Master of techniques cooks simply at home
Madison, Conn. — It could be a French country road. The man on a bicycle, groceries jouncing against the taut wires of the basket , seriously peddles home. He looks over his shoulder, recognizes us as our car approaches, and motions for us to follow him the alst quarter-mile to his gate.
It is Jacques Pepin.
The bicycle says a lot about his chef, food authority, philosopher, artist, and writer. Though a car stands ready within the compound, Jacques Pepin prefers his own locomotion for his countryside -- and professional -- pursuits.
As a leaf-through of Mr. Pepin's latest book for American cooks, "La Methode, " suggests, he is do-it-yourselfer. There is a physical, experimental, boyish-curiosity side to all he undertakes. "He's restless," his wife, Gloria, says. "He's always busy, morning to night."
Jacques's experiments are visible everywhere. Behind the shed is a smoker he concocted out of an old refrigerator, for curing fish and meats; in the cellar, his ciderworks. A garden bed -- small, because neighboring farmers share fresh produce with the Pepins -- features a half dozen hard-to-get herbs. Pepin stuffs fresh basil into a bottle of olive oil the way others flavor vinegar with tarragon sprigs. And he cans his own gherkins from his cucumber patch for cornichon to accompany his pates and rillettes, or rough French pork spread.
Also on the Pepin compound, a trout pond has been gouged into a stream bed. Frogs at the pond's shallow edge are pounced on with absurd accuracy by the family's two huge Rottweiler dogs. And in the woods, Jacques will show you to the very inch where he found his latest boletus mushroom.
The Pepin home was designed so Jacques would not have to stop doing things. The structure was once a small brick mill. Converting the mill to a home cost more than if he'd built from scratch, he says. But the architectural challenge lured him on.
Inside, a large work table commands the living space. From the work table Mr. Pepin can survey his professional and private worlds: behind him the stove and a view of the pond and woods; to the right a few steps, his office; across the table, stools for guests. Beyond are the fireplace and dining table for the "working chef's" meals, as served in the Pepin home.
"He's very clean in the kitchen," Mrs. Pepin offers, anticipating a fundamental domestic question. "I trained him very well." During the 14 years the Pepins have been married, many of the 200 to 300 French chefs Jacques knows in America have clomped around the splattered their kitchens, so Mrs. Pepin -- herself no slouch at whisk and saucepan -- does not yield her share of the domain casually.
"We try to do lean cooking at home," Jacques says. "Once or twice a week we try not to eat meat." Desserts, if any, are simple. "A favorite dessert of Escoffier was poached prunes," he says.
Although Mr. Pepin also prepares the most elegant entrees and pastries at home when the occasion inspires sophistication, he has no patience with food snobbery. At home he is apt to serve country fare.
At our visit he served aromatic slices of a home-cured ham, a fresh vegetable soup with oysters from the nearby Long Island Sound, meuniere-style local mussels. French fries, salad, and poached apples with candied citrus peel.
In marathon manner, all the work for his book, "La Methode" (New York Times Books, $25), was done at the Pepin home stead. With a photographer capturing the dozen or so steps for each of the 141 recipe-techniques featured in the book , Jacques did it all himself here at his work table, including a delicate three-colored fish pate, eggplant custards, parsleyed ham, Provence-style pizza, raspberry souffle, and spun-caramel cages to set over small fruit tarts.
Jacque's Gallic pragmatism may have gotten ahead of American queasiness with the pig's head he hefts and hacks in a photo sequence while making head cheese.
But from the baking of French bread to peeling and glazing chestnuts, no one surpasses Mr. Pepin as a teacher of French cooking techniques. And "La Methode, " like its earlier companion volume "La Technique," will no doubt become a standard text for the serious American cook's kitchen.
Here are three recipes from "La Methode." For the first cold vegetable salad, choose the thinnest string beans you can find. They should be firm, green, and long. Remove both ends taking with them the string, if any. Wash the beans in cold water. String Beans and Tomato Salad 1 pound string beans 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar 3 tablespoons peanut oil Salt and pepper to taste 3 large tomatoes 1/3 cup virgin olive oil 1/3 cup thinly sliced onions 15 to 20 fresh basil leaves
Place approximately 1/2 inch water in wide stainless steel saucepan and add 1 /2 teaspoon salt. Bring to a strong boil. Add 1 pound cleaned string beans, covering bottom of pan in one layer. Cover and bring to boil. Keep boiling, covered over high heat for 3 to 5 minutes, depending on size of beans and how fresh they are.
Using a skimmer, lift beans from pan and spread on a large plate to cool. The should be crunchy and bright green. Toss with 1 table-spoon of vinegar and peanut oil. Season and set aside.
Peel tomatoes if desired and slice crosswise very thinly. Place beans in center of large platter and arrange slices of tomatoes around. Sprinkle generously with salt and pepper. Then sprinkle with remaining vinegar and olive oil.
Wash fresh basil. Roll into a tight bundle and cut them into a very fine julienne. Cut onion into very thin slices and separate slices into individual rings. Sprinkle onions on top of salad and border with basil leaves. Serves 4.
Beef Salad 4 to 5 fresh beets 1Teaspoon French mustard 2 tablespoons heavy cream Freshly ground white pepper to taste Salt to taste
Cover beets with cold water and add salt. Bring to a boil and cook covered approximately 1 1/4 hours, or until tender when pricked with point of a knife. Remove from water and allow to cool. Peel.
Slice in 1/4-inch slices. Stack slices together a few at a time and cut into 1/4-inch strips. Mix mustard and cream together. Season to taste. Toss with beets and let sit until ready to serve. Serves 6.
This lemon and caramel souffle is cooked in a double boiler, which gives it a particularly good texture. The souffle can be served sprinkled with powdered sugar, hot out of the oven, or allowed to cool, unmolded and served in wedges with a caramel sauce or whipped cream. When it cools it deflates and becomes denser, like a pudding. Lemon and Caramel Souffle Caramel 1 cup sugar 1/4 cup water Souffle Mixture 1 1/2 cups milk 4 eggs yolks 1/3 cup sugar 1 teaspoon vanilla extract 2 teaspoons lemon rind 2 tablespoons cornstarch 7 egg whites
Combine water and sugar in saucepan and cook over medium to high heat until it turns light caramel in color, about 6 minutes. Immediately pour into a 1 1/2 to 2-quart souffle mold.
Tip mold back and forth so caramel coats bottom and sides of mold. Use a brush to spread it around sides and edges well. Work quickly because caramel harden fast.
Bring milk to a boil in double boiler. Combine yolks and sugar and work together for 1 minute with whisk until they form a ribbon. Mix in vanilla, lemon rind, and cornstarch. Add milk to mixture. Return whole mixture to pot and bring to boil, stirring with whisk. When it reaches a strong boil, pour into large stainless steel bowl.
Beat egg whites until stiff. Add 1/3 of whites to cream mixture and stir. Fold in remaining whites. work fast. Pour into mold and place in a skillet.
Pour tepid water around the mold and bake in preheated 350 degrees F. oven for 1 hour. If souffle is brown enough on top after 35 to 40 minutes, place a piece of aluminium foil on top to prevent further browning.
Server hot, sprinkled with powdered sugar. Or, allow souffle to deflate and cool at room temperature. Cool for a few hours or overnight in refrigerator. To unmold, run aknife around edge to loosen caramel. Invert on a platter. Cut in slices and serve with whipped cream or a caramel sauce.