I’m running tastings every weekend next month to test out some new dishes. Please get in touch if you’d like to come and try what I’ve been working on.
I’m departing from the normal format of this blog to talk about a couple of cookbooks I’m reading at the moment or have just finished. I’m a fan, not a critic, so this post (and others like it, if there are to be others) is about books that I love, that I have devoured, that have inspired me or delighted me or have made me cry, not an objective appraisal of them.
The French Laundry Cookbook
If the Queen was coming to dinner, this is the book I’d reach for. Thomas Keller apparently doesn’t discuss prices with the suppliers for his 3 Michelin starred restaurant, and that does put some of his dishes (like the Roasted Maine Lobster with Foie Gras) into the “occasional luxury” column. But the recipes are covered in such detail that I’d feel completely confident about cooking it, even if it was for the first time, even if I had to mortgage the house to shop for it.
It’s not all extravagance. One tip I picked up from the book is to make powders out of odds and ends of veg. Drying out tomato off-cuts in the microwave (low power for 30-40 mins) and grinding them in a coffee mill yields a delicate umami-tasting powder that can be used as a substitute for parmesan cheese on pasta dishes. And Keller is staunchly against waste of any kind (read his story about the rabbits to learn why).
There’s a sense of playfulness to the food as well. A dessert of Pineapple Chops – pineapple cut to resemble lamb cutlets and roasted. Or in the names of some of the dishes – Oyster and Pearls (pearl tapioca with oysters and caviar), Mac and Cheese (butter poached lobster with marscarpone-enriched Orzo), Coffee and Doughnuts (cappuccino semifreddo with… doughnuts).
Favourite dish: Roasted Guinea Fowl en Crepinette de Byaldi. The ratatouille confit byaldi is something I’ve blogged about before, and it is simply astonishing. Keller wraps up little packages of byaldi and breast/thigh of guinea fowl in caul fat and roasts them.
Possibly the best bits of the book are the pages on “The Importance of…”. The Importance of Trussing Chicken, The Importance of Staff Meal, The Importance of Rabbits. Keller tells stories like how almost getting stabbed for not knowing how to truss a chicken properly gave him a life-long commitment to both learning and teaching.
It’s a wonderful book to read because it gives off this strange sense of serenity. Every dish is heartbreakingly beautiful, every recipe is long and complex, and you feel like you can drink it all in slowly and langourously.
- NYMag feature on the attention to detail at Per Se, Thomas Keller’s other restaurant in New York.
- Carol Cooks Keller. A blog about cooking every single dish in The French Laundry Cookbook
At the other end of the scale is the Momofuku cookbook. David Chang is a crazy Momofukuer (the name means “lucky peach” but its phonic resonance is not an accident) – he cooks like he’s pissed off at everything. The story is what shines in this book. Momofuku started as a tiny noodle bar and grew into three restaurants, one of which has two Michelin stars. In getting there, Chang seems permanently on the edge of killing someone, most likely himself. Baffled by both his successes and his failures, blazing an angry trail across short-suffering staff (in the early days almost nobody lasted more than a week), and possessing of both a crippling self doubt and a pirate confidence, I find this lunatic a captivating romantic figure, who I would never want to be, meet or work for.
In contrast to The French Laundry, Momofuku’s food is a lot less fancy. More fried chicken than foie gras (though they also do foie gras). Which doesn’t mean the recipes are – the one for chicken wings runs over a page and a half and involves five different cooking methods. But their pork shoulder only has 3 ingredients, so maybe it balances out.
Favourite dish: Momofuku’s signature pork buns. Three slices of roast pork belly (a bit like this but not quite as good), three slices of pickled cucumbers and some hoisin sauce in a steamed bun. I’ve eaten this at Momofuku in New York, and it is amazing. I’ve cooked it myself and I’ll blog about it as soon as I have the steamed bun recipe nailed.
Momofuku Cookbook makes me laugh and gives me energy, I want to race through it and cook like a cackling demon, and every other page has a “why didn’t I think of that?” moment to it.