Cookbooks of the Year
by Filip Verheyden
$29.95, Melville House Press
PORK & SONS
by Stephane Reynaud
As much as I love the new hot dish, the new hot flavor, I tend to love them only in restaurants. When it comes to my own actual kitchen I am viciously minimalist. I have exactly four knives: an eight-inch chef's knife, a paring knife, a serrated bread knife, and another chef's knife that leaves the drawer whenever someone is helping me cut things, which isn't all that often. I wander through kitchen stores and cannot fathom why anyone would want a knife block as overstuffed with options as an Iowa caucus. Pick me! Pick me! At what point does choice become a tyranny of its own? I feel certain that if I had to spend 30 seconds selecting a knife every time I cut something, over the course of a year that would add up to never sending a thank-you note again. Or not washing my face. Something dire.
I'm similarly ruthless about cookbooks: Scores, if not hundreds, pass through my house every year. (Publisher's Weekly informs me that some 3,000 books are published in America every day, though they fail to say whether that includes Groundhog Day. Either way, I think even groundhogs, with their ability to create free underground storage, would agree that's too many. Who has the room?) I admire many of the cookbooks, but the rubber hits the road at the end of the year when I see who has been admitted to my kitchen and who has been consigned to the basement. I keep a single two-foot shelf in my kitchen for the crème-de-la-crème, can't-live-without-them elite, so when I name my two best cookbooks of the year I am not just being nice. These are the books that this year banished Silver Palate and Martha Stewart to the basement. I guess the '80s really are dead.
Both my picks were originally French bestsellers, newly translated in 2007, and I don't know whether to make anything of that. There have been some interesting dustups in the world of food lately as to whether, with Spanish chefs and flavors ascendant, French cooking really matters anymore. Personally I don't see the controversy, as most of the Spanish cooking that people are loving so much looks to me like French cooking using Spanish ingredients. But perhaps this question has been reverberating more deeply in France than any American can really understand, causing the French to re-examine the basics of what, how, and why they're cooking.
Well, maybe not, as the author of The Basics is Belgian. Still, Filip Verheyden has penned a French cookbook that was a French bestseller and rocked my world. Why? Would you believe me if I told you he's managed to distill the purest elements of haute restaurant cooking into a pocket-sized photo book? He has. This thing is a peculiar little beast, like no cookbook I've ever seen. It's only six inches high, with a plain black cloth cover, gilt edges, and a red ribbon to keep your place with. It looks like a small Bible, not a cookbook. It's only about 300 pages long and consists of a mere 150 recipes or techniques, most only a sentence or two, and each illustrated by a gorgeous facing-page photograph by Tony Le Duc.
Many of the techniques aren't even that interesting to me. The book's weakest page is probably its first, which explains how to "bard" (to wrap meat in something else, like bacon or grape leaves.) But I've read hundreds of salad dressing recipes in my life, and the one here just struck me like a bolt of lightning. I'll reprint it in its entirety: "For 4: 1 cup heavy cream, juice of 1 lemon, sugar, salt, and pepper. Mix the cream and lemon juice, then season with sugar, salt, and pepper." That's it! That's all. That's the whole recipe. No exotic ingredients, no elaborate techniques, just the essence of a cream salad dressing presented in a way I've never seen. (A further "tip" adds that you can amend this with finely chopped herbs, paprika, and other flavorings, but fails to note you could also base most of haute cuisine on this combination.) Okay, some of you are thinking: Listen, crazy lady, I do not want a quarter cup of cream on my salad. Neither do I, but it's the basic-ness of the recipe that inspires me; it's like Verheyden took the last hundred years of cooking advice, embellishments, improvements, nutritional advice, and other useless rigamarole and stripped them away, leaving nothing but the basic ingredients and simplest techniques you would ever use to reach the desired end.
What I see when I look at that cream salad dressing recipe is freedom. If you're a sophisticated enough cook, you'll look at that and intuit a lifetime of variations. If you've never cooked a lick, well, I envy you—if this was your first cookbook, it would lead to such a nice and easy only-two-knives sort of life. If you don't want a nice and easy life, The Basics also distills the essence of the world's most au courant cooking techniques in 10 simple pages, explaining how to make a foie gras foam (using a nitrogen-charged whipped-cream maker), an agar-agar-based, Ferran Adria-style spinach jelly, and so on. The Basics has even changed the way I make pancakes, and I've been making pancakes since grade school. Is there any higher praise I could give a cookbook?
If there is, I will give it to Pork & Sons, by Stephane Reynaud. A lot of people agree this is a great book—in fact, it was recognized as the most important cookbook of the year in France in 2005, when it won the Grand Prix de la Gastronomie Francaise (it was issued in an English version just last spring). However, everything I want to say about this book would likely shock the beret off a Frenchman, because what I like most is that it's so essentially Minnesotan.
Really, it's so Minnesotan it makes my heart sing. Bear with me. For 10 years now I've been trying to get my head around what an essentially Minnesotan cuisine would look like. Other people have been wrestling with this, too. I think I've heard three or four restaurateurs dancing with naming their place some variation on "45th Parallel," which would connect Minnesota by latitude with some of the most fertile parts of France. I've slowly come around to thinking that a true Minnesotan cuisine would be largely based on the handful of things we can get year round, like pork, cream, butter, eggs, and cold-climate grains like wheat and rye. (Of course there would be other things in there, too—walleye, wild rice, bison, apples, wild plums, and so on—but we'll save discussion of those for another time.) It has occurred to me that the countries with heritage cuisines that strongly resemble this core flavor palate are England, northern France, Alsace, southern Germany, and so on.
But never has Minnesota's similarity to anywhere else walloped me so forcefully as it did while I was paging through Pork & Sons, which has lots of pictures of the farmland of Ardèche, where the author is from, just west of the French Alps. I mean, it's just jaw-dropping. There's a picture of Reynaud's hometown Saint-Agrève in February that you could look at for an hour and never believe it isn't Nerstrand, New Prague, or Proctor. The mix of pines and oaks, the corn stubble poking up through snowdrifts, the white sky and nothing-to-look-at working farm sheds.
And the people! While the author is a restaurant chef, this book is largely a tribute to the people who help kill and butcher a pig in his hometown, and the pictures of these guys in their knit caps, down vests, wind-scoured faces, and no-kidding work pants look like they could have been snapped at any grain elevator between Winona and Moorhead. (Okay, one of them has a dog named Florette, but we won't hold that against him.)
The thing I love most about this book, though, is that it makes head-to-tail eating seem possible in actual day-to-day life. I've read lots of charcuterie books, lots of nose-to-tail eating books, and while I admire them, they leave the home cook in the dust. This book, however, specializes in rustic, peasant-style cooking. Hey, I'm a peasant! Who knew? And if you only have an hour to devote to the actual cooking time of getting something on the table, you may well be a peasant, too. And if you're a peasant who wants to eat like a king, here's the book.
The pork rillettes, for instance, require little more than putting meat in a pot and cooking at low heat for four hours. The section explaining the nutritional benefits of ham ("rich in iron and potassium") and the fact that every French person eats 11 pounds of ham a year should make any Hormel executive smile—at least as much as the idea for a ham sandwich made with chopped cornichons and butter made me smile. But it's the various pork roasts, pork pot roasts, pork blanquettes (creamy pot roast), ragouts, pot au feus, and things to do with Boston butts that really made this book a revelation to me. So this is how to do some interesting cooking with the rest of the pig that isn't bacon, ham, sausage, or pork loin!
I have wanted, for six or seven years now, some idea of what good, authentic, tasty home cooking with integrity would look like that was based on the products of the northern farmland, and it took a Frenchman and a Belgian to show me.
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