On Saturday morning, I caught an episode of Jacques Pepin’s public television show, Fast Food My Way, and felt a renewed appreciation for the skill, mastery and frugality of this elegant chef’s creations.
He opens each show with a simple dish whipped out in about 30 seconds!
There’s a cold black bean soup, which begins with a can of black beans pureed in a food processor with garlic, olive oil and hot sauce, then garnished with a little bit of sour cream, cilantro, sliced banana and crushed tortillas.
In the episode I watched, he tossed canned sliced beets with salt, pepper and sour cream, and set them on a bed of endive leaves. Took him about 15 very calm seconds, delivered in his reassuring voice.
I had the great pleasure of meeting and chatting with him (“please call me Jacques!”) last November at a private gathering and demonstration the night before his Yakima Town Hall lecture. We talked a little bit about his show, about Singapore food (it’s impossible to talk about Singapore without the subject of food coming up fairly quickly), and ingredients: we both agreed that the egg is completely underrated in American cooking. Apart from breakfast dishes, how often do you see eggs as the star of an entrée? He told me about a couple of simple sauces that elevate the humble egg. I told him about the days when I raised chickens on a mix of free range, vegetable scraps and grain, and was totally spoiled by having an unlimited access to fresh eggs with yolks so orange my cakes almost looked like they had food coloring added. It was something to which Jacques could relate from his boyhood in France.
Throughout the evening, Jacques showed a frugal sensibility, which also comes across on the show. He peppered his demonstration mentioning how much one could save by using one ingredient instead of another with no sacrifice in taste. Or, as he took the wings off a whole chicken and turned them inside out to form a “lollipop,” quickly calculated it would cost $6.50 as an appetizer in a restaurant. THAT, my friends, is a real chef – one who keeps a constant eye on the bottom line.
So I share now Jacques’ tips on the economical use of mushrooms.
The simple button mushroom, he said, has at least as much flavor as the more expensive varieties.
We’ve heard that the way to pick mushrooms in the store is to look for those with tight caps, with no separation from the stem. Yet Jacques said he often looks for the mushrooms in the bargain bin, a little past display prime, but with even more flavor with their age. And they're very cheap, to boot!
I can support the bit about flavor. There was once when I left a paper bag of these mushrooms on my counter before leaving on a vacation. When I came back, the caps had shriveled, but hadn’t gone bad. I tossed them into a pot of water with other vegetables and ended up with the richest vegetable broth I have ever made. Following that discovery, in the summer I sometimes dry mushrooms exactly like that, in a paper bag. They make particularly rich sauces and stews. (None of the local supermarkets has a bargain bin that I know of; but there is one in the food co-op - I should start paying more attention to what it has to offer.)
Jacques’ other fungus tip: - it’s okay to wash the little guys. Merci beaucoup!!! Wiping mushrooms with a damp cloth – it’s just too Martha for me. And if you’ve ever examined the amount of gunk that washes off those caps, you’d get rid of them damp cloth and dunk the ‘shrooms in a bowl of water too. But Jacques did say it’s key to wash them only immediately before use.
I’ll write more about my meeting with Jacques Pepin in future posts. Meantime, if you haven’t watched his show or read any of his books, I highly recommend them. He’s the real deal, trained in the old school where chefs had to start at the very bottom of the brutal kitchen hierarchy and work their way up by grueling labor and mastery of technique. He was a chef before it was a fashionable and lucrative career. In this day of celebrity chefs, it’s so refreshing to see a modest yet utterly charming gentleman go about his work without bluster. May the culinary world raise more of his ilk.