There are some cookbooks that you know, after just one use, that are going to be a keepers. And constant kitchen companions. You know what I mean. These are the books that, no matter how large your collection becomes, you keep going back to. Because they are dependable and inspiring and comforting all at the same time. The recipes always work and the results are always scrumptiously satisfying. These are books that almost always also cover all the bases, meaning that whether you’re looking for a blueprint for a quick and simple one dish meal or planning a multi-course extravaganza with which to wow your friends’ socks off, you’ll always be able to find something in their pages.
Some of these books might surprise you. I know that when I look back and try to pinpoint the oldest keeper in my collection (based on date of acquisition not publication), it’s The Harry’s Bar Cookbook. My very first cookbook, that I still own, was Mollie Katzen’s The Moosewood Cookbook. And while it was a fabulous book for a then vegetarian Sophomore in university, it has probably been at least half a decade since I have wanted to cook anything from it. The Harry’s Bar Cookbook was my second cookbook, purchased in 1993. It’s a book I still use, as recently as this past weekend. Of course, what is a keeper to me may not be to you. The books I love most might seem trite and uninspiring to you. And I might find your favourites to be interesting but not works that I’d ever think about saving from a burning building.
These choices are as distinct and individual as whom we fall in love with. And just as in love, when you find those perfect partners, when you find what clicks for you, if you’re smart, you grab a hold of them. And treasure them for what they are. Companions that make you a better person… and, of course, in this context, a better chef.
The most recent keeper that my darlin’ wife S (my first and foremost kitchen companion) and I have added to our slightly over-grown cookbook collection is Chef Joel Robuchon’s The Complete Robuchon. Regular readers already know that I go gaga over Chef Robuchon’s L’Ateliers. They are, to me, perfect restaurants. Any place I can go to in a pair of jeans and a T-Shirt, enjoy great service, have a great glass of wine, and devour mind-blowing food is tops in my book. When The Complete Robuchon came out last year, S and I knew we had to have a copy.
Since getting it, it has become a new best friend. The book, which focuses on classic French home cooking, is a treasure trove of fabulously hearty and simple recipes and techniques. The things I love most about this book are that Robuchon often strips recipes down to the simplest ingredients and is still able to deliver delicious flavours; that the steps are all very clear, make perfect sense and are easy enough for even the most amateur of cooks to execute; and that, for my tastes, his seasoning instructions produce perfect results. I also like that he infuses sauces and cooking liquids with lots of yummy ingredients — which he’ll often tell you to strain away before serving — but that give his sauces a rich complexity.
S and I have been working our way through The Complete Robuchon, enjoying each and every recipe we try. Of course, with 800 recipes, we’ve barely made a dent (and we aren’t crazy enough to embark on some Julie/Julia-inspired project with this book). But, just like my 17 year old copy of The Harry’s Bar Cookbook, we’re sure we’ll be enjoying cooking from The Complete Robuchon for decades to come.
The below is a lovely, classic navarin d’agneau we made last week. The gravy was amazing, especially sopped up with some crusty baguette. If you try it and like it, get a copy of The Complete Robuchon. You won’t regret it.
adapted from The Complete Robuchon
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 kg lamb stewing cuts (like shoulder, neck or leg), cubed
3 carrots, peeled and diced
3 medium onions, peeled and diced
1 bouquet garni (3 stems flat-leaf parsley, 2 sprigs fresh thyme, and 1/2 bay leaf, tied together)
4 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
1 large tomato, unpeeled and chopped into large dice
1.2 kg small, firm-fleshed potatoes
1 tablespoon butter
250g small new pearl or cipollini onions, peeled but left whole
1 teaspoon superfine sugar
2 tablespoons minced flat-leaf parsley
Heat the olive oil in a large Dutch Oven over high heat for 1 minute. Add the lamb and brown for 5 minutes, stirring so that all sides are seared. Add the diced carrots and onions. Turn the heat to low and cook for 5 minutes, stirring. You want the vegetables to take on a bit of color.
Sprinkle flour over the ingredients, stir, and cook for 2 minutes, until the vegetables are lightly coloured. Add the bouquet garni, garlic, tomato, and just enough water to cover. Raise the heat to high and bring to a boil. Use a skimmer to remove any scummy foam that forms on the surface. Add 2 teaspoons coarse salt and 4 grindings of pepper. Cover, lower the heat so the mixture simmers gently, and cook for 50 minutes, skimming and stirring every 15 minutes.
In the meantime, peel the potatoes. Put them in a saucepan, cover them with cold unsalted water, bring the water to a boil, and cook for 1 minute. Remove the potatoes to a colander.
When the lamb has cooked for 50 minutes, take the pot off the heat. Remove the meat with a slotted spoon and put it in a large bowl. Pour the cooking broth through a fine strainer into the bowl with the lamb and then put the lamb and broth back into the pot. Add the potatoes, cover, and put the pot back over low heat for 20-25 minutes.
In the meantime, melt the butter in a saute pan. Add the small onions and cook for 5 minutes over low heat, stirring constantly. Add enough water to cover the onions and season with a pinch of salt and the superfine sugar. Cover and cook for 20 minutes over low heat, stirring from time to time.
After 20-35 minutes, turn off the heat under the pot of meat and potatoes. Prepare a bowl half-filled with cold water. Spoon some of the cold water gently on the surface of the stew and then spoon away the fat that comes to the top. Rinse the spoon in cold water after each passage. When the small onions are cooked, arrange them on top of the stew and sprinkle with parsley. Serve in the pot.