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For Pépin, Impromptu Comes Easy

At the cash register, once we used a Giant discount card, the total came to less than $24, including wine: the makings, in Pépin's hands, of a huge meal and then some.

It all came together back at The Post in less than 45 minutes. And I didn't even ask him to go quickly.

Fast food Pépin's way entails some of the most astonishing knife skills I've witnessed in person. In promoting his new book, Pépin likes to talk about "the supermarket as my prep cook," providing pre-sliced fresh mushrooms or pre-cut squash to jump-start a weeknight meal. But the fact is, such things save Pépin mere seconds, because his hands are quicker than any Cuisinart.

Once the groceries were sorted out, he started by running the Shun cook's knife he'd picked up from the kitchen counter across the back of a paring knife instead of a honing steel. "The back of a plate is good, too," he said, picking up one and turning it over to demonstrate. "It's porcelain, harder than steel."

Was he stalling for time, trying to figure out a plan? If so, he's an excellent actor; perhaps he was showing off the talent recognized by the directors of TV's "Ugly Betty," on which he made a recent cameo. ("I had never seen the show before," he said.)

He jumped into prepping Golden Delicious apples with a simple combination of butter, sugar, lemon peel and water. While the apples were baking, he minced and smashed garlic cloves into a paste, then shredded about a third of the Savoy cabbage and tossed it with a garlicky Dijon dressing.

Half of the package of kielbasa went into a pan with oil and was paired with the other two-thirds of the cabbage for a quick saute. He peeled and cut up the acorn squash and cooked it until tender in a covered pan with water, then added vinegar and honey to give it a sweet-and-sour glaze. He pan-fried the short ribs, then cut store-bought nan into strips the size of the ribs. He washed baby bella mushrooms ("Do it right before you use them, and don't let them sit in the water"), then blurred them into perfect julienne. He sauteed them with Woodbridge by Robert Mondavi sauvignon blanc ($4.50 a bottle), poured from his glass.

The dishes, five of them, came out one after the other, and Pépin hardly broke a sweat. He sprinkled the squash and cabbage dishes with garnishes of parsley or carrot, spooned dollops of sour cream onto the apples and constructed open-faced sandwiches out of the nan, short ribs and mushroom mixture.

He probably would have done it in half the time if I hadn't kept interrupting with questions about techniques and amounts. But even that was a breeze. When he would take a big pinch of salt with his fingers, he'd drop it into a teaspoon measure, where it would level out. Exactly. Every time.

We ended up with a hearty, seasonal, rib-sticking meal for six, plus a bonus dish, plus some leftover sausage and butter. The slaw's dressing was addictively pungent, the baked apples were custardy and perfumed with lemon, the kielbasa had crisp edges, the cabbage with them was almost caramelized, the squash was beautifully browned and a little tangy, and the tender short ribs were, well, a revelation. I'd never had them any other way except slow-cooked.

"Neither have I," Pépin replied as he cut them into pieces between the bones and grabbed forkfuls of the meat, juice-soaked nan and mushrooms. "Not bad."

Not bad. Especially considering that this was a man working on a few hours' sleep, anxious to get back to his hotel to rest up for a program and book signing at the Smithsonian that night.

What would he have done if he had been brighter-eyed and bushier-tailed?

"Easy," he said. "Six dishes."

"Jacques Pépin: More Fast Food My Way," produced by KQED, airs locally on WETA, Channel 26, at 4 p.m. Saturdays; and on Maryland Public Television, Channel 67 and Channel 22, at 2 p.m. Saturdays.

All 26 episodes can be watched and 53 of the book's recipes can be printed at

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