Seasonality and Common Sense

This was posted on  May 7 2013  on  Inside Scoop  at the San Francisco Chronicle  

Seasonality: Common Sense and Sensibility

When you are in Italy or Germany in the spring, all of the restaurants have white asparagus on the menu, you don’t think, oh those poor dumb chefs. No originality!  They all have white asparagus on the menu. How boring…..

Well, why shouldn’t they all have asparagus on the menu? They’ve been waiting all year for the asparagus to return to the market and their seasonal arrival is cause for celebration. The same is true for the first wild mushrooms, the first little peas, the first white peaches. These chefs have the same seasonal vegetables or fruits on the menu and but they don’t lie awake thinking they will be accused of being unoriginal. They think how can I cook these and make them shine? Let me use my skill to show them off at their best.   

Which brings me to chef Rick Bayless who put his feet on the ground in SFO and then inadvertently put them in his mouth. When interviewed off- the- cuff, after having eaten at Aziza, Slanted Door, Local’s  Corner,  Flour +Water, State  Bird  Provisions and My China , he said “ I have had great food on this trip but what’s interesting to me is that there is a real similarity from restaurant to restaurant. All the restaurants are doing the seasonal thing and getting the same ingredients from the same farms and what not…it’s all a little bit too alike.” (I was just in NY and everyone had ramps on the menu.)

Bayless added, “The food here is incredibly steeped in Italian food. Everyone has pizza and pasta on the menu.”  Really? At Aziza ? At State Bird?  At Slanted Door?  Are pizza and pasta on the menu at Nopalito? Benu? “Manresa?   Piperade ?  Nojo?  Namu? Commonwealth?  Their chefs all cook with seasonal ingredients and they do not cook them the same way. The chefs put their personal touch on the ingredients. And even if chefs are cooking the ingredients in traditional ways, is that so wrong, as long as the food tastes good?  This obsession with originality can go too far and create a lot of “interesting” but not necessarily delicious food.

Bayless’ off the cuff remark harkened back to Daniel Patterson’s 2005 article in the NYTimes Magazine called “To the Moon, Alice” where he said that the Bay area restaurant scene at that time was trapped in the Chez Panisse idiom and that chefs needed to break out and  use “local ingredients, precise execution  and a generous helping of imagination to create a modern, innovative and highly personal style of cooking.”  Eight years later, after seeing all of the new restaurants in the Bay area where chefs have gone off in multiple directions, he says the cooking in the Bay area has changed quite a lot and thinks that maybe even some have gone a bit too far in the other direction.

 In this era of instant and constant communication, with photos and reviews on food blogs and magazines reported daily, every chef can know what other chefs are cooking. Despite the quest for originality, all across the country, NY, Chicago, Boston, LA, the Bay area and even in Europe, many of the plates in the high end restaurants look stylistically the same!  

Years ago as part of their classical training, French chefs were  taught  to create a recipe, perfect it, and then cook it the same way all year long. So if you had a recipe with asparagus you had it on the menu 365 days a year. For a few months of the year the asparagus was fresh and local and the rest of the time it might be fresh and flown in from far away.  If you have ever cooked asparagus that you found at your market in September, flown in from a distance, you know for sure that it did not taste as sweet as those that were in season and local. Just like strawberries and tomatoes in January do not taste like strawberries in June and tomatoes in August.

There is a common sense aspect to seasonality.  The produce is at its flavor peak and that flavor does not fade in long distance transit. It is also cheapest and most abundant. Supporting local farms is crucial to the sustainability of the region. Cooking with local ingredients contributes to a regional cuisine. It is our terroir that makes us unique as opposed to other parts of the country.

So while many chefs may be cooking with the same seasonal ingredients from some of the same farmers, by supporting these farmers we now have better and more varied ingredients to cook with. It is up to the chefs to use their skills and take those ingredients and make them sing. They can choose to cook them traditionally as at Chez Panisse,  Cotogna , Nopa and Delfina or more elaborately or exotically as at Manresa or Aziza or Commonwealth . That is the chef’s personal choice. 

I know Rick Bayless and I cannot believe he believes what he said on the spur of the moment. I have been to his house where he has a huge garden. And I have been there when he personally harvested a hundred squash blossoms to bring to his restaurant. They were fresh, in season and local. He would not have it any other way.  And neither should we.

 

Culinary Education

The kitchen at the CIA in Napa is a sprawling labyrinth. When you are a guest chef, trying to find what you need can be rather daunting, especially when you are pressed for time and need to get the food out.  Dry goods, spices, and fresh ingredients are kept in different walk ins, in small rooms, on rolling cabinets and in locked cages. It’s hard to find anything unless you ask for help from a student or a teacher who works in the kitchen regularly. At the recent World of Flavors conference most of us who were guest chefs were assigned culinary students to help us get our cooking and prep done.  We had not only to set up for demos and tastings, but serve food at three receptions attended by 600 guests. Naturally we all wanted to do our very best to prepare the food of the countries whose cuisines we were representing.

In the midst of the kitchen hubbub, Mourad Lahlou called me over to his station. He was shaking his head.  He said “Joyce you will not believe this.” He introduced me to his student assistant, an eager young man clad in impeccable chef whites. Mourad had asked his student to find him some xanthan gum he needed to thicken and stabilize a dressing and the young man knew all about it and where it was stored in the kitchen. He was acquainted with sous vide and knew how to use an immersion circulator. But when Mourad asked him to get some dates, the student drew a total blank. He had never heard of dates, much less tasted one. Mourad sent him to a chef instructor to locate the dates.  The student came back with figs. Mourad sent him back until he finally returned with dates. He asked Mourad “What kind of vegetable is this?” Mourad explained patiently that it was a fruit and grew on a date palm tree, and was cultivated in California!  He had him taste one.

Now Mourad and I are at the opposite spectrum when it comes to cooking styles and technique. He is the modern chef intrigued by all that is new and I am the traditionalist grandma. But we are very good friends because we agree on the value of studying culture and history and we are united in our obsession with flavors and good ingredients. We fell into cooking because we were in love with food. We read everything. We tasted everything so we could refine our palates. We were curious about ingredients and what you could do with them. So we both were taken aback that a culinary student would be familiar with xanthan gum but, in this era of the locavore, not to know about dates or figs, both California local.      

In culinary school students concentrate on learning diverse techniques and mastering cooking skills, so it would be natural for them to know about the latest equipment and even thickening agents like xanthan gum. But to have been in classes and not know a date seemed out of sync. I think what really surprised us was our realization that today you don’t have to know about or be in love with food to attend cooking school. Many students have seen chefs on TV being a chef is considered cool. It looks like fun to compete, to be “chopped,” to cook under extreme pressure in strange locations. It’s like a game show. And some chefs get to be rich and famous.

Celebrity chefs get lots of press so these young cooks are in awe of the Mourad Lahlous, the Ferran Adrias, the Thomas Kellers and the David Kinches, all revered stars of the current culinary world. Novice cooks don’t realize that these chefs got where they are not because of a desire to be cool or a gig on TV but because they did their homework to expand their culinary horizons which in turn allowed them to focus their talents and develop their own point of view.  

I suggest that the all culinary schools take their students on tasting trip through their pantries, walk-ins and larders so that the students know what they have to work with before they approach the stoves and latest machines. All of them may not come in with equal passion or a natural culinary curiosity, but we owe it to them to expose them to food and food history as well as technique. They will benefit from a more well rounded education and they will be better cooks..

When I was interviewing David Kinch, he said that cooks needed to be” respectful of the traditions and history. “It’s a serious chink in the armor of a lot of young cooks that they don’t understand what came before them. But culturally, what went on in kitchens before, I’m not saying to follow it, to play into it, but at least have the basic understanding of that tie in. The cultural reference is very important.”

This was published in the San Francisco Chronicle  FEb 17,2013

Tweezer Cuisine

A Geezer Rant about Tweezer Cuisine

 

As I was having dinner with a friend in the latest hot restaurant, I had the feeling that I had been there before, when, in fact, I had not. It was the food that looked familiar. I wanted to love it, but it was déjà vu.

Once again I was served carefully selected, gathered and foraged ingredients arranged in a line in the middle of the plate. So precious! All soft colors and plays on texture. These were compositions worthy of an artist’s canvas or a cook book photograph, almost feminine in the delicacy of presentation, some entrees starting to look like desserts. 

The reality is that no matter how new and  stylish the venue, I had seen these plates before in the last six hip places where I had dined. If I closed my eyes to shut out the view of the room, I could have been in any one of many restaurants. All these pretty and anonymous plates look as if they had come out of the same kitchen.   

Where was the imprint of the individual chef or restaurant? Are all of them clones?

They used to joke that there was a river of tomato sauce running under the city that fed our Italian restaurants. Well now I envisage an underground team of tiny elves with tweezers, carefully placing tiny little pieces of food in regimented lines across plates all over the country. Alas, not all of the elves are behind the scenes.  If there is an open kitchen, you can observe their painstaking activities on the line. Like watching paint dry. Where is the passion and energy? It all seems so self absorbed. My friend at dinner suggested that perhaps it is not passion they lack, just life experience, a sense of food history, and a grandmother who cooked from her family heritage with heart.

I am tired of seeing undulating ribbons of zucchini or beets or cucumbers  sinuously entwined  around  fragments of seafood or vegetables, topped with little leaves, herb sprigs and flowers placed just so. And surrounded those damned dots of sauce. I thought we had seen the last of those dots the 90’s but, alas, they are back. What are we supposed to do with these? Drag or dip one of the pretty fragments into these miniscule droplets so there is something to taste?

What happened to the mantra of “Flavor First” that used to drive the chefs? After eating a lineup of oyster mushrooms alternating with pieces of squid I wondered why they were together at all. I got that it was an exercise in texture and chewiness but what did these ingredients have to say to each other? Something crucial was missing: a unifying flavor theme that would bring these ingredients together in a harmonious and delicious way.  

Many of the new restaurant menus are written in the same flat and un-enticing style: a shopping list of ingredients. (What follows are taken from four different restaurant menus )

King salmon, eggplant, olive, mustard seed.

Chicken, asparagus, tomato, wood ear mushroom, pine nut

Beet , vadouvan, mustard.

Watermelon, lovage, cactus, buttermilk, basil

Cucumbers, day boat scallops, wild fennel, purslane, almonds

BBQ pork, shelling beans, corn bread. mustard ash, licorice root

Quinoa, fava , turnip milk, curds

This style is what David Kinch used to call “comma cuisine” when describing how menus were written in Northern California in the early 80’s.  All nouns in search of a verb.  

I hate to think that after all of the long, hard work of the food revolution of the 80’s and 90’s to improve and expand our larder, that our cooking has come down to this: a parade of lovely ingredients lined up and marching in lockstep, like Miss America pageant contestants with not much of import to say, just pretty faces in favor of organics and world peace.

As a geezer who can recall, fondly, many delicious, full flavored dishes I can still “taste”, I am dreaming of the day when the guys put away the tweezers and the squeeze bottles and start making memorable food, There has been too much style and not enough substance.  It’s all foreplay. The palate is entertained but not educated, titillated but not really fed in a sustaining way. After this kind of meal I want to go out and eat a burger.  

 

 

 

 

Wine and Food Pairing Class at Yale

A veersion of this piece appeared in the Sommelier Journal in April 2012

Yale Wine and Food Pairing Seminar for Seniors 

Usually when we hear the words university and alcohol in one sentence we expect the news to be bad: wild parties, binge drinking and immature behavior.  But, of course, it does not have to be this way. That is why Yale University decided to be proactive and use wine and food pairing as a teachable opportunity. 

“Reality Bites” is a series of seminars created by Rafi Taherian, Yale’s Director of Food Service to prepare seniors for life after graduation. The first session was how to set up a basic kitchen. Others address formal business dining and etiquette, cooking locally in season, mixology, and wine and food pairing.  The latter was my assignment.

Because of my previous associations with Yale, working with Rafi on redesigning the salad bar in all twelve colleges, and because we had worked together at the CIA at Greystone he invited me to teach this session. Rafi knows my son Evan Goldstein, MS and had attended some of his wine seminars. He also knew of my passion for wine and food pairing and that I had created the recipes for Evan’s book Perfect Pairings. While having us both there to work with the seniors would have been the ideal setup, Evan was in Australia with the MS program, so it fell to me to   initiate the seniors into the world of fine dining and fun dining and to present wine in the context of a meal.    

First I asked for a list of wines that the university uses for its faculty catering events. I was hoping to select wines that were typical of their varietal, rather than odd balls. The inventory was somewhat limited but I was able to choose wines from their cellar except for the Pinot Noir which I asked them to purchase. Of course, there were budgetary constraints. The wines we had were Cava Segura Viudas brut, Kim Crawford Sauvignon Blanc 2010, Macrostie Sonoma  Chardonnay 2009, Calera’s Central Coast Pinot Noir 2009 and a Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon from Buehler 2008.

Next I had to plan recipes versatile enough to work with at least two of the wines on the table. I wanted the food to be relatively easy to prepare ahead of time, with not too much a la minute tweaking, so as not to stress the catering team. I selected four dishes for the five wines. The first course was warm Gorgonzola custard with a salad of greens, pears and walnuts and walnut vinaigrette that used sherry and balsamic vinegars, no sharp red wine vinegar that would make the cheese and wines taste off. The second course was an herb and orange zest marinated fish on a bed of white beans. The third course was sauteed chicken with tomato sauce, pancetta, and basil. And the final course was a Sicilian lamb stew with red bell peppers and mushrooms

The venue for the tasting was the President’s Room at Woolsey Hall. The format was seven round tables each seating six. Over a hundred seniors had signed up but the room could not accommodate all of them.  

I then had some decisions to make on how to run this seminar. Because these students were super bright and inundated with paper work, I decided not to give hand outs describing each wine. I did not want them to spend time looking for characteristics that might not be present in our selected wines. I wanted this to be purely experiential. I would talk about each varietal in general terms, what range of foods they could be served with. I wanted them to taste each wine and to trust their own taste buds and form their own opinions, allowing for surprises and avoiding preconceptions. 

They were instructed to look at the wines’ color, to swirl, to sniff and then taste. We tasted the wines in sequence and talked about them .I solicited their impressions at every turn. After the initial tastings the food started to come out of the kitchen. What I wanted was for them to taste each dish with all of the wines to see what they liked and what they did not like. This is an old fashioned technique used in the 1970’s by Shirley Sarvis in her pioneering wine and food pairing classes at the Stanford Court Hotel. I gave them no caveats or preconditions of what was supposed to work with what.  

Their responses were right on the money. The Cava was ideal with the salad, better than any of the wines, and even better than the Sauvignon Blanc. The Cava’s previously undetected sweetness was revealed by the fruit in the salad and highlighted by the slightly funky cheese which they were previously wary of. Even though some of them did not like the Chardonnay upon the initial tasting, they enjoyed it with the fish. A few, however, liked the way the Pinot Noir picked up on the herbs in the marinade. Pinot Noir was their choice for the chicken, but some thought the Sauvignon Blanc worked well with the tomato sauce. And while the lamb stew was good with the Cabernet and the Pinot Noir as planned, many thought the Sauvignon Blanc was better in highlighting the peppers and the sauce, which unbeknownst to them had some white wine in the base.

Because I did not tell them what were supposed to be the best pairings, they created their own and trusted their palates. While most of them agreed on the most obvious matches, they were not afraid to like Sauvignon Blanc with lamb or Pinot Noir with fish. The evening ended with a raffle giveaway of five copies of Perfect Pairings and five bottles of wine. Everyone was happy. Later every senior who attended was sent copies of the recipes.

The senior in charge of coordinating this event wrote. “Last night was such a treat!! The food was delicious, the wine was great, and you taught me so much!!  However, I’m just so happy that the seniors who came got a chance to learn and be together in such a way. So often we forget about enjoyment, not only of the food we’re eating, or the alcohol we’re consuming, but also of learning and of the people around us. We let deadlines, stress and meetings take precedence! This event gave people an experience with enjoyment in a way we so rarely get around here– and it’s my hope that after seeing this, people will pursue it more and more often and create it as a possibility for their whole future.”  So be happy, sommeliers, that these are your future customers.

Istanbul

I took my fifteen year old grandson  Adam to Istanbul for a week of culture and cuisine.  I had been to Istanbul twice before; once in1959  when I was the only woman seen on the street or in restaurants; again in 1993 with a group of Chefs as part of an Oldways trip. And this year.  The changes in the city are amazing. Today Istanbul is a vibrant international center. From 1 1/2 million people in 1959 to almost 15 million today.

Because I was traveling with a teenager I arranged for a professional guide for two days as I did not trust my rusty art history  background to educate Adam as to the wonders of the Islamic and Ottoman world.  So this gave us both a fresh look at the Haghia Sofia, Blue Mosque, Topkapi palace and other architectural miracles.

The Bazaar seemed even more overwhelming this time around, too many T shirts and tchotches.  Better luck at the spice market where I bought wooden tasting spoons, ideal for dipping into a really hot stew or soup and not burning your mouth.

As a chef, food was , as usual, on my mind. I went in seach of dishes that I had eaten and cooked before ( did my version measure up? )  and of course always looking for new ones to add to my repertoire. The su boregi (water borek ) at Borsa was amazing , as well as their icli kofte and manti. so good that I will now attmpet to recreate them at home. I loved the ekmek Kadayif at Hunkar. Just the right amount of sweet syrup to soak the bread. And that gorgeous kaymak cream. We ate street food galore, loving the wraps at Durumzade and the pistachio cream filled filo pastries at Gulluoglu. And the amazing vegetable mezze at Ciya where chef Musa creates the most unsual dishes with greens and herbs foraged in the countryside.

I think Adam had a good time. Teenage boys don’t talk much. ( unless you are another teenage boy or girl)

Istanbul on the horizon

In a few weeks I am taking my grandson Adam to Istanbul for his special Grandma trip.  A few years ago I took his sister Elena to Venice and Rome. We haad a great time. Now it is Adams’ turn.

Naturally it will be an eating adventure. Eggplant a hundred ways, kebabs, boreks, baklava, guvecs, street food galore . We will have a guide for a few days so that all the art history that I have forgotten will be told to Adam by our guide. Then  one day we are going on a street food crawl with Istanbul Eats. We will be dining at Ciya twice, thank goodness, as chef Musa is an inspiration.  I have eaten his wonderful food at the CIA at the World of Flavors conferences. Alway a show stopper. 

Our dinner reservations have been arranged by Cenk Sonmenzsoy  Cenk is a talented food blogger based in  Istanbul   His site is www.cafefernando.com   Cenk is writing his first cook book and is also a chocoholic He and Adam should get along just fine.

So stay tuned for more. I promise to write about our Istanbul adventure.

So where have I been for so long?

I know it’s been too long. I mean how can I claim to have a blog if I am not blogging. It’s not that I have been too busy to write. It is that I have been writing, full time. That big manuscript that I handed in  was too big, too unwieldy and in need of editing and reorganizatiion.  So back to the writing desk  After 6 months of working with a special editor,  the manuscript is now, finally, with my editor at UC Press for the next go around. After a bit more work. the manuscript will be sent to peer reviewers for their comments and suggestions.   Hopefully for some words of praise too.

If all goes as planned, the book will be out in a year. That is right. A year. It is like giving birth to a whale.

As you know, I have written 26 cookbooks BUT writing a history for an academic press is a whole other ballgame.  I have learned a great deal in the process. And I  hope that after all this very heard  brain breaking work, we will all think this has been worth it. 

So I apoligize for my seeming silence. I have not really been silent but  these days it is books before blogs.