[one_half][I]t occurred to me at some point that watching Jacques Pépin work is an awful lot like watching my Dad. First, he looks like my Dad. They are exactly the same age and build. For as long as I can remember, Dad has kept his hair parted on the side, spatters of grey peeking out behind a home dye-job, carefully combed into place with a spare application of Three Flowers Brilliantine Pomade. Like Dad, Jacques occasionally pauses to audibly slurp saliva that has accumulated at the corners of his mouth. Both men move with fluidness and deliberation. But what I think reminds me most of my father is the way that Jacques approaches even the seemingly trivial task of chopping an onion with an almost pathological degree of meticulousness. I remember the Rhau household being home to perfectly pattern-matched wallpaper, seams disappearing even over outlets and circular wall plates. Fitted sheets were folded into flat rectangles of uniform thickness. Written driving directions always included an accurately scaled map, drawn freehand. I would try to learn how to do things the way he did, but with my kid hands, I could never get things quite as tight, even, or square as my Dad.
So you might understand why I continue to watch, with childlike wonder, footage of Jacques, his hands a blur of activity, cutting an onion into a mound of uniform squares in seconds. Wanting to learn how to properly handle a knife, I wasted no time getting Jacques Pépin’s Complete Techniques. The book needs no introduction to many of you. If it does, and you’re serious about cooking, go get it. It’s an invaluable and extremely thorough collection of step-by-step photo tutorials, presented in the charming, black and white style of an auto repair manual. It also contains a recipe that was new to me, and has since become a go-to move in the Babychili kitchen. I present it to you, with pictures of my hands instead of Jacques’s. Taking a page from Donna Ruhlman’s playbook, key technique photos are presented in black and white, as color does not contribute information in this case.
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We last made this dish at a luxury dinner party of another sort, as a shout-out to a different chef: Richard Blais. I really felt for Richard, and what he might feel upon reviewing his decision to make banana scallops for the second time in a single season of Top Chef (three total, in case you missed it). My concept was to make “scalloped” potatoes, where seared sea scallops were paired with soap-shaped, roasted potatoes of roughly the same size, shape and colors. We were so pleased with how they turned out that we decided to make them again.
Pommes savonnettes (soap-shaped potatoes) from Jacques Pépin’s Complete Techniques
5 large, starchy potatoes (Idaho russets work well here)
2 T butter
1 1/2 T neutral oil (grapeseed or vegetable oil)
3/4 C water
I was a bit nervous about making these for a shoot, since Erin had previously been the one executing this dish. The first step does take a bit of practice and patience. It’s important to remember that a mistake is not the end of the world. Potatoes are relatively inexpensive, and imperfectly cut ones can be used for many things (mashed potatoes, home fries, etc.).
Peel and rinse the potatoes, then shape them into cylinders. Carving out the cylinders is by far the trickiest step. Three things I learned here:
1. Use a narrow bladed knife. Like a jigsaw, it is easier to turn and maneuver.
2. Trim the ends of the potato to be square with its long axis. Do this first. The flat ends will provide visual references as you trim the curved body of the cylinder.
3. Angle your knife to make a shallow first cut. If you start cutting too deeply, you will be trimming more potato than is necessary. Observe:
My first cylinder was really skinny as a result. Contrast this with my third potato, starting with flat ends and a shallower cut:
This time, the trimmings were dramatically thinner. It’s easiest to use a sawing motion with the knife, turning the potato to cut along a curve. Try to achieve a rough cylinder, going back a second or third time to refine. For me, this quickly became a fun game, where my goal was to lose as little of the potato as possible while still achieving a nice, clean cylinder. Note the vast improvement that resulted from these few, simple adjustments:
Next, slice each of these cylinders into disks about an inch thick. Optionally, you can bevel the edges, which makes them look a bit less like scallops and more like pieces of hotel soap. The beveling also makes things look a bit cleaner after cooking, since the edges can fray.
Arrange the potato disks into a single layer in a large, nonstick, oven-safe skillet, with the nicer looking sides facing down. Add butter, oil and water. I find it’s convenient to combine these items in a pyrex measuring cup and melt the butter in a microwave. The mixture can then be poured evenly over potato slices. If the surface of the skillet is covered with the potato slices (as it should be), the liquid will come up to about 3/4 of the height of the slices.
Bring to a rolling boil over high heat, then place in a preheated, 475 degree oven at the lowest position (preferably the floor of the oven). Cook for 35 to 40 minutes, until potatoes are soft. The tops of the potatoes should be blistery, and slightly brown.
Allow potatoes to rest at room temperature for a few minutes, then flip them over. The bottoms should be beautifully browned, and the act of turning should allow the potatoes to absorb most of the remaining butter and oil.
Sea scallops with cilantro gremolata and ginger lime beurre blanc
I made the full recipe for the gremolata and beurre blanc, but prepared only a dozen scallops to feed 4. For reasons I have discussed previously, I used freshly cracked black pepper instead of white pepper.
Presentation is always a matter of personal taste, but I chose to plate two potato slices with one scallop.
(Photo: Jason Ezratty)