My Eyes Have Been Opened

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.


One Response to “My Eyes Have Been Opened”

  1. Dana Says:

    Those look incredible, Janet! Good enough to (not) eat– can you even eat something like this without feeling guilty about ruining the presentation? I doubt it… look but don’t touch.