Easy does it

BOOKMARK

BOOKMARK: In new cookbooks, chefs offer versions of fast food

November 05, 2008|By Jill Rosen | Jill Rosen,jill.rosen@baltsun.com

A monthly review of new cookbooks on a theme

When the cameras aren't rolling, when nobody's looking, in the privacy of their very own kitchens, what do chefs really throw in the pot?

For Jacques Pepin, according to his latest book, More Fast Food My Way, it might be those fried onions that come in a can. Or boxed mashed potato flakes. It's Bloody Mary mix, canned pumpkin, packaged gnocchi, canned beans, pre-roasted red peppers, Rice Krispies, frozen raspberries and store-bought poundcake.

This from the celebrated French master who cooked with Julia Child and was personal chef to three French heads of state, including Charles de Gaulle?

Oui.

Pepin and other famed cooks not necessarily known for shortcuts are releasing shelves of books that promise an all-but-effortless kitchen experience. Pepin, the gourmand, vows everything in his book is fast and easy. Jamie Oliver, the spiky-haired U.K. chef known for laid-back cooking, says he really means it this time with Jamie at Home. Even Nick Malgieri, bound by the science of baking, swears The Modern Baker will save people so much time they'll want to bake every day.

Pepin, reached by phone in New York where he was recently promoting his book, thinks his latest volume will appeal to anyone who wants fresh, nice food "without working too much."

Homemade, he says, is overrated.

"I used to kill a chicken and eviscerate it," he says. "Now I go and buy boneless breast of chicken - skinless and boneless. I cook it in a nonstick pan. I use pre-sliced mushrooms. I use pre-washed spinach. I'm using the supermarket as a prep cook. ...

"If you can buy it better than you can make it - buy it. You only feel bad if the dish is lousy. If it's good, it's good."

The Scallops Grenobloise from his book, by the way, is good. So is the Pumpkin Gratin.

Pepin doesn't use convenience products in the scallop dish - it's pretty convenient on its own. The most labor-intensive element is peeling a lemon to remove every trace of pith. The resulting dish is so flavorful and elegant, no one would suspect it was so easy.

The Pumpkin Gratin relies on canned pumpkin puree. I always imagined someone like Pepin, for a dish like this, would be combing a farmers' market in search of the perfect gourd. But I'd rather not wrestle with a fresh pumpkin when with a Pepin-endorsed twist of a can opener, I'd have something just as good - if not better. This would be a great Thanksgiving side dish.

More Fast Food My Way isn't particularly pretty. No one will ooh and ahh about the photography or the utilitarian design. Pepin also repeatedly turns to certain ingredients - anchovies appear in at least eight recipes.

For style, turn to Oliver's book.

Each of the 400-plus pages is filled with great photography and festive, colorfully presented information - even the index has pizazz.

That said, Oliver's no Pepin when it comes to fast and easy. Though Oliver introduces Jamie at Home saying, "It's about no-nonsense, simple cooking," more than a few of the recipes have ingredient lists that stretch down the page, many of which call for imprecise and rather nonsensical measurements, such as a "good knob" of butter or a "small wineglass of white wine."

With his Cheat's Pappardelle With Slow-Braised Leeks and Crispy Porcini Pangrattato, Oliver attempts to oblige his readers who are pressed for time by suggesting they cut ready-made lasagna sheets into ribbons of pappardelle. Faster still: Just buy pre-made pappardelle. (I actually couldn't even find fresh lasagna sheets - maybe it's a British thing.)

Oliver arranges the book seasonally, pulling together recipes that work with the produce he grows in his own garden. His offerings include an asparagus tart for spring, rice pudding with strawberry jam in the summer, butternut squash muffins in the winter. The recipes are not generally easy.

Malgieri, a pastry chef whose previous cookbooks have won a number of prestigious awards, knows how to boil what could be complicated instructions into clear steps.

The Modern Baker isn't necessarily a beginner's cookbook. It's a book for cooks who want to bake, but without unnecessary, old-fashioned steps. Malgieri includes some time-saving tips, but mainly it's his clarity that will spare readers headaches.

Beautiful color photos appear on about every other glossy page of this substantial book. Unlike Oliver and a number of celebrity chefs-turned-authors, Malgieri doesn't spend a lot of time talking about himself. He includes personal details but only when they make sense.

For instance, I chose to try the Cinnamon-Scented Baked Chocolate Mousse Cake because in an aside he wrote, "When I have a bare minimum of time to make a dessert, I always make this."

He didn't mislead. With the exception of the chocolate, the cake used ingredients that I already had in the house, came together in minutes and looked and tasted like something that took a lot more time and effort.

scallops grenobloise

(serves 4 as a main course)

2 slices white bread

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