Saturday, October 3, 2009


A recipe is made up of a list of techniques that guides you through combining a list of ingredients.  Sift, melt, whisk. Flour, chocolate, eggs. Often the whole is bigger, better or just quite different than the sum of its parts.  Onions plus slow steady heat equals caramelized onions. Tomatoes plus salt equals more flavorful tomatoes. Half the time the recipes I use are written down. But the more I cook the more I store in my brain and my fingers. Stepping away from the page gives me flexibility, but I like nothing better than following a well-written recipe. Sometimes I read a recipe and it feels like it's flowing right out of my brain. Other recipes seem complicated but the steps are so clear that I have the confidence to take them on. And then there are those recipes that feel impossible.

This brings me to August Escoffier's "A Guide to the Fine Art of French Cuisine."

I have had the Escoffier cookbook in my purse or in the bottom of the stroller Monday through Friday. Just ask Dash. He even uses it as a backrest at the cafe. He now calls every book a "cockbock." Every morning after we drop Bella off at school he asks, "Momma, you want get coffee?" Maybe he and I need to branch out a bit. All we do together lately is go to cafes and talk about what we're going to cook. He particularly likes the photo of Escoffier on the back flap.

Escoffier is a serious-looking French dude who codified most of the classic French dishes and published them in his "Guide Culinaire" in 1903.  He also came up with a few recipes of his own, his most famous being peach melba (peaches poached in vanilla syrup served over vanilla ice cream topped with raspberry puree). He had a few things to say about the hierarchy of the kitchen from chef de cuisine down to the prep cooks. He helped French society take cooking seriously by breaking down the jobs in the kitchen into specialties and sub-specialties. His system is still in place to this day in Europe. Having worked in restaurant kitchens in New York City in both pastry and garde manger I can tell you that this system is alive and well in this country as well. Yes it's hierarchical.  Yes it can be misogynistic. And competitive. And life-draining. But it works. Auguste has 2,984 recipes to choose from and I can't seem to commit to a single one.


Here's a list of the techniques you need to know how to do in order to make Commodore Chicken Turbot (recipe #929 in Auguste's book):
  • Trim potato balls to the size of hazelnuts.
  • Poach the turbot.
  • Cook a l'Anglaise.
  • Make fish quenelles.
  • Make lobster croquettes.
  • Prepare an oyster a la Villeroy.
  • Treat these products according to their nature.
  • Arrange in alternate heaps (I can do that!).
  • Make Normande sauce.
  • Make anchovy butter.
Are you kidding me? Please don't think I'm making fun of Escoffier. I am in awe of what he learned, collected, created, and wrote. But all his consommes and compound sauces and bases and releves just overwhelm me. Escoffier's recipes don't inspire me to cook. They makes me want to take a nap.

Isabel has no interest in Escoffier's cookbook. She has been carrying around a different book. 
On Saturday morning we climb in bed to read our books. I'm still flailing around with Escoffier. Bella is flipping through her book and asks for the third time, "I'm confused. So how DO the egg and the sperm actually get together?" I look down to see a drawing of one rooster mounting another. I have not had enough coffee for this conversation.  I close my book and say, "I have a great idea. Let's do OUR recipes this week instead of Escoffier's."

I'm bailing on Escoffier. I'm relieved and I also feel like a loser.

Bella is crazy excited. She tells me not to move while she goes to get something. She runs back and proudly presents me with her Mint Chocolate Cookie Recipe. The ingredients are eggs, flour, sugar, and mint extract.  Turns out A = oven (see the dish towel hanging?). Next comes dipping the cookies into melted chocolate. And then garnishing with mint and putting them in the freezer. Her recipe is pretty close to complete. I suggest adding some baking soda and butter. She agrees. Dash adds a little flourish on the bottom right.
Her friend Finn is coming over to cook with us. They chat on the phone about the menu. Turns out they've been secretly planning it all week at school. I guess all along they had no intention of cooking French Haute Cuisine.

With a little guidance from me they come up with their final menu:
  • Mashed Potatoes With Caramelized Onions.
  • Green Beans With Pesto.
  • Grilled Lamb Rib Chops.
  • Bella's Mint Chocolate cookies.
Not a simple menu but I won't have to open any cookbooks this week. These recipes are in my fingers.

Finn and Bella dance to the meat counter for some lamb.
    I give them the challenge of finding the words "unsalted butter." Five minutes later they're still searching.
    And then we're home. Chaos. Dash is on the table and baking soda is flying everywhere.
    My husband removes Dash from the house. Peace.

    Bella tells Finn to crack the egg on the table because it's easier to break open (my technique). Finn tells Bella to crack the egg on the edge of the bowl, open it from one side and then your fingers stay clean (his dad's technique). They each tell each other "that's the right way to do it."
    I marvel in the fact that I'm sitting down watching them cook. I'm so relaxed I start photographing the measuring cups. Aren't measuring cups beautiful?
    One moment Finn seems fine and then something shifts. His head hurts and we need to take him home. My husband rushes home with Dash. Bella is so bummed. So my husband decides to take her out for a nice lunch.

    Dash and I continue on with Bella and Finn's menu and we invite my parents over for dinner. Someone has to eat all of this food.


    "I make with myself."
    "Momma. Butter. Lots of Butter."
    "Yes Dashi, lots of butter makes the potatoes taste REALLY good."
    "Bootiful tomatoes, Momma."
    "Potatoes, Dashi."
    "No, tomatoes Momma."

    Bella comes back from lunch and finishes her cookies.


    I boil the beans while Dash places ice cubes into a bowl of water on the floor. I dump the boiled beans into the ice water. Dash snacks. And stirs. And snacks.

    "Yummy chicken!
    "No, it's lamb."
    "No, chicken."
    He seasons with piles of salt. And then he quickly reaches in and takes a big bite of a raw chop. Gnarly.

    My parents arrive for dinner. Dash shakes and shakes the vinaigrette.
    I hand off the cooking of the lamb to my dad and we bust out some martinis.
    And we eat.

    And we drink.
    And Dash gnaws on all of our scraps.
    And we taste Bella's creation. A bit dry (my fault). Quite minty (her fault).
    I did not have it in me to do Escoffier this week. I don't have veloutes and stocks going on my back burner. I have a son who has so much energy sometimes that I want to cry.  But I have the urge to cook with my kids.  And I have a daughter who writes recipes.

    P.S.: I have not given up on Escoffier. I'm just going to start small. His anchovy butter sounds very straightforward and I'm thinking it would be really tasty on some steamed yukon gold potatoes. 

    P.P.S.: Here are the Monday night leftovers. Mashed potato pancakes with peas and pesto beans. Salad of melon, spinach, tomato, feta, parsley, basil, mint, lemon and Dash's vinaigrette. We didn't crack a single "cockbock" this weekend. I miss them. Jacques Pepin is going with us to the cafe next week.


    1. You are a talented writer and photographer. Not to mention an incredible mother... You inspire me. :-j

    2. It's not just the cooking, the kids, the photographs--it's the sense that life is right now. Cooking, spilling, adjusting.