Saturday, August 30, 2008

Alice Waters: Alice v. Sarah

I've lost all heart for criticizing Alice Waters or her cookbooks. So she's a little snooty, so her books are out of touch, so I had a bad experience with her 7 years ago. Who cares? Alice and me, fundamentally we're on the same team. 

Whereas Sarah Palin. Sarah Palin. Sarah Palin. Sarah Palin. I disagree with her on every single issue, yes. But she also threatens me on a primal level that has something to do with the fact that she played basketball AND she competed in beauty pageants. That she gave birth to a Down Syndrome baby and went back to work three days later. (Three days? Seriously? Is she bionic?) That she proudly poses for glamorous photos with dead bears. Stridently self-confident. Dead sure of her rightness. A brassy tomboy.

So totally not my type. It's a schoolyard thing. And with those far-right politics? She's making me absolutely crazy.

Now I will turn my attention back to food and rant no more. I just had to get this out of my system.

I went in to the City yesterday to see Alice Waters on a Slow Food Nation panel about "Edible Education," though no one there could really agree what the term meant. Like most panels the discussion bounced around erratically -- though inspiringly!  It is hard to argue with offering our children better food.

Waters wore a fetching little cotton dress and playful sandals and made her pitch for a federal "slow food" school lunch program. Alas, she was the least articulate panelist up there. She seemed extremely nervous, and (I felt) everyone treated her like a beloved, dotty old aunt as she breathily 
outlined her idealistic vision of wholesale, top-down change.

She was very pie-in-the-sky, whereas other panelists -- most of whom had more practical experience making things happen -- listened to her patiently and respectfully, then offered their own earthbound ideas for how a transformation might realistically occur, piecemeal. 

Alice bristled and disagreed in her quavering voice, continuing to throw down her dreamy all-or-nothing gauntlets. I was slightly embarrassed for her, but paradoxically, came away liking her a little better.

Probably a schoolyard thing. 

Alice Waters: Slow Bread

I didn't make it to any of my Slow Food lectures in San Francisco yesterday, deterred by hangover, laziness, and my new dark obsession with Sarah Palin.

Instead, I spent the day listening to the radio, fretting, and baking a very slow loaf of bread out of Paul Bertolli's Chez Panisse Cooking. I started the bread on Monday, and yesterday afternoon pulled the final golden loaf out of the oven.

I've baked a lot of "artisanal" (one of those icky buzzwords) bread over the years, and this was a pretty good specimen, though I felt it lacked salt. You begin by mixing a starter, which ripens for a few days, then you add your flours (rye, wheat, white) and let it rise a few more times. I went for the longest rising time, which Bertolli promised would yield the finest, most complex loaf.

Whatever. It was okay.

It's hard to care about bread when there's Sarah Palin. 

Friday, August 29, 2008

Alice Waters: Slow Dinner

Last night, my favorite restaurant in Mill Valley, Small Shed Flatbread, hosted a lovely, hippie-ish "Slow Dinner" as part of this weekend's Slow Food Nation festivities. 

On the menu, barely touched by the hand of a chef, were: corn, baby mustard, yuzu, miyoga, maitake, sea vegetables, piquillo peppers, shell beans, forest fungi, turnips, sungold tomatoes, baby squash, potatoes, rapini, lettuce, tomato, beet, watermelon radish, ancho cress, strawberries, and Kadota figs.

As a celebration of local, seasonal bounty it was beautiful and impressive. As a meal it was. . . light. I think my father may have stopped at In-and-Out Burger on the way home. 

Much wine was poured. My memories are cloudy. 

I have tickets to additional Slow Food Nation events today, which -- if I can muster the energy to attend -- may help shape my thoughts on this interesting culinary movement so dear to Alice Waters' heart.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Alice Waters: Cooking Therapy

We've all been in a funk around here.


a. No one came to work on our house, which is still missing walls, lighting, and cabinets

b. Mark was attacked by a freaky double-barreled migraine

I modeled good coping behavior for my daughter. We dropped by the Spanish Table, I bought a bottle of wine, came home, and started drinking. 

I also cooked:

-Minestra Verdissima (Cafe). A chopping-intensive vegetable soup with a rich chicken stock base. Nothing new or exciting, but very healthy and worthy.

-Tuna Confit with Green Beans and Shell Beans (Cafe). Interesting dish. You cook the tuna slowly in 3 cups of olive oil (see above), then toss it with the beans and a vinaigrette. Serve with aioli -- which uses another cup of olive oil. Extraordinarily delicious, but what's with all this olive oil, Alice? Even if I restrict myself to the daintiest portions, I can feel all my fat cells rapidly and happily expanding.

-Pear ice cream (Desserts). Can the delicate, evanescent fragrance of pear ever really be captured in an ice cream? It can! Lindsey Shere's pearly ice cream is an amazing treat. This recipe is a keeper. 

Not everyone enjoyed the dinner. Not everyone is thrilled with tuna confit and pear ice cream. Some of us would be happier if I served Top Ramen and Eskimo Pies every night.

Some of us had tantrums. 

And this morning, some of us had hangovers.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Alice Waters: Biscuits

Ever since we first made the 1-2-3 biscuits from Best of the Best from Alaska back in July, Isabel has baked maybe a half dozen batches of these very tasty biscuits. They're made with flour, baking powder, oil and milk -- humble ingredients, but no on has complained.

Yesterday, for comparison purposes, I convinced her to try Alice Waters' recipe for cream biscuits (Simple Food), which calls for butter instead of oil, and cream rather than milk. 

How were they? Unbearably good. They tasted like soft, warm shortbread -- except not sweet. Jam was superfluous. After biscuits like these, I'm not sure we'll ever go back to 1-2-3. Which makes me strangely sad.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Alice Waters: My Farmers' Market Problem

Why can't I just wander mellowly of a Sunday morning, enjoying the sunshine, the downy peaches and rosy red onions, the company of my cultured food-loving compatriots at the Farmers' Market? 

I don't know! I've been going to farmers' markets regularly for the last twelve years, and yet I always feel like a bit of chump. I am trying to figure out why. Two thoughts:

1. The prices. I know Alice Waters and Michael Pollan think we should be paying more for food, and I agree. Agrobusiness shortcuts have artificially lowered the prices of food. But how do we know what the price should be? If you can buy a pound of wonderful peaches at a Utah fruitstand for 99 cents should you really pay $3.75/pound at a Bay Area farmers' market? If you can buy five bunches of scallions for a buck at the Chinese grocery store should you really pay a buck per bunch at the Farmers' Market?

Maybe. Maybe not. I need more evidence. I can take it on faith that I should pay half again as much -- or even twice as much -- for an organic scallion. But five times as much? 

2. The scene. I like the low-key afternoon farmers' markets in shopping malls. There, you get people going about their humdrum daily business and -- wow! Look at these handsome apples for sale just outside Walgreens! I think I'll make a pie when I get home.

The weekend "destination" farmers' markets can be overwhelming and pretentious. 

Yesterday, I overheard a woman ask a dealer, "Are these heirloom tomatoes?"

He answered, "They're Early Girls."

She walked away.

Ridiculous! Sad! Early Girls aren't heirlooms -- they're hybrids -- but they're fantastic. In fact, I prefer them to all the lumpy, striped, oddly-sized heirlooms I have tasted over the decades. But "heirloom" has become a buzzword, and people are all about the buzzwords at the Farmers' Market. 

Socially speaking, I prefer the Safeway experience. No one is trying to be cool in Safeway. They are just stocking up on Wheat Thins and bathroom cleaning products and strawberry jam. It is very calming to stroll down those colorful, orderly aisles. The posturing outside world is far, far away when you're in the middle of a big, temperature-controlled Safeway. You are not trying to express yourself, make a statement, or change the planet with your food purchases. You are just buying food.

Or should I say "food?" 

Because, the tomatoes are terrible. Ditto the peaches. And they don't have beef cheeks or fifteen kinds of baby lettuce or shell beans or purple basil and the chicken is pumped full of hormones and the salmon full of orange dye and they put all the sugary (correction: corn syrupy) cereals at eye level with your kids and I know, I know, I know, how screwed up our food system is. Safeway is its ultimate expression. 

So, I go to the farmers' market, and probably always will. And I will probably always feel a little mixed up about it.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Alice Waters: Steamed Sole & Apricot Tart

That's an apricot curd tart, made from Chez Panisse Desserts, which isn't technically an Alice Waters cookbook -- it was written by Lindsey Shere -- but nonetheless falls under the umbrella of this project. 

You can tell the difference between the Waters books and the non-Waters books immediately. Waters' volumes tend to be restrained, elegant, a little precious. Paul Bertolli's Chez Panisse Cooking is long-winded, meditative, Italocentric. And Chez Panisse Desserts is overstuffed, mellow, generous, and playful. It is also packed with recipes I want to try, using rose petals, geranium leaves, black raspberries.

The apricot curd finished off the Utah apricots, and yielded a very smooth, tangy dessert. If I had a pastry bag I could have made more artful use of the whipped cream, but this was still the prettiest thing I cooked last night.

It was not, however, the most delicious. That would be the steamed sole with beurre blanc (Simple Food), one of the world's most fattening and excellent fish dishes. God, how do food writers do it? It was heavenly. All superlatives apply. 

This gorgeous recipe involved steaming the filets for seven minutes, placing them on a platter, then serving with some beurre blanc. How have I cooked all these decades and never made beurre blanc? You simmer chopped shallot in wine and wine vinegar, then add almost two sticks of butter (!!!), a tiny bit at a time, whisking as you go. It is creamy and superrich, but has a wonderful bite to it. The ideal complement to delicate white sole.

French cooking 101, which apparently I missed. 

Friday, August 22, 2008

Alice Waters: Vanilla Pots de Creme

I have reservations about Alice Waters' Art of Simple Food. To start with, it mostly recycles recipes that have appeared in previous Chez Panisse cookbooks. Plus, Waters is trying to address a mainstream American audience and hasn't a clue how to go about it. Her awkward condescension can be excruciating. 

But I've found myself gravitating to this book among all the Waters/Chez Panisse titles in my collection because it focuses on recipes I can make without special ordering beef cheeks from the butcher (don't think I haven't tried) and acquiring a propane torch.

Like vanilla pots de creme. I haven't made these in thirty years. I had the idea to garnish them with crystallized violets, which I thought was very clever of me.

Then I decided to compare the Waters recipe to the one I made all those decades ago from the old burgundy-jacketed Gourmet II cookbook. (If you take out a magnifying glass you can see my name embossed in gold letters on the cover -- a gift from my mother circa 1977. Thank-you Checka!) And there, in the instantly familiar photograph, were pots de creme garnished with crystallized violets.

In any case, pots de creme are pots de creme, and there's not that much you can change about the standard egg yolk/dairy/sugar combination. The Waters version is lighter, using a mixture of half-and-half and cream as opposed to straight cream; and it calls for a little less sugar. 

But otherwise, it's hardly an original recipe. Just a very good one. I think Waters' goal with this book, is to remind us how delicious, and how easy, some of these basic dishes are. And she succeeds.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Alice Waters: A Perfect Angel

Cute, no?

Isabel made an angel food cake last night, using Alice Waters' recipe (Simple Food). Perfection. I've had some sorrowful experiences with angel food cakes, but this came off without a hitch, baked by an 11-year-old. What surprised me was that it had no flavorings -- no almond, no vanilla. And didn't need any. We served it with homemade apricot sherbet (Fruit.)

But the true star of last night's meal: Fettuccine with Bolognese sauce.

Waters' homemade pasta (Simple Food) appears unbeatable. My mother and I first tried it a few weeks ago (we get together to make pasta once a week) with extraordinary results, duplicated last night. Silky sheets of dough that cooked into tender, lovely fettuccine. We topped the dreamy noodles with the best Bolognese sauce (Simple Food) I've ever made. 

I'm trying to avoid superlatives because I think I use them too often, but I have searched my memory and this really was the best Bolognese I've ever made. I think the secret is hand-chopping the skirt steak instead of using pre-ground beef, which tends to form clumps. This was full of nubbly little bits of meat and pancetta, and it was fabulous.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Alice Waters: You Bet She's Condescending

Alice Waters can make a lovely salad, but she's not a particularly graceful writer. I keep noticing how she talks down to her audience, most egregiously in The Art of Simple Food, which I am currently reading. 

Simple Food is Waters' attempt at a home cooking primer, and boy, does she think we're dunces. One particularly amusing example:  "Butter is used for sauces, frying, finishing vegetables, baking -- and sometimes just to spread on a piece of bread."

You don't say.

Or this: "A picnic is a great way to change the routine and get outdoors to your neighborhood park, or the woods, or the beach."


Many Americans do, indeed, eat very poorly. But that doesn't mean they're stupid.  

Monday, August 18, 2008

Alice Waters: Roasted Squid

I knew better, and I did it anyway.

For dinner I made Alice Waters' Roasted Squid with Breadcrumbs and Oregano (Cafe), with her carrot salad (SF) on the side. The results were received exactly as I had expected: very, very badly. 

So Mark and I ate most of this fairly tasty dinner ourselves. To accompany the squid I made a really excellent, pale green, super-garlicky aioli. I'm sort of hooked on this whole mayonnaise/aioli-making process, which is not necessarily good news.

For dessert, I baked an apricot galette (Fruit) using apricots I brought from Utah. It was very handsome and elegant, but a galette is not quite as delicious as pie. It's a little austere, and you can't dig into a slice of galette the way you dig into a piece of pie.

I also just prefer the word "pie."

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Alice Waters: Alice in Utah

Serendipitously, my flash failed to activate when I snapped this photograph, casting Maddox restaurant's "famous" spoon rolls in a golden nostalgic glow. 
Maddox, in Perry, Utah, was where we ate all ceremonial meals with my grandparents when I was growing up, and it has changed almost not at all in the intervening decades. Maddox is a grand steakhouse with a sprawling knotty pine-paneled dining room, and an adjoining drive-in. No liquor is served. As soon as you sit down your clean-cut waiter (this is a very Mormon community) brings a bowl of spoon rolls accompanied by tubs of whipped butter, both plain and raspberry. As soon as you have eaten perhaps a third of the contents, your clean-cut waiter brings another bowl.

The rolls are warm. They are fluffy. They are golden-brown. They are slightly sweet. They are memorably delicious.

Maddox also makes its own sasparilla soda. And in the late summer, an incredible peach pie (the last dish I ever ate with my grandmother) made using Elbertas grown in the old orchards right across the road. 

Maddox used to raise beef right on the premises.  Today they buy their hormone-free meat from a ranch in nearby Tremonton, then butcher and age it themselves. 

So: We have local natural meat, local peach pie (available only in season), homemade soda, homemade rolls.

Is this not a restaurant that would satisfy the exacting Alice Waters?

Well, yes, for all the reasons I mentioned above. 

And no, because Maddox is not self-conscious. And Alice Waters is nothing if not self-conscious. 

Maddox takes enough pride in its Utah beef that there's an essay on the subject printed on each paper placemat.

But there are also the packaged croutons that appear on your salad. The chicken fingers on the kids' menu. The frozen halibut for dieting ladies. The people at Maddox see no contradiction in serving fabulous local steaks then throwing a sliced canned beet on a dinner salad. Or offering you some pink raspberry whipped butter to slather on your rolls.

That raspberry butter really is rather tacky. Alice is frowning. One would never see such a thing at one of the darling little cafes in Provence. Or, for that matter, Berkeley.

After my Maddox lunch the other day, I took a drive around the area and was sort of amazed at the number of fruit stands. And they are the same fruit stands that were here thirty years ago -- Pettingill's, Nielsen's, Sumida's -- when I used to wait in the hot Oldsmobile reading a John Jakes novel as my grandmother bought her local cantaloupe and peaches. 

But. . . .wait. What's this?  Alice is still frowning. Though they accomplish roughly the same thing -- putting seasonal, local produce into the hands of consumers -- there is a big difference between farmer's market culture and fruit stand culture.

The fit young MILF with her mesh bag  and Michael Perse t-shirt at the San Rafael farmer's market will take her $3.50/pound peaches home and do something elegant and simple with them, perhaps out of one of Alice's own cookbooks. A galette. A tart.

Meanwhile, the plump lady in polyester pants buying the $.99/pound peaches at Pettingill's will go home and put her fruit in a flamboyantly artificial Jell-O salad. It will be her contribution to a potluck picnic welcoming some neighbor boy home from Iraq. Her fondness for Utah peaches is unattached to a larger political/ecological/gastronomic/aesthetic agenda. They're just "real good" peaches.

Moreover, this plump lady will definitely vote for John McCain come November, now that Mitt's out of the race. She does not like this Obama fellow much at all. 

Cloche-hatted Alice has now turned her back.  

Friday, August 15, 2008

The World's Best Hostess?

Definitely the Ding Dong.

It's hard to eat the Alice Waters way while vacationing in the rural Mountain West.

 Enjoy it while it lasts, my little chickadees.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Farr's Grape Ambrosia Sherbet

That is my sweet daughter, eating Farr's grape ambrosia sherbet and rebuking her little brother. For what transgression? His existence. At any given moment, it is fair to assume that Isabel is planning to rebuke her brother, rebuking her brother, or trying to figure out a reason to rebuke her brother. 

It is not a lot of fun to watch, but as an older sister myself, I do understand.

Yesterday, we were in Ogden, Utah and made a beeline for Farr's. There were a few surprises in store.

a. It is actually called grape ambrosia sherbet, which I had forgotten.

b. It has a really zippy, fizzy taste, which I had also forgotten and which is reminiscent of nothing so much as Fanta grape soda. 

Alice Waters would not approve. Oh well. 

I may declare my quest for the Farr's grape ambrosia sherbet recipe closed. I can eat the real thing whenever I'm in Ogden, and the rest of the time make my slightly different version (based on Claudia Fleming's recipe) with fresh concord grapes and walnuts. 

But I do think I'm going to start calling it grape ambrosia sherbet. Such a pretty name.


Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Fear & Loathing in Elko

So here I am in Elko, Nevada -- charming town, all those nice brothels -- with my two kids in a hotel WITHOUT A POOL. After 9 hours of hot, dry, very boring driving this came as a shock, one we are recovering from with the help of the television set and complimentary Swiss Miss cocoa. 

But no part of my day was more brutal than reading the comments attached to my latest Closer blog, only to discover they're turning on me again. 

This calls for more than cocoa. This calls for red wine. Or a double dose of Ambien.  Or both.

The "chowish" thing to do in Elko is eat at a Basque restaurant. But I have completely lost my appetite.

Alice Waters: Pork Chops & Beet Salad

Stella liked her concord grape sherbet, though disapproved of the walnuts I added to Claudia Fleming's excellent recipe. 

Today, I'll be pithy.

I haven't yet fallen in love with Alice Waters' books, although her Quick Brined Pork Chops (Chez Panisse Cafe Cookbook) were the finest pork chops I've ever made. You take those whopping big, 2-inch chops they sell at Whole Foods (and which I've always managed to ruin) and cover them in salt and ground allspice. Let sit overnight in the fridge. When you're ready to eat, you can grill or, as I did, pan fry the meat. It comes out juicy, perfectly salted and flavorful all the way to the bone. Miraculous.

"Dare I call these revelatory?" I asked my father. He is not the kind of person who would ever approve the use of the word "revelatory."

"Oh, probably better not," he said, with one of his funny little smiles.

I am going on a trip to Utah and Wyoming today. The car is packed and the children and I are heading to visit the Old Sod. I'm looking forward to eating a Maddox spoon roll and walking along the banks of the Bear River, my favorite place in the world.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Alice Waters: Now THAT'S a Salad

I used to roast a lot of chickens, especially after I read Laurie Colwin's wonderful Home Cooking books. She was big on chicken roasting, and indeed there is something very ceremonial and festive -- but in an easy, everyday way -- about a whole roasted bird. (I love calling chickens "birds.")

But I think I roasted a few too many birds. Approximately one per week for the first 9 years of my marriage. I tried different techniques, different roasting temperatures, different stuffings. And then I stopped. Completely stopped. I haven't roasted a chicken in at least three years. (There is a little more to that story, but I trust that eventually my personal troll, thanksalot, will fill you in on the details in the comments section.)

I decided to roast a chicken in the no-frills Alice Waters style (Art of Simple Food) last night. Her instructions: Salt and pepper the bird, refrigerate over night, bake in a 400 oven for one hour, turn three times, let it rest a few minutes, enjoy.

How was it? It was fine. I just don't get all that jazzed about roasting a chicken anymore. 

But chicken salad is another story! 

I rushed home from my tedious morning errands to prepare Alice Waters' chicken salad, which starts with homemade mayonnaise. Good Lord. It has been a decade since I made mayonnaise from scratch and I had forgotten just how much oil a single egg yolk can absorb.

So, to make the salad, you mix your chopped leftover roast chicken with the mayo, add celery, chives, and capers. Waters says you can mound this on lettuce leaves, but it looked like it belonged between slices of pillowy white bread. I mean, why start counting calories now? 

It's not an innovative recipe. I'm sure there are others exactly like it, others that are less fattening, and others that are even tastier.

But this was very delicious. And unlike roast chicken, for me, chicken salad still has glamour. 


Alice Waters: Concord Grape Sherbet

A few years ago, I decided to try to replicate the fabulous grape nut sherbet that I have only ever tasted at Farr's Ice Cream in Ogden, Utah. 

I am emphatically NOT talking about Grape Nuts ice cream, the bizarre (yet also blah) New England dessert made with Grape Nuts cereal. I'm talking about a refreshing, bright purple fruit sherbet studded with walnuts. It was my grandmother's favorite flavor of ice cream, and there was often a quart of it in her freezer, right next to the Cool Whip.

I called Farr's but they couldn't, or wouldn't, help me. So I tried numerous internet recipes for grape ice cream and sherbet with results that ranged from the passable to the positively vile. Most called for Welch's grape juice.

Then, last year, I bought some fresh concord grapes and made a sorbet recipe out of Claudia Fleming's beautiful book, The Last Course

This was IT! This was my grandmother's beloved Farr's grape sherbet. All it needed was some walnuts and maybe a little milk. (My memory of Farr's sherbet is that it is slightly creamy.) 

I was speechless with happiness because I had achieved my goal; my children were speechless with happiness because it was so incredibly delicious.

Yesterday, I saw concord grapes at the Marin Farmer's Market so I bought a couple of pounds and decided to try Alice Waters' recipe (Fruits) for Concord grape sherbet. How did it measure up to Fleming's & Farr's?

Not even close. Waters calls for simmering the grapes in hot water, which robs them of their vibrant flavor. The sherbet tasted nice enough and was a pretty pink color, but it wasn't the grape sherbet of my nostalgic dreams. 

Fortunately, I saved some grapes and am going to make a batch of THAT tonight. 

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Alice Waters: Salad Days

I find salads photographically challenging, which is a bit of a problem when "cooking" through the Alice Waters oeuvre. I retract my somewhat snide remarks about the stupidity of writing a recipe for green salad. Her green salads are lively and fantastically delicious -- better than my usual winging-it salads. 

Today for lunch I tried Waters' Hearts of Romaine with Creamy Dressing (SF). It's just whole leaves of lettuce dressed with a vinaigrette of lemon juice, lemon zest, olive oil, and cream. Really excellent. Took roughly four minutes to make and two minutes to eat, and it was worth the price of the book. It would be even nicer with croutons, but they're not on my diet. 

Be sure to vote in the new poll Isabel set up today. You'll find it on the upper right side of the page.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

Alice Waters: Once More with Pesto

I find it completely mystifying that children -- children who will pick every leaf of basil off a pizza margherita -- like pesto. It's a powerful, garlicky, pungent, roughly textured sauce -- and it's GREEN. But every kid I know seems to eat it with gusto.

Since I had a lot of basil, last night I made another pesto from another Alice Waters book. This time, I tried the recipe from Vegetables which differs from the recipe she uses in Art of Simple Food. Twice as much basil, twice as much garlic, twice as much cheese. Quantities of oil and pine nuts are the same. The result was definitely punchier and, as I suspected, I didn't like it as much. 

To her credit, Waters does mention here that it's okay to use the food processor. "Purists agree that the very best way to make pesto is to pound it by hand in a mortar," she writes. "If you have the time and tools to do so, you will be rewarded with the pleasure of the process and the authentic taste of the resulting crude paste." Then she finishes by saying you can, in a pinch, use your Cuisinart.


Friday, August 08, 2008

Alice Waters: A Salad a Day. . .

Another Alice Waters Rocket Salad with Parmesan (SF), but this time I tried the exciting "variation" that includes toasted walnuts. 

It's hard to believe there are people so timid or clueless that they need to be told they can add toasted nuts to a salad. 

But maybe there are. 

It was a damned good salad.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Alice Waters: You Say Rocket, I Say Arugula

That is a salad. That is a Rocket Salad with Parmesan from Alice Waters' Art of Simple Food. We do not know why people need recipes for such rudimentary salads. We do not know why Alice Waters' cookbooks still refer to arugula as "rocket." It strikes us as a twee affectation in an American chef, like calling eggplants "aubergines," or avocados "alligator pears." It strikes us as a twee affectation like using the Royal We, which we have no idea why we are doing.

In any case, it was a nice salad, intended as a slimming lunch. Alas, it was followed a few minutes later by the remains of a child's cold, barely touched grilled cheese sandwich and a frosted cherry Pop-Tart -- the last in a package that was cluttering up the cupboard. 

We woke up this morning, stepped on the scale, and resolved to lose 17 pounds. It seemed wise to rid the cupboard of all temptations, like frosted cherry Pop-Tarts. We will sleep easier, and diet more enthusiastically, knowing they are gone.

Alice Waters: A Smooth Launch

I own nine Chez Panisse cookbooks. 

Chez Panisse Fruit (FRUIT)
Chez Panisse Vegetables (VEG)
Chez Panisse Cooking (CP)
Chez Panisse Menu Cookbook (MENU)
Chez Panisse Cafe Cookbook (CAFE)
Chez Panisse Desserts (D)
Chez Panisse Pasta, Pizza, Calzone (PPC)
Fanny at Chez Panisse (FANNY)
The Art of Simple Food (SF)

For someone who bears a grudge against Alice Waters, that's impressive.

I'm going to approach this project a little differently. Instead of cooking from a single volume, I'm going to cook from the whole family of cookbooks, identifying the source of each recipe with a shorthand code (see above.)

Last night I tackled homemade egg pasta and pesto (SF), dishes I've made many times before, usually relying on recipes from Marcella Hazan. The differences were slight and subtle, but I have to concede that Waters' recipes for both pesto and pasta worked a bit better than Hazan's. The pasta called for egg yolks in addition to whole eggs, and yielded a moist, supple dough that rolled easily into silky, paper thin sheets.
Waters' pesto formula was also superior to Hazan's -- more oil, less cheese. I've always thought I like maximum pungency, but I actually preferred this milder, richer combination. 

I was very peeved, however, that Waters does not even acknowledge the possibility of making excellent pesto in a food processor. A starry-eyed novice might read her recipe and think one really does have to haul out the mortar and pestle. Criminal!!! "I love the sensory experience of pounding it and smelling it and tasting it as I go," Waters coos.

Well, bully for you. But I really just want to get dinner cooked and on the table so I can start eating. I don't want to dawdle, pounding and smelling and humming Italian folk songs. I will never, ever make pesto in a mortar. I make mine in the Cuisinart -- something even stern Marcella permits. And so should all cookbook writers.

Anyway. "I guess we have to score a point for Alice," my mother said, somewhat reluctantly, as she ate her incredibly delicious pasta and Cuisinart-blended pesto.

As accompaniment we had Green Bean and Cherry Tomato salad (SF). Very nice. Very plain. Very healthy. What else can one say?
The blackberry ice cream (D) was not such a success. My powerful, much-used ice cream machine tends to overchurn pure-cream ice cream (as opposed to custard-based ice cream) turning it into something akin to frozen butter. Sad. The ice cream -- made with berries picked by Owen then pureed by Owen in my shiny food mill -- was a brilliant electric purple color, and had wonderful flavor. But the texture was, well, it was undeniably dreadful.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Alice Waters: Reluctantly, I Begin

I'm having a crisis of enthusiasm as I approach my Chez Panisse project.

First of all, I'm just not that EXCITED about cooking from these books. I sat down today with a whole stack of them and there were very few dishes that I really wanted to make. Roast chicken? Tomato salad? Strawberry ice cream? So simple and restrained and tasteful. So very good. So very boring. It's like shopping at an elegant boutique where you'll never find a leopard skin print, a sequin, or the color fuchsia. 

Secondly -- I'm tired! It's been a chaotic summer, what with the house project and my general tendency to overreach. I just got back from four days in New England, an interlude that should have been restful but turned out to be severely stressful due to a last-minute work assignment involving a crummy 750 page vampire novel. It's hard to write a book review while chatting on a screened-in porch. 

By the same token, it's hard to be a gracious daughter-in-law while writing a book review.

So there you have it. Totally screwed. The Baker's long weekend -- maybe even her whole overreaching life -- in a nutshell.

And now it's time to throw myself into Alice Waters, however exhausted and unenthusiastic I may feel. Off to Whole Foods to buy some local rocket, organic chicken, and chervil.