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The Heart and Soul of Chef Jacques Pépin

The master gourmand on food, and the art of living

Pepin 4With the holidays swiftly approaching, it’s hard to imagine a more inviting scene than sharing food and conversation around the dining table. As autumn gives way to winter’s chill, the shorter days become perfectly suited for cozy, intimate gatherings that pair wonderfully with a home cooked meal.

No one knows this better than celebrated French chef, Jacques Pépin. His new cookbook, Heart & Soul In The Kitchen, is devoted to dishes that inspire and accompany his own gatherings with family and friends. Weaving lively narrative with classic recipes, personal photos, and his own artwork, the resulting collection is refreshing, approachable, and quintessentially Pépin.

Pépin recently sat down with Coastal Connecticut to chat about his latest adventures. In the course of that lively conversation, he shared unique views on cooking, entertaining, and the power of good food to bring people together.

An illustrious career has taken Pépin from Europe to America and countless destinations in between. He’s taught widely, hosted numerous television series, and authored more than two dozen cookbooks. A nod to his iconic teaching style, Pépin continues to play a prominent role in culinary education, both as Dean of Special Programs at New York’s International Culinary Center and as an Instructor at Boston University’s Department of Gastronomy.

Pepin 2Yet, it’s the quaint town of Madison, Connecticut, that he and his wife Gloria have called home for four decades. It’s this very setting that provides the framework for Pépin’s latest endeavor, a collection that sets the scene for intimate dinners for two, festive celebrations, and vibrant conversations.

“Think of this book as an invitation to come over to my house for a meal,” he says, welcoming readers to a personal chronicle of what he calls his culinary heart and soul. It’s a captivatingly honest book, with candid narrative about recipe conception, cooking for friends, and even making mistakes.

Sitting in Pépin’s sun-dappled kitchen at his home, he discusses Heart & Soul In The Kitchen while sharing anecdotes about his life and storied 60-plus-year career.

The new cookbook comes as the companion to Jacques Pépin: Heart & Soul, marking his 14th and final cooking program with PBS. As with the book, the 26-episode series offers personal insight into Pépin’s life and career, with segments revealing new recipes, family favorites, and an intimate reflection on decades in the kitchen.

Pepin 1While this is the last television series paired with a companion cookbook, Pépin wants to host a program about going back to basics with his 10-year-old granddaughter, Shorey. “Instructions on how to fold a napkin the right way, or how to set up the table… how to cook an egg or make a sandwich, simple stuff,” he says. “Maybe it’ll be called something like ‘Lessons From My Grandfather.’”

While Heart & Soul certainly highlights Pépin’s expert technique, style, and elegant presentation, his personal take on creativity permeates the text and goes well beyond appearance. This is for certain: Jacques Pépin is no foodie snob.

Pepin 9“A great deal of creativity is in a home cook,” he says. “Cooking for six people every night under a budget and having to diversify the menu—that’s creativity.” With today’s focus on the new, different, and unexpected, it’s easy to lose sight of the paramount pleasure of dining. It’s all about flavor.

For Pépin, his sole requirement is simple, straightforward, and self-evident: A dish must taste good.

“For some young chefs, creativity means using the weirdest possible ingredient,” he says, reflecting on today’s fascination with “foodie” culture, particularly molecular gastronomy. “But I want to be able to go to a dish, close my eyes, taste it, and say ‘that’s chicken; there’s mushroom in it.’ I don’t find that to be the case when there are 15 items on a plate.”

And while his own recipes are thoughtfully conceived, tested, adjusted, put on paper and preserved through the pages, Pépin considers each to be a living, continuously evolving work.
Pepin 5“I hope that when someone tries one of my recipes they follow it exactly,” he says. “But it’s likely that if you like it, then you’ll make it again, and the second time you take a faster look. By the third time you may not even look at it, and by the fourth time, you adjust it and a year later it’s your recipe. You don’t know where it came from. You have massaged it so that it becomes your own, with your own style.”

While Heart & Soul highlights timeless French dishes that date back to Pépin’s childhood, the collection draws heavily from his internationally celebrated career with recipes that reflect a broad global influence. From Japanese chirashi to a section on French-Mex cuisine—applying French technique to Mexican ingredients—his experiences abroad have yielded a series of dishes that pay homage to his travels and their impact on his cooking.

“When it comes to food, I am open and eager to absorb anything I encounter, wherever I go and whoever I eat with,” he writes, citing his time in Playa del Carmen as one of the major influences on his cooking over the last 15 years. Mexican-inspired dishes abound throughout Heart & Soul, including poached grouper with black bean sauce, tangy Yucatan ceviche, and grilled chicken tenders with chimichurri.

As the holidays draw near, even a cursory glance through Pépin’s new book inspires visions for the next unforgettable feast.

Pepin 8“The best holiday for me is Thanksgiving,” he says. “There’s no political implication, no religious implication, you don’t have to give gifts, you just get together to eat and drink. So that, for me, is a perfect holiday.” It certainly embodies the spirit of Heart & Soul, viewing food as a celebratory social experience best shared with loved ones.

Sumptuous flavors accompany each occasion, and Pépin’s Christmas menu traditionally includes an indulgent spread complete with goose, local oysters, rich foie gras and a Bûche de Noël, the classic French Christmas log he makes with his granddaughter. His mini chocolate truffles with cognac always make an appearance for dessert. “They’re fast, foolproof, and so addictive that I usually reserve my truffle making for the Christmas holidays when excess is always forgiven,” he writes in Heart & Soul.

With holiday spreads come abundant leftovers, and Pépin never shies away from a chance to use an ingredient, even past its prime. He dedicates a chapter to this concept, In Praise of Wilted Vegetables, an ode to both frugality and resourcefulness.

“I never throw anything away at all,” he says. “I’m very mindful in the kitchen. When I make a recipe, I can already see in my head what I can do with the scraps. I’ve actually had some leftovers come out better than the original dish.”

Pepin 7Even while approaching 80 years on earth, Pépin remains staunchly hands-on in procuring his ingredients, and the Connecticut shoreline is replete with markets and areas ripe for foraging.

“I use the market as a prep cook,” he says, and whether that manifests in a deli-sourced first course of fresh mozzarella, olives, and sun dried tomatoes or a seasonally inspired salad from the farmers’ market, Pépin relies on local markets and farm stands. He favors Bishop’s Orchard in Guilford, Cole’s Farm in Madison, and Chester’s farmers’ market as area staples. Countless recipes featured in Heart & Soul include ingredients that Pépin has personally foraged in and beyond his Madison property, including more than 20 types of mushrooms alone.

“I’m firmly convinced that being in tune with nature is a prerequisite for being a good cook,” he writes, “A thorough understanding of the soil, the trees, the forests, the rivers, and the sea gives you the proper grounding to handle food with the respect and love it is due.”

Whether foraging for ingredients or enjoying lively gatherings at home, it’s life on the Connecticut shoreline that becomes the backdrop for Heart & Soul, a tribute to the impact of friends and family on Jacque Pépin’s iconic culinary contributions.

Courtesy of Chef Jacques Pépin, here are recipes exclusively reproduced by Coastal Connecticut Magazine, from the book Heart & Soul in the Kitchen.

Salmon Rillettes (page 40)

Serves 6-8

Ingredients
8 Tbsp. (1 stuck) unsalted butter, softened
3 Tbsp. very finely chopped onion
6 oz. boneless, skinless salmon (the belly is best) cut into 1 ½ pieces
3 oz. sliced smoked salmon, finely chopped
½ tsp. salt
½ tsp. freshly ground black pepper
1 tsp. bottled horseradish

Heat the butter in a glass measuring cup or a small bowl in a microwave oven for 1 to 1 ½ minutes until the clear part of the butter separates from the milky solids. Reserve ¼ cup of the clear melted butter to coat the rillettes.
Pour the rest of the melted butter, including the milky part, into a small saucepan. Add the chopped onion and cook gently over medium heat for about 2 minutes, until the onion has softened. Add the fresh salmon and mix well, then reduce the heat and cook, covered, for about 2 minutes. Mix again. The salmon should be barely cooked in the center and still a little pink. Transfer to a plate.

With a fork, crush the poached salmon into a coarse mixture. Transfer to a blow, add the chopped smoked salmon, salt, pepper, and horseradish, and mix well.
Divide the mixture among three small molds (I use ½ cup soufflé molds); the molds should be about three-quarters full. Smooth the top of each one with the back of a spoon. Pour the reserved melted butter on top. Refrigerate until ready to use. (The rillettes will keep for a couple of weeks in your refrigerator).)
To serve, let the rillettes warm up at room temperature for about 1 hour, so the salmon and butter soften a little. Then stir the top layer of butter into the rillettes and serve.

Rack of Lamb With Spice Crust (Page 234)

Serves 4

Ingredients
1 large rack of lamb (about 1½ lbs)

Spice Rub
2 tsp. 5-spice powder
2 tsp. ground cumin
2 tsp. Spanish paprika
1 tsp. cayenne pepper
1 tsp. garlic powder
1 tsp. dry mustard
¾ tsp. salt
1 tsp. canola oil

Trim the lamb rack of as much surface fat as you can. The weight of the trimmed rack should be about 1¼ pounds.

For the rub: Mix the 5-spice powder, cumin, paprika, cayenne, garlic powder and dry mustard together. Coat the rack all over with the rub and refrigerate it until ready to cook, at least 30 minutes. At cooking time, heat a grill until hot. Preheat the oven to 275 degrees.
Sprinkle the rack with the salt and rub the oil all over the meat. Place on the hot grill and cook for about 8 minutes, turning it occasionally with tongs, until it is blackened all over. Transfer it to a baking sheet.

Transfer the rack to the oven and cook for about 15 minutes for medium rare. (Alternatively, if you choose to serve the meat later, set the rack aside at room temperature for up to a few hours, then cook in a 275-degree oven for 30 minutes before serving.) Let the lamb rest for 15 to 30 minutes. Cut the rack between the ribs and serve on hot plates.

Mini Chocolate Truffles with Cognac (page 409)

Makes about 15 truffles

Ingredients
½ cup semisweet chocolate morsels (about 3 ounces)
3 Tbsp. heavy cream
1 Tbsp. cognac
1 Tbsp. unsweetened cocoa powder

In a microwave oven, place the chocolate and cream in a microwavable bowl for about 45 seconds to melt the chocolate and heat the cream. Add the cognac and mix well with a rubber spatula until very smooth. Let cool, then refrigerate for about 1 hour, until the mixture is hard.
Using a small spoon, scoop out truffles the size of a medium olive and drop them onto a piece of plastic wrap. Using your fingers, press each truffle into a rough, irregular ball so it resembles an actual truffle (the prized fleshy fungus eaten as a delicacy). Sprinkle on the cocoa powder and shake the plastic wrap to roll and coat the truffles all over with it.
Arrange the truffles in a single layer in a container with a lid, then cover and refrigerate until ready to serve.

 

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