My Eyes Have Been Opened

Monday, January 7th, 2008

My eyes have been opened to a new realm of culinary arts. For months I had admired the glossy, imposing coffee table book that is always displayed prominently in the cooking section of bookstores. This tome of French cooking which is heavy enough to be used as a tool in some of the recipes it describes – weighing down the cookie sheet that is squeezing the moisture from the slices of eggplant or smashing apart pepper corns with its solid spine – has become my teacher. It is The French Laundry Cookbook. It is alpha and omega. It is over fifty Canadian dollars.

I’m sure I can expect some resistance to my declaration of its importance, especially from those who learned to cook from books by Julia Child or James Beard or Auguste Escoffier, though I would argue that perhaps everyone who loves to cook has a book which they hold in higher esteem than the rest. Why is it this book for me? How is it that Thomas Keller, who isn’t even on the Food Network, came to represent the finest of culinary artists to me? Apart from magazine articles, I didn’t even have any exposure to him or his cooking, having never been to Yountville to visit The Source, or even having seen or heard an interview with the guy. Somewhere along the way, I just decided that he was the one whom I wished to emulate, if only occasionally and with the greatest preparation anxiety.

So we bought the book. As a matter of fact, we bought the very last signed copy available at Stacey’s Bookstore on Market street. I had always planned to buy it, perhaps on a special occasion, but the fact that it was signed was what clinched it, and I, who always suffer from buyer’s remorse, felt not a twinge; I happily, hungrily brought it home and devoured it.

It took a least a month before the book actually made it into the kitchen. I once read an article by a woman who collected cookbooks and who found that she would usually hesitate to bring a new, gorgeous, art-gallery-worthy cookbook into the kitchen, the same way she would buy a new silk blouse but let it hang in the closet for a few months before actually getting up the nerve to wear it. I can empathize. I break or spill nearly everything I touch- I wouldn’t say I’m clumsy, exactly, I just seem to touch the glass or plate to a hard surface at precisely the weakest point which causes it to shatter and/or spill. It’s sort of a super power. But anyway, the same could be true for the book; I could just imagine opening it for my first attempt at cooking a recipe within and spilling a healthy tablespoon-full of balsamic all over the wide, white pages, possibly even ruining a few pictures as well. Ergo, I hesitated. Until finally, one day, I decided to try one of the least threatening recipes: Blini with Roasted Sweet Peppers and Eggplant Caviar.

It’s worth mentioning, I think, that this is one of the few recipes that required few pieces equipment that were not already in our possession. It did involve some work the day before eating, but that is small potatoes, no pun intended. Before beginning, I was tempted to read about a blogger’s experience cooking this particular recipe on, a woman who, like Julie of the Julie/Julia project, has purchased The French Laundry cookbook and has made it her mission to cook every recipe in it, while documenting the process online. But I stopped short of searching for the recipe’s post on her blog because it would be like using training wheels and I already have a fairly decent idea of how to ride a bike. I may not have ridden one on a wire stretched over a gorge, but training wheels would not help the situation, the same way Carol’s tips are unlikely to help me know when the blini were done- I just gotta do it.

The book made me nervous. I had put it well beyond harm’s reach, on the furthest corner of the furthest counter-top from where I was working. Nonetheless, it made me nervous, the same impatient, anxious kind of nervous I feel when trying out a new instrument or playing a new sport- if I’m not good within 10 minutes, I’m giving up. Luckily, all that I had to do in the first 10 minutes of this exercise was slice up the eggplant, lay the slices out on a cookie sheet and let them rest so all the moisture is leeched from their pale, spiritless slabs. Encouraging. And so I proceeded, using clever tool replacements when I didn’t have precisely the appropriate instrument, and substituting but a few ingredients (like prepared, organic vegetable stock instead of of homemade) and two busy evenings later, produced my first, humble FL masterpiece.


The second attempt at cooking-to-eat-like-royalty is entitled Salad of Haricots Verts, Tomato Tartare and Chive Oil and went equally as smoothly, much to my surprise. Probably there will be no screw-ups until I’m working with an extremely expensive ingredient, like foie gras. But for now, I am happy to stick to the vegetable kingdom and turn out these first course delights.


Janet & Marc: Cooking at Home

Wednesday, July 25th, 2007

cimg6908.jpgJanet’s first experiments in filleting a fish left us with excellent ingredients for fish stock, so we threw the cap and rake (read head and spine) into some water with a bay leaf and leek greens for about an hour. I’m told fish stock only needs a half hour, but I prefer to really work the fish smell into the house. When I’ve gone to all that trouble, I want people to walk into the house three days later and say, “Were you cooking fish?”

About ten years ago I was a big fan of “Julia & Jacques: Cooking at Home,” hosted by Julia Child and Jacques Pepin. She tended to do Americanized recipes and he classed things up with some fine French cuisine. Although they were always very nice to each other, Jacques definitely had strong opinions on the right way to do a recipe and Julia was casual and confident. He would stir his pot and give her a glance out of the corner of his eye that said, “Whatever, you’re the legend.” Here’s an example of their styles that Amazon uses:

“Not everything I do with my roast chicken is necessarily scientific,” Julia says. “For instance, I always give my bird a generous butter massage before I put it in the oven. Why? Because I think the chicken likes it–and, more important, I like to give it.” Julia sets her chicken on a V-rack in a roasting pan in a 425-degree oven that she then turns down to 350 after 15 minutes. Jacques roasts his bird at 425, on its side, right in the pan. “To me,” he says, “it’s very important to place the chicken on its side for all but 10 minutes of roasting.” After 25 minutes he turns his chicken over, careful not to tear the skin, and lowers the heat to 400. The bird finishes breast-side up for the last 15 to 20 minutes.

Hmm, that reminds me of someone.

I somehow managed to remember enough of their Mediterranean Fish Stew to make it myself and cook it every year or two without ever having written anything down, not that I’ve remembered to add the salt every time. If you can procure fish heads or fish stock, it’s really an easy meal to make and looks impressive when served to guests. Julia favored clams for this recipe, but I prefer mussels due to my east coast Canada heritage. I always shell the mussels before storing the leftovers, not for any specific reasons, but it seemed weird to have those shells frozen into my soup. Shells must not falsely state freshness. Other than that, there really isn’t much to the recipe at all. It’s mostly wine, fish and vegetables with hot sauce and thyme to finish it off.

After googling the recipe for the first time ever, I discover I’ve forgotten the rouille, a spicy sauce made with breadcrumbs and olive oil. It went on top of the soup, or perhaps on bread which were stuck into the soup. However, Janet’s garlic bread adds a very similar element with much less effort—especially when I get her to make it.

Keep reading for the recipe.