Home economics: Waste neither time nor food, Pepin says

August 12, 1992|By Kirsten A. Conover | Kirsten A. Conover,Christian Science Monitor

New York --"Agood chef is by nature thrifty." So says Jacques Pepin, a man who speaks from experience. The well-known cooking teacher and former chef to three French presidents has always targeted a quality of chefdom that isn't recognized with blue ribbons: economy in the kitchen.

It is no coincidence that Mr. Pepin has come out with a collection of thrifty -- and nifty -- recipes in a new book: "Cuisine Economique." ("Recipes that turn penny-pinching into a delicious experience," tempts the cover.)

"Economy is implicit in any good chef. Not just the professional, but the home chef, too," said Mr. Pepin during a recent interview in Manhattan.

"When a house cook has to feed a family of five or six -- when you have to vary the menu, when you have to do it in a certain amount of time with a certain amount of money -- all these types of pressures in the normal household repeated morning and night every day," he says, "you're dealing with someone who really understands food to get the maximum out of it."

As the first "master lesson in economy" in his book, Mr. Pepin features turkey, and not surprisingly. A sample of dishes includes Turkey Stock Soup with Lettuce Strips, Scaloppine of White Turkey Meat, Escarole Salad with Turkey Crackling, Turkey Liver Toasts, and Fricassee of Dark Turkey Meat. Some of the 120 recipes come from Mr. Pepin's regular column in the New York Times, "The Purposeful Cook."

But making the most of a turkey is only one aspect of economy. Being economical also means saving minutes, muscle and money.

"Economy, not only of food but also of time and money, reflects the cook's comprehension and intelligence about his craft," writes Mr. Pepin. "Uncontrived economy is standard practice in a good kitchen. Like a well-choreographed ballet, there is a natural flow in this style of cooking, where no motion is wasted, no ingredient discarded."

Everything amounts to one thing, he says, his big brown eyes widening: knowledge.

With knowledge, "you know food and what you get out of it; you know how to organize your kitchen; you know your menu and how to prepare it, when to start that and start this."

The first "must" in cuisine economique is buying food in season. "Season is so important. Not only are you going to get the best food at the peak in terms of flavor and nutrition, but that's when it's least expensive," says Mr. Pepin.

Another way to save on food is buying in larger quantity and learning how to freeze. One can stock up on herbs such as basil and tarragon in the summer, when they are inexpensive, and freeze them. Buying "bulk" can generally be good if you know what to do with it, Mr. Pepin says.

One of the biggest mistakes people make is to equate expense with quality, he says. Party givers who want to serve unusual goodies to impress their guests can end up spending five times what they need, he says.

Then there are the young chefs who want to make their mark. They are "traumatized by nouvelle cuisine and terrorized to do a simple thing," Mr. Pepin says, with humor gaining in his voice. "If only three ingredients are in a dish, they get out of their mind! Is that it?"

These days, though, Mr. Pepin detects a little reverse snobbery working its way into culinary mind sets. People are rediscovering real mashed potatoes and they want them with lumps. "The fad is moderation now," he adds.

Mr. Pepin agrees with parents' favorite "waste not, want not" philosophy. He often takes his vegetable trimmings -- pieces of celery, carrot, onion, garlic, tomato and herbs, for example -- and stores them in a cleaned-out milk carton in the freezer. Then, when he is making stock, he pulls the milk carton out of the freezer, slices away the cardboard, and drops the block of vegetables in the stockpot.

Another way to save effort is to know your recipes. Knowing how to substitute also saves time. If a recipe calls for leeks and you don't have leeks, you most likely will dart to the store, says Mr. Pepin.

But if you know that the scallions in your refrigerator will act VTC basically the same, you won't waste your time.

"You work within the recipe so you can make it move in many directions. Very often the recipe itself is purely the reflection on a situation," he says.

Like a ballet, Mr. Pepin adds, "it has a beginning, middle, and an end."

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