Pros: beautiful prose, nice photography, excellent quality recipes
Cons: time-consuming recipes, may be too advanced for some novices
Reviewed by Nicholas Beebe
During a relatively slow lunch, I was chatting with my chef at the time. “So I saw a YouTube video yesterday of Thomas Keller demonstrating how to blanch green beans,” I told him, “He's standing there with a little pot of water and green beans, watching them boil. He pulls one out, tastes it, and says that it's done. End of video.” We joked about how odd it was that the president of the American Bocuse d'Or team, owner of two different three Michelin star restaurants, and the chef described by Anthony Bourdain as “untouchable” put together a video about something so seemingly simple and mundane. I purchased The French Laundry Cookbook not long after that conversation, and it taught me why Keller would bother to show us how to blanch green beans.
The French Laundry Cookbook is Thomas Keller's first book, which he still considers his definitive work. It holds one hundred and fifty recipes from his flagship restaurant, as well as essays covering topics from food purveyors to staff meals.
The quality of the book itself is superb. It's big. Big enough for large photographs of dishes, and to effectively keep recipes and their associated commentary laid out without awkward transitions between pages. The photos are as well composed as the dishes that are in them, which is saying a lot. The platings are at worst pretty, and at best inspired. The font is readable as well as pleasant looking, and the book is well organized.
More than anything, what really shines about The French Laundry is the writing. Keller was aided in writing the text of the book by the distinguished author Michael Ruhlman. It's good enough that the book would be worth buying even if everything but the essays were all scribbled out in black Sharpie. The essays and commentary in this book allow one a peek into what makes Thomas Keller such a great chef. I'll tell you his secret: green beans. Between the recipes are essays covering slaughtering rabbits, straining through a chinois, and properly blanching vegetables. The underlying theme is about what it means to be a great chef. It's not about complicated, hard to cook dishes. In fact, many of the recipes in the book have a fairly small amount of ingredients. It's having the utmost care and respect for food and paying attention to detail that makes the difference. Now, I blanch my green beans exactly like Chef Keller taught me.
Keller's attention to detail carries through into the recipes. The novice home cook may find some of the recipes frustrating. They are not toned down versions of the recipes from the French Laundry, they are the actual recipes. They're the real deal, with every fussy little detail included. To those frustrated novices: it's worth it to make them anyways, and follow all of those fussy, time consuming little steps. In Kellers words: “Take your time. Take a long time. Move slowly and deliberately and with great attention.” I've used his recipe for confit byaldi (an upscale version of ratatouille) in a working restaurant with great success. It's a simple combination of ingredients that is excellent when, like all of his other food, is prepared with patience and diligence. All of the other recipes I have tried have been equally excellent, and most are well-suited to modification, with suggestions for alternate preparation provided. While some ingredients are expensive or hard to find, he includes a list of purveyors that can sell you a chinois, foie gras, or anything else you can't pick up at the store at the end of the block.
The French Laundry is my favorite culinary book on my shelves right now. The essays are as good to read as the recipes are to cook. It is filled with the priceless wisdom of the one and only Thomas Keller, but comes with a price tag that is none too hefty. It's worth buying for anyone interested in food, and essential for anyone serious about food.
Yukon Gold Potato Blini
1 pound Yukon Gold potatoes
2 Tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 to 3 Tablespoons crème fraiche
2 large eggs
1 large egg yolk
Kosher salt and freshly ground white pepper
The batter is best when used immediately, but it can be made up to two hours ahead if stored in a warm place.
Place the potatoes in a saucepan with cold water to cover by at least 2 inches. Bring to a boil over high heat, reduce the heat, and simmer until the potatoes are thoroughly cooked and tender.
Peel the warm potatoes and press them through a tamis. Immediately weigh out 9 ounces of pureed potatoes and place them in a medium metal bowl. Working quickly, whisk the flour into the warm potatoes, the whisk in 2 tablespoons crème fraiche. Add 1 egg, whisking until the batter is smooth, add the second egg, and then add the yolk.
Hold the whisk with some of the batter over the bowl. The batter should fall in a thick stream but hold its shape when it hits the batter in the bowl. If it is too thick, add a little more crème fraiche. Season to taste with salt and white pepper.
Heat an electric griddle to 350°F. Note, if you do not have a griddle, heat a large nonstick skillet over medium-low heat. Spoon between 1 and 1½ teaspoons of batter onto the griddle or skillet for each pancake. Cook until the bottoms are browned, 1 to 2 minutes. The flip them to cook the second side, about 1 minute. The blini should be evenly browned with a small ring of white around the edges. Transfer the blini to a small baking sheet and keep warm while you make the remaining blini, wiping the skillet with a paper towel between batches. Serve the blini as soon as possible.
Makes about 3 dozen small blini