Jacques Pépin: Fast Food My Way
What Celebrity Cookbooks Should Aspire To
This is an outstanding book. Every restaurant chef who decides to write a cookbook should be required to take a look at Jacques Pépin's approach in Fast Food My Way to get an idea of how to write a cookbook that's actually useable.
The problem with many cookbooks that are written by restaurant chefs is that they are simply adapting their restaurant recipes for home use, not developing recipes specifically for people to use at home in their own kitchens. There's certainly a place for cookbooks that offer us a chance to make dishes that we have eaten out at restaurants: Wolfgang Puck's Live, Love, Eat! is that kind of book. But it's not marketed that way; the blurbs on the inside flap claim that the book is "comprehensive, delectable, and easy to use" and calls Puck's recipes "simple [and] sumptuous." While the dishes are delectable, they're not particularly simple or easy to make. They require a certain time investment on the part of the cook. So why is the book marketed this way?
Because cookbook publishers know which buzzwords sell books: Convenient. Simple. Easy. And above all: Fast. That's why Rachael Ray is so popular. Not because her recipes are so fabulous (some are good, some are merely okay, and some are outright failures), but because the idea of being able to get dinner on the table in 30 minutes is so compelling.
Whether or not it's a good thing that so many home cooks are dying to get in, get it done, and get out of the kitchen is a topic for another discussion. It's a fact, however, and cookbook publishers have certainly taken note. Jacques Pépin gets a seat on the speedy train with Fast Food My Way, and this book actually is what it says it is: a guide to simple, tasty home cooking. Pépin isn't adapting complicated restaurant cuisine in this book. He's sharing his own home recipes with the reader, and the results are fantastic. The book has an introduction that explains Pépin's approach clearly and is actually worth reading, unlike some of the self-congratulatory introductions I've come across. There is a list of suggested menus, an idea I wish all cookbook writers would incorporate into their books. If you're leafing through the book and decide that Instant Beef Tenderloin Stew sounds good, but you aren't sure what else might go with it? Pépin suggests Mushroom Velouté with Almonds, Mushroom and Raisin Chutney, and Apple, Pecan, and Apricot Crumble. I love getting suggestions like this. There's a chapter of "More Ideas for Quick Dishes," where Pépin reels off about 25 additional quick recipes for things like lavash pizza, or cold black bean soup, or pineapple frosties. These are all lovely ideas for when your brain just can't come up with anything to make.
And that's before the cookbook proper even gets started. I had success with nearly all of the recipes I tried from Fast Food My Way. The only outright failure was Mock Tiramisù, which suffered from a problem with technique. I occasionally also needed to adjust cooking times, as in the Oven-Baked Salmon with Sun-Dried Tomato and Salsa Mayonnaise, but these were minor adjustments and easy to adapt on the fly. Even recipes which I thought would never work, such as Chicken on Mashed Cauliflower with Red Hot Salsa, turned out tasty and easy to make.
The dessert chapter alone is worth the price of the book. There are 30 recipes, of which I've already made 5 and had great success, except for the aforementioned Mock Tiramisù. The other 25 recipes sound delicious, and I intend to make all of them, soon. Pépin makes excellent use of convenience products like canned fruit and storebought cookies, turning them into fun, pretty desserts. Fans of fruit crisps and crumbles will find several recipes, and they are all flexible enough to allow for almost infinite variation.
Pépin's introductory paragraphs to each recipe are helpful and informative. His technique is straightforward and clearly written. His presentations are pretty without being fussy. All in all, this is an excellent book. I'll be coming back to it again, without a doubt. Thank you, Mr. Pépin, for showing us how a "fast food" cookbook should be done.