Paul Bocuse, where were you when I needed you?
In 1982, the year “Bocuse in Your Kitchen” was first published, I was working my way through Julia Child’s “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.” Of course that’s a great way to learn, but “Bocuse in Your Kitchen: Simple French Recipes for the Home Chef,” is a slim volume of essential French dishes. Cook one, and you’ve got the technique -- and you’ve got it from Paul Bocuse, chef-owner of the Michelin three-star restaurant L’Auberge du Pont de Collonges near Lyon, France, among others, and one of the most important and influential French chefs ever. In 1989 the French magazine Gault et Millau dubbed Bocuse “chef of the century.”
The French publishing house Flammarion recently reissued “Bocuse in Your Kitchen” in English in a smart little hardback edition with photographs (by Jean-Charles Vaillant) that make you want to jump in and cook. And eat. What a wonderful gift this would be for a fledgling cook.
The recipes are mostly quite simple, no longer nor more involved than necessary. The concepts are easy to grasp, and the dishes are those you’d want to include in your basic French repertoire.
You could start with “my mixed green salad (petite salade de mon jardin).” It’s an elegant little salad, with radishes, julienned celery or celery root, mache, frisee and watercress. If you didn’t know how to make a simple vinaigrette, you learn: It’s just red wine vinegar, olive oil, salt and pepper. Simple, yes, but if that’s how Bocuse does it, it must be right.
I tried the cucumber and cream salad, not because it sounded so great, but because it looked so delicious in the photo. There’s a smart little lesson in it: Slice and salt the cucumbers, and let them stand half an hour before rinsing them and making a simple sauce of creme fraiche, lemon juice, chopped chives, salt and pepper. Bocuse writes that salting the cucumbers makes them easier to digest, but it also improves their texture -- it’s an elegant little dish.
It doesn’t get any easier
Trout or whiting meuniere worked beautifully, and it’s simplicity itself. Just salt and pepper the whole fish, roll them in flour, shake off the excess, and cook them in butter with a little garlic, about 6 minutes on each side. Sprinkle with chopped parsley and garnish with lemon wedges. Parfait. Now we know meuniere. Somehow, Child didn’t see fit to include the dish, seminal though it is, in “Mastering the Art.”
Steak “wine-grower’s style” (entrecote vigneronne) is something I had made a hundred times before, but now I’ll never do it any other way. Bocuse has us cook the steak in butter, and while it’s resting, brown lots of chopped shallots and onion (three shallots and a whole onion) in the butter, add half a cup of wine, boil a minute or two until thickened and season to taste. Et voil?. It never would have occurred to me to use so much onion, but that’s what gives the sauce it’s wonderful flavor and body.
The steak is terrific with a potato crepe (crique), which looks kind of fabulous and tricky in the photo, but it couldn’t have been easier. Also excellent was Bocuse’s pre-Pixar, pre-Thomas Keller version of bayaldi (spelled differently too) -- a baked dish of layered eggplant, zucchini, onion and tomato. (In the film “Ratatouille,” the amped-up version of the peasant dish ratatouille that wins the critic’s heart is actually Keller’s recipe for the Turkish-inspired dish bayaldi). Bocuse offers two versions, one made with butter and cheese, the other with olive oil, no cheese. The Californian in me preferred the lighter version, which was also, by the way, gorgeous.
A few missteps
Is the book perfect? Alas, no.
The trout meuniere recipe neglected to list garlic in the ingredients. (I just added one clove, chopped, where the instructions said “add the fish and the garlic.”) The ingredients for the bayaldi yielded too much zucchini in relation to eggplant for proper layering. And the instruction for slicing converts the specified size from 1 centimeter to half-inch slices, when, in fact, a centimeter is closer to three-eighths of an inch. The dish turned out much nicer when the slices were as thin as they would have been for anyone following the metric measurements. The recipe for steak winegrower’s style says to cook the steak for 6 minutes on each side over moderately high heat for medium-rare, but Bocuse doesn’t tell us how thick the steak should be for that cooking time. (The recipe, as it appears in the book, calls simply for 1 boneless rib steak weighing 1 3/4 pounds; we’ve adjusted our version.)
The cooking time was way off on the recipe for cherry clafouti and even when adjusted, it didn’t wow me. There’s nothing wrong with it, but it’s the very cakey style of clafouti (as opposed the custardy sort), and it was just barely sweet -- not even enough for my very sugar-sensitive palate. I did love how easy it was, though.
Also, I wish Bocuse had written head notes for at least some of the recipes -- how marvelous it would be to read his thoughts on a dish. As it is, we have to be satisfied with his introduction.
But all that’s OK, because there’s so much of interest. The rabbit rillettes look brilliant and are very easy. The pot-roasted chicken is absolutely gorgeous, surrounded in the pot with little caramelized onions and potatoes. Boiled pork dinner (potee au chou) looks irresistible for wintertime, and the pot au feuis smarter than Child’s for the simple reason that whereas Child has you boil all the meats and poultry in meat stock, Bocuse has you make stock as you go by boiling them in water.
What’s brilliant here is that Bocuse has gone straight to the essence of each dish, giving recipes for the way home cooks really cook, yet without the slightest compromise. At the same time, he brings his unique sensibility and irrefutable authority to the recipes.
All of which is to say, I may just learn how to cook all over again.