Bean gratin from "Twelve Recipes" by Cal Peternell. Photo: Ed Anderson
Bean gratin from “Twelve Recipes” by Cal Peternell. Photo: Ed Anderson
Bean gratin from “Twelve Recipes” by Cal Peternell. Photo: Ed Anderson

When I was in college and in my 20s and I called my mom at a non-designated time, she usually knew it was because I had hit a bump in the kitchen. No greeting, just, “What are you making?” If she got a call from me while at work, it was either an emergency – which it never was – or I had inevitably gotten stumped while following a recipe.

A lot has changed since then. Not only did I grow up, but I have also become way more confident in the kitchen. And now there’s this new thing, ready to answer all of my culinary questions. Before there was the Internet and before there was Google, there was my mother.

It’s for this reason that I could really relate to the goal of Cal Peternell, chef at Berkeley’s Chez Panisse and author of “Twelve Recipes.” When Peternell’s eldest son headed off to college, he realized that his children hadn’t picked up on his cooking skills by osmosis. He was afraid his son would be no better off than any other student; that once his days of dorm living were over, he’d be eating packaged ramen every night. As hard as it was for Peternell to accept it, being the son of a chef doesn’t automatically make one a good cook. 

For that reason, he set out to write a cookbook of general knowledge that he wanted to impart to his son. He figured if his son could benefit from this knowledge, surely others could, too. After all, most people have experienced occasions when they’d like to cook for someone, but are held back when the thought of doing so causes panic and stress. Everyone should have some basic knowledge under their belt of recipes for the kind of food you can eat every day, but also appears fancy enough to serve to guests.

Cal Peternell, chef at Chez Panisse and author of "Twelve Recipes." Photo courtesy of Cal Peternell
Cal Peternell, chef at Chez Panisse and author of “Twelve Recipes.” Photo: Ed Anderson
Cal Peternell, chef at Chez Panisse and author of “Twelve Recipes.” Photo: Ed Anderson

Or, as food journalist and Berkeley resident Michael Pollan says in his foreword, “This is the book I’ll be giving to all those friends who tell me they can’t cook.”

The book is divided into 12 chapters, with many more recipes than the 12 of the title. (Thank goodness, because who would want to shell out over 20 bucks for a cookbook with only 12 recipes?) Some are ingredient-based (“Beans,” “Eggs,” “Salad Dressings and What to Dress,” “Pasta with Tomato,” “Pasta Otherwise”), some are technique-based (“Roasted Chicken,” “Braising,” “Grilling”), and there is one chapter just called “Cake.”

A very short chapter on bread opens the book, with instructions on how to make toast, crumbs and croutons, the latter of which are used in later chapters. Another fundamental chapter is called “Three Sauces.” In it, Peternell praises his favorites: Salsa Verde, Mayonnaise, and Béchamel.  Here is as good a time as any to introduce his voice, since it’s so conversational and fun: “Salsas verde are as numerous as there are varieties of green herbs; mayonnaise, simply oil bound with egg, two ingredients found the world round; béchamel, so powerful and versatile, can even transcend sauce-hood itself. Well learned and wisely used, these three will bring sustenance, satisfaction, and companionship into your life.”

That is quite a claim, to be sure, but given that I’m not looking for further companionship at the moment, I decided to give two other recipes a try: one incredibly simple, and one more complex.

For the simple, I made a bean gratin. As a former vegetarian, I cook with beans a lot, and I am even usually pretty good at remembering to soak them the night before. (One of Peternell’s ever-helpful tips at the beginning is to always be soaking beans for later use.) Even though I also always have a large bag of bread crumbs made from leftover crusts and hunks of bread in my freezer, a bean gratin isn’t something that often comes to mind for their use. I used these to make Peternell’s “oily crumbs,” which made my gratin topping.

"Twelve Recipes" by Cal Peternell.
“Twelve Recipes” by Cal Peternell
“Twelve Recipes” by Cal Peternell

What I like about his recipes are they function like basic building blocks. A good chef can improvise with any cookbook, but this book inspires improvisation from the get-go. I liked the idea of adding sautéed greens to my gratin, another suggestion he makes. Given that I almost always have lots of vegetables around due to my CSA share, I threw in some roasted romanesco as well. And I thought a bit of cheese would really make the dish come together, so I tossed in some Drunken Goat.

Peternell recommends using heirloom beans rather than the regular supermarket variety, though those will do as well. I happened to have a bag of Rancho Gordo Scarlet Runners (one of his choices) in my cupboard and they were perfect for this — big, meaty, and able to stand up to everything else. I cooked my beans as recommended with only onion and a bay leaf, and sauteed my greens with garlic. No other spices were needed.

This made for an excellent weeknight dish. It is vegetarian comfort food at its best. Granted, I got a bit more ambitious than his original intent, but I liked how the book inspired me to make something I don’t normally make and add my own touches. And with the beans as your canvas, the variations are endless.

I also made his Braised Chicken Legs. This is a pretty basic recipe for those who regularly cook chicken: brown the meat first, remove it, sauté your aromatics (onion, carrot, celery) and make your braising liquid (wine and chicken stock), then add your chicken and let it simmer or bake in the oven. It’s a pretty foolproof method, and we had it over mashed potatoes, as suggested, with roasted broccoli on the side. My husband raved, which made me think non-cheffy types would think the recipe was way more complicated than it actually was.

My mom isn’t around anymore, and even if she were, I often wonder if my kitchen knowledge today would have surpassed hers. I like to think not, but it’s good to know that even though I’m way beyond college with access to the Internet, I now have this book.

Braised Chicken from "Twelve Recipes." Photo: Alix Wall
Braised Chicken from “Twelve Recipes.” Photo: Alix Wall
Braised Chicken from “Twelve Recipes.” Photo: Alix Wall

Crumb 2 (for sprinkling)

Made with stale bread that still has some give. Carve the crust off of a good rustic loaf with a serrated knife and tear into 1½-inch pieces. A one pound loaf will yield approximately 4 cups of crumbs. Grind coarsely in a food processor or blender, and then toss in a bowl with plenty of olive oil and a sprinkle of salt. The crumbs should be tasty and pretty oily, though not totally soaked. Spread onto a baking sheet and bake at 350˚F for 7 minutes. Using a spatula, scoop the crumbs into a pile, stir them around a bit, and spread them back out. Back into the oven for 5 minutes (timer!) and repeat with the spatula. Keep baking and stirring, resetting the timer each time, until the crumbs are crisp and golden.

Mainly for sprinkling over pasta, as you would cheese, oily crumbs can also be used to sprinkle on chickpeas or other beans… or vegetable gratin or shepherd’s pie… and will sprinkle the floor as you inevitably snack.

Brown, white, and red beans

Soak some beans now or as soon as you get home. It will give you a feeling of accomplishment for the next 12 hours; no matter what else you’re doing, you’re also home cooking. You are a responsible, cleverly frugal, mature individual who knows what he wants for dinner tomorrow night and has the foresight to make it happen. It’s therapy with a pulse. Sure, it’s geeky, this sort of planning ahead, but in a rustic, chuck-wagon sort of way.

So, look over the dried beans (2½ cups will yield about 6 cups cooked) and pick out any small rocks or dirt clods that may be masquerading as pintos, turtles, or Yankees. Rinse the beans and then put them in a large bowl, cover with plenty of cold water, and leave them overnight on the counter or in the fridge if the weather is hot. Next day, drain the beans, rinse them off a little, and then cover by a couple of inches with fresh water and put them on high heat. Add salt. (Some don’t, I do. The simple reason: beans cooked with salt taste better than beans cooked without salt. Flavor trumps.) Then add as many of the following as you have at hand: ½ onion, 1 small carrot, 1 celery stalk, a garlic clove, a bay leaf, a small whole or partial tomato, a thyme sprig or two, parsley stems. These are all just to add flavor and will be discarded in the end, so keep them in big chunks that you can fish out easily. The more of these aromatics you add, the more delicious the beans and their cooking liquid will be. While the best beans will retain their ranking with these additions, the worst will get better.

Can’t get anything other than supermarket great northerns or kidneys in dusty plastic bags that look to be past their half-life? Add all of the above and a slice of bacon, more tomato, and a lump of brown sugar and they’re nearly back to those baked beans Mom used to make. You could do worse.

Bring the pot of beans to a boil, lower the heat to a simmer, and skim off any foam with a ladle. Taste the water for salt, add more if needed, and cook—stirring infrequently and checking to see if the beans are in need of more water—until very tender but not, hopefully, falling apart. The best quality beans will achieve this balanced state, but many will not, and it’s important to remember that it’s not your fault. Blame the bean. Discard the aromatics and leave the beans in the liquid: it keeps them from drying out and can be used for soups.

If you don’t want to eat your beans plain from a bowl with two glugs of your best olive oil and a sprinkle of salt like a mangiafagioli, that’s okay. Save them for later—you can still be in the club. Beans last about 3 days in the refrigerator and freeze well.

Bread on Beans

Preheat the oven to 450˚F and put the beans (about ¾ cup per person) in a casserole dish with just enough of the cooking liquid so that the beans on top are on dry land while their brethren below are awash. If it’s all seeming too watery, you can mash some of the beans to thicken things up a bit. If the beans are cold, bake them for 15 minutes, then sprinkle oily crumbs (Crumb 2, see above) on top and bake for another couple of minutes. If the beans are already hot, put the crumbs on from the start and bake away. This is bean gratin and is good straight or with so many things: Poached Eggs… grilled chicken or meat, especially sausages… Sautéed Greens… cut-up and mixed-in green beans… alongside a couple of slices of summer tomato. Of course chopped herbs, such as rosemary, sage, marjoram, and thyme, are good mixed into bean gratin.

Recipes from Twelve Recipes by Cal Peternell. Reprinted with permission from the copyright holders: Harper Collins

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Alix Wall is an Oakland-based freelance writer. She is contributing editor of J., The Jewish News of Northern California, for which she has a food column and writes other features. In addition to Berkeleyside’s...