Reviewed by Brook Elliott
I have never, alas, seen an episode of Eric Ripert's Emmy-winning PBS series Avec Eric. My local affiliate seems to have a policy of not subscribing to shows that cost more than 50 cents an episode. So there are a lot of great shows I don't get to see.
What makes this case particularly irksome is that I consider Ripert to be among the finest chefs in America. And if he's not the number one seafood cook in the country, he runs whoever is a very close second.
The facts speak for themselves. Often called the best fish restaurant in the world, Le Bernardin, his flagship restaurant, has earned three Michelin stars. Even more impressive, it carries four stars from the New York Times, and has done so, continuously, for twenty years---a feat unmatched by any other restaurant. It ranks 15 on the S. Pellegrino World's 50 Best Restaurants.
The very first restaurant recipe I ever tried was his then signature Black Bass With Port Wine, from which I learned the taste benefit of double reductions, among other things.
You would think, from this, that I anxiously awaited publication of Avec Eric. You'd be wrong. It's been my experience that companion books rarely achieve the quality level of the shows they reflect. Typical is Mario Batali's Spain…A Culinary Road Trip. Despite the high acclaim of the series, I found the companion book to be disjointed, poorly presented, and lacking in insights. Somewhat boring, in fact. After reading it, I wondered what the shouting had been about. I also wondered what genius decided to send a vegetarian along on the trip---but that's a different issue.
So, yes, I welcomed Avec Eric. It is, after all, Ripert writing about food, so how bad could it be? But my expectations were not particularly high. More fool me! As it turns out, I couldn't have asked for more than this book delivers.
The premise of the TV series is that the viewer follows Ripert as he explores the culture and culinary traditions of various regions around the world, then returns to his home kitchen to create (or recreate) simple dishes that celebrate the bounty of each area. The book mirrors those journeys of discovery. What's more, unlike so many chef-written books, the recipes actually are easily reproducible in the typical home kitchen.
Let's get the housekeeping details out of the way. Avec Eric is hardbound, 295 pages, and contains more than 400 spectacular photos ranging from food porn to the people, places, and local ingredients Ripert found in his travels. There are 12 sections---I hesitate to call them chapters---each of which reflects one of the show's episodes. Each section is preceded by several pages of text and photos; enough so that the book becomes as much travelogue as cookbook.
Unlike many travelogues, with their "we went here, then drove there," approach, Ripert's commentary is more an exploration of the people he's found, and their worldview of food, cooking, and the use of fresh ingredients. All highlighted with Ripert's insightful comments and observations. But there's no preachiness here. It's just Eric Ripert talking to friends.
The commentary is followed by recipes; either those he collected on scene, ones he adapted from local recipes, or new ones of his own, inspired by the ingredients and traditions of the region. So well do the mini-essays and recipes meld that it's hard to figure which is supporting which. Is this a travelogue with recipes? Or is it a cookbook with geographic notes?
The reality is, it doesn't much matter. The commentaries and recipes form a cohesive whole, and Ripert gives us a cookbook that's also a very good read.
As a cookbook, it really shines. I made a conscious decision that, while testing recipes, I would avoid those dealing with seafood. After all, if Eric Ripert can't cook a hunk of fish we're all in trouble. Instead, I would focus on how he handles other proteins, other ingredients.
My first try was his Pork Loin with Wild Mushrooms, Garlic, and Sage Au Jus. Pork, mushrooms, and garlic. Three of my favorite things. So it was a natural first choice.
Inspired by the fall flavors of Tuscany, this is essentially a roasted pork loin. However, it uses a novel approach, and the roasting is done completely on the stovetop. You sear the pork, as usual. But instead of transferring it to the oven, you tightly cover the pan and let the meat "roast" over low heat. The result is juicy, fork-tender pork, redolent with the flavors of mushrooms, sage, garlic, and thyme. It's now a permanent addition to my recipe collection.
Next I tried his Pan Roasted Duck Breast with Wilted Arugula and Dolce-Forte Sauce. Dolce-Forte is a rather complex, fruity sauce, often served with wild boar. In this recipe Ripert uses a simplified version that perfectly highlights the slightly gamy taste of the duck, while remaining true to the sauce's identity. My conclusion: As near perfect as a dish can be.
I did feel the given cooking time a little short for home equipment, however. And the quantity of arugula could have been increased. But I offer this in the guise of picking at nits, rather than serious criticism.
For a change of pace, I tried his Portobello "Fries" with Truffled Aioli. Portobellos are cut into strips, coated with breadcrumbs, herbs, and Pecorino Romano, then deep fried. Meanwhile, an olive-oil based aioli is flavored with truffle oil, and serves as a dipping sauce.
This makes an incredible side-dish, and an even better snack. Plus I've since made the aioli several times to use with other dishes. It's a natural match for crabcakes, for example.
And so it went. All in all I sampled eight recipes, and they were all winners. Clearly written and using commonly available ingredients, with little of the chefiness so common to books of this nature. Once again, Ripert has demonstrated that four-star talent can be wielded with a common touch.
Finally, I couldn't stand it anymore. This is Ripert, after all, and avoiding seafood is unfair---to me as well as the author. So I prepared one of his fish recipes, this time his Cod Basquaise---a simple pan-seared filet, with a delicious sauce based on onions, garlic, bell peppers, herbs, and a bit of diced Serrano. A perfect match to the flaky cod. Later I made it again, using salmon, and it was equally good.
The second season of Avec Eric aired this past fall. Hopefully, there's a second companion book in the works as well. This time, I'll look forward to it.
Recipe: Portobello "Fries" with Truffled Aioli
2 large egg yolks
2 tbls fresh lemon juice
1 tsp minced garlic
½ cup canola oil
½ cup olive oil
2 tbls white truffle oil, approx.
Fine sea salt and freshly ground white pepper
4 Portobello mushrooms
1 ½ cups fine dried bread crumbs
½ cup grated Pecorino Romano cheese
1 tsp freshly ground black pepper
¾ tsp fine sea salt
½ tsp dried thyme
¼ cup all purpose flour
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
Canola oil for frying
Combine the yolks, lemon juice and garlic in a blender. With the blender on medium speed, drizzle the canola oil and olive oil into the yolk mixture in a slow steady stream until the aioli is emulsified and well blended. Season with the truffle oil, salt, and pepper. Transfer the aioli to a small bowl and set aside.
Trim the stems from the mushrooms, scrape out the gills, and gently wipe the mushroom caps with a damp cloth. Cut the mushroom caps into ½ inch-wide strips.
Combine the breadcrumbs, cheese, pepper, salt and thyme in a shallow dish. Place the flour and eggs in separate shallow dishes. Toss the mushroom strips in the flour to coat evenly, then dip them into the eggs and roll them in the breadcrumb mixture.
Heat about 1 inch of oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Working in batches, place the breaded mushroom strips in the hot oil and cook on all sides until golden brown, 3 to 4 minutes. Transfer to a tray lined with paper towels. Serve hot with the aioli.