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Easy does it

The Baltimore Sun

A monthly review of new cookbooks on a theme

When the cameras aren't rolling, when nobody's looking, in the privacy of their very own kitchens, what do chefs really throw in the pot?

For Jacques Pepin, according to his latest book, More Fast Food My Way, it might be those fried onions that come in a can. Or boxed mashed potato flakes. It's Bloody Mary mix, canned pumpkin, packaged gnocchi, canned beans, pre-roasted red peppers, Rice Krispies, frozen raspberries and store-bought poundcake.

This from the celebrated French master who cooked with Julia Child and was personal chef to three French heads of state, including Charles de Gaulle?

Oui.

Pepin and other famed cooks not necessarily known for shortcuts are releasing shelves of books that promise an all-but-effortless kitchen experience. Pepin, the gourmand, vows everything in his book is fast and easy. Jamie Oliver, the spiky-haired U.K. chef known for laid-back cooking, says he really means it this time with Jamie at Home. Even Nick Malgieri, bound by the science of baking, swears The Modern Baker will save people so much time they'll want to bake every day.

Pepin, reached by phone in New York where he was recently promoting his book, thinks his latest volume will appeal to anyone who wants fresh, nice food "without working too much."

Homemade, he says, is overrated.

"I used to kill a chicken and eviscerate it," he says. "Now I go and buy boneless breast of chicken - skinless and boneless. I cook it in a nonstick pan. I use pre-sliced mushrooms. I use pre-washed spinach. I'm using the supermarket as a prep cook. ...

"If you can buy it better than you can make it - buy it. You only feel bad if the dish is lousy. If it's good, it's good."

The Scallops Grenobloise from his book, by the way, is good. So is the Pumpkin Gratin.

Pepin doesn't use convenience products in the scallop dish - it's pretty convenient on its own. The most labor-intensive element is peeling a lemon to remove every trace of pith. The resulting dish is so flavorful and elegant, no one would suspect it was so easy.

The Pumpkin Gratin relies on canned pumpkin puree. I always imagined someone like Pepin, for a dish like this, would be combing a farmers' market in search of the perfect gourd. But I'd rather not wrestle with a fresh pumpkin when with a Pepin-endorsed twist of a can opener, I'd have something just as good - if not better. This would be a great Thanksgiving side dish.

More Fast Food My Way isn't particularly pretty. No one will ooh and ahh about the photography or the utilitarian design. Pepin also repeatedly turns to certain ingredients - anchovies appear in at least eight recipes.

For style, turn to Oliver's book.

Each of the 400-plus pages is filled with great photography and festive, colorfully presented information - even the index has pizazz.

That said, Oliver's no Pepin when it comes to fast and easy. Though Oliver introduces Jamie at Home saying, "It's about no-nonsense, simple cooking," more than a few of the recipes have ingredient lists that stretch down the page, many of which call for imprecise and rather nonsensical measurements, such as a "good knob" of butter or a "small wineglass of white wine."

With his Cheat's Pappardelle With Slow-Braised Leeks and Crispy Porcini Pangrattato, Oliver attempts to oblige his readers who are pressed for time by suggesting they cut ready-made lasagna sheets into ribbons of pappardelle. Faster still: Just buy pre-made pappardelle. (I actually couldn't even find fresh lasagna sheets - maybe it's a British thing.)

Oliver arranges the book seasonally, pulling together recipes that work with the produce he grows in his own garden. His offerings include an asparagus tart for spring, rice pudding with strawberry jam in the summer, butternut squash muffins in the winter. The recipes are not generally easy.

Malgieri, a pastry chef whose previous cookbooks have won a number of prestigious awards, knows how to boil what could be complicated instructions into clear steps.

The Modern Baker isn't necessarily a beginner's cookbook. It's a book for cooks who want to bake, but without unnecessary, old-fashioned steps. Malgieri includes some time-saving tips, but mainly it's his clarity that will spare readers headaches.

Beautiful color photos appear on about every other glossy page of this substantial book. Unlike Oliver and a number of celebrity chefs-turned-authors, Malgieri doesn't spend a lot of time talking about himself. He includes personal details but only when they make sense.

For instance, I chose to try the Cinnamon-Scented Baked Chocolate Mousse Cake because in an aside he wrote, "When I have a bare minimum of time to make a dessert, I always make this."

He didn't mislead. With the exception of the chocolate, the cake used ingredients that I already had in the house, came together in minutes and looked and tasted like something that took a lot more time and effort.

scallops grenobloise

(serves 4 as a main course)

2 slices white bread

2 1/2 tablespoons peanut or canola oil (divided use)

1 lemon

1 pound large scallops (about 16), rinsed under cold water to remove any sand

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

2 tablespoons drained capers

6 tablespoons ( 3/4 stick) unsalted butter

1/4 cup diced ( 1/2 -inch) white mushrooms (about 3)

1 tablespoon red-wine vinegar

2 tablespoons coarsely chopped fresh parsley, for garnish

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Cut the bread into 1/2 -inch dice and toss the bread with 1 tablespoon of the oil. Spread the pieces on a cookie sheet and bake for 6 to 8 minutes, or until browned. Set aside.

Peel the lemon, removing the skin and the white pith underneath. Cut between the membranes to remove totally clean segments of lemon flesh. Cut into 1/2 -inch pieces until you have about 2 tablespoons diced lemon flesh.

Remove any adductor muscles still attached to the scallops. Sprinkle scallops with the salt, pepper and the remaining 1 1/2 tablespoons oil.

Heat a large, nonstick skillet over high heat until very hot, then add the scallops. Reduce the heat to medium and cook for about 2 minutes on each side. They should be nicely browned. Arrange 4 scallops on each of 4 serving plates and sprinkle on the lemon pieces, capers and bread cubes.

Heat the butter in a small skillet and add the mushrooms. Cook for 2 to 4 minutes, or until the butter browns lightly (this is called noisette butter). Add the vinegar. Spoon the sauce over the scallops, sprinkle the parsley on top and serve.

From "More Fast Food My Way," by Jacques Pepin

Per serving: : 455 calories, 38 grams protein, 28 grams fat, 12 grams saturated fat, 15 grams carbohydrate, 1 gram fiber, 133 milligrams cholesterol, 925 milligrams sodium

cheat's pappardelle with slow-braised leeks and crispy porcini pangrattato

(serves 4 to 6)

5 big leeks, outer leaves trimmed back, washed

olive oil (about 1 tablespoon)

3 good knobs of butter (about 3 tablespoons)

3 cloves garlic, peeled and finely sliced

a few sprigs of fresh thyme, leaves picked

a small wineglass of white wine (about 1/2 cup)

freshly ground black pepper

1 pint good-quality vegetable or chicken stock

12 slices of Parma ham

two 8-ounce packages fresh lasagna sheets

flour, for dusting

2 handfuls freshly grated parmesan cheese, plus extra for serving

PANGRATTATO:

a small handful of dried porcini mushrooms (about 1/4 cup)

1/2 loaf ciabatta bread, preferably stale, cut into chunks

sea salt

olive oil (about 2 to 3 tablespoons)

2 cloves garlic, crushed

a sprig of fresh rosemary

Halve the leeks lengthwise and cut at an angle into 1/2 -inch slices. Heat a saucepan, add a splash of oil and a knob of butter, and when you hear a gentle sizzling, add the garlic, thyme and leeks.

Move the leeks around so every piece gets coated. Pour in the wine, season with pepper and stir in the stock. Cover the leeks with the slices of Parma ham, place a lid on the pan and cook gently for 25 to 30 minutes. Once the leeks are tender, take the pan off the heat.

Meanwhile, to make the pangrattato, whiz the mushrooms and bread with a pinch of sea salt and pepper in a food processor until the mixture looks like bread crumbs. Heat a generous glug of olive oil in a frying pan. Add the garlic cloves and the rosemary and cook for a minute, then fry the bread crumbs in the oil until golden and crisp. Keep shaking the pan - don't let the bread crumbs catch on the bottom. Drain on paper towels, discard the rosemary and garlic and allow the bread crumbs to cool.

Bring a big pan of salted water to a boil. Lay the lasagna sheets on a clean working surface and sprinkle with a little flour. Place the sheets on top of each other and slice into 1/2 -inch strips. Toss through your fingers to shake out the pappardelle, then cook in the boiling water 2 minutes or until al dente.

Remove the Parma ham from the saucepan, slice up and stir back into the leeks. Season to taste with salt and pepper, then stir in the parmesan and the rest of the butter.

Drain the pasta, reserving a little of the cooking water, and add the pasta to the leeks. Add a little of the cooking water if needed to give you a silky, smooth sauce. Serve quickly, sprinkled with some pangrattato, extra parmesan and any leftover thyme tips. Serve the rest of the pangrattato in a bowl on the side.

From "Jamie at Home," by Jamie Oliver

Per serving (based on 6 servings): : 640 calories, 25 grams protein, 20 grams fat, 7 grams saturated fat, 89 grams carbohydrate, 6 grams fiber, 18 milligrams cholesterol, 1,203 milligrams sodium

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