Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Tiptoeing through the Chefs’ Cookbooks – Part 2

For my next life, I want to come back as Michael Ruhlman. Among his dozen published books, you will find collaborations with Eric Ripert (of Le Barnardin), Anthony Bourdain (“No Reservations” on the travel channel), and at least three books with Thomas Keller, the self-taught wunderkind of The French Laundry in Napa, and Per Se in NYC. It’s the sort of stuff I dream about.

Cooking from these books is another issue altogether. Ripert’s A Return to Cooking is a sort of journal with recipes and art – the reader (if you ever actually take the time) follows him and a group of his friends on outings to Sag Harbor, Puerto Rico, Napa, and Vermont. One of the friends is an artist, so the text is interspersed with vibrant, full-page,Van Gogh-esque paintings of the food and the chef, which makes this tome an excellent coffee table book. But there’s virtually no organization to it – other than by geographic site – and Ripert seems to have uncanny access to foods that are either bizarrely specific (Vialone Nano rice and the Pebeyre brand of truffle juice – truffle juice, really...) or way too exotic for my kitchen, like pibales (baby eels – still alive when you buy them!). On the other hand, in perusing the book for this review, I came across an interesting salad that I made for dinner last night, and both my husband and I were wowed. Look for that in my next post.

Painstaking and fussy are two of the words that come to mind in describing the dishes in Thomas Keller’s first opus, The French Laundry Cookbook. Of course, the photography alone will make you pick up the phone for reservations – you just want the dining experience. Like the food, the book is elegant and spare, airy and precise. And impossible to reproduce. Yet there are discourses on basic processes – like Keller’s Big Pot Blanching method for cooking vegetables – that are simple enough for the least aggressive home kitchen and will produce amazing results. And if you actually want to reproduce the restaurant’s signature cornets of Salmon Tartare with Sweet Red Onion Crème Fraîche, Keller takes you step by excruciating step through the process. To his credit, Keller recognizes the impossibilities, and suggests being flexible – attempting a sauce, for instance, while simplifying the meat or fish that it goes on. There’s some highly instructive and helpful material here on tools and techniques that could make a real difference for normal cooks, as well as some encouraging advice about using common sense.

Common sense and basic techniques recur as themes of Keller’s newest work: ad hoc at home. (Did you think I’d forgotten? Oh, ye of little faith...) And it turns out that the man actually now has a restaurant called Ad Hoc. The focus here is on the uncomplicated – iconic American dishes like creamed corn and fried chicken and strawberry shortcake. A perfectly marvelous section toward the back gives simple recipes for a wide range of what Keller calls “Lifesavers” – tapenades, flavored oils, chutneys, pickled fruits, and preserved lemons – that, reading through the section, you feel will on their own elevate all sorts of preparations.

When Keller talks about basics, do not for a minute think this is a manual for beginners. However, neither is it only for advanced cooks. Mostly, I think there’s something here for anyone beyond a beginner cook. The instructions are clear and straightforward, and there’s a wide range of what Keller calls “lightbulb moments,” wherein he elaborates on kitchen equipment, methodologies, and a basic philosophy of learning to really enjoy cooking. It’s really a pleasure to read.

The format is much like its predecessor, with plenty of white space and lots of gorgeous photos. In line with the focus on helping readers improve their techniques, there’s an occasional montage of Keller himself performing certain tasks: e.g., making a parchment lid, caramelizing sea scallops, or trussing a chicken. He makes these operations look, if not easy, at least accessible.

I have yet to cook anything from this book, but I’m looking forward to starting. In the meantime, I’m just enjoying the read. Which is not something you often say about a cookbook.

1 comment:

  1. Lee, check out the link on my blog to some neat cakes.

    Hope you're having a good writing week.