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The Long View: French Gourmand Jacques Pepin

At 75, French chef Jacques Pepin has spent the greater part of his life in a kitchen savoring food. But he's not yet ready to put his career on the back burner. Today he's the author of 23 cookbooks and has hosted 12 cooking series. His latest cookbook will be released in October. By NPR

Chef Jacques Pepin

Chef Jacques Pepin ? or, as Julia Child called him, "the best chef in America" ? has spent more than six decades in the kitchen savoring food.

Even now at 75, he still swears that "the greatest thing of all is bread and butter."

"If you have extraordinary bread and extraordinary butter, it's hard to beat bread and butter," Pepin tells NPR's Renee Montagne.

Rich And Creamy

One summer during World War II, access to food was difficult and the Pepin family didn't have much to eat at their home near Lyon, in Bourg-en-Bresse. Ever resourceful, Pepin's mother sent him to live on a farm. There, he would have milk and whatever produce grew on the farm.

That farm is where Pepin first came so close to cows ? and what he remembers most was their warm milk. "It was really lukewarm and very creamy and delicious. That was probably one of my first memories of food," he says.

Back at home, his mother worked hard to conjure up meals out of practically nothing. Even today, Pepin says his mother "is very miserly in the kitchen. She can cook anything."

Cover of 'The Apprentice' by Jacques Pepin.
The Apprentice: My Life In The Kitchen
By Jacques Pepin
Hardcover, 336 pages
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
List price: $26

Read an Excerpt

His father had left to join the French Resistance, and on her day off, his mother would ride her bicycle sometimes for 50 miles, from one farm to another, begging for whatever provisions she could gather. She'd find eggs, a jar of jam, maybe bread.

But, Pepin stresses, they were not unhappy. "I could not compare the prewar to the way it was during the war. I was too small. So for me, that's the way life was."

One of Pepin's mother's clever tricks during the war was getting sugar from beets.

"It's interesting, actually; she made sugar with beets," Pepin says. "Cooking the beets in water, making it into a puree and reducing the puree eventually doing a kind of molasses."

Years after the war, he and his brother asked his mother to make that sugary treat again. She said that not only did she not know how to do it anymore but she wouldn't want to even if she could.

The Apprentice

At 13, Pepin received a dispensation to take an exam to leave school early so that he could begin a formal apprenticeship in a restaurant. While the job was tough for a child that age, Pepin did not see it as such.

"Prior to this, remember that I left home to go into apprenticeship, but home was actually a restaurant. So already, I was used to peeling potatoes and peeling string beans and washing dishes and working in the kitchen with my mother as well as my two brothers ... so it wasn't such a big change," he says.

But at the restaurant, things were more structured and he was able to learn in a more organized way. The methods used to teach him ? repetition ? are different from the way students are taught today, he says, and he loved it.

By the end of the 1950s, Pepin had cooked for three French presidents and was ready for the next challenge.

"America was, and still is to a certain extent in Europe, the El Dorado. The holy grail," he says. Though he had planned to cook in New York, maybe learn some English, Pepin intended to return to France. But he found, from the first day he was in New York, he loved it, "and I never left."

Pepin and Julia Child cooked and quipped in her home kitchen for the Emmy Award-winning public television series, Julia & Jacques Cooking at Home. Source: YouTube

Julia And Jacques

In New York, he befriended New York Times food critic Craig Claiborne, James Beard and one other influential member of New York's food scene: Helen McCully, the food editor of House Beautiful and McCall's.

McCully became like a surrogate mother to Pepin, and it was she who first handed him a manuscript of a cookbook to read before it was published ? and then introduced him to its author.

"Helen told me, 'Oh, I want to show you that manuscript here that someone sent me.' " She added that the woman who wrote it, a Californian, was coming to town the following week. "She said, 'She's a real big woman with a terrible voice.' And of course, that was Julia."

Julia Child and Pepin became friends, a relationship that spanned decades, until Child's death. Together, they produced what became a much-loved public television show, Julia and Jacques Cooking at Home. Together, Pepin says, they enjoyed not just cooking but the bantering the two became known for.

Today at 75, Pepin is the author of 23 cookbooks and host of 12 cooking series for public television and shows no signs of slowing down. He just finished taping a new series for KQED and will have a new cookbook of his favorite recipes out next fall.

'Essential Pepin: More Than 600 All-Time Favorites From My Life In Food'
by Jacques Pepin

Fromage Fort

Makes 2 cups (enough for about 50 toasts)

A specialty of my father, the fromage fort ("strong cheese") is best eaten on bread or toast. It is made of leftover pieces of cheese ? any kind ? that are pureed in a food processor and seasoned with garlic and white wine. As a child, I especially loved it toasted. I would spread the cheese mixture on a thick slab of country bread, impale the bread on a fork, and then hold it in the fireplace, with the cheese side as close as possible to the fire. When the cheese bubbled and a nice glaze formed, I would rub the crusty cheese with a piece of butter and eat it piping hot. Although I have a strong attachment to the preparations surrounding that early memory, I find that the toasts glaze just as well when placed under the broiler for a few minutes. Refrigerated, this original and economical cheese combination will keep for a week or two.

3-4 garlic cloves

1 pound leftover cheese ? a combination of as many hard and soft varieties as you like (such as Brie, cheddar, Swiss, blue, mozzarella, and/or goat), pieces trimmed if necessary to remove dried-out places and mold

1/2 cup dry white wine, leek broth, or vegetable broth, or a mixture of these

Salt if needed (see Note)

1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Bread or toast, for serving

With the motor running, drop the garlic into a food processor and process for a few seconds, until coarsely chopped. Add the cheese, white wine and/or broth, salt and pepper if needed, and process for 30 to 45 seconds, until the mixture is soft and creamy. Transfer to a crock, cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate until ready to use.

To serve, spread generously on bread or toast and eat cold; or arrange on a tray and broil for a few minutes to melt the cheese before serving.

Note: If you use only unsalted cheeses, or a large amount of unsalted farmer's cheese, for example, you may want to add a little salt. Usually, however, cheese itself is salty enough so that additional salt is not needed.

Roast Capon With Cognac-Mushroom Sauce

Serves 10

Capons are available during the holiday season in many markets. The flesh of these birds is moist, tender, and succulent, making them well worth their extra cost.

1 pound mushrooms (domestic, wild, or a mixture), cleaned and sliced thin (about 7 cups)

1 1/2 cups dry white wine

1 capon with neck, gizzard, and liver removed (about 8 pounds)

1 1/4 teaspoons salt

1 1/4 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper

1 teaspoon herbes de Provence

1 tablespoon cognac

1 cup heavy cream

1 tablespoon chopped fresh tarragon

1 teaspoon potato starch dissolved in 1 tablespoon water

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

Put the mushrooms in a saucepan with the wine. Bring the mixture to a boil, cover, reduce the heat to low, and boil gently for 10 minutes. Set the pan aside off the heat.

Season the capon with 1 teaspoon each of the salt and pepper and the herbes de Provence, and place the bird on its back in a roasting pan. Roast it breast side up for 30 minutes, then turn it over and roast it breast side down for 60 minutes. Finally, turn the capon onto its back again, and roast it for 10 additional minutes, for a total roasting time of 1 hour and 40 minutes. (Note: A thermometer inserted into the joint connecting a thigh and drumstick should register at least 160 degrees.) Transfer the capon to an ovenproof platter, and keep it warm in a 160-degree oven.

Remove as much fat as possible from the drippings in the roasting pan, and add the juice from the mushrooms to the pan. Heat the mixture over high heat for a few seconds, stirring constantly to melt any solidified juices in the pan, then pour the resulting glaze through a strainer set over the mushrooms. Add the cream and cognac to the mushroom mixture, bring it to a boil, and stir in the dissolved potato starch. Mix in the remaining 1/4 teaspoon each salt and pepper and the tarragon.

Carve the capon and serve it, with or without bones, with some of the sauce.

Recipes from Essential Pepin: More than 600 All-Time Favorites from a Life of Cooking by Jacques Pepin. Copyright 2011 by Jacques Pepin. To be published in October 2011 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Reprinted by permission.


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