Master Lessons in Kitchen Thrift

Chef Jacques Pepin teaches economy not only of food, but also of time, money, and energy

`A GOOD chef is by nature thrifty." So says Jacques Pepin, a man who speaks from experience. The well-known cooking teacher and former chef to three French presidents has always targeted a quality of chefdom that isn't recognized with blue ribbons: economy in the kitchen.

It is no coincidence that Pepin has come out with a collection of thrifty - and nifty - recipes in a new book: "Cuisine Economique." ("Recipes that turn penny-pinching into a delicious experience," tempts the cover.)

"Economy is implicit in any good chef. Not just the professional, but the home chef, too," said Mr. Pepin during a recent Monitor interview in Manhattan.

"When a house cook has to feed a family of five or six - when you have to vary the menu, when you have to do it in a certain amount of time with a certain amount of money - all these types of pressures in the normal household repeated morning and night every day," he says, "you're dealing with someone who really understands food to get the maximum out of it."

As the first "master lesson in economy" in his book, Pepin features turkey, and not surprisingly. A sample of dishes includes Turkey Stock Soup with Lettuce Strips, Scaloppine of White Turkey Meat, Escarole Salad with Turkey Crackling, Turkey Liver Toasts, and Fricassee of Dark Turkey Meat. Some of the 120 recipes come from Pepin's regular column in the New York Times, "The Purposeful Cook."

But making the most of a turkey is only one aspect of economy. Being economical also means saving minutes, muscle, and money.

"Economy, not only of food but also of time and money, reflects the cook's comprehension and intelligence about his craft," writes Pepin. "Uncontrived economy is standard practice in a good kitchen. Like a well-choreographed ballet, there is a natural flow in this style of cooking, where no motion is wasted, no ingredient discarded."

Everything amounts to one thing, says Pepin, his big brown eyes widening: knowledge.

With knowledge, "you know food and what you get out of it; you know how to organize your kitchen; you know your menu and how to prepare it, when to start that and start this."

The first "must" in cuisine economique is buying food in season. "Season is so important. Not only are you going to get the best food at the peak in terms of flavor and nutrition, but that's when it's least expensive," says Pepin.

When Pepin goes to the market, he usually heads for the end of the aisle for bargain fruit and vegetables, he says. Recently he bought six artichokes for 35 cents. "They're all black or brownish, but then I don't care. I'm going to do artichoke bottoms," he explains. "I purposely buy curly endive that's wilted on the outside because I know that the heart is round and white, very beautiful."

It's also good to go to the market with an open mind, he points out. Be flexible in your menu planning. You may go to the market with the intention that you're going to make an apple tart. But if you see rhubarb on sale, make a rhubarb tart.

Another way to save on food is buying in larger quantity and learning how to freeze. One can stock up on herbs such as basil and tarragon in the summer, when they are inexpensive, and freeze them. Buying "bulk" can generally be good if you know what to do with it, says Pepin.

One of the biggest mistakes people make is to equate expense with quality, says Pepin. Partygivers who want to serve unusual goodies to impress their guests can end up spending five times what they need, he says.

Then there are the young chefs who want to make their mark. They are "traumatized by nouvelle cuisine and terrorized to do a simple thing," says Pepin, with humor gaining in his voice. "If only three ingredients are in a dish, they get out of their mind! Is that it?'

These days, though, Pepin detects a little reverse snobbery working its way into culinary mindsets. People are rediscovering real mashed potatoes and they want them with lumps. "The fad is moderation now," he adds. "But as we say in France: Moderation in moderation."

PEPIN agrees with parents' favorite "waste not, want not" philosophy. He often takes his vegetable trimmings - pieces of celery, carrot, onion, garlic, tomato, and herbs, for example - and stores them in a cleaned-out milk carton in the freezer. Then, when he is making stock, he pulls the milk carton out of the freezer, slices away the cardboard, and drops the block of vegetables in the stockpot.

Another way to save effort is to know your recipes. Knowing how to substitute also saves time. If a recipe calls for leeks and you don't have leeks, you most likely will dart to the store, says Pepin.

But if you know that the scallions in your refrigerator will act basically the same, you won't waste your time.

"You work within the recipe so you can make it move in many directions. Very often the recipe itself is purely the reflection on a situation," he says. Like a ballet, Pepin adds, "it has a beginning, middle, and an end."

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