When I approached Jacques Pepin's new book `Fast Food My Way', I was prepared on at least two counts to find fault with the book. But Jacques always comes through with a book I love to read and love to cook. My first prejudice against the book was that `Fast Cooking' is one of the top two or three hot buttons for cookbooks these days, next to low carb cookbooks and entertaining cookbooks. I predict a `Fast Cooking Low Carb Barbecue for Entertaining' book to appear within the next year. And, like so many other authors, it may seem like Jacques is just jumping on the latest bandwagon. The second prejudice I had about the book is the fact that Jacques did an earlier book on quick cooking, `The Short-Cut Cook' published in 1990. I had similar prejudices about that book, but it came through with flying colors, especially since it has been and still is one of my favorite cookbooks.
In a nutshell, this book can become your next go to cookbook because almost all of these recipes are genuinely easy for a modestly experienced cook and they are not only developed by a great master chef, they are the recipes that chef genuinely cooks at home on a regular basis. One also should have no concern that this is a rehash of his earlier book. It is not. There are a lot of similarities in the principles behind the selection of recipes, but that is only to the good. Jacques mixes a selection of the classics like cole slaw and Salad Caprese with unusual recipes such as Parsley and Pumpkin salad and Asian eggplant salad. In the older book, we got Salade Nicoise and hot Potato Salad mixed with potato and smoked bluefish and tangy rice stick salad.
On average, the recipes in the new book are more original and easier to prepare than the recipes in the first volume. In both books, Jacques' recipes follow two trends common to most good fast cooking recipes, similar to what you see Rachael Ray do every day. First, the recipes do require a modest amount of skill and a fairly well equipped kitchen with stuff like a food mill, a mandoline or Japanese slicer, a stick blender, and a food processor. Second, most dishes use foods that cook quickly such as seafood, chicken breast, filets of beef or other lean steak cuts, and veal. All of these things are more expensive than the slower cooking roasts and braising meats.
Jacques is exceptionally fond of smoked, marinated, and fresh fish recipes from the far North and from the Far East. He is very fond of Asian and Latin tastes such as cilantro and tropical fruits. But, all of this is overlaid on a solid grounding of French and Italian techniques such as the braise, the gratin, casseroles, pasta, tomatoes, potatoes, and fresh mushrooms.
The book starts with several pages of menu selections that were the basis of the PBS series shows on which the book is based. This is followed by a goldmine of ideas modestly labeled `More ideas for quick dishes'. This is not a list of general suggestions, it is a collection of 25 mini-recipes, all of which can be done very quickly with very modest skills, and the right ingredients. The remainder of the book follows very traditional lines with chapters on:
Appetizers and first courses (16), covering truly easy recipes with a heavy concentration on fish, beans, cheeses, and ham. The recipes also highlight the fact that Jacques generally likes his food spicy. Be careful with his instructions with the chiles if you have heat impaired eaters.
Soups (7), including some which I would never have believed could be made in such a short time. Here is where your food mill, stick blender, and knife skills will be put to the test. Includes an easy but not too fast recipe for chicken stock.
Eggs (4), with recipes to make this fast food staple much more interesting.
Salads (11), the darling of fast meals. Good salads do take some time, and these are no exception. Includes a good cole slaw and recipe for herbed breadcrumbs.
Vegetables (16), with ragouts, gratins, purees, relishes, sautés, and chutneys. Mostly side dishes from the French and Italian canon.
Rice, potatoes, and pasta (7), the low carb danger zone. Again, a collection of variations on French and Italian standards plus couscous and `Wonton cannelloni'.
Fish and shellfish (15), with lots of stuffing, grilling, glazing, and saucing. While fish cooks very quickly, it always seems like the sauces supplied to spice up the bland flesh always seems to chew up a lot of time. Jacques is unconventional enough to even mix in cheese with his fish. Don't tell Mario!.
Poultry (6), where Jacques does not use up a lot of space on game birds. All but one recipe is for chicken, including an unconventional chicken bouillabaisse.
Meat (10), the high rent district with tenderloins, veal, and lamb chops. It also includes some fast cooking with pork and sausages.
Desserts (30), where Jacques reminds us he is no slouch in the pastry kitchen. Baking and working with chocolate always take longer than similar savory recipes, if only because you have to be more careful in measuring and in your mixing technique, but Jacques keeps things fairly simple by relying heavily on fruit desserts and sweet toppings as in crumbles and streusels. Naturally, there is at least one crepe recipe.
Jacques Pepin is the kind of authority whose recipes can be taken as gospel, so that if they do not come out as expected, the fault is probably with the technique or the ingredients.
I strongly recommend this book as a first source for your everyday cooking. All recipes are easy, few ingredients are uncommon, and all dishes look exceptionally tasty. And, list price is quite reasonable for a very celebrated chef's work.