Russ Parsons: The California Cook
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."More...
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.More...
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.More...
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.More...
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.More...
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.More...
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.More...
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.More...
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?More...
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.More...
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.More...
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.More...
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.More...
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.More...
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.
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.More...
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.More...
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.More...
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.More...
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.More...
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.
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.
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.More...
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.More...
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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."
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.
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?).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
"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.
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.
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.
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.
Once-exotic mushrooms -- king trumpets, maitake and shimeji -- get ready to rise on Southern California turf
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.