My Master Recipes
165 Recipes To Inspire Confidence In The Kitchen
With Dozens of Variations
By Patricia Wells
Suzy Chase: Welcome to the Cookery by the Book podcast with me, Suzy Chase.
Patricia Wells: Hi, this is Patricia Wells. My latest book, my fifteenth is called, "My Master Recipes," 165 recipes to inspire confidence in the kitchen with dozens of variations. I hope you love it.
Suzy Chase: You're a journalist, author, teacher, former New York Times reporter, restaurant critic. You've won numerous awards, have cooking schools in Paris and Provence and now home cooks can be trained by you in their own kitchens with My Master Recipes.
Patricia Wells: That's right.
Suzy Chase: Talk a little bit about how this cookbook will give us confidence in the kitchen by mastering simple techniques.
Patricia Wells: Okay, after teaching cooking classes for 25 years or more, I would watch my students. I would listen to them and it occurred to me even though the majority of them are from very simple, to very, very talented home cooks or not at all, depends. Most of them, I would say, are pretty average, good home cooks. They love food and so on. I would watch them and they would have no idea why they were blanching something or why they were steaming something or how to poach. It occurred to me that these were things that other cooks might want to learn and they're not complex techniques, but they're simple techniques. Once you understand, for instance, why you're blanching something then you can go crazy with blanching other things. It's just those simple ... They're simple but they're important.
The other element is that people would walk into the door the first day and they'd look me in the eye and they'd say, "I don't bake." It's so interesting the number of people who love to cook, but baking is, I don't know, measuring is too complicated for them. They like to just go with the flow. I make sure in each class that everybody does some baking whether they like it or not. No, but they would all find that it's easy of course. One of my rules is, sure as you read the book, is mise en place. Meaning, everything in its place. Meaning, weighing and measuring and having everything out on the tray that you're going to do.
One of the things I always say is that when you're nervous in the kitchen, it's because your kitchen is a pig pen. The neater your kitchen, probably the better your results will be. Those things all are in this book in My Master Recipes, so that the home cook can become more confident. That's the other thing that at the end of the week, we always after the last meal, the last bite, we go around and we vote for the best taste of the week and also take home what people are going to take home from the week. Often, people will say, "I'm just more confident in the kitchen."
Suzy Chase: I was looking at your cooking school schedule and it seems like this cookbook mirrors your lessons.
Patricia Wells: Well it does. It does very, very much and I try to include as many of these techniques. The other thing is deep frying. People, they will say, "I don't deep fry." I think it has such a bad rap as being heavy, fatty, so on so forth, but if you do it properly and today with equipment you can buy a 75 dollar little baby fryer and do everything with it. Put in a quart of oil and cook easy things that taste delicious and don't add a lot of fat to your dish.
Suzy Chase: What's your favorite thing to cook in the deep fryer?
Patricia Wells: Actually, it's not in the book but I just started doing it was ... I love squid. I love deep fried squid. I love doing oysters. It's very funny in America, breaded, fried oysters are very common. It's funny because France is the country of oysters and they don't do that very much. I often serve it for our French friends because they say, "Oh wow, this is so brand new." I think that's probably one of my favorites, or tiny, tiny little fish too for deep frying. I've also been doing artichoke bottoms, fresh artichoke bottoms, which is the Roman, Jewish area of Rome where they do this all the time and it is so delicious. One of my favorite recipes in the book are the "Cold-Fry" Frittes where you start the french fries, you start the fries in room temperature oil and you deep fry them in a cast-iron pan and they're remarkable. I would never go back to classic french fries ever again. We've tested and tested and re-tested. Unfortunately my husband always says, "Don't you need to re-test that recipe one more time?" Meaning, hey come on couldn't you make that again?
Suzy Chase: It's 1976 and Walter Wells hires you at the New York Times. You subsequently hit it off and then Walter's off on a job to move to Paris for the International Harold Tribune. At that point, had you even been to Paris? Was Paris on your radar?
Patricia Wells: We have both been to Paris, but not together. We had actually when we got married, we talked about going to Paris to get married. It just didn't seem ... It was too complicated, so we didn't. The interesting thing about doing the Paris trip, first of all, growing up very young knowing that I wanted to be a journalist and finally getting to the top of the heap at the New York Times. When we had the decision to move to Paris, I had to give up my job with the Times, so that was a little bit difficult. I was young enough and naive enough I thought, "Well, either they'll take me back or they won't." At that time if you left the Times, you left for good. We just figured we'd make it, be okay, that we would come to Paris for two years. That was 37 years ago. We would just have a good time. I mean, have a good time working. One thing led to the other and we just never came back.
Suzy Chase: How did your two cooking schools get started in Paris and Provence?
Patricia Wells: One of my very first assignments when we moved to Paris, I wrote a lot at that time not just for the Times, but for Travel and Leisure Food and Wine. One of my first assignments was to cover, I can't believe this, all of the cooking schools in Europe. I went to ... Most of them at that time were in Italy, The Marcella Hazan, Giuliano Bugialli, there was one in Sorrento. I can't remember where else I went. I thought this was pretty cool. I think over a period of time writing books and doing my freelance, I just felt it wasn't paying the rent. I thought, "Well, why don't we try cooking school," because we had this lovely house in Provence and it still seems a shame not to share it with a lot of people.
We thought," Well, maybe nobody will come and maybe we won't like it, but let's try." We tried two weeks in September, I can't remember what year it was. They filled up and we loved it. We're still great friends with the people who came. We just continued it, and then when we bought my office studio in Paris we continued them there. It's been great. I love it. It's stimulating, it's challenging. If you're a lawyer all your friends are lawyers. If you're a doctor, all your friends are doctors. We have just this wide range of people who come from all walks of life. I would say that if I named our hundred best friends in the US, they would all be ... Majority of them would be our students.
Suzy Chase: Can you talk about your passion for French agriculture a little bit?
Patricia Wells: It's so great. In fact this morning we went to visit our wine maker, because we're working on a new label. He's just such an out there guy always trying new things. His son, which I'm not a person to be envious, but his son who's, I don't know in his 20s, he spent this four year wine making program working in venues around the world. Right now, he's in Australia, New Zealand. He's been in Spain, he's been all over France. To be able to do that and then join your dad in this wonderful wine making project I think is really great, just so inspiring. Today, all of his crew was out in our vineyard planting new vines where things might have died and pruning. It's so important to be right there it the soil watching things.
We have our honey bees and our honey. When it's too cold the honey bees stay in their little boxes, but in January and February when we have our truffle classes we put all these plants out to perk up a rather not-colorful scenery. The second we put them out, all the bees came out and they're buzzing around and I'm thinking, "Wow, we're really giving them something to eat." Plus birds, when we moved here 34 years ago in Provence, there were no birds. We couldn't figure out why. Part of it, because the vineyard had been sprayed a lot with the previous wine maker and there just weren't the plants around to attract birds. Now, it's like living in a bird sanctuary. When you live in the city, you're not always aware of how important it is to have all of these insects, and birds and so on that keep our ecosystem together. We're living in an era where people have so much more awareness and people who care for the ecology are hopefully being rewarded.
Suzy Chase: You've discussed the fact that cooks tend to use a knife or pan that's too small. Talk about the importance of the right implement for the task at hand.
Patricia Wells: It is. I see people ... On certain things I always try to put out the pan that's going to be used, but not always. I see them using ... I don't know if it's a question of economy or just not thinking ahead, but-
Suzy Chase: I do it all the time and I think it's because-
Patricia Wells: You do the same thing?
Suzy Chase: Yes, I think it's because the smallest bowl is on top and you turn around, you reach for the bowl, you pull it down and you're in a hurry and then you think, "This bowl's too darn small but I'm going to fit it all in."
Patricia Wells: I find myself doing it from time to time, too. If you're transferring something to a container to put in the refrigerator, I try to eyeball it and think, "Okay, which size do I use?" Most of the time I'm pretty right, but it really is important. You can't just squish four lamb chops in a six inch skillet. It's not always that bigger is better, but for a lot of things bigger space really, really is important.
Suzy Chase: How many times to you test a recipe and do you test with your students?
Patricia Wells: Rarely, maybe once or twice I'll say, "Oh, we saw this in the market and let's play with it." I don't like to do that, because I feel I'm wasting their time if there's a failure. They're here to have success. That's really important. When there's a failure in the kitchen in the class, I'm devastated. I have to say most of the time it's not my fault, people don't read recipes sometimes. I try to do everything to make it as totally successful as it can possibly be. I have heard students say I never make the same thing twice. How do you learn to play the piano? Practice, practice, practice, practice.
Suzy Chase: That's a good point.
Patricia Wells: If I make something once, it's only because I don't like it or it's a disaster. I'm very much for simple dishes and I'll just say, "That was just more work than it's worth for the end flavor." One of the big problems is all of the availability of so many recipes everywhere that people think they don't need to make something twice. I once read, this is some years ago, that the average American family has 10 recipes. Well, my mother she was a great cook, but Monday night was pork chops, Tuesday night was meatloaf. That's okay, that's what she knew how to do. It wasn't her life's work and she knew what the budget could take so I kind of admired that, even though I hate pork chops and meatloaf.
Suzy Chase: See?
Patricia Wells: She made a mean pizza and pasta and cakes and cookies.
Suzy Chase: I took my little boy to Washington DC in January and we saw Julia Child's kitchen in the Smithsonian. It was so homey, I could have stood there all day and started at it.
Patricia Wells: I know, I've seen it it's amazing.
Suzy Chase: I know you have one of Julia's ovens. Do you still use it?
Patricia Wells: Yes, yes, yes we have her La Cornue that she bought in the 60s when she built her house in Provence. It is a museum piece in that sense but I cannot believe how she tested, for instance, all her recipes in it, because it's very small. The oven is really tiny. God bless her. She called it a four burner, but it's really two burners. It's one of with the French call [le cudefood 15:14], where you could put several things on a top at the same time. I've always found it not real practical, unless you're just used to using that every day, every day.
Suzy Chase: What color is it?
Patricia Wells: It's white and you know it's interesting it's a La Cornue. It was, I think she told me or maybe La Cornue people told me, it was the last year that they made white. Of course now they make every color, but for years it was just black and that the black was to be the professional look. It's adorable.
Suzy Chase: On Saturday night, I made your recipe for roast, did Lemon and Thyme Chicken from page 205.
Patricia Wells: I hope you enjoyed it.
Suzy Chase: Yes, it was so moist. I posted pictures on Twitter and Instagram and I have so much respect for food photographers and food stylists.
Patricia Wells: Oh my God, when I look at the stuff out there today ... You look at the New York Times, they have not just a food stylist but they have a prop stylist. They have like four people working on it and they're experts. It's hard, it's really, really hard work.
Suzy Chase: I know. If you aren't able to get to Patricia's cooking schools in Paris or Provence you're in luck. Home cooks can learn from the master with My Master Recipes. Thank you so much Patricia for coming on Cookery by the Book podcast.
Patricia Wells: Suzy, it's been fabulous. Great to chat and I hope to see you next time I'm in New York.