A Review of Jean-Georges: Cooking at Home With a Four-Star Chef
There are plenty of intriguingly challenging chef's cookbooks out there, but this one is different: It's actually possible to cook from Jean-Georges: Cooking at Home With a Four-Star Chef and turn out impressive meals, whether for everyday dining or elegant entertaining, without spending the entire day in the kitchen. Star chef Vongerichtenthe chef behind some of New York City's finest restaurants (Jo Jo, Vong, Jean Georges, and now the Mercer Kitchen)says that even in his restaurants, he's trying to get closer and closer to the kind of last-minute dishes you'd cook at home, with fewer complicated preparations. And though his food is inherently simple, much of the credit for the book's ease of use must go to its coauthor, Mark Bittman, The New York Times's "Minimalist" columnist, who, Vongerichten says, "brought his computer into the kitchen and just cooked with us."
A Cooking Class with Jean-Georges Vongerichten
Jean-Georges Vongerichten, the chef behind some of New York City's finest restaurants (JoJo, Vong, Jean Georges, and now the Mercer Kitchennot to mention restaurants in London and Hong Kong), is considered by many to be the finest chef cooking in town. It's no surprise that his food is perfectly elegant and incredibly flavorful; what is a surprise is that so many of his recipes are so startlingly simple. Witness the fact that in the course of a two-and-a-half-hour cooking class, Vongerichten was able to demonstrate seven recipes, some from his restaurant and some from his book, from start to finish.
It's clear from the first taste that he has two secrets: one, impeccable ingredients, and two, meticulous attention to contrast. In each dish, Vongerichten plays elements of temperature, texture, flavor, and even color off of one another in such a way that even a dish with three ingredients can seem fascinatingly complex. He won over the packed audience at De Gustibus at Macy's, not only with his spectacular food, but with his quiet charm and self-effacing demeanor.
About Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Jean-Georges: Cooking at Home with a Four-Star Chef
In this age of star chefs, Jean-Georges Vongerichten shines among the brightest. His restaurants are legendary, and his influence on the world of haute cuisine has been marked: He was one of the first chefs to successfully meld Asian flavors with traditional French cooking and move away from heavy cream and butter sauces to light vinaigrettes, vegetable juices, fruit essences, and broths. (He says with a laugh that his brothers have told him that his Alsatian mother, who ate in each of his restaurants on a recent New York visit, doesn't like any of his foodnot traditional enough.) With his new book, Jean-Georges, Vongerichten masterfully adapts the four-star cuisine of his restaurants to the home kitchen. There are plenty of intriguingly challenging chef's cookbooks out there, but this one is different: It's actually possible to cook from JEAN-GEORGES and turn out impressive meals, whether for everyday dining or elegant entertaining, without spending the entire day in the kitchen. Vongerichten says that even in his restaurant, he's trying to get closer and closer to the kind of last-minute cooking you'd do at home, with fewer complicated preparations. And though his food is inherently simple, much of the credit for the book's ease of use must go to its coauthor, Mark Bittman, the New York Times' "Minimalist" columnist, who, Vongerichten says, "brought his computer into the kitchen and just cooked with us."
About the Menu
We started with a garlic soup that was comfort food raised to entirely new heights: copious garlic cloves, first thinly sliced and lightly sautéed in olive oil, were poached until fragrant and sweet in rich chicken stock scented with thyme leaves. The soup was enriched at the last moment with eggs beaten with a bit of vinegar, yielding an unctuous, creamy texture and golden yellow color. "Great for when you have a cold," Vongerichten said, "and it tastes a lot better than a garlic pill." Perfectly sautéed, tiny frog legs were served alongsidethey tasted (of course) a bit like chicken, though with a much more delicate flavor and texture. Next came an aromatic, luxurious salad of meaty steamed chanterelles, dressed simply with grapeseed oil, lemon juice, and shallots and set atop a mixture of crunchy, fresh sprouts and delicate greens. With both courses, we drank a light-bodied, fresh California sparkling wine with appealing toasty, buttery flavors: Taittinger's Brut "La Française." We then moved on to a playful take on traditional tartare, made with oven-roasted, finely chopped beets instead of beef. Seasoned with mustardy mayonnaise, capers, chopped cornichons, Worcestershire sauce, shallots, and a drop of Tabasco, the sweet beets were wonderfully complemented by the pungent flavors. A single beautiful, sweet diver scallop, lightly sautéed, was served alongside.
Two fish dishes came next: the first a fillet of dorade (sea bream) dusted with ground coriander and fennel and poached in a fish fumet made with sweet wine, served with a simple green-tomato marmalade made by cooking down chopped green tomatoes with sugar and a squeeze of lemon juicea brilliant combination of sweet and sour flavors. The dorade was followed by thin scallops of arctic char (a freshwater fish with a color and texture similar to salmon) simply seasoned with lemon and olive oil and briefly baked, then layered with a crisp-fried lattice of shoestring potatoes and served with softly whipped cream flavored with fresh horseradish, celery root, and celery. A lovely Mersault, with creamy, earthy flavors and a mouth-filling texture, was served alongside.
The most elaborate dish of the evening followed: crisp-skinned duck breasts served atop a sweet-and-sour shallot confit made with ginger and honey, accompanied by a "brick"a strip of light phyllolike dough rolled into a triangle around a filling of diced duck-leg meat, mushrooms, chicken breast, duck prosciutto, and foie gras. The resulting dish was simply the essence of duck, and quite delicious. We drank a wonderful fruity pinot noir from Domaine Carneros with it. The dessert was a perfect example of Vongerichten simplicity, using only three ingredients: thin-sliced Granny Smith apples, layered with orange zest, on top of a layer of caramel in a charlotte mold. The tall tower of apples that results is refrigerated overnight so the juices seep out and the tower shrinks down, then baked for six hours in a low oven. The result is a mahogany-colored cake of pure apples, with an incredibly rich flavor. Served with a bit of crème fraîche and green-apple sorbet, it was a perfect fall dessert.
Tips from Jean-Georges Vongerichten
- Vongerichten recommends that delicate wild mushrooms like chanterelles be lightly steamed rather than sautéed, so they retain a meaty texture and all their moisture and flavor. "When you sauté them, you get a lot of water coming out and they just melt away to nothing," he says. "This way, they keep their water inside, with all their flavor."
- Knives are always among a chef's most important tools, and like many chefs, Vongerichten travels with his own set. He loves the ones he's now usinga set of elegantly shaped knives with an unusual perforated-metal handle made by a company called Global. "They're really nice because they're one piece," he says, "so there's no dirt collecting in cracks. They're very light to use. They're not inexpensive, but they work really well."
- For the most flavorful beets, Vongerichten says it's important to cook them with the skin on. He also recommends oven-roasting them for the most intense taste. "And after they are cooked," he says, "the skins slip right off."
- "You can never trust a fillet of fish," Vongerichten says. He recommends buying whole fish because it's much easier to judge their freshness, by looking at the brightness of the eyes, the color and moisture of the gills, and the texture of the skin. If you're not the master of the fillet knife that Vongerichten's "right-hand man," Daniel del Vecchio, proved to be while demonstrating the dorade recipe, most fishmongers will gladly fillet your choice for you.
You've really arrived as a chef when you need only use your first name for a restaurantor a book.
Read an Excerpt
In the years before we agreed to produce this cookbook, I had worked occasionally with Jean-Georges Vongerichten and eaten at his restaurants more times than I could count, so I was prepared for both the brilliance of his food and his pleasant demeanor. Yet during our year of cooking together and assembling this book, Jean-Georges never failed to surprise me, with his fierce determination to always get things right, his quick and sparkling wit, his supreme confidence at the stove, and his warmth toward and respect for his employees and fellow workers. For those readers who have not had close encounters with chefs, let me assure you that this is an unusual, if not unique, combination.
That same phrase--"unusual, if not unique"--best serves to describe Jean-Georges's food. It's generally agreed among food writers, restaurant critics, and loyal customers that his cooking is highly creative without being weird, and intensely flavorful despite its simplicity. It is sometimes described as "intellectual" food, which implies that a certain understanding of food and cooking is necessary in order to appreciate what Jean-Georges does. This is utter nonsense: Jean-Georges's combinations are novel, brilliant, even startling, but they are instantly appealing to anyone who likes to eat and is willing to sample new flavors.
Best yet, Jean-Georges's recipes are readily accessible to the home cook; in fact, most of them are easy. When we agreed to work together, I challenged him to preserve the flavors of his food while making the recipes simple enough for home cooks to prepare. His response at the time was immediate: "We don't have to do anything; the food is easy already," and he patiently walked me through the restaurants' menus, discussing each dish and detailing how they were assembled. And, with very few exceptions, the recipes sounded as if they could be taken straight from the kitchens of his three restaurants, Vong, Jean Georges, and JoJo (where the kitchen is, in fact, no bigger than the average home kitchen), and executed at home.
At the end of the day, we were both surprised at how few compromises were necessary to adapt these recipes to the home kitchen. (In fact, we discovered many changes we could make to actually improve the recipes, given the flexibility of the home cook compared to that of the restaurant cook.) Perhaps this was to be expected, because although he has reached the top level of his profession, Jean-Georges is a home cook at heart. His first teacher was his mother, he has a solid grounding in peasant food, he loves simple, intense flavors (and a whole range of textures), and he is constantly striving to make things easier. In the '80s, when he had a reputation to earn, he spent days preparing elaborate oils and combinations of oils. Now he achieves the same flavors by combining herbs and spices in the saucepan, skillet, or blender. Or he makes uncommon sauces, sometimes with common ingredients--like capers and raisins. "It seems to get simpler and easier," he says.
Jean-Georges is always on to something new, and what he tries usually works; he amasses concepts the way other chefs do recipes, and he never stops experimenting with new flavors. For him even failure breeds success: "I cannot know the best use for a flavor until I try it in every way that might make sense," he says.
But he doesn't like to fuss. Like any busy cook, he looks for shortcuts, and he finds them. He is full of delightful surprises, and, regardless of whether you are familiar with his cooking, you will find those surprises throughout this book.
In short, this is one chef's book that should serve to delight rather than frustrate you. I intend to continue to cook from it for years to come.
Simmered Carrots With Cumin And Orange
This slow-cooking technique (Jean-Georges calls the result a confit) intensifies the flavor of the carrots. And you can make this dish days in advance; just refrigerate, then reheat--even in a microwave. Add the lemon juice and cilantro at the last minute.
Jean-Georges serves this almost as a sauce with unsauced steamed fish or with SautÚed Chicken with Green Olives and Cilantro.
1 pound carrots, the fresher the better, preferably about 3/4 inch at their thickest part and 6 to 8 inches long
1 teaspoon cumin seeds (not ground cumin)
1 teaspoon grated or minced orange zest
1 teaspoon minced garlic
4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1/8 teaspoon sugar
1 cup orange juice, preferably freshly squeezed
1 teaspoon lime or lemon juice
2 tablespoons chopped cilantro
1. Trim and peel the carrots; leave them whole if they are the size recommended above (if your carrots are bigger, peel them and cut them into chunks or in half the long way). Select a saucepan large enough to hold them, and place the cumin, orange zest, garlic, oil, salt, sugar, and orange juice in it. Turn the heat to medium and bring to a boil, stirring.
2. Add the carrots, cover, and turn the heat to low. The mixture should be bubbling gently, not vigorously, whenever you remove the cover. Cook, virtually undisturbed (you can check the progress if you like) for about 1 1/2 hours, or until the carrots are very tender but not yet falling apart.
3. Gently stir the lime juice into the carrots. Sprinkle with cilantro, stir once, and serve.
Sautéed Chicken with Green Olives and Cilantro
Jean-Georges developed this dish after a vacation in Morocco, and its flavor is certainly evocative of North Africa. This sauce can be used with sautÚed boneless, skinless chicken breasts. But try it this way if you can--the sauce combines beautifully with the crisp skin of the chicken.
Simmered Carrots with Cumin and Orange sets this dish off nicely.
2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon extra virgin olive oil
1/4 cup minced onion
2 teaspoons minced ginger
2-inch piece cinnamon
A few strands of saffron or 1/2 teaspoon dried turmeric
2 cups Rich Chicken Stock or other stock
2 tablespoons peanut or neutral-flavored oil, such as canola
One 3- to 4-pound chicken, cut up for sautÚing (page 193)
Freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons minced green olives
2 teaspoons lemon juice
1 tablespoon coarsely chopped cilantro leaves
1. Preheat the oven to 500 F. Place 2 tablespoons olive oil in a small saucepan over medium heat. Add the onion, ginger, cinnamon, saffron or turmeric, and a pinch of salt and cook, stirring occasionally, for about 5 minutes. Add the stock and increase the heat to high; cook, stirring occasionally, while you prepare the chicken. When the liquid has reduced by about three-quarters and becomes syrupy, turn off the heat.
2. Heat the peanut or other oil in a large, preferably nonstick, ovenproof skillet over medium-high heat for a minute or two. Season the chicken on both sides with salt and pepper. Place the chicken in the skillet, skin side down, and cook undisturbed until lightly browned, 5 to 8 minutes. Turn over and cook on the other side for about 2 minutes. Turn over so the skin is down again, and place the skillet in the oven. Check it after 15 minutes, and remove the pieces as they are cooked through (the breasts will be cooked before the legs; keep them warm).
3. When the chicken is just about done, finish the sauce: Stir in the remaining 1 teaspoon olive oil, the olives, and some salt (not too much--the olives are salty) and pepper. Cook for about 2 minutes over medium-high heat, stirring once or twice. Turn off the heat and add the lemon juice and cilantro. Remove the cinnamon stick.
4. To serve, arrange the chicken on 4 plates. Spoon the sauce around it, not over it, so the chicken stays crunchy.
Rich Chicken Stock
A stock in which nothing is chopped or browned. This has the mild but rich flavor of chicken and vegetables, but none of the dark, roasted complexity of Dark Chicken Stock.
1 medium onion, peeled
3 garlic cloves, cut in half
2 pounds chicken wings
1 carrot, peeled
1 bay leaf
1 celery stalk
3 or 4 thyme sprigs
1 leek, trimmed and washed
1. Stud the onion with the cloves, then combine all the ingredients in a large saucepan or small stockpot with 10 cups water. Turn the heat to medium-high and bring to a boil. As soon as bubbles start coming to the surface, adjust the heat so that the mixture cooks at a steady simmer, but not a rapid boil.
2. Cook for about 11/2 hours, stirring occasionally. Cool slightly, then strain, pressing lightly on the solids to extract some of their liquid (don't press too hard or you will cloud the mixture unnecessarily). Use immediately, or refrigerate for up to 3 days, or freeze for up to 3 months.
Pear Clafouti with Star Anise
If those who attack French chefs for using Asian ingredients in traditional French foods tasted this dish, they'd faint.
The addition of star anise converts this home-style French dessert--essentially sweet pancake batter and fruit--into something exotic.
1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise, one half reserved for another use
1/2 cup granulated sugar
6 tablespoons flour, plus a little for dusting the pan
3/4 cup cream, crÞme fra¯che, or plain yogurt
3/4 cup milk
3 star anise, ground in a coffee grinder
1 teaspoon butter
4 ripe pears, about 6 ounces each, peeled
1 teaspoon pear eau du vie or brandy (optional)
1. Preheat the oven to 350 F. Scrape the tiny seeds from one half of the vanilla bean.
2. Beat the eggs with the vanilla seeds until frothy. Add the granulated sugar and beat with a whisk or hand or electric mixer until foamy and fairly thick.
3. Add the flour and continue to beat until thick and smooth. Add the cream, crÞme fra¯che, or yogurt, milk, anise, and salt. Let rest while you prepare the pears and the baking dish.
4. Choose a 9 x 5 x 2-inch gratin dish or a 10-inch round deep pie plate or porcelain dish and smear it with the butter. Dust it with flour, rotating the pan so the flour sticks to all the butter, then inverting the dish to get rid of excess flour.
5. Cut the pears into sixths or eighths, remove the cores, and layer them attractively in the bottom of the dish. Sprinkle them with eau du vie, if you like. Pour the batter over, leaving just a little of the tops of the pears peeking through.
6. Bake for 20 minutes, or until the clafouti is nicely browned on top and a knife inserted into it comes out clean. Sift some confectioners' sugar over it and serve warm or at room temperature.