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This is the fifth installment of Sunday Dinners, a biweekly column from our own Tom Hirschfeld featuring his gorgeous photography, stunning Indiana farm, and mouthwatering family meals.
Today: Tom pens an achingly beautiful letter to one of his culinary heroes, Jacques Pépin.
Dear Mr. Pépin,
I made a recipe of yours last night. It wasn't the first time I have made this recipe; in fact, I have made it several times. But it has been far too long since it has graced our table, and rest assured that this will not happen again. Just in case I haven't been clear, it was beyond delicious, as always.
I remember the night I watched you make it on TV. It must have been about three in the morning -- I was still working in the restaurant business and it had been a long night on the line. Now I was home, my wife fast asleep in bed, and I sat in the living room with a beer in my hand winding down on the couch. I was flipping through a food magazine, and doing the same with the channels on TV.
At the time I hadn't seen but a couple episodes from your many series because our local PBS station didn't carry them or because they were on at times when I wasn't around. But here in the wee hours of the night you were in front of the camera with your heavy French accent, your broad smile, and all, as unmistakeable as the sparkle in your eyes. You caught my attention right away.
I watched as you peeled shrimp, showing me how to pinch the tails between thumb and forefinger, wiggle, and finally gently pull as the tail meat slipped out of its casing without any waste.
Then you sliced a handful of the freshest white mushrooms with such speed and accuracy it could have been a magic trick. You wasted no time doing the same with a couple of green onions.
All the while, you were discussing and telling the audience why you were doing things the way you did them. Like the time I watched you make cauliflower soup using the entire cauliflower, not just the white florets. You told us how the leaves were full of flavor and nutrients, and how in France it would have been a crime to throw them out.
What I watched that night was not the norm -- I had seen enough food television to know that. There was no "Bam!," no yelling at young chefs until they cried, no one telling me I can't cook at home because I am not as skilled as they are. I didn't even hear the words "organic," "local," or "sustainable." No, you didn't need to say those words to teach them.
With you, I found someone doing the hard job of quietly but realistically teaching people how to cook and be successful in their own home kitchens. What I had before my very eyes was a man passionate about food, the table, and living. Someone helping people to use and understand simple, easily obtainable fresh ingredients that would deliver great taste at dinner time. Someone extremely talented in the kitchen, who understands how food works and who has spent years building on the techniques he was taught as a child.
Most importantly, I saw a person who understood that if people are successful in the kitchen they will continue to cook, and maybe even start to like, enjoy, and use these skills for the rest of their lives.
You are and continue to be a wonderful role model. Thank you.
Jacques Pépin's Shrimp Gratin
1 pound raw shrimp, size 26-30, peeled and deveined
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 cup white or cremini mushrooms, wiped of dirt and julienned
2 green onions, chopped
scant 3/4 cups bread crumbs
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/4 cup dry white wine
kosher salt and fresh ground white pepper