Thomas Keller’s Catalan beef stew is a spectacular, meaty dish of tender short ribs, fennel, fingerling potatoes and leeks, savory with the addition of oil-cured Spanish olives, fragrant with orange peel, garnished with fennel fronds and finished with gray salt.
And it takes three days to make. (OK, I might have finished in two if I hadn’t been interrupted in the middle of making a five-hour soffritto of onions and tomatoes.) Day 1: Braise short ribs. Day 2: soffritto. Day 3: Blanch fennel and baby leeks separately; simmer potatoes; strain short rib braising liquid; glaze short ribs; assemble.
The recipe, from Keller’s new book “Ad Hoc at Home: Family-Style Recipes,” represents one way home cooking has come full circle.
Chefs have come back to the simple, delicious dishes that they loved as children, but in the process they’ve turned them into fine dining. And now they’re writing books to teach home cooks how to do the same. Don’t expect any one-pot meals.
Keller’s Napa Valley restaurant Ad Hoc might be the epitome of the concept, but here in L.A., Mark Peel has been doing the same every Monday night for years at his landmark restaurant Campanile. And he’s just published “New Classic Family Dinners,” with recipes for chicken pot pie, cornmeal-crusted pan-fried trout, spaghetti and meatballs (with instructions for grinding the three kinds of meat yourself).
But though this is home cooking, it’s a far cry from the popular “quick and easy” school that is designed to let you get dinner on the table in the time it takes to watch an episode of “The Office.” Both chefs make clear that they have another, higher aim: to make you a better cook.
“Sometimes ingredients make you work hard and take an extra step or two to yield the extra bit of flavor that makes a dish memorable,” Peel writes. (That’s a different tone from the one in “Mark Peel & Nancy Silverton at Home: Two Chefs Cook for Family & Friends,” published in 1995, in which the goal was to be both “creative and expeditious.”)
Even though they contain complicated recipes, the books are aimed at those who might not have a lot of experience cooking. They are at heart primers on cooking.
Most of the dishes in Keller’s and Peel’s new books aren’t as involved as the Catalan beef stew. “Ad Hoc” is by far the most approachable of Keller’s cookbooks, which include “The French Laundry,” “Bouchon” and last year’s “Sous Vide.”
“Ad Hoc” may be Keller without his chef’s coat on (complete with waggish photos and illustrated cartoon bubbles above his head), but he is still going to tell you how to become a better cook. Besides showing you how to soft-cook an egg, roast a chicken, prepare a good pie crust and make “one really good soup,” he outlines techniques to build on: big-pot blanching, poaching, roasting, pan-roasting, braising and sauteing.
By following steps you might not ordinarily take, you gain a better understanding of techniques and how they change dishes. I know how to roast a prime rib roast the way my mom does it. But this is how Keller does it: Slowly roast at 275 degrees so that the meat is medium-rare pink almost all the way to the outer edges, then caramelize the surface with a blowtorch. Um, wow.
While making Peel’s lasagna with creamed spinach and poached egg, you’re also familiarizing yourself with making a flour-thickened sauce (bechamel) and a rich, complex stew (Bolognese sauce), as well as poaching an egg. Many of his recipes are “compound recipes that rely on building blocks.” Beer-braised brisket includes caramelized vegetables. Rabbit cacciatore calls for making rabbit broth. For a Waldorf salad, you make your own mayonnaise (but you could also use purchased mayonnaise).
Of course, many of these chef’s touches come at a price. In “Ad Hoc,” written with chef de cuisine Dave Cruz, Keller promises “recipes that are doable at home. No immersion circulator required.” But that doesn’t mean you won’t need a candy thermometer to make a salad. For endive and arugula with peaches and Marcona almonds, you spend what feels like two hours to make a few cups of peach puree (peaches cooked with sugar, spices and lemon juice to 215 degrees) for the couple of tablespoons called for in the salad dressing.
I might have balked as I started to peel the peaches, but in the following weeks I was pretty thrilled to have leftover peach puree on hand to smear on toast, dollop onto yogurt and vanilla ice cream or make the salad again. It is one of the best salads I have ever made.
Many of the recipes in the chapters titled “basics” and “life savers” represent the “extra step” that makes a dish outstanding: the peach puree, the soffritto, cherry gastrique, pickled garlic, chive oil, cured lemons, deep-fried herbs. They’re the chapters that I keep turning back to, eyeing recipes for pistachio butter, potted Rainier cherries with rum and vanilla bean, tomato-basil marmalade, artichoke tapenade.
But they also mean you shouldn’t make the mistake of not reading through the entire main recipe and any sub-recipes. I made that error, and the five-hour soffritto for the Catalan beef stew took me by surprise. (Hey, I thought I knew soffritto, the way I’d learned to make it from two women in a village outside of Girona, Spain, who cooked the onions and tomatoes for about an hour total.) Keller’s is a 2 1/2 -hour confit of onions, to which tomatoes are added and slow-cooked for another 2 1/2 hours. But as with the peach puree, a little soffritto goes a long way.
“Ad Hoc” is easier to use than “New Classic Family Dinners,” partly because of the clearly marked tips called “light bulb moments” that break up the recipes. They might tell you how to get more meat from a lobster or always to season from high above the food for even distribution.
This kind of kitchen wisdom has to be sussed out from the recipes in “New Classic Family Dinners,” though there it includes some step-by-step photographs to help. And a final chapter outlines possible menus, something missing from “Ad Hoc.”
Many of the dishes are meant to “evoke a particular era in American gastronomy, circa 1950 . . . veal piccata, lobster Newburg, spaghetti with clam sauce,” says Peel, who sets out to bring them “back to life.” Veal piccata might still require some culinary defibrillation, but Mediterranean accents (garlic and tomato) in his bacon-y smothered pork chops make a juicier, zestier gravy, taken a step further than a traditional sauce of onions, chicken stock, flour and milk.
Best heed Keller’s advice “to develop relationships with the people you buy ingredients from,” especially your butcher. Who knew it was so hard to get three-fourths of a pound of brisket at Huntington Meats in the Original Farmers Market on Fairfax Avenue? I went there for 1 1/2 pounds of sirloin, three-fourths pound of brisket and three-fourths pound of chuck for Keller’s hamburgers. It was only after some cajoling that I got my brisket, because Huntington sells only whole briskets.
As for the recipe, it would have been helpful to indicate which part of the sirloin. (Should I have spent extra money for the tip?) And the burgers? They had great meaty flavor, but it’s hard to beat the juicy-fatty texture and taste of the “Nancy blend” -- chuck ground with sirloin fat -- named for Silverton (Peel’s former wife, of Mozza fame) and also sold at Huntington.
Both Peel and Keller worked with expert recipe testers, Martha Rose Shulman and Susie Heller, respectively. Michael Ruhlman and Amy Vogler also contributed to “Ad Hoc.” These are reliable recipes, and glitches are rare.
But is it possible to get very tender (but not falling-apart) short ribs after braising for just 1 1/2 hours, as described in “Ad Hoc”? Not in my oven, as it turns out; it took nearly double that. And Keller’s grapefruit cake brushed with more than a cup of grapefruit syrup is a pretty wet cake. The 24 bay leaves (the recipe didn’t indicate fresh or dried, so I used fresh) in the brine for the fried chicken resulted in some very intense bay flavor -- but spectacular fried chicken anyway.
In the case of cookbooks from two premier chefs teamed with top recipe testers, what is probably even more important than to-be-expected reliability is whether there is a significant payoff for taking the extra effort, and whether it’s worth buying expensive ingredients, applying another technique or making an additional component for a dish.
In many cases, yes, but in others, no. Keller’s pasta dough recipe calls for an egg and 14 egg yolks. It is rich and delicious, but I liked Peel’s fresh pasta recipe, made with semolina and all-purpose flour and an egg and two yolks. It needs to rest for only an hour (as opposed to the 12 to 24 hours for Keller’s dough), so I can even make it on a weeknight for dinner.
On the other hand, bread pudding, normally blobby, is transformed by Keller into an artful plated dessert when it is carefully constructed in distinct layers, cut into rectangles, then browned in clarified butter. It’s another two-day affair because it has to chill for several hours before browning. But that means you can prepare it ahead of time for a dinner party and then finish it just before serving. Plus, it is a perfect pairing with a glass of good Sauternes.
And though the Catalan beef stew is stunning and something I’d make again on a winter weekend, Keller’s braised chicken thighs with olives, lemon and fennel are just as impressive in flavor and presentation. Imagine a big platter of lemon-scented crispy-skinned chicken (it gets a quick pass under the broiler after braising), crisp-tender fennel, and fat, fruity green olives.
So am I a better cook for turning bread pudding into a plated dessert or making peach puree for a salad?
Yes. Except I still might stick with the one-hour soffritto.