Two New Weapons In My Arsenal

Chicken Diable

Chicken Diable from Jacques Pepin’s Essential Pepin

This is manifestly NOT a cooking or food blog. Food and the things one can do with it are definitely loves of mine (thanks, Grandma!), but sharing what I’m making all of the time would not only be exhausting but probably rather dull considering there are so many terrific food blogs already in existence.

Of course, as a cook/baker/food lover, the lure of new cookbooks is difficult to resist. In fact, Hubby presented me with two new cookbooks (Grit’s Lard, which I can’t wait to get started with—just need to find non-hydrogenated lard!—and Cradle of Flavour) for my birthday last week! Having limited space like everyone else, I gave many cookbooks away before we moved, unloaded still more after settling, toss back and forth the idea of getting rid of some given to me as gifts because that’s the only reason I hang onto them so I’ve less clutter…and still can’t resist new cookbooks. What IS it about cookbooks? I’ve a list of probably ten more that I really, really want…and that’s it. No, I’m not joking. No more!

(For the nosy, two of the ten are by Alton Brown…I have all his others. Shouldn’t we all? Shouldn’t his books just…come as an option with your fridge?)

A lot of cookbooks are duds, which one can happily discern at the bookstore or via online reviews. But some are just so wonderful you find that more than half the pages are dog-eared, and you find yourself pulling them out week after week. Back around February, I picked up two cookbooks that almost immediately earned high honours in my kitchen, and I wanted to share them with you, because they’re that good. These new, prized volumes are Essential Pepin: More Than 700 All-Time Favorites From My Life in Food by (of course!) Jacques Pepin, hereafter referred to as The Pepin, and Nancie McDermott’s Quick & Easy Thai: 70 Everyday Recipes. (Yes, those are affiliate links. You pay nothing extra and a few pennies are added to my book-buying fund when you buy after clicking through!)

Being celiac and also unable to eat unfermented soy  and soybean oil or canola makes loving to cook a real blessing. I can’t eat out much because it is, frankly, a little dangerous to do so. This goes for Thai, one of my favourite cuisines, where soy sauce is something I must watch out for; some restaurants keep tamari on hand, but not all, even in a big college town like Columbus. Happily, cookbooks and knowing my way around the kitchen helps me convert even gluten-y recipes into gluten-free and even primal-friendly dishes everybody enjoys, never missing the bad stuff.

The Thai cookbook I’ve had for ages is good, but not great; Quick & Easy Thai easily surpasses it. The recipes are clearly written and you won’t find yourself needing
hard-to-find ingredients, which I learned to look out for after living in West Virginia for 5 years. McDermott even offers substitutions here and there for particularly odd things; I also like how in the brief introduction for each dish, she suggests different ways to make it (so you really get more than 70 recipes!). There’s a good variety of dishes, too, arranged by type—appetizers, soups, chicken & eggs, meats, seafood, salads, veggies, even a section for sweets and beverages. There’s a nice guide to Thai cooking methods & useful tools for doing so in the back of the book make this a great book for beginning cooks of any level; there’s also a bunch of different menu ideas.

Just in case your not sure just how much I like this book, I made gai paht meht mumuang himapahn (chicken with cashews and chiles) THREE TIMES the first week I had this book, and we both loved the dish every time. Clean plates. Not only is kwaytiow neua sahp (rice noodles with lettuce & ground beef gravy) delicious as written, I learned last week that it’s a great way to dress up (use up) leftover meat and veggies; just substitute them for the beef. I made one of the soups (gaeng jeut look chin moo ru neua, meatball soup with spinach & crispy garlic) for lunch within two days of buying the book, and made it multiple times in short order thereafter. This is a wonderful cookbook. I like it, a lot, and highly recommend it—especially if you love Asian food!

I predict the binding will be gasping its last breath by next year, like my tattered but beloved copy of Three Guys From Miami Cook Cuban.

On the other end of the culinary scale, I suppose, is the encyclopedia of Pepin. French cuisine isn’t necessarily something I’m mad about, but I am of course familiar with The Pepin and have respect for the man. Moreover, 700 recipes from such an enormously
talented, admired, and honoured chef? That’s nothing to sneeze at, and a quick flip through the book at the bookstore confirmed my suspicion that this is, really, a book of basics with a lot of goodies thrown in.

No, my mother does not consider cream puffs, crème brûlée with verbena, or mushroom-stuffed squid “basics”. Yours probably does not, either, and since I am firmly of the mind that all sugar is poison…I really don’t myself (the squid, on the other hand…).

But the thing about a grand cookbook like Essential Pepin is that by reading it and cooking with it, you’re going to learn the basics—because The Pepin walks you through things, he explains them to you—which many cookbooks don’t bother with, and I think that’s why a lot of people remain hesitant about having fun in the kitchen. Essential Pepin is just the opposite—like Alton Brown, he’s here to help you gain confidence in your cooking skills, despite the intimidating heft of the book, which clocks in at well over 600 pages and must weigh four or five pounds.

That said, he’s not dumbing it down, not at all—I’m not a chef, but I’m a fairly accomplished cook and more than competent in the kitchen, and didn’t feel talked down to. Thus Essential Pepin is a great cookbook for anyone, and, if you ask me, a must-have. There’s a DVD included as well, with I believe several hours of instruction—I’ve not had need to watch it yet myself, but it’s there. Overall, this is a great cookbook to buy and to give.

Now, those basics. Yes, The Pepin is French, but he spends much of his time in the States. Thus, yes, many of the recipes have a certain French flair, but many others—Herb-Rubbed Strip Steak, Spaghetti Squash in Fresh Tomato Sauce, Pears In Chocolate, French Vanilla Ice Cream—seem as American as, well, apple pie (which is not in the book, ha!). So there’s a perfect mix of familiar and exciting and new. Also, many of the recipes have short introductions: some are vignettes from The Pepin’s life and family, others from France or the coastal dining patios of the United States. I love this sort of thing in general, and in such an enormous cookbook, these add much to the book.

The Pepin taught me something wonderful: trout can be substituted for salmon! Despite Partially Culledmaking many valiant efforts, salmon isn’t a taste I ever see myself acquiring, but my fisherman grandfather taught me to love trout early. Hurrah! Why I never figured this out, who knows, but I plan to use it to my advantage.

I’ve made several recipes from this book as well, but the Chicken Diable, which is chicken (I used leg quarters, since it’s just the two of us) served with a flavourful, rich, slightly spicy tomato sauce, had me exclaiming over its deliciousness for about 30 straight minutes Friday night. That, really, is probably my favourite thus far; since I sat down to read it cover-to-cover, I did not really get to cooking with it until the past couple of weeks (yes, I’m crazy like that, and it should surprise no one).

The Pepin suggested using the skin stripped from the chicken as cracklings with which to top a simple salad as an accompaniment to the Chicken Diable; I did this as well and almost cried with delight. Keep in mind, too, that this is the sort of no-waste cooking our grandmothers and great-grandmothers did in the war and Depression years; there’s much to be said for thrift in modern times as well. And trust me. The cracklings are just…undescribably tasty. Do it. We were fighting over the bits that didn’t make it into the salad.

So, those are my two new cookbooks, which I felt strongly urged to share with you! What types of cooking do you like to do…or are you intrigued at the idea of being taught by a master like The Pepin?

And just for fun…Enjoy watching The Pepin debone a chicken like…like…like a BOSS. This is a thing of beauty, my friend.

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One thought on “Two New Weapons In My Arsenal

  1. My head was saying ‘don’t read it!’ while my finger reached for the ‘more’ button…you make both sound excellent cook books and now could potentially cause me real problems of shelf space. My own cooking preferences lean toward Anthony Carluccio meets Nigella Lawson meets the Cowboy Cookbook with a dash of Street Thai. Perhaps it’s time to treat my cookbook shelves as I do my fabric cupboard- one new in and one old out. Enticing reviews!

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