I imagine that every cook — devoted hobbyist, dutiful provider or professional chef — has had a culinary awakening via a cookbook. That book, or maybe there was more than one, was the inspiration that pushed them to prepare something new, like rabbit, or master a daunting technique. Flambe, anyone?
For decades, Julia Child's cookbooks and Joy of Cooking have been the kitchen bibles of the adventurous. Fans of Food Network stars find revelation in books penned by people with names like Rachael, Emeril and Ina. The elite chefs, among them Thomas Keller, David Chang and Daniel Boulud, call to the kitchen's weekend warriors with hefty tomes. And then there's Betty Crocker. Her three-ring-binder cookbook remains a dependable guide for how to boil water.
I credit Richard Grausman, longtime New York City culinary instructor trained at Le Cordon Bleu in France, with encouraging me to cook beyond the box. His 1988 At Home With the French Classics (Workman) sent me into my French period and ultimately fostered much cooking confidence. The titles of the recipes were in French, which seemed exotic and sophisticated (maybe even sexy) to a person whose elective language was Spanish. Homemade chicken stock and bearnaise sauce? I had never attempted such things. He offered accompaniment recipes and wine pairings. I was entranced.
Grausman's meticulously written recipes met my need for culinary instruction. He had the know-how, I had the gumption. I started in. Previously, Italian and classic American dishes were my signature cuisines.
This was long before the fad of people cooking their way through an entire book's recipes and blogging about their exploits, so it never occurred to me to make all 250 recipes. Perhaps I could have starred in a movie! I don't believe you need to make everything in a cookbook to deem it worthy. Nor does Christopher Kimball of Cook's Illustrated and America's Test Kitchen fame. He told me once that if a cook has success with just a few recipes from an entire book, that cook will give it the thumbs-up.
My first success from At Home With the French Classics was Lapin Saute a la Moutarde et au Romarin (sauteed rabbit with mustard and rosemary sauce) followed by Steak au Poivre (pepper-coated steak with cognac and cream). Medaillons de Porc Sauce Robert (pork medallions with a mustard brown sauce) was another winner. Things got dicey with Supremes de Faisan au Genievre (boned breast of pheasant with juniper). The recipe called for 1/2 cup of juniper berries, "preferably fresh." Unable to find fresh, I used dried, but didn't reduce the amount to make up for the concentrated flavor. The pheasant was overcome by woodsiness. Even though it was my drink at the time, I didn't know that juniper berries are a main ingredient in gin. No wonder it all taste liked a very strong, supremely dry martini.
Any failings were made up for by Gateau Mousse au Chocolat (chocolate mousse cake), the only dessert recipe that to this day I know by heart. It only has four ingredients: semisweet or bittersweet chocolate, unsalted butter, eggs and cream of tartar. At its essence, it is a cooled baked chocolate mousse that's topped with unbaked chocolate mousse. I made it so often in the late 1980s that I bought a special ceramic platter on which to present the chocolate goodness. (It is still intact and has outlived the store where I bought it. Check it out in the photo on Page 1E.)
Gateau Mousse au Chocolat remains in my regular repertoire from those ooh-la-la days.
An updated cookbook
So imagine my surprise a few weeks ago when French Classics Made Easy by Richard Grausman crossed my desk. Again published by Workman, the updated and slightly renamed cookbook has all the recipes and none of the dog-eared pages and splatters that mark my beloved 1988 cookbook.
I chatted with Mr. Grausman last week from his summer home in Lenox, Mass. He said he was thrilled when Workman asked him to freshen the book after all these years. He holds the classic cuisine close to his heart and still feels like it needs demystifying, despite all the attention from the film Julie & Julia several summers ago.
His focus, he says, has always been to take the fear out of French cooking and get people "out of their seats, into the supermarket and into their kitchens to cook." He was so devoted to the notion that he proposed Who Is Afraid of French Cooking? as the book's title. Workman rejected his suggestion, wanting something more serious.
Ever the teacher, Mr. Grausman offered his e-mail address to anyone who has questions about recipes or techniques in the book (firstname.lastname@example.org). He used to take phone calls, but times change.
1988 vs. now
I am a different cook today than I was in 1988. I don't have the taste for rabbit and pheasant anymore, and it has been years since I set something on fire in the house. At least on purpose. I was single then, and prone to cook to impress. Now, I have a family, a bigger mortgage and less time to spend in the kitchen. Whine is more common than wine.
But I cuddled up with the updated cookbook, happy to get reacquainted with an old friend, this one with white pages and a shiny, clean cover.
I prepared something new: Supremes de Volaille Basquaise (sauteed breast of chicken with ham, peppers and tomatoes) with Riz Pilaf (the best rice pilaf I've ever made). The family was appreciative and the dish was good but somehow familiar. The first time around, I passed this recipe by for being too pedestrian. At this stage in my cooking life, though, it fit.
And, of course, the chocolate mousse cake. I did glance at the recipe a couple of times, just to be sure. The finished product was as well received today as it was the first time I made it.
Which made me realize that even on taco night, I'll always have the memories and lessons of Mr. Grausman's French Classics.
Janet K. Keeler can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8586.