Russ Parsons: The California Cook

Russ Parsons: The California Cook

Grain salad convert sings the praises of quinoa, farro and couscous

Summer Salad with Israeli Couscous

Summer Salad with Israeli Couscous

Summer Salad with Israeli Couscous.

There is none so pure as the reformed sinner. And since I overcame my irrational hatred of whole-grain salads a couple of years ago, I have been evangelizing like crazy. All I need is a big tent and a choir, and I can take my show on the road.

Grain salads had always seemed to me just too healthful to be good. You know, like nut loaf or something. Eating them seemed like the responsible thing to do. As I wrote then, they seemed like food for penance, not pleasure.

But then I tried one. And then another. And before I knew it, grain salads had become a staple of my summer menus.

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Thomas Keller's French Laundry marks 20 years of chasing perfection

Thomas Keller

Thomas Keller

Thomas Keller in the kitchen of his French Laundry restaurant in Napa Valley.

It used to make me wonder a little when people would begin their critiques of dinner at the French Laundry by saying, "Well, it didn't change my life." Really?" I'd think, if your life is in such a state that a restaurant meal could change it, perhaps you have bigger issues to deal with. And then one day I realized that, actually, the French Laundry had, indeed, changed my life.

With Thomas Keller's storied Napa Valley restaurant celebrating its 20th birthday next week, it's a good time to appreciate it for everything it has meant.

Certainly it has changed the restaurant world. The French Laundry opened at a time when fine dining had been declared dead and buried (sound familiar?). It proved that if you provide the right mix of exciting food, great wines and attentive service, people will still pay upwards of $300 for dinner and wait two months for the pleasure.

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From Alain Passard, the beauty of a simple salad with a great sauce

Spring vegetable salad

Spring vegetable salad

A stunningly simple but delicious spring vegetable salad with l'Arpege's aigre-doux.
Recipe: Spring vegetable salad

We go to great restaurants for magic, for an extraordinary experience that is beyond our reach as home cooks. And so how to explain that the single most memorable dish I had at Alain Passard's Michelin three-star restaurant l'Arpege in Paris was a salad, and one that you could make quite easily at home?

Passard is undoubtedly a culinary magician, but of a decidedly subtle sort. Rather than creating elaborate constructions, his gentle touch coaxes out flavors that can change the way we look at ingredients.

Particularly at this time of year, when the markets are lined wall-to-wall with some of the best fruits and vegetables you'll ever taste, this is the kind of cooking that resonates.

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How to cruise a farmers market like a pro

Unlike some of the blighted, benighted areas where some of our friends live (hello, Manhattan!), in Southern California, farmers markets are stacked deep with beautiful fruit and vegetables all year long. But there's no arguing that June marks the start of their high season, when even people who never shop at farmers markets suddenly wake up on weekend mornings with an itch to go.

This is good, of course, and we don't resent the noobs one little bit, even if they do sometimes make finding a parking space more of a challenge. In fact, we're happy to offer them a little guidance, provided they keep their sticky fingers off our mulberries and Blenheim apricots. Our munificence goes only so far.

So, for those of you who are only occasional visitors to our markets, here's a primer on how to get the most out of them. And, hey, even those of you who are already regulars might pick up a tip or two.

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The unappreciated glories of rice salad

 Cool rice and cucumber salad

Cool rice and cucumber salad

To make cool rice and cucumber salad, cook the rice as you would pasta--in lots of water.
Recipe: Cool rice and cucumber salad

The world is cruel and unfair. Mediocrities are loved beyond all reason while their betters languish unappreciated. Consider the tragic case of rice salad. It's enough to make you weep. Walk by any deli case today and you'll see bowl after bowl of salads made with pasta, but hardly a single one made with rice.

This is clearly a grave injustice. Pasta salads are almost always heavy and crude — cold starch drowned in mayonnaise. Rice salads, on the other hand, are delights — light and full of interesting textures and flavors.

That they are so ignored is terribly unfair. But you can do something about it.

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Gardening skill doesn't live up to cooking talent

Mixed green salad with hard-boiled eggs and radish pods

Mixed green salad with hard-boiled eggs and radish pods

One thing I've learned for certain since I put vegetable beds in our frontyard is that, as a gardener, I'm a pretty good cook.

My agricultural shortcomings are not something I'm proud of. I start every growing season with the best of intentions, laying out well-ordered plots that seem almost guaranteed to turn into things of beauty. But then life intervenes, weeks pass and somehow the whole operation has gotten away from me.

What starts with fantasies of my photo in Sunset magazine winds up with a reality that warrants my picture in the post office — with the warning "Wanted: For plant murder."

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Hard-boiled eggs: OK, we tried it your way. But my way wins again.

Perfect hard-boiled eggs

Perfect hard-boiled eggs

The perfectly hard-boiled egg should have an orange yolk and firm but creamy whites.

Call it the Great Easter Egg Smackdown of 2014. Every time I write about hard-boiled eggs, I seem to get a flood of mail telling me, essentially, "You're an idiot, and you're doing it all wrong."

So this year I threw down the gauntlet. On our Daily Dish blog and on social media, I posted a challenge to all those hard-boiled naysayers: You tell me how you do it, and we'll give it a try.

Not to get all smug, but my method won out again. Though I did pick up a couple of refinements along the way. (None of which is to say, however, that I am not an idiot; just that I can boil an egg.)

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Shopping for sustainable food in the L.A. area

There's no way around it. In most cases, eating sustainably is probably going to be more expensive and less convenient than simply running down the street to your neighborhood grocery. But if you're interested in where your food comes from and how it gets from the field to your kitchen, here are some Southern California organizations that are making it easier to cook responsibly.

Community Seafood: Though Southern California no longer has the thriving commercial fishing community it once did, three women, Sarah Rathbone, Kim Selkoe and Courtney Dietz, are working to connect 40 to 50 of the remaining local fishermen with home cooks in Santa Barbara and Los Angeles. While almost everything you buy at most seafood shops is flown in from somewhere else, this is fish that couldn't be fresher. The catch varies from week to week but includes things such as halibut, black cod and even ridgeback shrimp. They sell at the Santa Monica farmers markets on Sundays and Wednesdays as well as having pickup points throughout the city. Or you can arrange home delivery through Good Eggs and Farm Box LA. http://www.communityseafood.com

Grist & Toll: Southern California was once an important wheat growing area, back before the San Fernando Valley was covered with houses. Co-owners Nan Kohler and Marti Noxon are encouraging the California growers who still remain by buying the grain and then milling it into flour and selling it at their Pasadena shop, located in a light industrial area on Arroyo Parkway just north of the end of the 110 Freeway. The place is new and still pretty bare-bones, but there's a gorgeous wooden grain mill imported from Austria for grinding grain into flour that is then labeled not only with the variety of wheat but also sometimes even the name of the farmer and where it was grown. So far they're open Friday to Sunday. Saturday also features bread made fresh by local craft bakers. http://www.gristandtoll.com

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The canned catch of the day: Sardines

Acabar restaurant

Acabar restaurant

Spanish can 'o' sardines, served with salad, house-churned butter and grilled bread at Acabar.

In this age of fresh and local, canned foods are so far out of fashion that it sometimes seems as if they hide their heads when you walk past them in the grocery store. In some cases, this is valid: Who still buys canned peas or asparagus? But in others, it's nothing but shortsighted snobbery on our part. What is more delicious than a really good canned sardine?

Well, certainly a fresh sardine is right up there, split and grilled over a hot fire. But canned sardines are not ersatz fresh sardines; they are a different product entirely, like cucumbers and pickles, or roast pork and prosciutto.

Canned sardines are worthy in their own right. They have earned their pungent dignity.

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Broccoli, cauliflower deserve the soft touch

Pasta with broccoli

Pasta with broccoli

Cooking broccoli and cauliflower a little longer adds taste, as in this pasta dish with broccoli, olives and pistachios.

Anyone who can turn on an oven knows the difference between broccoli and cauliflower, right? One is green and shaped like a tree and the other is white and looks more like a brain. Well, it turns out it's a little trickier than that. In fact, these two heady members of the brassica family are a lot more closely related than might be apparent.

Actually, there are many members of the family that fall in between. There are even white broccolis, oddly enough. Perhaps the most recognizable example is the gorgeous romanesco broccoli, which looks like an experiment in fractal geometry that can fit on your dinner plate. Or, should I say, romanesco cauliflower because, despite the name it's commonly given, it's actually closer to that than broccoli, even if it is a pale shade of green.

Besides that tricky bit of food geekery, another thing broccoli and cauliflower share in common is how well they respond to being cooked until they are fairly soft. This will come as a shock to those who still cling to the old "tender-crisp" style of vegetable cookery. But you really should give it a try.

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C'mon, give dried fruit a chance

Kale and wild rice salad with raisins

Kale and wild rice salad with raisins

Sweet raisins complement the flavors of a kale and wild rice salad with walnuts.

I knew dried fruit had an image problem, but I had no idea how bad it had gotten.

Sure, I can kind of understand how prunes, er, "dried plums," might have an issue — let's face it, any time your marketing solution involves changing your product's name entirely, well, things are tough.

But the other day, I was talking to Cooks County's Roxana Jullapat, and she told me that in her restaurant, merely putting the word "raisin" on the menu was enough to kill sales for a dish completely. Interestingly, actually adding the raisins had no effect whatsoever. People seem to like them, just so long as they're added on the down-low.

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Seven steps to becoming a better cook

It happens every year about this time. Well stuffed from great holiday feasts, full of the kind of hopeful ambition that a new calendar brings, millions of people resolve that this year, finally, is going to be the one when they learn to cook better.

And so they run out and buy the hottest cookbook from some celebrity chef, try two recipes and quit in disgust.

That's a shame because cooking for yourself — really cooking, not just throwing the occasional fancy dinner party — is one of the most rewarding things anyone can do. It's pleasurable and it's healthful, and how many things can you say that about?

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You say chilaquiles, I say migas. Either way, it's a tradition

New Mexico Migas.

New Mexico Migas.

Christmas breakfasts are meals of tradition in my family. Dinner, the rest of them pretty much let me play around however I want. But breakfast has to follow a certain script. Still, there are traditions, and then there are traditions.

A couple of years ago we were sitting around talking about what we were going to have for Christmas breakfast. Julekake, of course, is a given. A candied fruit-studded Scandinavian Christmas bread much loved in my father's family, it's probably been on my holiday table every year since I was born. The recipe I have comes from a tattered old community cookbook from a Methodist church in Fargo, N.D.

"And chilaquiles!" my daughter said. "Don't forget the chilaquiles. We always have chilaquiles."

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The California Cook: A school of anchovies

Salted anchovies

Salted anchovies

Salted anchovies.

Once many years ago I came across a fish vendor at the farmers market with a whole tray full of beautiful fresh anchovies. On a sudden impulse, I bought them all. Real anchovies — the ones that have been packed in salt to last — are an essential flavoring, the garlic of the sea.

And then I repented at leisure, trying to figure out what I was going to do with them. Apparently preparing your own salted anchovies is something that had not occurred to many cookbook writers. I searched through a dozen books trying to find a method before I came to a rough description of a poor Greek fisherman preparing them in one of my favorite cookbooks, Patience Gray's "Honey From a Weed."

"Assisted by his children and a gallon bottle of amber wine, he pulled the heads off the fish which at the same time removed the guts, and laid the fish neatly in the petrol cans, alternating each layer with a layer of salt and finally putting a weighted board on top. In this way he provided himself and his large family with supper throughout the winter."

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The California Cook: Glazing, what good vegetables deserve

glazed carrots

glazed carrots

Carrots can be glazed with butter, serrano chile and shallots, then finished with orange juice and mint.

So many home cooks are obsessed with making dishes just like the professionals do. They buy hand-forged Japanese chefs knives, seek out $50 bottles of olive oil and spend hours preparing elaborately composed dishes from "The French Laundry Cookbook" or "Eleven Madison Park."

But a lot of them have never even heard of one of the most basic techniques of cooking, one that requires no special equipment or expensive ingredients. In fact, you can probably do it in just a few minutes with what you have in your kitchen right now.

It's called glazing vegetables, and it's as fundamental to a cook's repertoire as roasting a chicken.

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The California Cook: From dregs to delicious

parmesan broth

parmesan broth

Spring vegetables in Parmesan broth with goat cheese ravioli.

Here in California we love to brag about our abundance of wonderful seasonal ingredients and how that makes good food easy. That's more or less true, but I have to confess that I've also always had a sneaking admiration for those cooks who can whip up something from nothing.

Sure, it's wonderful to be able to just pick up a sack of Ojai Pixie mandarins and a box of medjool dates and call it dessert. But you've really got to admire someone who can take a couple of wilted zucchinis, a sprouting onion and some canned tomatoes and turn that into something delicious — the real-life equivalent of the proverbial stone soup.

I've got my own version, and, in fact, it does start with something hard as a rock. In a battered plastic bag in the deepest recesses of my refrigerator, I've got a hidden stash of gold: rinds from used chunks of Parmigiano-Reggiano. Whenever my wife finds them, she pulls them out and asks disbelievingly: "You're saving these?" And probably 98% of people would have the same reaction.

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Peel away the complications of the perfect hard-boiled egg

Sometimes it's the simplest things that are the most confounding. Last year, right before Easter, I blogged about how to make a perfect hard-boiled egg. Basic? Yes. Popular? Very. This seemingly simple task received tens of thousands of page views.

And, it seemed, almost as many complaints: "But how do you peel them?"

Mea culpa. while my method ensures that hard-boiled eggs are never overdone (at last: the cure for the dreaded copper-green ring!), it also can make them harder to shell, because perfectly cooked eggs turn out to be stickier than ones that have been overcooked.

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The California Cook: Citrus in salads, while you wait for tomatoes

 Citrus salads

Citrus salads

Pink grapefruit and fennel salad with crab.

The cook's year can be divided in two: tomato and not-tomato. But sometimes, even the best-intentioned, most locavore-crazy among us so crave a sweet, tart bite in our salads that we break down and grab one of those cottony out-of-season tennis balls. You've done it too. Don't try to deny it.

In some cases, though, there's an easy alternative. Because happily for us, beneficent nature has ensured that the not-tomato months pair up perfectly with the drowning-in-citrus ones. And in a lot of dishes, a little bit of citrus will give you just what you were hankering for — certainly a lot better than an out-of-season tomato.

This is not a universal solution by any means. I'm trying to picture laying a slice of grapefruit on top of my hamburger. But it does work out often enough that it's worth exploring.

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The California Cook: Let artichoke possibilities flower

Artichokes

Artichokes

Artichokes.

I was giving one of my periodic talks at local libraries the other day, and someone asked if I knew a good way to prepare artichokes. It stopped me cold. "A" good way? Only one? Which one? Do you want artichokes by themselves? Do you want artichokes as an ingredient? Do you want them cooked or do you want them raw? Too many choices.

Despite the fact they look so unquestionably inedible, there is no shortage of ways to cook artichokes. In fact, just talking about them for a couple of minutes got me so hungry I went home and prepared an all-artichoke dinner.

That may sound strange. The vast majority of artichokes are consumed only one way: boiled or steamed and served with drawn butter or flavored mayonnaise. And certainly, there's absolutely nothing wrong with that. The only problem is believing that that's where artichokes end. There's a lot more to the artichoke than you might have thought.

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The California Cook: Easier polenta, inspired weekends

 Polenta gratin with Pancetita and tomato sauce.

Polenta gratin with Pancetita and tomato sauce.

Polenta gratin with Pancetita and tomato sauce.

In most cases, I'm a terribly traditional cook. If there is a longer, slower, more manual way to do something, almost invariably I will prefer it. But even I push tradition aside when I find an alternative that is not only easier but also tastes as good or better.

Which brings me to polenta, a dish that is about as traditional as Italian cooking gets (I know one terrific cook in the Piedmont who keeps a wood-burning stove in her very modern kitchen that is used only for its preparation). But 15 years ago, cookbook author Paula Wolfert called to say that she had found a terrific shortcut — in a cookbook by Michele Anna Jordan, who, it turns out, discovered it on the back of a bag of polenta.

As someone who was always exploring ways to avoid the constant stirring that polenta seems to require, I was skeptical. But there's no arguing with the results: Mix water, cornmeal and salt, and bake without disturbing, stir and then bake a little longer. The result? Perfect, deeply flavored polenta. Since then, what had been an occasional luxury has become a weekend staple.

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The California Cook: Elevating the lowly lentil

lentils

lentils

Lentils are as basic as the come. But from the lowly legume comes a world of creativity for home cooks.

As culinary fashion continues to wind inexorably lower on the luxury scale — from tournedos to beef cheeks, from foie gras to pork belly — it was probably inevitable that we would eventually come to lentils.

Representing the lowest and plainest possible food denominator since biblical times, when Esau traded his birthright for a bowl of soup made from them, lentils have always been regarded as a food you would eat only when you absolutely had to.

Yet look at a restaurant menu today or visit an upscale grocery and you'll find lentils that come in a rainbow of colors and bear an atlas of place names.

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The California Cook: Basic dishes a couple can build on

Cooking lessons

Cooking lessons

Los Angeles Times Food Editor Russ Parsons teaches Carter Calhoun and his fiancee, Meghan Garvey, how to prepare basic pasta that can be a jumping-off point for several dishes.

Meghan and Carter are getting married. Like so many friends of my daughter, they are bright, funny and, sometimes, almost preternaturally serious. A couple of weeks ago, they asked my wife if we would talk to them about how to stay married — and about how to cook.

The first, I'll leave to Kathy; after almost 34 years, it's still a mystery to me. But the cooking part is right up my alley, and, even better, I figured it would give me a chance to try out some of the ideas I've been on a soapbox about for the last couple of years.

A basic knowledge of cooking — not the intricacies of fancy restaurant dishes or the parsing of various ethnic cuisines — seems to me to be fundamental to a happy life, whatever your relationship status. A good meal gives such great joy, why would you want to leave it to the hands of a stranger?

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The California Cook: Dungeness crab purist gives grilling it a go

Dungeness crab

Dungeness crab

Get your claws on some Dungeness crab for New Year's. It's a California tradition.

If you ever needed a reminder of how much good there is in the world — and these days, who doesn't? — just cook a Dungeness crab. It is so easy to prepare; the meat is so sweet and tender; it is so nearly perfect just as it comes in its original wrapper. Surely, some greater power must love us mightily to give us anything that delivers such pleasure and demands so little.

Every year at the holidays my family has a ritual dinner of crab. We sit around and eat as much of it as we possibly can and tell the stories of our year. There is nothing like sharing freshly cooked cracked crab and a great bottle of white wine with your family to remind you of just how fortunate you really are. Sometimes we even do it more than once. That's how lucky we are.

Basic Dungeness crab couldn't be easier to prepare: Buy them at the best Asian market close to you and choose the ones that are heaviest for their size and fighting mad when they're pulled from the live tank. When you get them home, put them in a big pot, cover with water and turn on the heat. Cook them until they turn bright red; when you pull off a back leg, there should be little feathers of meat attached. Rinse them under cold water to stop the cooking and start the cooling.

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The California Cook: There's oatmeal, and then there's oatmeal

granola gift

granola gift

Homemade granola can be packaged for a holiday gift.

Now that Thanksgiving is out of the way, maybe we can talk about something that is really important: oatmeal.

Let's be specific. What most Americans think of as "oatmeal" is really rolled oats. You know, the stuff that comes in the big cardboard tube with the smiling Quaker on the front. These are oat groats (the grain with the husk removed) that have been steamed to soften them and then rolled flat. This process lets you cook them more quickly at home. The difference between rolled oats that are labeled "old-fashioned" and "quick-cooking" is how thickly they're rolled.

Real oatmeal is made from raw oat groats that are chopped to a fairly uniform size. It takes longer to cook and has a firmer texture than rolled oats.

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The California Cook: Curious about Mom's Epicurious recipe

My mom has a recipe on Epicurious. At first I found that amusing. Epicurious, after all, is the holy grail of recipe websites, the collected works of some of the best food writers in the country. And, to put it most kindly, my mom was not a gifted cook. At least not by the definition we most usually apply today.

Oh, it's a good recipe. Maybe a great recipe. We printed it in the Los Angeles Times for the first time in 1992 and most recently in 2000, and I still get calls and emails every Thanksgiving asking for Mom Parsons' Cranberries.

It has just the right balance of sweet and tart, with the spice of cloves, cinnamon and allspice coming up from the background. I can — and sometimes do — drink the syrup straight. The texture is like a loose jelly, but the cranberries are cooked briefly, so they still have pop. It's so good that I know my mom couldn't have thought it up herself.

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The California Cook: After 30 years, basic training in rice

Cooking rice

Cooking rice

Cooking perfect rice.

I've been cooking rice for more than 30 years and just now discovered I've been doing it all wrong.

All this time I've been following the same basic pilaf method — probably learned from an old Pierre Franey column or something like that. I melt some shallots in butter, add the rice (about a cup for 3 or 4 people), add water or stock (11/2 to 13/4 cups), bring it to a simmer, cover tightly and cook until the water is absorbed, about 15 to 20 minutes. Sound familiar?

About as advanced as I ever got was discovering that if I let it stand for 5 minutes off heat after cooking, the rice wouldn't mush together as much when I stirred it.

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The California Cook: Green chile enchantment

A bag of green chiles at the Green Chile Roast & Lunch.

A bag of green chiles at the Green Chile Roast & Lunch.

A bag of green chiles at the Green Chile Roast & Lunch.

At Ventura's Arroyo Verde Park on Sunday, if you squinted really, really hard, you could almost believe you were in the mountains of New Mexico — the steep, brush-covered hillsides, the pine trees and, most important, the smell of roasting green chiles hanging in the air.

Of course, once you opened your eyes you couldn't help but notice the palms and eucalyptus, and then there were the booming sounds of Armenian pop coming from the wedding at the next clearing.

But that momentary illusion was enough for the more than 100 Los Angeles area alumni of the University of New Mexico who were gathered for the group's 20th annual chile roasting fundraiser.

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The California Cook: Zucchini is a versatile star of summer

Round zucchini

Round zucchini

Round zucchini.

Tomatoes are summer's glamour crop, round, red and ripe. But though zucchini will never get as many magazine covers, real cooks know you can't beat it for versatility. If you've got a perfectly ripened backyard tomato, there are only a few things you should do with it (yes, admittedly, all of them are delicious). But if you've got a bag of zucchini, well, the sky is the limit. Here, when you include the three accompanying recipes, are a dozen quick ideas.

31 zucchini recipes

1. Bulgur salad with arugula, zucchini and pine nuts: Combine toasted soaked bulgur, wilted zucchini and minced red onion, dress with olive oil and lemon juice and at the last minute add torn arugula leaves and toasted pine nuts.

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Melons play more than sweet melodies

Melon salads

Melon salads

Watermelon salad with feta, mint and cumin-lime dressing.

My dad has never been much of a food guy. I still remember his go-to comfort dish when I was a kid was something he called "bread soup," which, if I recall correctly, consisted of torn-up white bread soaked in milk. I guess growing up in North Dakota will do that to you.

But when it came to melons, he was way ahead of the curve. Served a wedge of cantaloupe, he'd sprinkle it with salt and pepper. I've never seen anyone else do that, but the combination is terrific — a good melon is way too wonderful to be treated only as a sweet.

There are plenty of traditional examples of this. The most obvious is melon and prosciutto, and a very good one it is: the satin saltiness of the ham playing against the buttery sweetness of the melon. That's only the beginning of possibilities. I remember well the Thai melon salad Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger used to serve at their old City restaurant, nitro-fueled by fish sauce and chiles.

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'The Art of Cooking With Vegetables' by Alain Passard is a keeper

Beets with lavender and blackberries

Beets with lavender and blackberries

Beets with lavender and crushed blackberries are topped with frothed whole milk. Recipe

In a world overstuffed with weighty, glossy celebrity chef cookbooks, it would be easy to overlook Alain Passard's newly translated "The Art of Cooking With Vegetables." But it would be a mistake.

Granted, it's a slim book — 100 pages even. There are no tricky Space Age twists — not a gel, juicer or immersion circulator in sight. And perhaps most damning for some, there isn't even a single food photograph.

But take it into your kitchen — and leave it there. This is one of those rare books that might actually change the way you cook.

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The California Cook: Cracking the code of panna cotta

Panna cotta

Panna cotta

A fresh berry sauce pairs well with homemade panna cotta.

I've spent a good chunk of the last two weeks surrounded by spreadsheets, crumpled paper packets, cartons of dairy products and dirty ramekins. Josef Centeno has a lot to answer for.

A couple of weeks ago I stopped in at his Bäco Mercat restaurant downtown for a lunch that ended with one of the best panna cottas I've ever had. You know what I mean: Delicately sweet, it was like a dream of cream held together by faith and just a little bit of gelatin.

It struck me — how long had it been since I'd had panna cotta? A few years ago you couldn't go anywhere without seeing it. Then just as suddenly it went away. It makes no sense. A good panna cotta is as good as dessert gets. Vowing I would never again leave my panna cotta cravings to the whims of restaurant fashion, I determined to master the dish.

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The California Cook: Two cookies that go well with fruit

Snickerdoodles with fruit

Snickerdoodles with fruit

Snickerdoodles are old-fashioned cookies that combine the slight bitterness of cream of tartar and the sweetness of cinnamon sugar.

Strolling the Santa Monica Saturday farmers market the other day, thinking about dinner. Five pounds of that thumb-thick jumbo asparagus from Zuckerman Farms? Of course! I already had carrots and favas from my garden. I'd ordered a leg of lamb. But what's for dessert? Almond torte maybe? Lemon curd tart?

But all that late-season citrus — Oro Blancos, grapefruits, blood oranges, tangerines — I just couldn't resist them. So maybe I'd do a fruit salad with a spiced syrup? Or just tangerine sections sweetened a little with rosemary honey? Then, suddenly, my mind was made up for me: I tasted a wedge of Page mandarin from Armando Garcia's stand. The flavor was almost explosive: sweet, spicy, perfect all by itself. Honey? Syrup? Forget it, the juice was almost syrupy just as it was. There's nothing I could do to make this thing any better.

Still, even I'm not Chez Panisse-y enough to serve just a bowl of fruit and call it dessert. That's where cookies come in.

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Cooking hard-boiled eggs, the right way

The perfect egg

The perfect egg

Hard boiled eggs that have no dis-coloration around the yolk.

Every year around this time millions of eggs are hard-boiled, artistically decorated and then thrown into the garbage. Frankly, that's probably just as well. Because most hard-boiled eggs are pretty terrible. The whites are rubbery, the yolks are pale and mealy and, even worse, surrounded by that sulfur-green ring of shame.

Cooking hard-boiled eggs is easy; cooking them right is not. Unless you know what you're doing. Then it's as close to a foolproof no-brainer as you can get in the kitchen.

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The California Cook: Getting creative with citrus

Citrus

Citrus

Citrus is practically raining from trees this time of year in Southern California.

I'm writing this column having just spent an hour with our local fruit gleaner picking tangelos from my tree. We must have pulled at least 40 pounds. Earlier in the day, I'd picked an additional three dozen pieces of fruit for recipe testing. And the danged tree still looks like it hasn't been touched.

This time of year in Southern California is an embarrassment of citrus riches. We've got so many tangerines, oranges, lemons, grapefruits and tangelos in my neighborhood that it seems impossible to figure out what to do with them all.

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The California Cook: Kale in a salad? Yes

Kale salad

Kale salad

Kale can be perfected for salad with a lot of kneading and a little dressing.

Kale is about as unlikely a food star as you can imagine. It's tough and fibrous. Bite a piece of raw kale and you'll practically end up with splinters between your teeth. Nevertheless, kale has become a green of the moment because, given a little special care, it actually can be made not only edible but delicious.

You can cook it, of course, the lower and slower the better. But surprisingly, one of the most popular ways to use kale these days is in salads. Though kale leaves have always been found on almost every salad bar, it wasn't for reasons of edibility — it was for decoration, because this was one green so tough it would last forever without wilting.

But the solution is remarkably simple: Give it a massage. Yes, seriously. And I mean a real massage — a deep-tissue bone-breaker. Grab bunches of it in both hands and squeeze. Then rub them together. And repeat. It's almost like kneading bread dough.

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California Cook: Pancakes made from ground oatmeal, wild rice

oatmeal pancakes

oatmeal pancakes

Oatmeal pancakes can be enhanced with dried fruit. And syrup, of course.

When cooks travel, they inevitably bring back recipes as souvenirs. A trip to central Italy might mean a wonderfully simple braise of fennel in olive oil. Go to southwest France and come back with pork confit. Visit Tokyo and you find a twist on the savory custard chawan mushi. When I hit the road, I usually seem to come back with pancakes.

Several years ago in Mendocino I discovered one of my absolute favorite pancake recipes, from Ole's Swedish Hot Cakes at the Little River Inn. They're rich — 11/2 sticks of butter! — and delicate in texture. What's not to love? My newest pancake passion, though, is neither rich nor delicate, and I love it just as well.

I found these pancakes during a summer road trip through northern Minnesota at a sweet little coffee shop in Bemidji called the Minnesota Nice Cafe — just steps from the giant Paul Bunyan statue. It was a chilly morning (do they have any other kind there?), and I was torn between the wild rice and the blueberry pancakes. So I got both.

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The California Cook: Cookbooks that bring comfort

Cookbooks

Cookbooks

Among the published treasures is a signed copy of James Beard's "Hors d'Oeuvre and Canapes."

At first glance, the story in the local paper seemed to have been written for me: "Decorating With Books." My house is swamped with cookbooks, they're stacked on just about every horizontal surface and, yes, some are even arranged on shelves. So I thought it might be a kind of a "When life gives you lemons" thing — maybe this was going to become a trendy new style in home décor?

Sadly, the story turned out to be about businesses that sell impressive-looking books — by the linear foot — to interior decorators to fill their clients' bookshelves. OK, so my stacks of old cookbooks are still not quite ready for Architectural Digest. But that doesn't mean I'm going to change anything. I wouldn't give them up for the world.

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California Cook: Finally — it's bean season

Duck on white beans

Duck on white beans

Crisp-skinned duck breast on white beans with dandelion greens.

Some people mark the start of fall with an apple pie. Others start breaking out the big reds from their wine cellars. Me? I'm a bean boy.

All it takes is the first sign of a nip in the air or the first morning that smells like ocean rain and I drag my Dutch oven out of the cupboard and start a big pot of beans simmering.

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The California Cook: Chapter and verse on better cooking

Here's the deal: You know a lot about food. You've seen all the shows; you've read all the books. On Chowhound you're a god. You love Vinny and Jon and Lindy and Grundy, and you always — always — get your reservation at LudoBites. But when it comes to cooking, well, there's a little problem.

It's not that you can't cook; it's just that what you do in your own kitchen doesn't really match up to your aspirations. You dream of flying, but you're finding it hard to get off that skateboard.

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The California Cook: A bruschetta bar: bread, toppings, eat

bruschetta

bruschetta

A platter of bruschetta shows the variety of toppings for this simple concept.

A dreary November day in Umbria. On the shores of Lake Trasimeno, the holiday boats are pulled up and covered. We're visiting the frantoio of one of my favorite olive oil producers, Alfredo Mancianti, as he grinds a mound of purple-black olives into paste beneath an old stone wheel. He pops a couple of slices of bread into a beat-up electric toaster oven, rubs them lightly with just a touch of garlic, then spoons over a little golden green oil that has floated up from the crushed olives. A sprinkle of salt and he's done.

That's probably the single best bruschetta I've ever eaten, and, on context alone, one of the best foods period. It's also one of the simplest. And therein lies what is probably the most important thing you should know about bruschetta: It's a celebration of simplicity, of the Italian art of making something amazing from next to nothing.

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Grain salad? Simply grand — really

Farro salad

Farro salad

Farro salad with mushrooms, dill and feta.

Confession time here: For years I avoided cooking with whole grains. There was just such a tinge of sacrifice I associated with them. They seemed like food for penance, not pleasure. "Eat them, they're good for you."

Sure, I'd occasionally add some pearl barley to a mushroom soup, and last year I found a delicious Greek dessert made from wheat berries, but that bit of dabbling was pretty much the extent of it. No longer. After spending a couple of weeks playing with various whole grains, cooking them this way and that and turning them into summer salads, I'm ready to say: "Eat them, you'll like them."

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The California Cook: Salmon make a welcome return

Salmon

Salmon

 

When you reconnect with an old friend you haven't seen in a long time, it's only natural that you want to make the occasion kind of special. Maybe have them for dinner. In this case, literally. After a long three-year dry spell, California's salmon are back — well, at least a few of them are. So the big question now is: How to cook them?

It's been a tough struggle for a fish that not so long ago was regarded as pretty much of a weekday dinner standby. But after peaking with a 2003 catch that totaled more than 7 million pounds, the bottom fell out of the state's fishery. By 2007, fewer than 2 million pounds were caught, and the next year it was closed altogether.

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The California Cook: Breaking the vegetable rut

Spinach pancakes from Yotam Ottolenghi.

Spinach pancakes from Yotam Ottolenghi.

Spinach pancakes from Yotam Ottolenghi.

It occurred to me as I was pulling a pan of roasted potatoes out of the oven for what was probably the third time in as many weeks — I was getting in a rut.

And with the markets flooded with the first spring produce, I was feeling an urgent need to step outside my little roasted potato box and cook something different.

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The California Cook: Mighty, mighty bread crumbs

Spaghetti with arugula and garlic bread crumbs

Spaghetti with arugula and garlic bread crumbs

Spaghetti with arugula and garlic bread crumbs

I've just discovered the magic of fresh bread crumbs. You might say it's about time, after 30 years of cooking. But I would remind you that I said the "magic" of fresh bread crumbs, not the "utility."

Everyone knows about using bread crumbs for coating a schnitzel or any other fried, baked or broiled thing. Or stuffing a bird or whole fish. Or scattering across the top of a gratin or tian before browning. I've even used them as toppings for fruit desserts, like a less-sweet version of a crisp.

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The California Cook: Stuffed leg of lamb — it's worth the effort

Lamb is stuffed with greens, feta and pine nuts.

Lamb is stuffed with greens, feta and pine nuts.

Lamb is stuffed with greens, feta and pine nuts.

I'm a high-payback kind of cook. What I mean by that is that any effort I expend in the kitchen, I expect to have repaid several times over on the plate.

You can put that down to philosophy if you want — that whole California thing of choosing good ingredients and letting them speak for themselves. Or you can attribute it to my modest technical skills — elaborate constructions with lots of elements just aren't my thing. I did enough fluting of mushrooms in my 20s, thank you.

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The California Cook: Scrambled eggs: the sunny side of dinner

Fried eggs with asparagus and bread crumbs can make a simple dinner seem fancy. Common ingredients work well with eggs.

Fried eggs with asparagus and bread crumbs can make a simple dinner seem fancy. Common ingredients work well with eggs.

Fried eggs with asparagus and bread crumbs can make a simple dinner seem fancy. Common ingredients work well with eggs.

I've always loved Robert Frost's line about home being the place where, "when you have to go there, they have to take you in." Perhaps I'm putting an overly optimistic reading on it, but the idea that even on our coldest, darkest nights, there is always a place with a warm light in the window is reassuring. That's kind of the way I feel about having eggs in the refrigerator.

It doesn't matter how gruesome the workday has been or how late it is when I get home, give me a couple of eggs and some of this and that from the fridge and I know I can fix a meal that will not only get me through the night, it will even redeem the day.

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The California Cook: Seasonal vegetable stew is easy, delicious

Artichokes, fennel and potatoes bake in a flavorful packet.

Artichokes, fennel and potatoes bake in a flavorful packet.

Artichokes, fennel and potatoes bake in a flavorful packet.

It was a lazy Sunday afternoon, and I'd just gotten home from the farmers market with, as usual, several bags of vegetables and no firm idea of what I was going to fix for dinner. So I did what I usually do in that situation — started leafing through cookbooks.

I picked up the first one and — I swear this is true — it fell open to this very page:

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The California Cook: The recipe for a great cioppino? Your imagination.

Cioppino basics are wine, tomatoes and assorted seafood.

Cioppino basics are wine, tomatoes and assorted seafood.

Cioppino basics are wine, tomatoes and assorted seafood.

I don't think I've ever written about cioppino without getting into an argument. That's probably as it should be.

One of the definitive California dishes, cioppino is a classic soup of fish in a garlicky tomato-wine broth. And that's probably where the agreement ends. Definitive and classic though it may be, there are as many cioppino recipes as there are cioppino cooks.

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The California Cook: Gougères, ready in a flash

Gougeres

Gougeres

 

As a cook, I am prone to enthusiasms and sometimes, perhaps more often than occasionally, they can be a bit excessive. I readily admit that. But, please, trust me on this one: Frozen gougères are the best thing I've discovered this year. No, really.

Doubt me? Think about this: a crisp, crusty savory cream puff, lighter than air but rich with the utterly irresistible fragrance of browned Gruyère cheese. And here's all you have to do to fix them: Remove from freezer; place on cookie sheet; bake for a half-hour. All of the hard work — making the dough, piping it into puffs — can be done well in advance.

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The California Cook: Our best turkey tweak yet

A turkey is grilled using hickory chips. It frees up the oven.

A turkey is grilled using hickory chips. It frees up the oven.

A turkey is grilled using hickory chips. It frees up the oven.

For something that is the centerpiece of almost every Thanksgiving dinner, the turkey gets surprisingly little attention. At least from most normal people. They tend to stuff it, roast it and forget it. And then they complain about how boring turkey is for another year.

Not at my house. I love the big bird, and I'm always trying to find new ways to make it even better. And I've got to say that my newest improvement may be the best yet.

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The California Cook: Homemade ricotta -- it's easier, and better, than you think

Homemade ricotta

Homemade ricotta

 

When it comes to most things around the house, I'm about the most unhandy guy you've ever seen. I can't hang a picture straight. But when it comes to cooking, I go a little do-it-yourself crazy. The last couple of weeks I've been making my own ricotta. Before you dismiss this as just another wacky fad, trust me — you've got to give it a try.

It doesn't require any special equipment, and you can find all of the ingredients at your neighborhood grocery. And the results are so much better than almost any commercial ricotta you can buy that you won't believe it's the same stuff. This is ricotta you can — and maybe should — eat by itself.

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California Cook: Making jam in small batches (with big pleasure)

Perfumed nectarine jam meets toast. Cooking jam in small amounts, one feels free to experiment.

Perfumed nectarine jam meets toast. Cooking jam in small amounts, one feels free to experiment.

Perfumed nectarine jam meets toast. Cooking jam in small amounts, one feels free to experiment.

And so now I'm reading that jam-making has become a favored pastime of the culinary adventurers. That's great — there are few things that make breakfast sweeter than spooning homemade preserves onto a piece of toast. But I can't help wondering how long this boom will last once we get into the really thick heat of summer. Standing and stirring a big pot of boiling fruit will take the starch out of even the most enthusiastic cook.

Not to worry, I've got a solution — you just need to think small.

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The California Cook: An author's instructive fishing expedition

"Four Fish"

"Four Fish"

 

It's taken a while, but you think you've finally gotten a grasp on the issues related to where most of your food comes from. You've successfully parsed the gray areas among local, seasonal, organic, sustainable, no-spray and conventional. You know your carbon footprint from your food miles, and you shop at a farmers market when you're not getting deliveries from your CSA.

Congratulations. Now what do you do about fish? Yeah, that's what I thought. Me too.

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The California Cook: How to grill the perfect steak

Steak, potato salad with celery and roasted corn.

Steak, potato salad with celery and roasted corn.

Steak, potato salad with celery and roasted corn.

Ah, the first warm days of summer, when some mysterious force compels even the most hapless cooks to start a fire and burn some meat. Walking around my neighborhood last weekend, the smell of flaming beef fat was everywhere.

It made me wonder: Really, how hard can it be to grill a good steak?

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Breakfast as holiday, and Dad's in charge

A perfect way to spend a weekend morning

A perfect way to spend a weekend morning

 

What is it about cooking breakfast that makes me feel so much like a dad?

Waking up early on a Sunday morning, starting coffee, pulling out a mixing bowl, beating eggs and sifting flour — I'm a regular Hugh Beaumont. I'd be ready to start spouting fatherly advice if my wife weren't still asleep and my daughter hadn't moved into her own apartment, oh, three or four years ago.


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The California Cook: Quick and delicious quesadillas

Quesadillas with mushrooms and goat cheese. Corn tortillas are preferred for this dish.

Quesadillas with mushrooms and goat cheese. Corn tortillas are preferred for this dish.

Quesadillas with mushrooms and goat cheese. Corn tortillas are preferred for this dish.

In the beginning, there was grilled cheese, and it was good. How could it not be — creamy melted cheese, bread crisped in butter? And then, of course, came the panini, once a simple Italian snack bar staple, turned seemingly ubiquitous. Now it looks like it may be the quesadilla's turn. And, really, the only thing to be said is: It's about time.

Granted, making quesadillas is not going to earn you a reputation among your friends as the next Top Chef. Not unless it's at the end of a long day of work and they're hungry. At times like that, a well-prepared quesadilla, made from a good corn tortilla and stuffed with something like mushrooms and goat cheese, or braised greens and feta, is pretty darned delicious.

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The California Cook: For small farmers, thinking outside the markets

Chef Gil Boyd works at the Farmer's Kitchen, a restaurant at the Hollywood farmers market.

Chef Gil Boyd works at the Farmer's Kitchen, a restaurant at the Hollywood farmers market.

Chef Gil Boyd works at the Farmer's Kitchen, a restaurant at the Hollywood farmers market.

People can talk all they want about the important restaurants and the famous chefs that have gotten so much attention over the last 30 years, but for me the biggest change in that time has been the introduction of farmers markets.

They have had a revolutionary effect on the way food is grown and marketed in the United States. Still, at a most generous estimate, less than 2% of fruits and vegetables are actually sold at them. So how can they move beyond that?

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Asparagus is a rite of spring

All sizes of asparagus can come from the same set of roots. The biggest come from the very healthiest part, usually near the center.

All sizes of asparagus can come from the same set of roots. The biggest come from the very healthiest part, usually near the center.

All sizes of asparagus can come from the same set of roots. The biggest come from the very healthiest part, usually near the center.

I'm wary of people who dig too deep for food metaphors, particularly when they involve religion, but if ever there were a case for a perfect pairing of produce and season, it would be asparagus and Easter.

I love brightly colored eggs and bunny rabbits as much as the next guy. But if you want a concrete example of rebirth and the potential for new beginnings, just walk an asparagus field in early spring. What a few weeks before had been acres of brown raw dirt is now studded with hundreds of bright green asparagus spears poking through. In a month or so, the harvest finished, it will be a waist-high forest of ferns.

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In SoCal restaurants, a new passion for the whole pig

Paul Buchanan, chef of Primal Alchemy catering company, breaks down a pig.

Paul Buchanan, chef of Primal Alchemy catering company, breaks down a pig.

Paul Buchanan, chef of Primal Alchemy catering company, breaks down a pig.

It's a different kind of cooking class Sasha Kanno and a half-dozen other students are taking this sunny Saturday morning in Long Beach. Standing around a portable worktable wheeled into a darkened nightclub, they are watching intently as Paul Buchanan, chef of Primal Alchemy catering company, goes to work. In front of him is a whole pig. It's the size of a large dog and, after being cleaned and shaved, almost startlingly naked-looking. When Buchanan reaches for the hacksaw, rather than recoil, the students crowd in closer.

Though the scene may sound more reminiscent of a Hollywood slasher movie than Rachael Ray, there's nothing macabre about it. This is no Halloween gross-out stunt. This class is just the tip of a very porky iceberg.

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Easy polenta that doesn't skimp on flavor

Polenta with mushrooms

Polenta with mushrooms

Well-made polenta is delicious by itself, but a good sauce can be made from mushrooms and not a whole lot more.

In Italy's Piedmont region, where polenta may be better loved than anywhere else on Earth, the cornmeal mush is a food of the fall. When the air turns crisp with the first frost and people await the arrival of snow, housewives labor over their cooking pots, stirring, stirring as coarse meal slurried in water gradually thickens and becomes sticky and delicious. To serve, it's poured out onto a wooden board in a rich golden puddle like a harvest moon.

Cesare Pavese wrote about it in "The Moon and the Bonfires," a nostalgic novel about a Piedmontese expatriate's return home: "These are the best days of the year. Picking grapes, stripping vines, squeezing the fruit, are no kind of work; the heat has gone and it's not cold yet; under a few light clouds you eat rabbit with your polenta and go after mushrooms."

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Rise of the modern romaine empire

Romaine salad with bacon, homemade blue cheese dressing and radishes.

Romaine salad with bacon, homemade blue cheese dressing and radishes.

Romaine salad with bacon, homemade blue cheese dressing and radishes.

A lot of times when food writers praise an old-fashioned ingredient such as romaine lettuce, they do it with a nod and a wink and more than a hint of condescension, like fashion critics chortling when a Parisian couture house sends its models out dressed in gingham and lace -- "Oh, how very droll!"

Not me. If food is good, it's good and fashion be damned. And romaine is good.

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The facts about food and farming

The issues facing agriculture today are much more complicated than lining up behind labels such as "local" and "organic."

The issues facing agriculture today are much more complicated than lining up behind labels such as "local" and "organic."

The issues facing agriculture today are much more complicated than lining up behind labels such as "local" and "organic."

One of the more pleasing developments of the last decade has been the long-overdue beginning of a national conversation about food -- not just the arcane techniques used to prepare it and the luxurious restaurants in which it is served, but, much more important, how it is grown and produced.

The only problem is that so far it hasn't been much of a conversation. Instead, what we have are two armed camps deeply suspicious of one another shouting past each other (sound familiar?).

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Vegetables, the overlooked pleasures of a Christmas feast

Cauliflower and potato gratin is simple and satisfying -- as a side dish at the Christmas feast or as a light main the rest of the year.

Cauliflower and potato gratin is simple and satisfying -- as a side dish at the Christmas feast or as a light main the rest of the year.

Cauliflower and potato gratin is simple and satisfying -- as a side dish at the Christmas feast or as a light main the rest of the year.

The big bang captures too much of our attention at Christmas. As kids (and maybe even later), we immediately go for the biggest packages under the tree, ignoring the more apparently modest stockings by the fireplace. The adult equivalent of that comes at the table, where we'll plan for weeks the massive roast that will be the centerpiece of Christmas dinner, the spectacular desserts that will cap it, or the fabulous wines that will make everything flow, and then wake up that morning thinking, "Oh shoot, maybe we ought to have a vegetable too."

I've been as guilty of that as anyone, spending weeks dreaming happily of my stuffed crown roast or my friend Martha's Christmas trifle. But just as we want our kids to appreciate the smaller gifts as well as the big ones, we adults should spend a little more time focusing on the quieter pleasures of the holiday table.

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Suggestions for the cook on your Christmas list

A chinois is an item of lust for the expert cook.

A chinois is an item of lust for the expert cook.

A chinois is an item of lust for the expert cook.

One thing about having a hobby like cooking is that people tend to think they know just what to get you for Christmas. Of course, unless they're cooks themselves, they're almost always wrong.

Pots and pans? Almost invariably the wrong size or the wrong material. Gadgets? Take it from me: I've got two kitchen drawers full of them, most of which I use only once or twice a year. A good chef's knife? They might as well try to arrange a marriage.

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A more flavorful dry-brined turkey

Flavored salts add a new twist to dry-brined turkey.

Flavored salts add a new twist to dry-brined turkey.

Flavored salts add a new twist to dry-brined turkey.

 

Thanksgiving is a holiday built on tradition. And, much to my surprise, I seem to have found a new one of my own -- writing about dry-brined turkey.

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Stop and smell the ragu

Four kinds of pork add rich flavor to this ragu.

Four kinds of pork add rich flavor to this ragu.

Four kinds of pork add rich flavor to this ragu.

Sometimes, listening to the pundits and ponderers, I get the feeling that cooking is my duty. It's good for the environment; it's good for my health; it's good for society; it's good for my family; it's good for the small farmers and food producers who depend on my business.

But though all of those things are doubtless true, the one reason for cooking I rarely hear mentioned is that it's just plain fun.

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30 days of ripe tomatoes

Tomatoes

Tomatoes

 

Summer always comes late to Southern California, but that seemed to be particularly true this year, as the cloudy gray days of June gloom stretched well into August for many areas. There was a good side, to be sure, but what we gained by not having to turn on the air conditioner was offset by the sorry state of our tomatoes.

In my garden, except for some precocious Sweet 100s, nothing became ripe until about a week ago. Then wham! all of a sudden, everything ripened at once. As a result, I am now swimming in tomatoes.

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Julie, Julia and me: Now it can be told

Meryl Streep in "Julie & Julia"

Meryl Streep in "Julie & Julia"

Meryl Streep in "Julie & Julia"

At a certain point in the wonderful new movie "Julie & Julia," there is a plot twist so shocking the audience gasps. Julia Child does something that seems so totally out of character that even on the way out, people were still shaking their heads. "How could she?" Well, that's one mystery I can solve. I was right there in the middle of it.

Before I go any further, I have to warn you that this column is as full of spoilers as an unplugged refrigerator in August. If you haven't already seen the movie, you might want to wait to read this until after you have.

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'Organic' debate goes on, naturally

Figs

Figs

When I wrote a column recently about my questions about organic produce, I expected that I'd get a lot of mail. Especially after I started with the statement: "I don't believe in organics."

Organics is an article of faith for a lot of people and what I had to say was pretty far from the accepted dogma. Still, it was something I thought really needed to be said and if, after more than 20 years of covering farming and food issues for The Times, I wouldn't say it, who would?


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'Organic' label doesn't guarantee quality or taste

Plums

Plums

I don't believe in organic. There, I've said it and I feel better. It's something that's been on my mind for years.

Now, don't get me wrong: I've got nothing against organic farmers. In fact, some of my favorite farmers are organic. I really admire them: Growing delicious food and doing it according to organic standards is adding a degree of difficulty that I wouldn't wish on anyone.

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Smart steak cuts for lean times

These steaks cook in mere minutes

These steaks cook in mere minutes

Set the steak out about an hour before grilling to allow it to come to room temperature.
Recipe: Grilled flank steaks with chimichurri sauce

In the old days, say about this time last year, it wasn't so hard to throw a bang-up backyard barbecue: You just picked up some nice, thick 28-day dry-aged prime New York strip steaks, lighted a fire, grilled to medium rare and then made an extended curtain call, trying to appear humble as your guests stomped and cheered.

These days, in case you haven't heard, things are different.

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Chef memoirs: What hath Anthony Bourdain wrought?

Books

Books

Anthony Bourdain didn't invent the chef memoir, but he revolutionized it. And judging by the latest crop of books, I'd say he has a lot to answer for.

In the old days, chef stories followed a pretty staid outline: childhood in sunny France, first job, first great chef, own restaurant, and after many struggles, stardom. Like Horatio Alger stories they were at once almost ritualistic in their progress and thoroughly sanitized, yet oddly comforting in their predictability.

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How to cook with farmers market produce

Spring vegetable stew with herbed ricotta gnocci

Spring vegetable stew with herbed ricotta gnocci

Go to a farmers market and your mind begins to race. Fava beans? What can I do with them? What about the asparagus? And look at those artichokes! Strawberries, mmmm. There are so many terrific ingredients just begging for you to buy them at this time of year that it can seem impossible to decide what to cook.

Some people try to solve the problem by eliminating impulse altogether and shopping strictly from recipes -- they'll print out their favorites and then follow the ingredients list to a "T," regardless of what might be best that particular day. Others go the opposite direction -- they'll buy up everything they see and then when they get home spend the afternoon searching through cookbooks to find recipes to use it all up.

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A short path to shortcake nirvana

Bake until golden brown.

Bake until golden brown.

SEE IT: Bake until golden brown.

Many years ago, when I was younger and even more foolish than today, I took it upon myself to perfect the shortcake. I spent a week going through a dozen or so recipes from my favorite writers, cooking them, plotting the ingredients on a spreadsheet and then testing different combinations until I came up with the shortcake of my dreams.

What's so foolish about that? Absolutely nothing (though a tad obsessive, maybe). But then I had to go and proclaim it in print as "The Ultimate Shortcake." And of course you know what happened then -- within a couple of months, I found a shortcake I liked better. "Sic transit gloria pastry" and all that.

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Schnitzel's delicious simplicity

German potato salad

German potato salad

EASY SIDE DISH: German potato salad.

A friend and I were talking the other day about -- brace yourself -- what we were going to make for dinner. I said, "Nothing special, just some schnitzel." Her eyes got big and she said almost in a whisper: "I love schnitzel." We then spent five minutes reviewing our favorite schnitzel variations.

So far no surprises, I mean, what's not to love about schnitzel? Take a pork cutlet, pound it thin, roll it in bread crumbs and quickly fry it. It's sweet, it's tender, and did I mention that it's fried? Serve it with a green salad and you have a terrific dinner that's made in less than 45 minutes, including time for resting.

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For one Greek American family, the hunt for greens is deeply rooted

Three generations

Three generations

THREE GENERATIONS: Elaine Panousis, left, Alexia Haidos, right, and Alexandra Panousis, seated.

These days, when Alexandra Panousis takes her girls out to cut weeds for dinner, she stays in the car, directing the action from the front seat of a new Jaguar. Not those, she tells her daughter, Elaine Panousis. You want the type with the yellow flowers. Get the ones with the thinnest stems and the finest leaves, she tells her granddaughter, Alexia Haidos. And when you clean them, bend the stems so they snap at the most tender part.

It's not that Alexandra is all that bossy; it's just that she's almost 97 years old. And though she still gets hungry for horta, it's getting to be a little hard for her to hunt the hillsides and vacant lots of the Palos Verdes Peninsula the way she has for the last 75 years.

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A quick fix makes greens in spring soup sing

A quick fix makes greens in spring soup sing

A quick fix makes greens in spring soup sing

HEARTY: A quick fix makes greens in spring soup sing.

"It seemed like a good idea at the time" may well be the sorriest phrase in the English language and, perhaps, the most common. I know I contributed at least a couple of dozen repetitions all by myself the other night.

We were having some friends over for dinner. It had been raining all day and I had a big pork roast planned for a main course, so I thought for a first course I'd serve a soup made from mixed braised greens.

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A splash of seasoning can be better than a shake

Seasonings

Seasonings

MANY KINDS OF TART: A pantry should have several acidic seasonings, including citrus and a few kinds of vinegar.

When most cooks read "season to taste," they automatically reach for the salt shaker. That's not a bad start: A judicious sprinkling with salt will awaken many a dull dish. But if you stop there, many times you'll be missing a key ingredient. Because just as a little salt unlocks flavor, so can a few drops of acidity.

Add a shot of vinegar to a simple stew of white beans and shrimp and notice how the seemingly simple, earthy flavor of the beans suddenly gains definition and complexity. Do the same thing with a soup of puréed winter squash and see how a dish that once was dominated by rich and sweet now has a round, full fruit character.

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The refrigerator personality test

A refrigerator's contents are a kind of personality test.

A refrigerator's contents are a kind of personality test.

A refrigerator's contents are a kind of personality test.

I figured it was probably time to clean out my refrigerator when, digging around for a jar of jam, I found a roll of film. A roll of film! Remember those? How long it had been there, I don't know. I not only have a digital camera, I'm on my second one.

Clearly, it was time for either a major cleaning or an archaeological expedition.

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Slow cook onions, and the results are delicious

Rib-eye with carmelized onion marmalade

Rib-eye with carmelized onion marmalade

You can use onions as a sauce for meat, as in this rib-eye with carmelized onion marmalade.

The daughter met me at the back door: "What is this stuff?" she asked. It was Monday night, our regular date for her to come over and wash her clothes and then eat dinner and watch "Dexter" with me (nothing like laundry and a TiVo-ed serial killer for father-daughter bonding).

She'd arrived early and, hungry, had dug around in the refrigerator for something to snack on. Finding a pot of my latest hobby, she'd smeared some on bread, topped it with a dab of goat cheese and popped it in her mouth.

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Once-exotic mushrooms -- king trumpets, maitake and shimeji -- get ready to rise on Southern California turf

Mushrooms

Mushrooms

FOREST OF CHOICES: Shimeji, left, king trumpets, center, hen of the woods, back right, are making their way to major markets.

KING trumpets that have a texture almost as firm and meaty as young porcini; shimejishimeji that have a flavor that is wonderfully nutty; hen of the woods with a taste as earthy as their name. If you still think the cutting edge in grocery store mushrooms is enoki, shiitake and portobello, you've got some very pleasant surprises coming.

And if one Southern California partnership has its way, there are going to be plenty of those surprises available too.

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Summertime, and the cooking is languid

Refreshing

Refreshing

Zucchini with pine nuts are cooked to the texture of butter, tart with lemon and perfumed with fresh herbs.

Walk into a really hopping tapas bar in Spain or a swanky little osteria in Italy on a summer evening, and right at the front door you're likely to be confronted with a long table full of bowls of vegetables. At first glance, you might think this is just one more sign that the end of the world is near: a salad bar in Europe?

But there's one big difference: Most of the vegetables will have been cooked, and not just a little bit -- they'll be almost limp. Well, actually, there's another difference as well: They will be absolutely delicious.

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Conserving locally caught tuna, Italian style

DIY Tuna

DIY Tuna

FROM 2008: Spaghetti with tuna and cherry tomatoes. Click here for the recipe.

Improbable as it may have seemed a few years ago, canned tuna is one of the hottest ingredients around today. Good quality stuff, of course, not lunchbox fare. Imported from Spain or Italy, it can sell for as much as $50 a pound. And if it's ventresca, the richest meat from the belly of the tuna, prices can go even higher.

Paying that kind of money for canned tuna may be surprising, but what's downright shocking is how amazingly simple it is to make something quite like it at home.

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Gone fishing? Get grilling

Luxurious

Luxurious

Grilled fish — light, flavorful and quickly cooked — is the perfect entree for alfresco meals. The right fish and the right fire are key.

Summer twilight, the day's bright hot colors fade into shades of gray as a cooling breeze blows in from the sea. There's fish fresh from the grill, the skin crisp and nearly blackened, the flesh moist and sweet and gently perfumed by smoke. A drizzle of very good olive oil, a splash of lemon, a sprinkling of sea salt and you're ready to eat.

You could be dining at a seaside villa in Taormina, a taverna in Naxos or a posada on the coast near Barcelona. Or maybe it's just your backyard in Chatsworth.

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Pickles add punch to summertime meals

Pickled bites

Pickled bites

SPICY BITES: The relish tray includes pickled radishes, peppers, zucchini and grapes.

WHERE have all the pickles gone?

It wasn't so long ago that every well-dressed American dinner table was bejeweled with an assortment of them -- emerald green tomatoes, ruby red beets and opalescent pearl onions, as well as less glamorous (though certainly no less delicious) okra, mushrooms and watermelon rind. The pickle tray was a standard part of a Sunday supper.

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Simplicity's the secret for perfect grilling

ITALIAN CLASSIC: Tuscan chicken cooked on the grill under a brick results in crisp skin and juicy meat.

ITALIAN CLASSIC: Tuscan chicken cooked on the grill under a brick results in crisp skin and juicy meat.

ITALIAN CLASSIC: Tuscan chicken cooked on the grill under a brick results in crisp skin and juicy meat.

They seem to be everywhere I look these days. Every time I turn around, there's another one of those gleaming, stainless steel gas grills. At my hardware store, of course, but they're even in the center aisle of my grocery store. And as if some higher barbecue power were deliberately taunting me, I think for the last two weeks every other pickup truck I've been stuck behind in traffic has had one of those big boys strapped down in back. It seems like you can't really call yourself a cook anymore unless you've spent a couple of grand on a grill.

I don't know about you, but every time I see one I have an uncontrollable impulse to run out and buy another bag of charcoal.

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The sweet side of rhubarb

Transformed

Transformed

TRANSFORMED: Cook rhubarb with sugar and its sourness balances the sweetness in a compelling way, and its tough texture melts.

WE PUT IN A NEW front yard a couple of weeks ago, complete with drought-tolerant plantings, decomposed granite walkways and a "water feature" (apparently, nobody says "fountain" anymore). Of course, there's an edible component: four raised vegetable beds for growing tomatoes, squash, melons and greens, as well as two trees -- a Fuyu persimmon and a Panachée fig.

But the thing I may be most excited about is that with any luck, by this time next year I'll be cooking from my own rhubarb plants.

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Ready to get fresh? Time to flirt with spring soups

Mint, peas and crab

Mint, peas and crab

A silky chilled bisque of English peas is topped with crab and slivers of fresh mint.

A vivid emerald bisque with a texture so luscious you'd never guess it was made without a drop of cream. A chunky chowder rich with the earthy flavor of freshly dug potatoes and the pungent sweetness of green garlic. A fragrant shrimp broth enlivened by artichokes and tender gnocchi perfumed with fresh spring herbs.

This is the season when a young man's fancy turns to love, but I can't stop thinking about soup.

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