If I can cook it, you can cook it And I'll travel the world to bring it back home to you.

Review of Jacques Pépin’s "Heart and Soul in the Kitchen" and his superb recipe for Spinach Stuffed Pork Chops

I am a cookbook enthusiast and reader.  While I may troll the Internet instead of my bookshelves to find a recipe that is in one of the hundreds of cookbooks we own, I still get great pleasure from reading a great cookbook from start to finish.  In this case, even as a long time fan of Jacques Pépin and owner of at least ten cookbooks that the chef has already written, I can say this is my favorite cookbook of the year.  The reason is simple and can be found in the title.  M. Pepin has gone back to his roots and his memories and infused every page with his philosophy on life and of food. And oh what food!  Simple, direct, delicious. 

Jacques Pépin was born in Bourg-en-Bresse, a town near Lyon, in 1935.  His mother, Jeannette, and father, Jean-Victor owned a restaurant called “Le Pelican”.  Pépin basically grew up in its kitchen. He went off to Paris where ‘staged’ at the Plaza Athénée Hotel under famed chef Lucien Diat.  Diat also came from a cooking family. His brother Louis is credited with inventing Vichyssoise.  Pépin truly distinguished himself during his compulsory military service.  He became the Head chef for three French heads of state including Charles de Gaulle himself.    In 1959, Pépin left France bound for New York’s Le Pavilion.  The restaurant is credited with having brought French food to the United States.  It had started life as “Le Restaurant du Pavilion de France” at the 1939 New York World’s Fair.  A mercurial Frenchman, Henri Soule, ran it and its kitchen was the domain of Pierre Franey.  Pépin and Franey formed a friendship and often partnership that only ended with Franey’s death in 1996. 

         When Pepin arrived at Le Pavilion, he was astonished to see how poorly paid and poorly treated the staff were.  Soulé was famous for crying poverty while simultaneously offering free meals and wines to any number of celebrities.  Pépin, like any good Frenchman, joined in a grève (or strike) at which Mafiosi physically threatened him.  Escape came via a Le Pavilion patron named Howard Johnson.  He hired both Franey and Pépin to enhance the menu at his chain of restaurants.  M. Pepin managed to keep his job and get a B.A.  Columbia University in 1970.  He followed that up with a master’s degree in French literature from Columbia in 1972. 
A well worn copy of “La Technique”  

         Pepin is a master teacher.  In fact, his book La Techniqueis used as a textbook to this day in teaching the fundamentals of French cuisine and precipitated his television career.  He has been on air since 1997 with an almost steady stream of PBS programming. “Jacques Pépin Heart and Soul” is his latest effort, which started airing on PBS last September.  It is of course, named for this cookbook. 

         The focus of this wonderful book is home cooking.  These are the recipes that the chef prepares for his wife Gloria, his daughter Claudine and her husband Rollie, also both chefs, and their child Shorey.  These are the dishes, many of which came from

Shorey, Rollie, Claudine, Jacques and Gloria

his mother, that make it easy to put French food on your family table.  The recipes are in the style of à La Bonne Femme… the direct translation of which is ‘in the manner of a good housewife’.  Many of the recipes have roots in his mother’s kitchen.  But like all great chefs, Pépin can hardly leave well enough alone.  He experiments, he improvises and he encourages his readers to do the same thing.               

My “In Praise of Wilted Vegetables” Soup

I must admit the greatest lesson for me has been his passion for thrift.  He cannot bear to throw food away.  Growing up the middle of the Second World War when food was rationed and hard to come by, Pepin learned the lesson of not throwing anything away.  In a chapter called “In Praise of Wilted Vegetables”, he writes “ I use my soup pot, instead of the trash can as a pretext for cleaning out the refrigerator.” I have taken this to heart.  Every day since I bought “Heart and Soul” I have been lunching on soup that’s been sourced from our vegetable drawer…leftover cauliflower, half-used cans of tomatoes, the green ends of scallions, a piece of cold chicken…they all combine beautifully with some store bought stock.  When I ran out of stock, I used water and a bouillon cube and the result was wonderful.  Try it.  We currently throw away 40 percent of our food.  That’s awful. So when you try this, you’ll not only love the soup, you’ll pat yourself on the back for being both thrifty and clever.

         In the introduction to the book, Chef Pepin describes several menu options for various occasions, all centering around what guests at his table can expect.  Because I like this book so much, and because I highly recommend it as a perfect Christmas gift, the first thing I cooked were two dishes he wrote about: Poulet a la Crème, his mother’s sensationally simple Chicken and Mushrooms in Cream and a recipe for “thick, juicy pork chops stuffed with spinach, Gruyère cheese, garlic and nutmeg topped by a fresh tomato sauce.”  Since two out of three of my last posts have been for Chicken, today I give you one for Pork.   (I’ll get to the chicken soon).  Here is the recipe:

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