Let's say you wanted to make boeuf bourguignon -- a slowly cooked aromatic stew made with beef and red burgundy, finished off with traditional garnishes of small white onions braised in stock and mushrooms sauteed in butter. It's a perfect winter dish, typical of the food served in bistros and brasseries all over France. (Brasseries tend to be larger than bistros and have more extensive menus, but the cooking style is the same).
Bistro cooking has been around for at least a couple of centuries. While edgy food trends go in and out of style, this down-to-earth approach is always popular. It's a style that takes basic, often inexpensive ingredients and turns them into comfort food at its best; a style that chefs seek out when somebody else is cooking for them. Think onion soup, hearty pâtés, roast chicken, steak frites, salade nicoise, creme caramel, fresh fruit tarts.
This season, three prominent figures on the American culinary scene have produced cookbooks that focus on bistro cooking: Ina Garten's "Barefoot in Paris: Easy French Food You Can Make at Home" (Clarkson Potter, $35); "Anthony Bourdain's Les Halles Cookbook: Strategies, Recipes, and Techniques of Classic Bistro Cooking" (Bloomsbury, $34.95); and Thomas Keller's "Bouchon" (Artisan, $50, written with Jeffrey Cerciello).
Garten's book is a collection of accessible recipes for meals to serve family and friends. Bourdain's is a thoughtful guide to classic dishes. And Keller's is a daunting but inspirational road map to a higher culinary plane.
Not surprisingly, there's a boeuf bourguignon recipe in each book that reflects the typical way the author approaches bistro cooking. Garten's recipe is straightforward, speedy and simple to make. Bourdain's is more detailed and intelligently explained. Keller's is exquisitely refined and time-consuming.
Why three serious cookbooks for bistro food now? The authors disavow any culinary zeitgeist spurring them on. Bourdain's is a natural outgrowth of Les Halles, the restaurant in Manhattan where he is executive chef. Keller's is a reflection of Bouchon, his six-year-old bistro-style restaurant with branches in California's Napa Valley and in Las Vegas. And Garten says she just likes the food.
Ina Garten is the first to tell you she's not a trained chef. It doesn't matter. Her "you can do it" approach to cooking has made her an idol to countless Americans who've bought her three previous cookbooks, watched her on the Food Network, followed her Web site (www.barefootcontessa.com) or collected her recipes from stints for Martha Stewart Living and Oprah magazines.
Her earlier books -- which together have sold more than a million copies -- were an outgrowth of the sophisticated takeout food sold at the Barefoot Contessa, her specialty food store in the Hamptons. This one, she says, is more personal. It's a simplified version of the food she learned to cook when she worked her way through Julia Child more than two decades ago, and the food she and her husband like to eat. "It's in my cooking DNA," she said by phone recently.
She knows, however, that her readership can't spend all day in the kitchen. "Who has the time anymore," she says from her home in East Hampton. So she's figured out ways to streamline the recipes and make them accessible. And she's done it without demanding hard-to-find ingredients or restaurant cookware.
That speeded-up boeuf bourguignon, for example, uses frozen small whole onions instead of fresh ones (to cut out the peeling time) and beef chuck rather than the more classically used tougher cuts that take longer to cook. "Beef has really changed over the last 20 years," she says. "With a piece of chuck, it took half the time to cook and actually tasted better."
Garten sanctions using shortcuts such as store-bought mayonnaise, sorbets and frozen puff pastry. She confesses she doesn't have the patience to make bouillabaisse because it takes all day, so she's devised an easier, much faster seafood stew (that takes a few hours) with many of the same flavors. She spells out exactly how much of a recipe can be done ahead of time. She describes the dishes in the context of her life with family and friends. For good measure, Garten has thrown in cocktails and side dishes that may not be on bistro menus but fit right in when you are planning special meals.
"The most important thing for me is that you really can make great stuff ahead of time," says Garten. "The parties that are the most fun are the ones where the host and hostess are relaxed."
Anthony Bourdain is the culinary bad boy whose best-selling book "Kitchen Confidential" (2000) showed America the underbelly of restaurant kitchens. His irreverent, sometimes scatological tone -- even in his recipes -- might put off the timid. That said, his boisterous, nagging voice has its advantages. You end up feeling he's right beside you in the kitchen -- urging you on and guiding you past typical culinary pitfalls.
Home cooks can learn a lot from this book. Enjoy cooking, he writes. Think about the recipe you want to make. Break it down into coherent parts. Form a plan of attack, so that before you start to cook, you have everything you need -- every ingredient, every tool, every oven mitt. And don't be afraid to make mistakes. Just understand what you did wrong, so you won't be afraid to try again.
The recipes run more or less the gamut of bistro dishes, from vichyssoise to choucroute garni to chocolate mousse. The standard sauces (beurre blanc, bearnaise, bechamel) are there, too, as are organ meat dishes (tripe, kidneys, veal tongue) that you might not have made before.
As for Bourdain's boeuf bourguignon, his recipe is more traditional than Garten's (using a cheaper cut of meat, cooked more slowly with fewer ingredients), and his instructions are informative and cautionary.
This book was written with the help of several other people. (The amount of work involved in preparing the recipes in these three books is in direct proportion to the number of people on the production team). Philippe Lajaune is the owner of the restaurant and was always eager to do a Les Halles cookbook. Jose de Meirelles scaled down the recipes from restaurant size to home size and tested them in his own kitchen. Bourdain rewrote them and decided which should be included in the book. Laurie Woolever rewrote the scaled-down recipes and tested them in her home kitchen, sometimes many times.
How should home cooks approach the book? Bourdain has two suggestions: Either start with the easiest dishes to pump up your confidence -- "I urge people to braise and stew early on. Those [dishes] have the largest margin of error. You should feel good about yourself" -- or, for the more ambitious readers, start out with stock and then go on to demiglace. "Once you do demiglace, you're pretty much master of the universe," he says.
Thomas Keller's book is every bit what you'd expect from someone the James Beard Foundation twice named best chef in the United States for his work at the French Laundry in Yountville, Calif. His recipes are elegant, his techniques illuminating and his standards absolutely daunting.
This book, he writes, is about maintaining classic traditions -- in particular, those of bistro cooking. But don't be fooled. To Keller and Jeffrey Cerciello, executive chef at the Bouchon restaurants, the only way those traditions can be maintained is through precise technique.
(Like Bourdain's book, "Bouchon" -- a word referring to unpretentious, tavernlike traditional restaurants in Lyon -- was a group project undertaken with Cerciello and longtime collaborators Susie Heller and Michael Ruhlman.) By phone, Keller described the level of technique the book assumes as "pretty basic."
"From a chef's point of view, this kind of food is easily prepared and can be made in big batches from not-too-expensive ingredients," he says.
But even skilled home cooks will find his approach demanding -- though, to be fair, not difficult, assuming time and patience on the cook's part. A perfectionist, he's not particularly concerned. "The ability to commit time to a process is a problem of our society," he says. "There's no real quick fix, no magic bullet to make you a good cook, and you may have to go through a recipe a couple of times to understand it."
Consider this book's boeuf bourguignon recipe. Its primary techniques, say Keller and Cerciello (who wrote the text for the recipes), are those of refinement, "of removing the impurities at every opportunity." That means keeping the vegetables in the stew pot separated from the meat with a layer of cheesecloth, and straining that liquid twice once the meat has cooked. And that doesn't begin to describe the attention to detail involved in cooking the potatoes, carrots, lardons, mushrooms and pearl onions needed before assembling the entire stew.
Throughout the book, similarly detailed instructions will pay off for the careful reader -- even small instructions, such as letting a quiche cool and set for at least a day before cutting and serving it. Or barely cooking poached eggs and placing them in an ice bath only to warm them briefly before serving them atop a salad later on.
Though Keller says that home cooks aren't given enough credit for their intelligence, he must know how intimidating his approach can be.
"Choose recipes you'll be successful with," he says. "Start with something easy, like the roast chicken, and move on step by step. A cookbook is something you should be using over and over again as you move through it. Making it your own is really important. "