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COOKBOOK WATCH : This is home cooking? : New cookbooks by chefs Thomas Keller and Mark Peel turn family-style meals into a production, but they'll make you a better cook.

November 04, 2009|Betty Hallock

Thomas Keller's Catalan beef stew is a spectacular, meaty dish of tender short ribs, fennel, fingerling potatoes and leeks, savory with the addition of oil-cured Spanish olives, fragrant with orange peel, garnished with fennel fronds and finished with gray salt.

And it takes three days to make. (OK, I might have finished in two if I hadn't been interrupted in the middle of making a five-hour soffritto of onions and tomatoes.) Day 1: Braise short ribs. Day 2: soffritto. Day 3: Blanch fennel and baby leeks separately; simmer potatoes; strain short rib braising liquid; glaze short ribs; assemble.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday, November 14, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 1 inches; 57 words Type of Material: Correction
Cookbook review: A Nov. 4 Food section article about two cookbooks, including "Ad Hoc at Home: Family-Style Recipes" by Thomas Keller, said that in a recipe for prime rib, Keller first roasts the prime rib at 275 degrees, then browns the surface with a blowtorch. In fact, he first browns the surface, then roasts the prime rib.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday, November 18, 2009 Home Edition Food Part E Page 4 Features Desk 1 inches; 55 words Type of Material: Correction
Cookbook review: A Nov. 4 article about two cookbooks, including "Ad Hoc at Home: Family-Style Recipes" by Thomas Keller, said that in a recipe for prime rib, Keller first roasts the prime rib at 275 degrees, then browns the surface with a blowtorch. In fact, he first browns the surface, then roasts the prime rib.

The recipe, from Keller's new book "Ad Hoc at Home: Family-Style Recipes," represents one way home cooking has come full circle.

Chefs have come back to the simple, delicious dishes that they loved as children, but in the process they've turned them into fine dining. And now they're writing books to teach home cooks how to do the same. Don't expect any one-pot meals.

Keller's Napa Valley restaurant Ad Hoc might be the epitome of the concept, but here in L.A., Mark Peel has been doing the same every Monday night for years at his landmark restaurant Campanile. And he's just published "New Classic Family Dinners," with recipes for chicken pot pie, cornmeal-crusted pan-fried trout, spaghetti and meatballs (with instructions for grinding the three kinds of meat yourself).

But though this is home cooking, it's a far cry from the popular "quick and easy" school that is designed to let you get dinner on the table in the time it takes to watch an episode of "The Office." Both chefs make clear that they have another, higher aim: to make you a better cook.

"Sometimes ingredients make you work hard and take an extra step or two to yield the extra bit of flavor that makes a dish memorable," Peel writes. (That's a different tone from the one in "Mark Peel & Nancy Silverton at Home: Two Chefs Cook for Family & Friends," published in 1995, in which the goal was to be both "creative and expeditious.")

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Master classes

Even though they contain complicated recipes, the books are aimed at those who might not have a lot of experience cooking. They are at heart primers on cooking.

Most of the dishes in Keller's and Peel's new books aren't as involved as the Catalan beef stew. "Ad Hoc" is by far the most approachable of Keller's cookbooks, which include "The French Laundry," "Bouchon" and last year's "Sous Vide."

"Ad Hoc" may be Keller without his chef's coat on (complete with waggish photos and illustrated cartoon bubbles above his head), but he is still going to tell you how to become a better cook. Besides showing you how to soft-cook an egg, roast a chicken, prepare a good pie crust and make "one really good soup," he outlines techniques to build on: big-pot blanching, poaching, roasting, pan-roasting, braising and sauteing.

By following steps you might not ordinarily take, you gain a better understanding of techniques and how they change dishes. I know how to roast a prime rib roast the way my mom does it. But this is how Keller does it: Slowly roast at 275 degrees so that the meat is medium-rare pink almost all the way to the outer edges, then caramelize the surface with a blowtorch. Um, wow.

While making Peel's lasagna with creamed spinach and poached egg, you're also familiarizing yourself with making a flour-thickened sauce (bechamel) and a rich, complex stew (Bolognese sauce), as well as poaching an egg. Many of his recipes are "compound recipes that rely on building blocks." Beer-braised brisket includes caramelized vegetables. Rabbit cacciatore calls for making rabbit broth. For a Waldorf salad, you make your own mayonnaise (but you could also use purchased mayonnaise).

Of course, many of these chef's touches come at a price. In "Ad Hoc," written with chef de cuisine Dave Cruz, Keller promises "recipes that are doable at home. No immersion circulator required." But that doesn't mean you won't need a candy thermometer to make a salad. For endive and arugula with peaches and Marcona almonds, you spend what feels like two hours to make a few cups of peach puree (peaches cooked with sugar, spices and lemon juice to 215 degrees) for the couple of tablespoons called for in the salad dressing.

I might have balked as I started to peel the peaches, but in the following weeks I was pretty thrilled to have leftover peach puree on hand to smear on toast, dollop onto yogurt and vanilla ice cream or make the salad again. It is one of the best salads I have ever made.

Many of the recipes in the chapters titled "basics" and "life savers" represent the "extra step" that makes a dish outstanding: the peach puree, the soffritto, cherry gastrique, pickled garlic, chive oil, cured lemons, deep-fried herbs. They're the chapters that I keep turning back to, eyeing recipes for pistachio butter, potted Rainier cherries with rum and vanilla bean, tomato-basil marmalade, artichoke tapenade.

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Be prepared

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