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Twelve Months of Cookbooks: March|”Les Halles Cookbook” by Anthony Bourdain

Each monthly post seems to get closer and closer to the end of the month…

But I digress.  This month, another fantastic cookbook.  Well that’s not surprising.  This is supposed to be a list of fantastic cookbooks.  This one, though, has a quality I find to be somewhat rare in cookbooks.  This one is sheer fun.

I came to this book at a time when I needed some lightening up.  Seriously.  We had moved to Los Angeles about a year earlier and I was in the throes of a full-on life change; new city, new love, new job, and new perspective.

What hadn’t changed was my wrought-iron-fist-grip on how I believed cooking should be done.  With precisely followed recipes*, exactly measured ingredients, and for god sake, no substitutions!  This attitude made for me being about as enjoyable as hanging out with Nurse Ratchet in the kitchen.

My husband bought “Les Halles,” most likely because he had recently read and loved Bourdain’s autobiographical “Kitchen Confidential.”  I’ve never been a huge fan of autobiography** but I’ll almost always pick up a new cookbook.  This one is instantly likeable.  Bourdain has a voice that is strong and consistent as he leads you through the specialties of his acclaimed restaurant, including an introduction that explains what a fluke it was that he even ended up cooking at Les Halles in the first place – apparently his wife, tired of their struggling young professional routine and craving a decent dinner, insisted Bourdain take a meeting with the restaurant owner, if only so she could have a proper steak frites.  And the rest, is supposedly history.

In a style that feels more like having a conversation than a cookbook, “Les Halles” grabbed me by the shoulders, shook a bit, and showed me that French cooking could be almost anti-fussy.  Yes there are some dos and don’ts, but overall, everything seems to be fair game and follow a handful very simple rules; get a few good ingredients, and do good things to them.  And don’t worry.  With instructions like “throw a wad of your demi-glace in there if you need to jack up your sauce,” Bourdain was an invitation to just relax for God’s sake.  And maybe have a glass of wine or two while you’re at it.

He is irreverent, but respectful.  He is funny.  And he is a bit audacious.  But most of all, he’s having a good time.  In many ways, he reminds me of a modern-day – and male – Julia Child.  Both set out (and succeed, in my opinion) to help demystify French cooking.  They do the heavy lifting, and then spell it out for us in plain English, so we don’t have to suffer the heartbreak of figuring this stuff out from scratch.

In many ways, the comparison makes sense; Child and Bourdain were both unapologetic party people in their day.  They like to have fun and it shows.  But they are also both natural teachers, and they really want to you learn this stuff.  Not to be afraid.  Bourdain might be a little more blunt than Child, but only slightly, and I think that is more a product of Child living in a time before reality television.  She was no innocent.  I don’t know if the two of them ever met, but I can only imagine the dinner party if they had.

Bourdain can sometimes come across as a bad-boy chef, but I think that does him a disservice.  At heart, he really is a teacher.  And if you need someone to not-so-gently take you by the hand and help you not take yourself quite so seriously in the kitchen***, this is a great book.


Twelve Months of Cookooks Quick Recap:

The book: Anthony Bourdain’s Les Halles Cookbook: Strategies, Recipes, and Techniques of Classic Bistro Cooking
How long I’ve owned it: Six years
Three things I’ve made from it  that always turn out, without fail: Poulet Roti – page 181, Onglet Gascon – page 127, Cassoulet- page 212

*Lest you doubt my need to follow the “rules” in the kitchen, rest assured that I am not exaggerating – this tiresome quality first reared its head when I was around six or seven while trying to make macaroni and cheese with my mother.  Kraft, in its infinite marketing wisdom, included its own branded margarine on the ingredient list.  My mother insisted that any margarine or even – gasp! – butter would do.  I remember shaking my head in a silent “tsk, tsk,” certain that her utter neglect of the instructions would result in culinary disaster.  Unfortunately, the fact that our electric orange mac-n-cheese turned out just fine did nothing to discourage this attitude.  I told you I needed this book!
**This too has changed over the past few years.
***For a great example of what I’m talking about, take a look at his instructions for trussing a chicken on page 182, where he suggests you lie down on your back and bend your legs up by your sides so you can get the feel of what you’re doing.  If that doesn’t make you lighten up (and laugh hysterically), you might be beyond help!

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