Some French fare with plenty of flair

Book: Anne Willan of the La Varenne cooking school offers rich, satisfying dishes elevated to a high level in her latest work, `From My Chateau Kitchen.'

June 07, 2000|By Russ Parsons | Russ Parsons,LOS ANGELES TIMES

Anne Willan is one of the best cooking teachers around; her La Varenne cooking school in France is legendary. She has had a PBS cooking series, and she has published more than a dozen well-regarded books. But still, almost no one in the United States seems to know who she is.

That is a shame, and yet, leafing through her newest book, "From My Chateau Kitchen" (Clarkson Potter, $45), it is difficult to work up too much sympathy. After all, if one must labor in semi-obscurity (or, more accurately, less-than-celebrity), one could certainly find worse places to do it than the Chateau du Fey. That's the 17th-century Burgundian pile Willan and her husband, Mark Cherniavsky, share with her cooking school, and it is the subject of this long, loving look.

It seems we've been here before. The book is one of those lavishly photographed (by Langdon Clay) odes to la France profonde that were staples of the cookbook industry until we discovered Tuscany. Both the food and the house seem forever bathed in a kind of golden light. The recipes seem familiar, too. Most could be described as refined hearty: rich, satisfying cooking raised to an extremely high level.

In some ways, of course, we have been here before.

Last year's excellent "The Cook and the Gardener" by former La Varenne student Amanda Hesser centered on her relationship with M. Milbert, the chateau's crusty old gardener.

This time we're seeing things from a different angle.

But it looks just as appealing.

Gratin of Summer Vegetables in Herb Pesto

Serves 4-6 as first or side course

2 medium zucchini (about 3/4 pound)

2 medium yellow squash (about 3/4 pound)

1 pound tomatoes

3 onions, thinly sliced salt and pepper to taste

PESTO: large bunch (about 1 1/2 ounces) of basil, flat-leaf parsley, cilantro or mint

3 garlic cloves, peeled

1/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese, 2 tablespoons pine nuts

3/4 cup olive oil (plus extra to coat gratin dish)

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Wipe the zucchini and squash with damp paper towels and cut them into uneven 1/4 -inch chunks. Toss them into a large bowl. Core the tomatoes, cut them into chunks, and add them to the zucchini and squash with the onions, salt and pepper. Brush an 8-inch-by-11-inch gratin or baking dish with olive oil.

Make the pesto. Tear the herb leaves from the stems, discarding the stems, and, if you like, reserve some sprigs for decoration. Puree the herb leaves, garlic, cheese and pine nuts in a food processor with 2 to 3 tablespoons of olive oil. Gradually, add the remaining oil with the blades turning so that the sauce emulsifies. It should be a rather loose consistency, thinner than mayonnaise but thicker than salad dressing. Season it to taste with salt and pepper.

Add the pesto to the vegetables and toss so they are well-coated with sauce. Spread them in the baking dish and bake until they are very tender and brown, 40 to 50 minutes. Decorate the vegetables with herb sprigs if you like, and serve the gratin hot or at room temperature.

Melon Soup

Serves 4

2 medium or 1 large melon

3 tablespoons port

1 1/2 tablespoons sherry vinegar

2-3 tablespoons chopped tarragon, plus sprigs for garnish sugar, if desired

Halve the melons, discard the seeds, and with a ball cutter, scoop some of the melon flesh into balls. Scoop out the remaining flesh with a sharp spoon and puree it in a food processor with port and sherry vinegar. Mix chopped tarragon into the puree. Taste, and if the flavor lacks intensity, add a little sugar.

Chill both the puree and the melon balls. To serve, pour the puree into chilled cups, pile the melon balls on the center, and top each one with a tarragon sprig. Serve very cold.

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