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Jacques Pépin: Fast Food My Way - Cookbook Review

Fast Food Will Never Look The Same

By Jacques Pépin
(Houghton Mifflin, September 2004)

Fast Food My Way by Jacques Pepin

After twenty-one cookbooks and a best-selling memoir (The Apprentice), Pépin is not content to rest on his reputation. We now get a cookbook for the times, a sophisticated book on how to cook great meals with a minimum amount of time and effort. It’s about Thirty-Minute Cassoulet (more on that in a minute) and a divine Beef Short Rib, Mushroom, and Potato Stew that can be on the table in about an hour. Desserts like Mock Tiramisu, and Pear Brown Betty are rich stand-ins for versions that require much more time and effort.

As Pépin himself says, "More often than not, I prefer simple, straightforward food that can be prepared quickly." The wonderful part is that we also get lots of flavor, too.

Take the Thirty-Minute Cassoulet. You won’t find duck and roast pork, nor days of work, steaming in that heavy pot. Instead, Pépin provides a truly acceptable workaround. His foundation is ham, Italian sausages, bratwurst and canned cannellini beans. The result doesn’t try to fool you, but you do get the same lusty effect with lots of flavor and hearty satisfaction. It’s delicious. Pépin uses a pressure cooker to extract the same level of flavor and body from the Beef Short Rib, Mushroom and Potato Stew that would normally have you cooking it all day. The pressure cooker is an all-too-often overlooked convenience that sacrifices nothing except time.

We made a classic Suprême of Chicken with Balsamic Vinegar and Shallot Sauce and followed the recipe exactly as written. Maybe our chicken breasts were too big, but the 180-degree oven (after a three minute sauté on each side) for ten minutes left the meat not fully cooked. Ten more minutes didn’t help. The bottom line, however, is that when our dinner was eventually finished, it was impressive— the balsamic reduction adds expert depth to pan roasted chicken breasts and a bed of corn and pea succotash. If we had gotten the chicken right the first time around, this would have been a thirty-minute triumph.

Other than soaking time for the fish, Codfish Brandade is a thirty minute affair, or less than one hour as a gratin. What about Bean Purée with Anchovies or Smoked Oysters? It’s an impressive appetizer, ready in minutes. We were skeptical about the Pumpkin Soup with Toasted Walnuts, even if the canned pumpkin was dressed up and then foiled with sour cream and chives. So, we learned a good lesson here. Canned items, given the appropriate treatment and context, can be given a new life. The soup was a delight.

The soup experience muted our skepticism about Pépin’s shortcuts, but it would be unfair to characterize Fast Food My Way as reliant on processed foods. It’s not at all. Scrambled Eggs with Mushrooms and Truffles is the real thing. He says one of his favorite dishes to eat at home is Bow-Tie Pasta with Fried Eggs and Cheese. Now, it’s ours as well.

Salad and vegetables are as diverse as Mushroom and Walnut Salad with Sour Cream Dressing and Asian Eggplant Salad. They’re as showy as Asparagus Custard and as humble as Sautéed Plantains. Things get really exciting with Fish and Shellfish. Halibut on Fresh Polenta with Pepper Oil is not what you think. It’s poached halibut on a purée of fresh corn. Pepper oil is a microwaved puree of red bell pepper and olive oil. Rigatoni and Mussels with Saffron is a must-try, and we’re about to pursue Little Shrimp Casseroles—individual gratin dishes filled with shrimp, garlic, scallions and mushrooms, then topped with bread crumbs and baked. Sounds like just the right thing for tomorrow’s dinner.

More desserts to contemplate are an Apple Skillet Cake ready in minutes, an "unbaked" Chestnut and Chocolate Cake, and how about just Raspberries with Balsamic Vinegar? What’s great with strawberries is irresistible with raspberries. Just make sure you use a top-quality aged balsamic.

Every recipe is put in context with interesting headnotes. Tips and variations are there when you need them. We loved the five pages of menus and Pépin’s "more ideas for quick dishes." They may not be groundbreaking suggestions, but his culinary sense is right on the mark—sometimes you just want someone else to do the thinking.

Jacques Pépin speaks the truth when he says, "Great food—easier than going out for conventional fast food and certainly better for you—takes only minimal planning."

When you see what’s in store for you in Fast Food My Way, when you experience how quickly you can turn out over 100 reliable dishes, and when you taste these creations, you may just discover a world where you’d rather eat in.

Reviewed by Kevin Schoeler

Related Content:
The Apprentice: My Life in The Kitchen
Kitchen Confidential and A Cook's Tour
Les Halles Cookbook

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