Keller, French Laundry Cookbook, California Yountville Restaurants, Wine, Travel, Opinions

The French Laundry Cookbook by Thomas Keller Heart

Reviewed By

Sue Dyson and Roger McShane
Country: United States

The French Laundry Cookbook is a great cookbook by Thomas Keller of the famous French Laundry in Yountville, California.
One of the most enjoyable and relaxing eating experiences we have had in recent years was at the wonderful French Laundry in Yountville just north of Napa.
Relaxed and knowledgeable service, a soothing atmosphere, an interesting if not extensive wine list and then lots of thoughtful, provocative and even exciting food. Food that you want to really eat, not just play with.
The experience we had at the restaurant suggested that Thomas Keller is a driven man who does everything as well as humanly possible. We assumed that this would also be the case with his cookbook. And we were right.
So often, when the world's great chefs put their thoughts down on paper, it is impossible for us mere mortals to even approach the techniques and approaches they suggest. They often assume that you have a brigade of twenty to do your bidding. Well, when you are cooking for ten in your home kitchen, you are the brigade!
Keller and his co-writers Susie Heller and Michael Ruhlman have done a great job at proposing recipes that are challenging for the home enthusiast but not beyond our reach. In fact, we recently prepared a seven-course dinner with four of the recipes being adaptations of those in this fine cookbook and they all worked perfectly (well, at least our guests were kind enough to say so!).
This is a large book in every sense. Large in size, large in the ideas and large in the generosity with which Keller's ideas are shared with us. It is also backed up by stunning food photography (one of the hardest areas of the photographic arts) by Deborah Jones.
We like the fact that the book is a story recounting Keller's road to the French Laundry and how he has developed his techniques rather than just being a recitation of recipes. The stories are supported by the recipes, rather than the other way around. This makes it a book you can sit and read and then head off to the kitchen when one of the techniques suddenly drives you to the stoves.
Keller goes out of his way to make sure we understand why he does things the way he describes. He also manages to get across the comforting idea that you don't reach perfection the first time. In the section on hollandaise, for example, he describes how he used to make this unctuous classic every day for two years in his search for understanding. He also explains the reasons for his "big-pot blanching", something we have taken up with enthusiasm.
As vegetables cook, they release enzymes which attack the colour pigments. If, however, the water is above boiling point, these enzymes are destroyed. Therefore, if you have a large pot of water on the boil and drop the beans or peas into it, it is less likely to go off the boil than a small pot of water! The other trick he uses is lots of salt. This helps reduce the release of the pigments and also helps season the vegetables.
Not all the recipes are complex, although the results are wonderful. Try the lovely cauliflower pannacotta, for example. The flavour of this much-maligned vegetable is magnified in this dish. Once you master the technique of reconstituting gelatin leaves and get the proportion of gelatine to liquid right, you will make a perfect pannacotta every time.
As an aside, if you want to try something different with cauliflower, cut it into thin slices (about 5mm), brush the small pieces with olive oil and then roast it in the oven for about 20 minutes at 180C. It develops a wonderful, nutty, complex flavour.
For a visual feast that goes perfectly with crab or salmon tartare, try the cucumber jelly. It takes a while to prepare, but isn't difficult once you work out how to make tiny cucumber "diamonds".
Also try some of the techniques he describes to enhance flavours and appearance on the plate with vibrant herb oils. There are so many good ideas in this book we could keep describing them for ages. But the best idea would be to jump onto the Internet and order a copy for yourself so that you can enjoy reading the book and getting inside the mind of a great chef.
The French Laundry Cookbook
Thomas Keller with Susie Heller and Michael Ruhlman
Artisan, New York 1999
Approx $US50
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