My hope for generations of cooks to come is simple: Get to know Jacques Pepin through his new book, “Essential Pepin: More Than 700 All-Time Favorites From My Life in Food” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; $40).
How could anyone have more than 700 favorites of anything, those cooks might ask? From consolidating the knowledge of six decades in the kitchen, almost 30 years of television cooking, thousands of recipes, and the infinite number of times the celebrated chef has peeled and smashed garlic cloves to a poetic paste.
Of course, cooks who have amassed enough Pepin works to fill a small bookcase would be happy to add “Essential” to their collection. Many of its recipes were published earlier but have been streamlined or refined, such as his chicken in vinegar, for which he has greatly reduced the number of steps and the amount of butter and has substituted fresh-tasting chopped tomatoes for tomato paste.
This cookbook is not all dacquoise and cocottes and foie gras in aspic. The almost-76-year-old master was an early adapter of good food prepared fast. His inventiveness outshines any fix-it-quick, Food Network fodder I’ve seen. The book features cross-cultural cuisine and global ingredients, plus a healthy representation of dishes that call for just a handful of pantry items, such as Pepin’s puree of onion: A bit of cornmeal, heavy cream, herbes de Provence and an immersion blender transform onions cooked on the stove top in less than 45 minutes. When he calls for wrapping delicate, skinless haddock in rounds of softened rice paper, he provides a smart way to add texture, infuse flavor and hold the fish fillets together for a nice presentation.
There’s an education to be had merely from reading the related recipe tips and general, sound advice that are highlighted with fields of blue behind them. Pepin finds uses for the liquid that reconstitutes dried mushrooms (a flavor additive in several dishes) and for their trimmed stems (homemade stocks and braises). He doesn’t bother with overnight soaking of dried beans bought in supermarkets, merely washing them before cooking. He preps beets in the microwave to cut their cooking time in half. In 15 minutes, leftover rice can be turned into a pancake platform for fried eggs.
“Essential’s” accompanying DVD more than makes up for the tome’s lack of photography, although Pepin’s culinary artwork of ingredients, utensils and toques lends a homey feel to the contiguous recipe display. The disk comprises specially shot short segments (three hours total) of the chef carving poultry, boning fish, whipping up a mayonnaise that trembles like pudding and sharpening knives — because he has been known to answer, when asked what his favorite cutting implement is, “a sharp one.”
There’s no substitute for watching Pepin at work. I’ll never chop an onion or peel an apple as consistently or elegantly as he, and I never tire of seeing him do it. Follow what Pepin does and replicate as needed; the basics can be applied to anybody’s recipes.
Until a Jacques Pepin app is up and running — we hear talks are underway — the DVD alone can set new cooks on the path of proper technique, which is the very essence of “Essential.” But we’re fortunate that the book comes with it.
The 26-part companion cooking show to “Essential Pepin” airs at 1 p.m. Saturdays on WETA-TV.