in her first novel, “Delicious.” One of the reasons I love first novels is they often have an unrestrained, unbridled, generous energy that catches and pulls the reader in like a lasso and the wild ride through character and plot is exhilarating. And when there is food at the center of the story, I’m hooked.
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By Ruth Reichl
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As a child, Billie Breslin, our heroine in “Delicious,” spends much of her time in her mother’s kitchen. Her sister Genie says, “She’s always sniffing the bottles in the spice cabinet.” And sure enough Billie can deconstruct almost anything she tastes, including the gingerbread cake her deceased mother used to make every year for her father’s birthday. (Check out the cake’s recipe in the back of the book.)
The book opens with Billie, Genie and their Aunt Melba making cake after cake until they finally figure out the exact recipe. “It’s even better than your mother’s,” Melba tells Billie, who has inherited her mother’s natural ability in the kitchen along with her nose and delicate palate.
In Montecito, Calif., where Billie and her sister are growing up, they spend a summer making cakes to earn spending money. They quickly become somewhat famous in the area and end up having a company called The Cake Sisters. Their final cake sells for a huge amount of money, but it costs them dearly.
Eleven years later, our heroine moves to New York City and finds a job at a magazine called Delicious that operates out of the “stately, gracious, old Timbers Mansion in Greenwich Village.” Billie is an assistant to the director.
But before she is officially hired we are treated to a tour through restaurant kitchens, Italian charcuteries and farm markets. We meet cheese mongers, bakers and chocolatiers, each of them imparting their passion and knowledge. Their willingness to have in-depth conversations ultimately creates a community for Billie that we New Yorkers know and treasure.
The reader is exposed to amazing foods and herbs that include curry leaves, myrtle, cassia and hyssop. We discover Chinese blossoms called Osmanthus that are used for sweet and sour sauces and to concoct the most exquisite tea. When Billie is taken into a butcher shop, she smells the sweet mixture of sawdust that is on the floor “and the clean forest scent … mingling with the mineral aroma of good meat.” Who knew that there was a difference between fall Parmigiano and spring Parmigiano?
Ruth Reichl’s characters take readers through kitchens and food history
“Delicious” is full of interesting characters, each with a full-blown story that unfolds within the larger story of the magazine. We meet people such as Jake, the handsome director of the magazine who had some kind of intimate relationship with Maggie, who is now his angry friend and one of the test kitchen cooks. Thursday Brown is a terrific chef at The Pig, a pub that everyone at the magazine frequents so we can catch glimpses of her great food.
We also meet Sammy, who writes for the magazine and travels great distances and becomes close friends with Billie, with whom she shares her dark secret. The Complainer is one of my favorite characters and when Billie takes a Saturday job at Fontanari’s Cheese Shop, a distant flirtation begins around his choice of cheeses. Benny, who owns the butcher shop, teaches Billie “where the T-bone ends and the porterhouse begins.”
The novel continues to twist and turn through the streets of New York and we are folded into the hearts and minds of Reichl’s characters like the eggs of a good soufflé (and James Beard writes, “Don’t be afraid of a soufflé”).
There are secrets lives, secret rooms and secret letters exchanged during the early 1940s between Beard and a young woman trying to comfort herself after her father goes to war and disappears. There is loss, family history and tradition. There is even a discussion of how important food was for the war effort during WWII: “It took a ton of food to feed a soldier for a year.”
When Reichl worked at Gourmet, she gave us a worldly spread of the life of food and when the magazine abruptly folded, her agent reminded her, “You’ve always wanted to write a novel. Now’s the time.”
And “Delicious” is a swift ride. Billie Breslin comes into the novel with heartache. She grows, changes, makes peace with her past and finally finds happiness and love. Reichl’s philosophy bursts forth from her book: “The secret to life is finding joy in ordinary things … the pleasure of a perfectly ripe peach, the juice running down your arm … DELICIOUS.”
Main photo: “Delicious” and author Ruth Reichl. Credit: Fiona Aboud