Friday, April 22, 2011

Favorite recipe book

I would imagine that many individuals, keen on cooking, have a favorite recipe book. When I settled down at Choranche in 1994, I used to talk a lot about cooking with my friend Georges Pontvianne, owner of the Jorjane hotel-restaurant. I was amused to learn that, in the kitchen, Georges was accompanied constantly by his battered copy of an old-fashioned French cooking bible: the Escoffier, published in 1919.

Written for professional chefs, the Escoffier (360 pages in this new facsimile edition) does not contain a single image of any kind whatsoever. Moreover, it's not really a book of recipes in the conventional sense, but rather a set of terse indications concerning the essential ingredients and procedures for the preparation of every imaginable dish. But these summarized descriptions won't be meaningful unless the reader is already well-versed in the terminology and basic principles of professional cooking.

I've often wondered whether an English-language edition of the Escoffier might be a meaningful and successful publishing project. The main problem, of course, is that most modern readers are accustomed to enticing photos of the ingredients and prepared dishes, and they've forgotten—as it were—that cooking skills remain a kind of "science" based upon a set of axioms and principles, rather than a vast collection of instructions, data, advice, hints, tricks, etc, enhanced by colorful language and images. This way of looking at haute cuisine is particularly apparent when we watch TV shows such as Top Chef and Master Chef, where the actors are generally performing in the style of artists and engineers, but often with neither a script (memorized recipe) nor a blueprint, let alone a safety net.

My personal favorite recipe book is a little like the Escoffier in that it contains lots of words, and no color photos.

I seem to recall that Christine gave me this excellent little book as a friendly parting gift back at the time our marriage was breaking up, and I was moving into an independent studio in Paris (just across the street from the apartment where Christine carried on living with the children). With her typical practical sense, Christine surely realized that this gift of a good book on cooking was a charitable gesture akin to participating in the safeguard of a species in danger of extinction: the emancipated ex-husband. And it's a fact that I have indeed survived and—from a cooking viewpoint—maybe even thrived.

One of my favorite recipes in the Sylvie Marion book is a traditional Jewish delicacy which is remarkably easy to prepare, and very tasty: pâté of chopped chicken livers. Back in the Marais neighborhood of Paris, long ago, I recall the big dishes of this delicacy (usually accompanied by chopped boiled eggs and onions) in Jo Goldenberg's delicatessen in the Rue des Rosiers.

Besides the chicken livers and a couple of onions, there's one essential ingredient: goose fat (which I purchased in a jar at the local supermarket). You use the goose fat solely to fry the chopped-up onions. Meanwhile, the chicken livers are grilled slowly in an oven, then chopped up and left to cool. I gave a few hits of the pulse button of my Magimix food processor to mix the livers and onions—along with a handful of fresh chives, and seasoned with paprika and pepper— until they formed a homogeneous paste. Then it needs to be chilled for a few hours before being eaten on toast.

In the above photo, Dominique Strauss-Kahn (current president of the International Monetary Fund) is preparing a huge slab of beef in his Washington apartment, while his wife Anne Sinclair (a celebrated French TV journalist) mixes a salad. Apparently, the future president of the French République (I hope) is particularly fond of pâté of chopped chicken livers, which probably evokes the cultural environment of his childhood in Morocco.

Yesterday, in deciding spontaneously to prepare this Jewish delicacy (for the first time in years), was I influenced by my favorite little recipe book? Or was I rather inspired by thoughts concerning my favorite presidential candidate?

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