It could be a French country road.
The man on a bicycle, groceries jouncing against the basket, pedals home. He looks over his shoulder, recognizes us as our car approaches and motions to follow him the last quarter-mile to his gate.
It is Jacques Pepin.
The bicycle says a lot about this chef, food authority, philosopher, artist and writer. Though a car stands ready within the compound, Pepin prefers his own locomotion for his countryside -- and professional -- pursuits.
As a leaf-through of Pepin's latest book for American cooks, "La Methode," suggests, he is a do-it-yourselfer. There is a physical, experimental, boyish-curiosity side to all he undertakes. "He's restless," his wife, Gloria, says. "He's always busy, morning to night."
Pepin's experiments are visible everywhere. Behind the shed is a smoker he concocted out of an old refrigerator, for curing fish and meats; in the cellar, his ciderworks. A garden bed -- small, because neighboring farmers share fresh produce with the Pepins -- features a half dozen hard-to-get herbs. Pepin stuffs fresh basil into a bottle of olive oil the way others flavor vinegar with tarragon sprigs. And he cans his own gherkins from his cucumber patch for cornichon to accompany his pates and rillettes, or rough French pork spread.
Also on the Pepin compound, a trout pond has been gouged into a stream bed. Frogs at the pond's shallow edge are pounced on with absurd accuracy by the family's two huge Rottweller dogs. And in the woods, Pepin will show you to the very inch where he found his latest boletus mushroom.
The Pepin home was designed so Jacques would not have to stop doing things. The structure once was a small brick mill. Converting the mill into a home cost more than if he'd built from scratch, he says. But the architectural challenge lured him on.
Inside, a large work table commands the living space. From the work table Pepin can survey his professional and private worlds: behind him the stove and a view of the pond and woods; to the right a few steps, his office; across the table, stools for guests. Beyond are the fireplace and dining table for the "working chef's meals," as served in the Pepin home.
All the work for Jacques' book, "La Methode" (New York Times Books, $25), was done at the Pepin homestead.
From the baking of French bread to peeling and glazing chestnuts, no one surpasses Pepin as a teacher of French cooking techniques. And "La Methode," like its earlier companion volume, "La Technique," no doubt will become a standard text for the serious American cook's kitchen.
Here are two recipes from "La Methode." For the first cold vegetable salad, choose the thinnest string beans you can find. They should be firm, green and long. Remove both ends taking with them the string, if any. Wash the beans in cold water. STRING BEANS AND TOMATO SALAD (4 servings) 1 pound string beans 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar 3 tablespoons peanut oil Salt and pepper to taste 3 large tomatoes 1/3 cup virgin olive oil 1/3 cup thinly sliced onions 15 to 20 fresh basil leaves
Place approximately 1/2-inch water in wide stainless steel saucepan and add 1/2 teaspoon salt. Bring to a strong boil. Add 1 pound cleaned string beans, covering bottom of pan in one layer. Cover and bring to boil. Keep boiling, covered over high heat for 3 to 5 minutes, depending on size of beans and how fresh they are.
Using a skimmer, lift beans from pans and spread on a large plate to cool. They should be crunchy and bright green. Toss with 1 tablespoon of vinegar and peanut oil. Season and set aside.
Peel tomatoes if desired and slice crosswise very thinly. Place beans in center of large platter and arrange slices of tomatoes around. Sprinkle generously with salt and pepper. Then sprinkle with remaining vinegar and olive oil.
Wash fresh basil. Roll into a tight bundle and cut them into a very fine juliene. Cut onion into very thin slices and separate slices into individual rings. Sprinkle onions on top of salad and border with basil leaves. LEMON AND CARAMEL SOUFFLE For Carmel: 1 cup sugar 1/4 cup water For Souffle Mixture: 1 1/2 cups milk 4 eggs yolks 1/3 cup sugar 1 teaspoon vanilla extract 2 teaspoons lemon rind 2 tablespoons cornstarch 7 egg whites
Combine water and sugar in saucepan and cook over medium to high heat until it turns light caramel in color, about 6 minutes. Immediately pour into a 1 1/2-to-2 quart souffle mold.
Tip mold back and forth so caramel coats bottom and sides of mold. Use a brush to spread it around sides and edges well. Work quickly because caramel hardens fast.
Bring milk to a boil in double boiler. Combine yolks and sugar and work together for 1 minute with whisk until they form a ribbon. Mix in vanilla, lemon rind and cornstarch. Add milk to mixture. Return whole mixture to pot and bring to boil, stirring with whisk. When it reaches a strong boil, pour into large stainless steel bowl.
Beat egg whites until stiff. Add 1/3 of whites to cream mixture and stir. Fold in remaining whites. Work fast. Pour into mold and place in a skillet.
Pour tepid water around the mold and bake in preheated, 350-degree oven for 1 hour. If souffle is brown enough on top after 35 to 40 minutes, place a piece of aluminum foil on top to prevent further browning.
Serve hot, sprinkled with powdered sugar. Or, allow souffle to deflate and cool at room temperature. Cool for a few hours or overnight in refrigerator. To unmold, run a knife around edge to loosen caramel. Invert on a platter, cut in slices and serve with whipped cream or a caramel sauce.