The other French chef

There is a lot to learn from the great Jacques Pépin.

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Who knew hamburger buns make for tasty croutons? — Connie Berry

I’ve got a couple of confessions to make. First, I opened the cookbook I bought my son-in-law Vukasin for Christmas, and used it this weekend. Second, I’ve got a real love affair going with my Facebook friend and French chef, Jacques Pépin. His videos pop up on my FB feed, and I can’t help but watch them every single day. He’s brilliant. He takes the most mundane things and turns them into culinary gems. I’ve learned so much from Jacques. 

Once he took a bunch of wilted-looking veggies from his fridge, chopped them up and sautéed them in butter and olive oil, and then beat a few eggs and poured them on top. I know it was nothing more than a veggie scramble, but after I watched him do it, I tried it the next day. I had a bit of old kale, wrinkled cherry tomatoes, a handful of mushrooms that maybe had two days left to them, and half an onion left over in the fridge. I cooked it all just like Jacques did. Then, in a stroke of my own genius, I broke up some goat cheese I had in the fridge and topped the eggs and veggies with it. The result was an incredibly rich egg dish that was eaten just as quickly as a slice of chocolate cake around my house. 

Well, last Saturday, when I couldn’t keep myself from poring over Vukasin’s Christmas gift, I found this recipe for Asparagus with Black Olives and Mustard Dressing. As usual, though, I changed things up a little. We’d had a dozen deviled eggs for Thanksgiving, so I had my fill of hard-boiled eggs, and left those out of the recipe. And I had no baguette or “country bread,” so I used some old hamburger buns we had, chopped them into squares, drizzled them with olive oil, and sprinkled them with salt, pepper, garlic powder, and onion powder before I baked them. I also chopped the asparagus into 2-inch pieces before cooking it, because I wanted to serve mine like a tossed salad; Jacques insists on shaping the cooked long spears into a square on each plate and then heaping the olives and eggs in the center. That’s where we differ. Our first fight.  

Asparagus with Black Olives and Mustard Dressing

Serves 4

16 large, firm asparagus, about 1 pound

1 cup diced country bread or baguette

1 Tbsp. canola oil

2 large hard-cooked eggs, diced (I skipped these)

¼ cup cured black olives (I used kalamata)

Mustard Dressing

1 Tbsp. Dijon mustard

1 Tbsp. water

¼ tsp. salt

¼ tsp. ground pepper

¼ cup walnut oil (I used olive oil)

Preheat the oven to 400°. Peel the bottom third of each asparagus spear. Pour two cups of water into a saucepan or skillet large enough to hold the asparagus in one or two layers. Add the asparagus, cover, bring to a boil, and boil for about 3 minutes (I cooked my chopped asparagus closer to 5 minutes). Drain.

Cut about 2½ inches from the bottom of each asparagus spear, and cut the lengths into ½-inch pieces. (I didn’t do this.) Set the asparagus aside.

Toss the bread cubes with oil and spread on a baking sheet. Bake for 9 to 10 minutes, until nicely browned. (See above-mentioned hamburger buns.)

For the dressing: Mix all ingredients together in a bowl. At serving time, toss the chopped asparagus stems, eggs, and olives with the mustard dressing. Arrange 4 asparagus spears into a square on 4 plates. Fill centers with olive garnish and top with croutons. (I tossed everything with the dressing and served it as a sort of fancy and delicious salad. Jacques says to serve it at room temperature, so I did.)