on 24 February 2012
The title, `Essential Cooking' gives the impression of being about basics. The book is about as far removed from being about basics as you can imagine. Unfortunately, it is also devoid of much insight about professional cooking
The very first thing which appealed to me was the somewhat quirky, but highly effective method of laying out the ingredients and procedure for each recipe which typically appears on the left side of a two page spread dedicated to each dish. The translators have done a serviceable, albeit somewhat gross translation of metric measurements into familiar English units. I can't complain too much about these, as even the equivalencies in Patricia Wells' excellent books are often off by about 20%. But, in the world of savory cooking, 20% difference doesn't mean a whole lot.
Other especially good features were the basic advice and basic recipe sections. The basic advice has not nearly enough content to come even close to being a tutorial on cooking, but it does include a few rare pointers centered on taking your time, paying attention to taste, and being organized. The basic recipes are not just your typical stocks and vinaigrettes, as Monsieur Bras' recipes require several unusual pantry preparations. There are some less common but still familiar preparations such as beurre noisette, pate brisee, pate sablee, Italian meringue, and French meringue. There are also some preparations I have never seen before such as aigo boulido, gomasio, grilled lard, huille rance, kefir, long jus, short jus, and nougatine. Some of these preparations are simply unfamiliar names for common cooking techniques. Gomasio, for example, is simply toasted sesame seeds crushed with sea salt. Some preparations are totally familiar to every cook, yet they are generally thought of as nuisances, such as milk skin, that skin that forms on the surface of heated milk.
Other nice features are the short glossary of terms, the very necessary table of substitutions, and the totally unique page of stencils, templates, and diagrams of unusual equipment. The table of substitutions, like many of the pantry preparations is not your everyday sour milk substitution for buttermilk. These recipes use lots of exceedingly uncommon ingredients such as agar-agar, amaranth, bee balm, rau0ram, tansy flowers, and yellow bedstraw flowers. Fortunately, all the stand-in products are very common, such as spinach, gelatin, celery, and basil
The recipes in this book are totally impractical for the home cook. There are many ideas here which, with a fair amount of practice, can turn up on your table when you entertain to impress. The chef author is very fond of soft-boiled eggs;The soft-boiled egg recipes appear under the unfamiliar rubric `mises en bouche', a variation on `amuse-bouche'.
Many other recipes also start with very common ingredients to give us fried bread and Mediterranean tuna with a presentation which would knock the socks off of the most jaded brunch guest. But then, the author goes off the deep end by giving us recipes requiring Banyuls sweet wine, venison, potimarron squash, demerara sugar, candied orange, and juniper berries to yield a leg of venison with licorice-like lemon puree. The presentation of this dish, like all the others, is a knockout.
The texts surrounding the recipes are a combination of childhood memories and somewhat mystical ruminations on things that inspire the chef's cooking.
The bottom line is that this expensive book is totally impractical for everyday cookery, but it does give us a look at the substance and inspirations of French haute cuisine. And, unlike Charlie Trotter's book `Raw', it is not totally impractical. The 5 stars I give are a compromise between a warning to look before you lay out your cash and a recommendation of the book as very good eye candy and a source of inspiration.