A few weeks ago, while buying a book I needed, I added this one, which had been sitting on my wish list for a year or so. Thomas Keller’s Bouchon, published in 2004, is pretty hefty for a cookbook. It’s about a foot square, weighs almost six pounds, and features plenty of large, artsy photos and a clean, roomy layout. It’s more suited to the coffee table than the butcher block.
What makes it truly great, though, is that it is a comprehensive bible to a classic cuisine, and that cuisine is French bistro cooking.
Thomas Keller is, of course, the chef/proprietor of The French Laundry in California’s Napa Valley, one of the most famous and esoteric restaurants in the world, serving $240, 9-course tasting menus. There is a French Laundry Cookbook as well.
Bouchon is not that place, nor that lofty food. It’s a restaurant that Keller styled after the bistros of Paris, featuring “ordinary” French comfort food, precisely prepared. He notes in his introduction that in America, the word “bistro” has become so muddied that it “doesn’t really mean anything more specific than ‘casual.'” Bouchon is his rectification of this misconception, and in this book he defines both the cooking techniques and the overall ambiance of French bistro fare — everything from hors d’œuvres and oysters through onion soup, potato and leek soup, vinaigrette, frisée salad, quiches, oysters, grilled ham and cheese sandwiches, escargots, duck confit, steak, french fries, pork trotters, gnocchi, mussels, a good many fish preparations, leg of lamb and veal stew, right down to the chocolate mousse and raspberry napoleon.
This is much more than just a recipe collection. Throughout it, Keller has included articles detailing “the importance of” things like potted foods, brown butter, and slow cooking. He elucidates key principles behind bistro cuisine, such as how complex flavors are created by proper braising, and how pork fat differs from beef fat. Sidebars add additional insights into everything from cornichons to bistro seating and mirrors.
From this book, we have already enjoyed a fantastic roast chicken cooked with nothing more than salt, pepper, thyme, and butter, accompanied by a side dollop of Dijon mustard. I have personally turned and glazed root vegetables for the first time, with excellent results. Amy made a lentil salad and a chickpea salad for my family’s Easter brunch, and last weekend, I noticed fresh rabbit in the case at Brossman’s, and maybe we’ll try a braise sometime soon.
There’s enough here to keep us busy for years to come, and the great thing about ideas and techniques this classic is that they can be adapted and employed in many other situations. I love having books like this one on the shelf that I know I’ll go back to time and time again.