Cooking With ‘Essential Pepin’: Classic Can Seem Downright Exotic

Today, as promised in my earlier post reviewing the book, recipes from Jacques Pépin’s new “Essential Pepin” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $40). While the cuisines represented range far and wide, reflecting the scope of the teaching chef’s 60-year career, I offer here some unmistakably old-school French preparations, including a chicken recipe straight from late-1950s Le Pavillon, the restaurant where Pépin found his first job in this country.

In the multi-culti O.C. food world, where it’s easy to have a different cuisine at every meal, roast chicken and mushrooms and a little watercress salad might seem almost exotic. Not to me—I’ve mentioned before, I roast a lot of chickens—but I do have a not-so-secret single-item agenda: making sure every cook has a version of this classic in his or her repertoire.

There are a lot of ways to go, with chicken roasting. Pépin’s of the turn-this-way-and-that opinion, which intrigued me because I am not, usually, other than when doing Marcella Hazan’s chicken with lemons inside, which starts breast-side-down and is turned partway through cooking. Pépin turns the bird side-to-side in addition, and the even results are very nice. The subtle, perfectly stabilized sauce is an eye-opening treat, and caramelized mushrooms with shallot and dark-green watercress dressed with a little of the pan drippings are perfect accompaniments.

A side benefit is provisioning for this meal falls easily under the one-stop-shopping rubric I like to revisit: the ingredients are easy to gather in a single visit to your favorite store. “Essential Pepin” reminded me of this over and over; Jacques Pépin, with all his accolades, training, and experience, is remarkably unpretentious and encouraging. I’ve got nothing against multi-stop, esoteric-ingredient-gathering foraging, God knows, but it’s more important for any cook to be confident that he or she can, with a single trip through self-checkout and hardly any fuss, put a really nice meal on the table. This simple menu would make a wonderful New Year’s Eve or other wintertime dinner-party meal.

Chicken with Cognac Sauce

In the old style, the chicken was carved in the dining room by the maître d’. Even for a single portion, a whole glorious chicken in a copper saucepan was brought to the guest’s table.

(Makes 6 to 8 servings)

1 chicken, about 3-1/2 pounds

½ teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 tablespoon unsalted butter, softened


2 cups homemade chicken stock, or low-salt canned broth

¾ cup dry white wine

½ cup chopped onion

½ teaspoon black peppercorns

1 tablespoon flour

1 tablespoon unsalted butter, softened

½ cup heavy cream

Salt, pepper

2 tablespoon cognac

Preheat oven to 425 degrees.

Sprinkle chicken inside and out with salt and pepper and rub all over with butter. Place on side in a roasting pan and roast 20 minutes. Turn onto other side and roast 20 minutes. Turn breast side up and roast another 20 minutes. Transfer to platter and keep warm.

While chicken is roasting, make sauce: Combine stock, wine, onion, and peppercorns in medium saucepan, bring to boil, and simmer to reduce by half. Work flour into butter to make beurre manié, and add to sauce, whisking constantly. Simmer 3 minutes. Stir in cream and reduce briefly until it lightly coats a spoon, about 1 minute. Taste for seasoning and add salt and white pepper as needed. Strain sauce, stir in cognac. Cut chicken into pieces and arrange on plates, coat with sauce.

Caramelized Mushrooms with Shallots

To achieve the concentrated taste I want, I cook the mushrooms a long time—it takes a while for the moisture to emerge from them and evaporate, and for them to brown.

(Makes 4 servings) 

1-1/2 tablespoons olive oil

1 pound mushrooms, cleaned and trimmed

3 shallots, thinly sliced

1 tablespoon unsalted butter

1/3 cup chopped fresh parsley

½ teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Heat oil in large skillet. When hot, add mushrooms and cook, covered, over medium heat for 20 to 25 minutes, until nicely browned and all liquid has evaporated. Add shallots and sauté, uncovered, for 2 to 3 minutes, until soft. Add butter, parsley, salt, and pepper and sauté 10 seconds longer. Serve.

Watercress Salad

The slightly pungent watercress is set off well by the light dressing. Make sure that you toss your salad at the last moment, because watercress wilts quickly once it is dressed.

(Makes 4 servings)

2 large or 3 small bunches watercress

1 tablespoon red-wine vinegar

¼ teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

2 tablespoons peanut or grapeseed oil

1 tablespoon rendered duck or chicken fat

Cut lower 1-1/2 to 2 inches off root end of watercress (can be reserved for soup). Wash watercress tops and dry thoroughly. In large bowl, mix vinegar, salt, pepper, oil, and rendered duck or chicken fat. When ready to serve, toss watercress with dressing and serve immediately.

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