John Besh: Cooking from the Heart: My Favorite Lessons Learned Along the Way
Published: Nov 26, 2013
Category: Food and Wine
I have been married a number of times. My wives have nothing in common. Except this: They all read cookbooks in bed. And not casually — they read cookbooks as if they had plots.
My current and final wife can often be found, late of an evening, concentrating on a cookbook as if she had to take an exam on it in the morning. If she reads more avidly than her predecessors, she has a very good reason — cookbooks really do have plots now.
John Besh, for example. He’s a king in New Orleans, where he owns nine restaurants. He’s won a James Beard Award for Best Chef in the Southeast. He’s Rob Lowe handsome. He served with the Marines in the first Gulf War. He’s civic-minded. He and his wife — his first wife — have produced four children.
And Besh has produced books that tell stories.
My New Orleans, his first book, was published in 2009. Like a first novel, it’s weighty: 5.2 pounds. The plot? A story of generations: A boy grows up in rural Louisiana, learns the lessons of his people and tries to keep them alive for his children. A year after Katrina, who could resist that? Not me.
2011 brought My Family Table: A Passionate Plea for Home Cooking. Provoked by a question from his wife — “What about our kids?” — he took readers into his home. The recipes were short on cooking time, shorter on preservatives and junk food substitutes. This was, I said, a book for the way we live now. Well, perhaps more for the way we wished we lived rather than the way we want to cook.
And now we have “Cooking from the Heart: My Favorite Lessons Learned Along the Way.” As a storyteller, he’s gone on a diet; this book is only 4.4 pounds. But if, like me, you’re sufficiently appalled by the South’s politicians that it’s become hard to care about its culture, “Cooking from the Heart” tells the best story — in these pages, Besh goes back to Europe and the chefs who mentored him. [To buy the book from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.]
As he explains: “I took this journey not just for the sake of nostalgia (though that was certainly part of it), but to clarify the meaning of cooking, for me and for you. I’m hoping that whether you’re a home cook or a professional, you’ll learn from the radiant recipes and cooking lessons on these pages. I certainly expect you to laugh at my follies and hope that they will keep you from making the same mistakes. Or at least that you’ll have the good sense to make your own mistakes that are as memorable as mine.”
He starts in the Black Forest, with the chef of the Romantik Hotel Spielweg. When we meet Karl-Josef Fuchs, he’s shooting a deer. With a large, efficient cartridge. An ethical kill. He slices a small branch from a fir tree and inserts it in the deer’s mouth — he believes “the evergreen will feed the soul of the animal in eternity.” An interesting character, this Karl-Josef.
The recipes in this chapter are not ones that most of us will be trying anytime soon. Venison liver. Pork head cheese. Wild boar. But we see the level of care he learned from Karl-Josef.
Fishing follows. Brook trout. Sea bass poached in shrimp broth. Squid with spaghetti and bottarga. A story about “the family meal” for restaurant staffs.
A chapter on lettuce? Yes, and a good one. Mache with pumpkin oil vinaigrette. Grilled endive and radicchio with blackberry vinaigrette.
Ok, but potatoes? Yes, because they lead to the funniest story in the book: young Besh’s struggle to find where Karl-Josef hides them. Followed by the raucous horror of the staff — Besh has put the peeled spuds in water and then, as Americans do, poured out the starchy water. He learns his lesson: Do not be that guy!
In the Black Forest, Besh and his wife are four hours from Italy, four from Paris. On weekends, they travel “in our sputtering VW Jetta that had to be push-started.” They score a great stew recipe, learn about tongue (no thanks!) and innards (ditto!), but more, they meet chefs.
And then they get to Provence. Which means vegetables. Besh finds himself “flirting” with an eggplant. As I did with the photo of an eggplant, summer squash and tomato tian.
I picked up a tricks: braise a lamb shoulder with a few minced anchovies and orange peel. Glommed a recipe for Ragout of Lamb Shoulder with Cavatelli that makes me want to invite friends to dinner. Mussels & Swiss Chard Soup might be a winter staple. And I was reminded, with Besh, that “distinct and pure” flavors trump the greatest kitchen fireworks.
Bottom line: Many recipes of modest interest, but more than a few potential greatest hits. Brilliant photography and production. And, most of all, a damned good story.
Roasted Bass Provençal
I use black bass or snapper in season, but any beautiful large, whole white-fleshed fish will work perfectly for this roast. I love the presentation of serving the whole fish family-style right from the pan, and I especially enjoy the ceremony of spooning the fish and vegetables onto each plate with plenty of delicious pan sauce.
1 large (3-4 pound) whole sea bass
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 cloves garlic, smashed
1 shallot, sliced
Generous pinch crushed red pepper flakes
4 sprigs fresh thyme
1 orange, sliced
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 small fennel bulb, chopped
1 pint cherry tomatoes, halved
2 small red and yellow bell peppers, sliced
1/2 cup pitted olives, black and green
1 cup white wine
4 tablespoons butter
2 green onions, chopped
Leaves from 2 sprigs fresh basil
Preheat the oven to 450°.
Score the fish and season inside and out with salt and pepper.
Stuff with the garlic, shallot, red pepper, thyme, and orange slices.
Place the fish in a roasting pan or paella pan with the olive oil and scatter the fennel, tomatoes, peppers, and olives all around. Add the wine.
Roast until the fish is white and flaky and the tomatoes are beautifully charred, about 20 minutes.
Stir the butter into the pan and toss with the tomatoes. Sprinkle the bass with green onions and basil and serve from the pan with the tomato and olive pan sauce.
I favor vermouth when cooking mussels, but dry white wine works perfectly. I always add just one more Provencal flavor at the very end, and it’s usually basil. Or fennel. Or a dash or two of dried tarragon to deliver the hint of anise that melds perfectly with the mussels and their fragrant broth.
4 pounds mussels
1/4 cup olive oil
1 bunch green onions, white and green parts
A frond or two of fennel, chopped
4 cloves garlic, chopped
2 medium ripe tomatoes, chopped
Pinch crushed red pepper flakes
1 cup vermouth
2 sprigs freshthyme
2 sprigs fresh parsley, chopped
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Leaves from 4 sprigs fresh basil, sliced
Crusty bread, for serving
Rinse and scrub the mussels under cold running water and de-beard them by pulling off their hanging threads. Discard any cracked mussels.
Heat the oil in a large, heavy-bottomed pot over medium-high heat.
Add the green onions, fennel, and garlic and cook about 5 minutes.
Add the tomatoes and red pepper flakes and deglaze the pot with the vermouth.
Add the thyme, parsley, and mussels.
Season with salt and pepper.
Give the mussels a good stir, then cover and steam, shaking the pot occasionally to move the mussels around.
Cook until the mussels open, about 5 minutes.
Sprinkle with the basil and serve hot with plenty of crispy bread.