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Chef Jacques Pepin was inducted into the French Legion of Honor, his home country's highest civilian honor, in 2004. (International Culinary Center)

Chef Jacques Pepin Selects His 'Essential' Favorites

Oct 4, 2011 (Talk of the Nation)

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Chef Jacques Pepin's career in food began long before he started teaching home cooks how to chop an onion and perfect a cheese souffle. He may be best known in the U.S. for his popular PBS programs, including Fast Food My Way and Julia and Jacques Cooking at Home, with cooking legend Julia Child.

The French-born chef began cooking as a child in his parents' restaurant, Le Pelican. At 13, he apprenticed in the Grand Hotel de L'Europe in Lyon, France. Pepin has worked as the personal chef for three French heads of state and cooked at New York's historic French restaurant, Le Pavillon.

In a new book, Essential Pepin, Pepin culls his favorite dishes from six decades in the kitchen. The book also includes a DVD of cooking tutorials, but Pepin tells NPR's Neal Conan that the recipes don't necessarily reflect the ways he cooked the dishes in decades past.

"That was my conundrum. Do I leave it the way I wrote it at that time ... or do I change it so that it's useful and people can do it now?" he says. "I chose the second option."

That meant a lot of retesting of recipes — and much less cream and butter. (Click here to try Pepin's recipes.)

Interview Highlights

On making food a family event

"This is what a family is all about — one another, sitting around the table at night. And it's very, very important, I think, for the kid to spend time not only around the table eating with their parents, but in the kitchen.

"I mean, when my daughter was a year old, 2 years old, I [held] her in my arms and she stirred the pot. Since she stirred the pot, she, quote, 'made it,' so she was going to taste it. And now I do the same thing with my granddaughter, who is 7 years old. So, yes, you see the sharing occupation and it's very, very important, certainly in our family."

On the incredible egg

"It's one of the greatest foods that you can have. And most [countries] in the world, so-called poor [countries] of the world — whether it's Africa, South America — eggs [are] really the main diet. I mean, it's a beautiful protein, better than meat even, and there [are] so many [ways] of doing eggs. And I could be on an island with an egg, a chicken, a glass of wine and be happy, you know?"

On making a written recipe your own

"If you do a recipe, you should probably follow the recipe to do justice to whoever wrote the recipe. And if it turned out good, you're probably likely to do it again. And the second time, you take a faster route. Maybe the third time, you still take a look at the recipe time of cooking, and by the fourth time you ... improve the recipe, you like it with a little more tomato or cooked a little less or more. And a year later, you don't even remember where it came from. There is that gradation. And it has become your recipe, you know, and that's the proper way of doing it."

Recipe: Butternut Squash Gratin
Serves 6

This rich butternut squash gratin is a perfect companion to a roast leg of lamb or a grilled steak.

1 large butternut squash (3 3/4 pounds)
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup grated Jarlsberg or other Swiss-type cheese

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

Cut off the stem of the butternut squash and split it in two at the bottom of the neck; this will make it easier to peel. Peel the neck lengthwise with a sharp knife or vegetable peeler, removing enough skin so the orange flesh appears (there is a layer of green under the first layer of skin). For the body of the squash, remove the skin with a knife by going around it in a spiral fashion (it is easier to peel a round object in this manner); then cut lengthwise in half and, using a sharp spoon, remove the seeds. With the slicing blade of a food processor or a knife, cut the squash into 1/8- to 1/4-inch-thick slices.

Put the squash in a saucepan, cover with water and bring to a boil. Boil over high heat for 1 1/2 to 2 minutes, then drain in a colander; the pieces will break a little.

Transfer the squash to a gratin dish and add the salt, pepper and cream, mixing with a fork to distribute the ingredients. Cover with the cheese.

Bake for 30 to 40 minutes, until nicely browned. Serve.

Recipes from Essential Pepin: More than 700 All-Time Favorites from My Life in Food by Jacques Pepin. Copyright 2011 by Jacques Pepin. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Reprinted by permission.

Recipe: Little Corn Fritters
Serves 4 as a first course

These little fritters are a treat served with an aperitif or drinks before a meal or as an accompaniment for soup. You can prepare them a few hours ahead and reheat them on a wire rack set over a cookie sheet in a 375-degree oven for a few minutes.

1/3 cup all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons cornstarch
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 large egg
1/3 cup ice-cold water
2 large ears corn, husked and kernels cut off (2 cups)
6 tablespoons canola oil

Mix the flour, cornstarch, baking powder and half the salt together in a bowl. Add the egg and 1/4 cup of the water and mix with a whisk until smooth. Add the remainder of the water and mix until smooth. Mix in the corn kernels.

Heat 3 tablespoons of the oil in a large skillet until hot. Drop 1 tablespoon of batter into the skillet for each fritter, making about 10 fritters, and cook over medium-high heat for 3 to 4 minutes on each side, until golden brown. Transfer to a wire rack (this will keep them from becoming soggy) and repeat with the remaining batter and oil. Sprinkle them with the remaining salt and serve immediately.

Recipes from Essential Pepin: More than 700 All-Time Favorites from My Life in Food by Jacques Pepin. Copyright 2011 by Jacques Pepin. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Reprinted by permission.

Recipe: Sauteed Haricots Verts And Shallots
Serves 4

This harmonious combination of green beans, shallots and butter is a winner. Try to get authentic haricots verts — thin, very young green beans — available in specialty food stores or at farmers' markets, or choose the smallest, firmest regular string beans you can find. Make sure to cook them fully; they should be tender, not crunchy. Too often beans are just blanched, and their taste is not what it should be.

1 pound haricots verts or very small string beans, tips removed
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 tablespoon peanut oil
2 tablespoons finely chopped shallots
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Bring 1 1/2 cups water to a boil in a large saucepan. Add the beans and cook, covered, over high heat for 7 to 8 minutes, until they are tender but still firm to the bite. Drain the beans and spread them on a large platter to cool.

At serving time, heat the butter and oil in a large skillet. When they are hot, add the shallots and saute for about 10 seconds. Add the beans, salt and pepper and saute for about 2 minutes, until the beans are heated through. Serve.

Recipes from Essential Pepin: More than 700 All-Time Favorites from My Life in Food by Jacques Pepin. Copyright 2011 by Jacques Pepin. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Reprinted by permission.

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