“My goal here is to encourage people to cook, especially people who feel insecure and need a helping hand," the former Gazette fine-dining critic says.
Lesley Chesterman recalls being approached to write a cookbook 10 years ago. The former Montreal Gazette fine-dining critic demurred.
“The last thing the world needs is another recipe for carbonara,” Chesterman told the editor who had contacted her. The editor responded: “No. But I think they may like your recipe.”
It may have taken a decade for the idea to percolate, but Chesterman has come out with a most enticing, handsomely appointed cookbook, Chez Lesley (available only in French for now). And it does indeed contain her Carbonara de Max, named for the eldest of her two sons and featuring a tantalizing amalgam of pecorino romano and parmigiano reggiano cheeses, olive oil, spaghetti and pancetta.
While acknowledging that carbonara may be viewed as pedestrian in the eyes and tummies of some, it is one of the dishes Chesterman has long strived to perfect in her “quest for delicious.”
There is nothing pompous about Chez Lesley, which includes Chesterman’s favourite 100 recipes. It is designed for those — pro foodies and amateurs alike — who seek to put together a taste treat for family and friends at home.
“My goal here is to encourage people to cook, especially people who feel insecure about cooking and need a helping hand,” says Chesterman, who can be regularly heard talking about food on Radio-Canada and CHOM.
“Cooking really is one of the most therapeutic things to do. And with COVID, people are starting to understand and do that, to distract themselves from what’s going on outside the front door. “
In addition to the recipes, Chesterman offers counsel on what ingredients cooks should have in their fridges and pantries and what utensils to keep in their kitchen arsenals.
Chesterman’s focus throughout is not how the food looks, but how it tastes. While toiling as a pastry chef several decades back, Chesterman had an epiphany while tasting a sourdough molten chocolate cake served with vanilla bean ice cream at a famed Los Angeles restaurant. She was decidedly unimpressed with the presentation, which was devoid of fancy quenelles, fruit fans or sugar roses.
“But what it lacked in looks, it more than made up for in taste,” Chesterman explains. “That changed my whole outlook on food. All the cutting-edge techniques and Marie-Antoinette presentations mean nothing if the food isn’t delicious.”
Chesterman cites another reason for coming out with a cookbook: “I felt that after 20 years as a restaurant critic, I was starting to be able to define what I think a dish should taste like. I’ve eaten 100 different fish soups in this city, so eventually you begin to deduce what makes a great fish soup. Or a curry or a steak or chocolate cake. That was my goal with every recipe.”
Chesterman has not only talked the talk but has also walked the walk. Prior to reviewing, she studied cooking for three years, earning a degree from L’Institut de toursime et d’hôtellerie du Québec. She later worked as a pastry chef for seven years and also taught cooking for three years.
“Restaurant criticism for me was always an extension of being a chef, seeing what chefs were doing and who was doing it well. The opportunity to taste so many dishes gives you a better understanding of what makes a great dish, about the balance of flavours. Actually, the criticism made me a better cook and refined my palate — although I don’t know what that’s done to my liver.”
On that latter note, Chesterman’s favourite feast would involve much vino, served with roast turkey and gravy, stuffing, cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie — the latter, curiously, even though she eschews an overabundance of pumpkin flavourings in everything from coffees to cakes during the Thanksgiving period. Her recipes for all the above are in the book.
Also included are recipes for her favourite comfort foods: pastas, salads, steaks, roast chicken and that old classic, chicken Kiev, which she has inserted as a nod to her Ukrainian grandmother. Plus deserts “that are fun but won’t kill you.” One can’t forget her Béarnaise sauce, which “I could put on anything.”
“I really prefer that kind of surprisingly simple comfort food to some restaurant food, which, to me, often feels cold or is all looks and no substance. As soon as food gets pretentious, I disconnect. A $900 dinner in an uncomfortable setting is the last way I want to enjoy my food.”
Chesterman favours the comfort-food stylings of Nigella Lawson, Jamie Oliver and Barefoot Contessa Ina Garten.
Chez Lesley is expected to come out in English at some point, but she has no reservations about doing the book in French first.
“When you’re from here, you do often feel like an outsider in the rest of Canada, even if you are English,” the flawlessly bilingual Chesterman says. “So I thought if I were going to touch more people in my own province and home town, I would start off in French.”
The timing for Chesterman’s foray into penning a cookbook after reviewing restos couldn’t have been more fortuitous.
“Being a fine-dining critic these days means, unfortunately, being largely unemployed, with restaurants being shut down due to the pandemic,” she notes.
“Although I never regretted stopping reviewing and felt the need to move on, it will still be a few years before someone can write a negative review. And without negative reviews, you’re really just doing PR for restaurants. But I wouldn’t want to cut up anybody these days. This is not a time for criticism. I think restaurant critics have to wait until the industry has completely recovered.
“People worry about the little restaurants that could go under. It’s the big ones as well. No one’s making money. Some are barely getting by on takeout, even with some government assistance. But most are going through hell.”
The bottom line is that even when restaurants were open this summer, many were leery about returning.
“People should be cooking at home, because we have become so disconnected to what we eat,” Chesterman says. “I have a lawyer friend who confessed she doesn’t even know how to properly boil an egg. We should all be able to make ourselves dinner.
“The personal connection through food and wine is what I enjoy most. There’s nothing that beats cooking and eating and great conversation with friends and family. That’s what I’ve missed the most during COVID. Those are the most memorable dining experiences of all.”
AT A GLANCE
Chez Lesley, Les Editions Cardinal, is available in French at bookstores and online. $44.95.
One of the last recipes Lesley Chesterman added to Chez Lesley was for rice pudding.
“For whatever reason, during the COVID-19 pandemic, so many people have been so consumed with trying to make sourdough bread, which is so hard to make and so temperamental. Even with my training, I have so much trouble with it,” Chesterman says.
“Honestly, I didn’t even like rice pudding before COVID. Then one day I decided, damn it, I’m going to make a rice pudding I like. And what’s good about this one is that it’s better the next day, even for breakfast.”
Chez Lesley’s Rice Pudding
1/2 cup (100g) round rice, like Arborio
2 cups (500 mL) milk
3 teaspoons vanilla or 1 vanilla bean, split & scraped
1 or 2 strips of orange or lemon zest
1/4 cup (50g) sugar
nice pinch of salt
3 egg yolks
3/4 cup (170 mL) 35% cream
Salted butter caramel sauce (optional)
In a small saucepan, bring 2 cups (500 mL) of water to a boil. Add the rice, bring back to the boil, reduce heat to low & simmer 10 minutes. Drain, rinse lightly with cold water and set aside.
Meanwhile, in a heavy saucepan, heat the milk with the vanilla, zest, sugar and salt. Bring to a boil, add the rice and bring back to a boil. Reduce to low heat and simmer, stirring occasionally until rice is cooked and milk has thickened, about 20 mins.
Increase heat to high and add the egg yolks, whisk vigorously and bring it all to boil for 10 seconds.
Pour the mixture into shallow dish. Remove the vanilla pod & zest, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate.
When the rice base is cold, you can cover it with a thin layer of sugar and caramelize it with a blowtorch, as you would a crème brûlée. To make a creamy pudding, whip the 35% cream to firmish peaks, mix a third into the rice mixture to lighten and then fold in the rest.
Eat as is, or with a little cinnamon sprinkled on top and/or caramel sauce drizzled overtop.
Salted Butter Caramel Sauce
This universally loved sauce is easy to make and just the thing drizzled over ice cream, a fruit crumble, a lemon tart or enjoyed straight from the jar. Feel free to play with the flavourings, adding lime zest or orange zest, half a vanilla bean, or even a teaspoon of instant espresso powder into the cream. You can even add up to a 1/4 cup (50 mL) of alcohol, be it Cointreau, kirsch, rum or even bourbon. Be careful when making caramel as it is blisteringly hot and therefore not a good recipe to make with children.
Makes 1 /12 cups (375 mL)
3/4 cup (150g) sugar
1/4 cup (75g) white corn syrup
1 cup (225 mL) 35% cream
4 tablespoons (55g) salted butter, cut into pieces
pinch sea salt
Rinse out a medium-sized, thick-bottomed pot, but don’t dry it. Add the sugar and corn syrup. Place over medium-high heat and whisk to combine, then allow to bubble away, untouched.
Meanwhile, heat the cream to a boil in a small pot, cut the heat and set aside. When the sugar begins to colour around the edges, start to lightly swirl the sugar as it bubbles away, until it becomes an even golden brown.
Now watch the mixture carefully. As soon as the mixture releases a first burst of smoke, turn off the heat and whisk in half the cream. Add the remaining cream and then whisk in the butter. When all the butter has melted, turn the heat back to high, and bring the sauce to a rolling boil for about 30 seconds (it should reach 222-degrees F/106 C on a candy thermometer but you really don’t have to bother).
Remove from heat and strain it into a clean jar or jars. Let cool, then add a pinch of sea salt, taste and add more if you’d like it saltier (don’t add too much or you’ll ruin it). Cover and keep refrigerated until ready to use. The sauce will solidify when cold, so reheat on the stove or in the microwave to reach a pourable consistency.