The beloved French chef turns 80 on Dec. 18, but Jacques Pépin is forever young. Whether it's cracking jokes on stage during his many birthday celebrations ("I'm turning 90... in 10 years!), tirelessly signing books and posing for photos with his adoring fans or teaching students, Jacques exudes an vibrant energy that's infectious. You want to be like Jacques, and, if you do a deep dive into his excellent collection of cookbooks or watch his PBS series, you can be like Jacques.
For the past few months, I've been spending a lot of time with Jacques, savoring his latest cookbook, Heart & Soul in the Kitchen. It's as much memoir as a collection of excellent recipes. Readers learn what inspires this chef, who began his career in the U.S. working at the humble Howard Johnson's, and much later became the dream team known as Jacques and Julia. As in Child. We see him walking his dog on the beach and shopping in farmers markets, hanging out in the kitchen with his granddaughter and sharing thoughts on his long career as a teacher. Family and friends are everything and they're best enjoyed while sharing a meal, creating memories.
The collection of eclectic recipes is all over the map from Pork Schnitzel to Chirashi Sushi and back across the globe to Eggs Baked in Pepper Boats and Salmon Tostadas, covered in a section dedicated to French-Mex Cuisine. Oui, oui, si, si. Sure, there are plenty of dishes with serious French accents, but this book truly reflects the way most Americans like to eat, and the way Jacques eats at home.
As I cooked my way through the book -- scoring tons of wins -- I decided I was going to throw a little Jacques Pepin dinner party featuring some of my faves. The biggest challenge was settling on just a few because everything sounds so good. My husband and I are tag teaming this meal, and we're just a party of two. Because, you know, everybody's booked up during the month of December. But that's perfectly fine because that's how Jacques dines most of the time, with his wife, Gloria. She's the inspiration for many of his multi-cultural mashups, and an intriguing character in the narratives he weaves while cooking during his shows. One of the shows in his latest series features "Gloria's Favorites."
After much discussion and experimentation, we've come up with the short, sweet menu: Smoked Salmon on Corn Fritters to start, followed by Chicken Jardiniere -- a warming stew inspired by his mother and playing off his passion for gardening -- followed by the super easy Coffee Panna Cotta. We'll pour some French wine and drink a toast to Jacques Pepin, the brilliant culinary superstar who has dedicated his life to making home cooks heroes with his incredibly delicious recipes that always turn out. Merci, Jacques, and Bonne Anniversaire!
Chicken Jardiniere from Heart & Soul in the Kitchen
My mother made this type of stew from the carcass of a raw chicken and its gizzards; I use pancetta instead of gizzards for additional flavor and chicken legs, which stay moist during the cooking. Jardinire means “gardener” in French, and the vegetables change according to what is in season or in my garden. The stew is easy to put together, and it gets better every time you reheat it.
2 ½ ounces lean pancetta, cut into lardons (strips about 1-inch long and ½-inch thick)
1 ½ tablespoons peanut oil
4 chicken legs (about 2-3/4 pounds), left whole or cut into 2 pieces each, ends of the drumsticks and skin removed (about 2 1/4 pounds trimmed)
1 ½ tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
¾ cup fruity dry white wine
¾ cup water
12 small red potatoes (about 8 ounces), peeled
8 small baby bella or cremini mushrooms (about 5 ounces), washed
12 small pearl onions (about 4 ounces)
1 ¼ cups diced (1-inch) carrots
1 ½ tablespoons coarsely chopped garlic
1 fresh thyme branch
1 cup frozen baby peas
2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
Saute the lardons in the oil in a large saucepan or a Dutch oven (the pan should be wide enough to hold the chicken in a single layer) over high heat for 2 minutes. Add the chicken pieces and sauté them, turning once, for about 8 minutes, until lightly browned. Sprinkle with the flour, salt, and pepper and move the chicken around to distribute the flour evenly. Cook for 1 minute, then add the wine and water and mix well.
Add the potatoes, mushrooms, onions, carrots, garlic, and thyme and mix well. Bring to a full boil, making sure that the stew is boiling throughout, then cover, reduce the heat to low, and cook for 45 minutes. (The stew can be prepared ahead to this point and reheated to serve.)
At serving time, add the peas to the stew, bring to a boil, and boil for 2 minutes.
Transfer the stew to individual plates or a large platter, sprinkle with the parsley, and serve.