‘French Roots’ — more than a cookbook
Jean–Pierre and Denise Lurton Moullé are French — but they are also American. Their first cookbook, “French Roots — Two Cooks, Two Countries,” tells the story of their life together — two adventuresome young people meeting by chance on the sidewalk on Shattuck Avenue in Berkeley in 1977, just a few years after Jean-Pierre had taken a job in the kitchen of Chez Panisse. Denise Lurton was in California promoting the wines from her family’s chateau.
Since then, they have spent their lives between their renovated stone barn near Bordeaux and their first home in Berkeley, and now in Healdsburg, where they moved when Jean-Pierre retired after more than 30 years (with some interludes elsewhere) from heading the downstairs kitchen of Chez Panisse.
Ann and I, like many others, have eaten downstairs at Chez Panisse, and watched the succulent meats come off the grand rotisserie, the salads tossed, and the desserts plated. In the kitchen, more often than not, would be a tall man with a broad face and a slow smile, with thick iron gray curls peeking out beneath his chef’s toque. That would have been Jean-Pierre Moullé, quietly moving among the staff, checking plates, tasting sauces, and guiding the nightly ballet that is a deftly run restaurant kitchen.
Marion Cunningham, the cookbook author, first introduced me to Jean-Pierre. She had recently been to my house where we lunched on wild pheasant and assorted vegetables and fruits from my garden, and she said she had someone she wanted me to meet. She wanted me to meet Jean-Pierre and his wife, insisting we had much in common. As it turned out, was she was right.
Almost immediately, we launched into a conversation about what was best in the garden at the moment, what he liked to cook and where he liked to shop when at home in France. When my husband and I learned that Jean–Pierre likes to hunt, but didn’t have much opportunity in California, we invited him up to go hunting on a friend’s rice ranch near us. He returned with a rabbit and a brace of pheasants.
In a sense, Denise is responsible for the fact that I have a French son-in-law. She asked me to write a children’s book about the vegetable garden and garden program at the French-American school, Ecole-Bilingue in Berkeley. My daughter helped with the book, then she became first the garden teaching assistant at the school, and then the garden teacher. Her husband-to-be arrived from Paris to teach 2nd grade, and as the cliché goes, the rest is history.
And, history is what you will find in “French Roots.” Denise writes about her life as the privileged child of a Bordeaux winemaking family, and Jean-Pierre writes about his adventures as a child summering in Normandy, fishing and gathering wild mushrooms. He recounts the taste he acquired for the best ingredients from his mother, who cooked a multi-course Sunday lunch every week. Many of the recipes in the book are based on their memories of dishes served at their respective family tables. Denise and Jean-Pierre each share with the reader, in distinctive and personal ways, their innate love and respect for ingredients, for food, and for how it is served.
In addition, Jean–Pierre explains how to do everything from braising to frying, and the importance of stocks and how he uses them, as well as how to create a balanced and harmonious menu. You can almost feel him next to you, talking quietly, as he shows you just the right way to do something, but offering, at the same time, an alternative.
“If you have to change your menu at the last minute because you can’t find the ingredients you need in peak condition, you adapt,” he tells us.
“French Roots” is a profound look at one of our generation’s finest chefs and the principles and experiences that have guided him, without gimmicks, for more than 40 years in the kitchens of France and California.
In the book, Denise tells us that she and Jean-Pierre have sat down together to eat lunch virtually every day of their married life. There is much to learn in “French Roots” that speaks not only to food but to a way of life that both respects and treasures tradition while tempering it with creativity and freedom.
The book is available from 10-Speed Press of Berkeley as of Sept. 16, 2014.
Farm Raised Chicken Roasted in the Wood Oven
Poulet Fermier Rôti au Four à Bois
(From “French Roots, Two Cooks, Two Countries,” 10-Speed Press, 2014; serves two to four)
Although it’s difficult for me to choose favorites when it comes to recipes, this must be one. I’ve certainly served it often enough to friends and family who generally find it as irresistible as I do. Perhaps it’s the roasted garlic cooked in the fatty juices — they’re always eaten quickly, disappearing before the chicken. Perhaps it’s the cavity filled with herbs, which makes the bird smell of the garden. Whatever the magic, selecting the right bird, preferably from a farmer you know and trust, is crucial. If this isn’t an option, buy the freshest USDA certified organic chicken you can find.
A wood fire adds another dimension to this dish that may be difficult for many to duplicate. The oven will do fine, even if the chicken will be missing that distinctive smoky flavor imparted by cooking with wood. You can either serve the roasted chicken on its own with a big garden salad or, for a heartier winter option, add some small potatoes and any other root vegetables you might have on hand, to the pan midway in the roasting process and let them cook in the lovely juices. — Jean-Pierre
1 (3- to 4-pound) chicken
1 large bunch mixed herbs, such as parsley, thyme, savory, marjoram, fennel, and bay
2 tablespoons butter, olive oil, or duck fat
Salt and black pepper
10 to 15 cloves garlic, unpeeled
White wine, chicken stock or water, for deglazing (optional)
Putting it together
Preheat the oven to 425°F (500°F for a wood-fired oven). Remove the chicken from the refrigerator at least 1 hour before cooking to let it temper. Stuff the cavity of the bird with the herbs, then rub the skin all over with the butter and season generously with salt and pepper. Place the bird in a roasting pan or terra-cotta dish just large enough to hold it along with any vegetables you may want to tuck along the edges.
Roast the bird for 15 minutes breast side up, 15 minutes on one side, 15 minutes on the other, and finally 15 minutes breast side down.
Add the garlic after the first 30 minutes, tucking the cloves around the bird in the pan juices. Finish cooking with breast side up for 10 minutes, if needed. (If using a wood oven, you may need to cover the bird for the final 20 minutes or so to avoid blackening the skin. It depends on the intensity of your fire.)
Let the bird rest for 10 minutes breast side down and loosely covered with foil. This will moisten the breast meat while keeping the chicken hot. For a quick sauce, deglaze the roasting pan with white wine over medium heat, scraping the pan as it reduces.
Taste the sauce for seasoning and serve on the side or pour it over the carved meat before serving.
ABOUT GEORGEANNE: Georgeanne Brennan lives in Winters, where she writes, and runs her new entrepreneurial adventure, La Vie Rustic, an online store with kitchen and garden products in the French style: www.lavierustic.com