thanks, judy

263926_10100441385122531_2250107_nFor every delicious mouthful.  I made your roast chicken for my Thanksgiving-for-One feast this year, just before you passed on to the great dinner party in the sky.  Of course I would.  It was one of the best dishes I’ve ever had in my life.  Bright, simple, balanced: the chicken was roasted ’til golden fat in the big brick oven, then pieced out and laid atop peppery greens and crispy whisps of bread crouton, which mingled with the juices.

269465_10100441385237301_8280984_nA revelation each and every time.  A needed reminder that there is a moment or two of grace left in the world.

I took these photos at Judy Rodgers‘ restaurant, Zuni Café in San Francisco, a few years ago.  The roasted chicken bread salad had been served there for many years, and it was such an iconic dish it even made it into her NYT obituary twice, once in text and once as the image of Ms. Rodgers at work.  I don’t often say this, but the dish was more than just poetry or symphonic taste, it was a reflection of who we are and what we mean to do in creating food to share.  I learned to cook in the late 80s as a high school student in the Midwest who would soon find her way out to Northern California for college.  The new landscape, the wonders of Berkeley Bowl, and a boyfriend who shared the adventure with me were instrumental to my own education.  And all of this was fed by the revolution going on around me, one Judy Rodgers was helping to foment.  So for me, California cuisine was cooking.

Sitting in front of that platter of chicken bread salad many years later, and taking it in for just a moment — understanding the room California cuisine gives us to ponder the elements, thinking about the life that was sacrificed, the hands that formed the bread and picked the greens, and the unerring creative mind that knew one classic dish could resist dining fads and fancies — was almost better than the first spear of juicy chicken dressed with a little balsamic and olive oil, a stray leaf, a shattered bit of bread.

Let anyone who dares argue that food is not art take on a dish like this, emblematic of a life and a movement and a time and a place.

282367_10100444363947941_2325507_nAnd so good I just might just make it my Thanksgiving tradition from now on.

264256_10100441384848081_6046104_nFor a recipe, see Smitten Kitchen’s adaptation, or buy the Zuni Café Cookbook, one of the absolutely best American cookbooks in existence.

Chef Judy Rodgers, with the greatest respect, RIP.

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california in a jar

IMG_3406On my way back to Eugene, I was feeling a little bitter and sorry for myself because I couldn’t do all the things I wanted to do in California thanks to the funeral side trip to Michigan.  I had planned to take a longer route down, a solo road trip, that would allow me to visit colleagues and friends and explore a bit of California’s Central Valley, America’s bread basket.

The Central Valley, according to an NPR story, is “the greatest garden in the world” and reports that it produces 25% of the nation’s food.  As someone who lives in America’s former bread basket, the Willamette Valley of central Oregon, I view it with an amateur historian’s eye — fascinated and horrified by commercial farming practices that turn a fertile crescent of land into monocultures ruled by pesticides.  In particular, I was thinking of investigating a little farm or two that might be growing unusual olives to spite those black marbles we see on the grocery story shelves or those awful huge pyramid-shaped flavorless strawberries that weren’t meant for shipping.

The funeral dashed my hopes and free time, but I got lucky anyway, and stopped at a few local produce stands along highway 505 at Winters and I-5 near Williams.  And found what I was not expecting, including a nut wall made of shipping containers that separated an auto business from a popular taco truck in Winters.  (I snapped this shot while waiting for my lengua tacos for my friend John Mariani, no relation, and told him his detractors were at it again.)

IMG_3409Most notably, Royal apricots were up and running at the Double R Ranch produce stand in Winters, so a picked up half a flat with some olive oil from Knabke Farms.  I only found out later that Heath Ranch Organics in Orland grows fantastic and wonderful varieties of citrus fruits as part of a 30-some-year relationship with experimental research scientists needing a demo farm.  (That’s their gas pump and sign, above.) If I had known Ron and Melanie Heath were so cool, I would have stayed longer and asked to tour the farm, but we did have a quick chat about blood oranges and Sevilles as we snacked on the absolutely best Valencia oranges I’ve ever tasted in my life.  I managed to leave with some of those oranges, a blue star thistle honey bear, a pound of pistachios grown and roasted down the road, and a pound of red wine-marinated kalamata olives.

IMG_4653Of course, I needed to rush right home and bottle it all up.

The Québécois make a conserve called nougabricot that famed jammière, the Alsatian pastry chef Christine Ferber, has made famous.  With all due respect to my French-Canadian ancestors, I think nougabricot sounds like a mouthful of marbles, and a conserve made of apricots, almonds, pistachios, oranges, lemons, and honey is really a California thing, so I have taken the liberty to rename it:

California in a Jar

A conserve of apricots, almonds, and pistachios.  Yield 6 half pints.

  • 2.75 lbs. ripe but not overripe apricots (choose an heirloom variety like Royals or Royal Blenheims if you can)
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 8 oz. dark honey (Ferber suggests chestnut, I used avocado honey for the California theme)
  • 1 lemon, juiced and zested
  • 1 orange, juiced and zested
  • 1/4 teaspoon lemon zest
  • 2/3 cup slivered almonds, toasted
  • 2/3 cup shelled pistachios (unsalted or rinsed if they are salted)
  • few dashes rose water (optional)

Wash, pit, and quarter apricots.  Very large apricots should be cut in pieces.  Wash and sterilize your jars and prepare two-piece lids.

In a large pot, bring all ingredients to a simmer, then pour into a glass or stainless bowl, cover with parchment paper, as any apricots left exposed will oxidize to brown, and refrigerate overnight.

The following day, strain the solids from the liquids and place liquids in your preserving pan.  Heat the liquids until they are syrupy and reach a temperature of 220 degrees, which will allow some thickening to occur (but it will still be a loose-set product).

Add the solids to the syrup and bring to a vigorous boil, then keep at a boil for five minutes. Let sit off heat for five minutes and skim foam. Add a few dashes of rosewater if you like, and ladle product into sterilized jars.

For processing, fill to 1/4 inch from top, pressing down apricots and nuts under syrup to combat oxidization problem, and process for 10 minutes in a boiling water bath canner.  Between you and me, I think this one really should be kept fresh and in the refrigerator, so I didn’t process the jars.  The hot conserve “sealed” the lids after I added the product, but it is a weak seal and I must stress a refrigerator is necessary if you don’t waterbath can the jars.

what thoughts i have of you tonight

IMG_3395IMG_3401IMG_3403

In my hungry fatigue, and shopping for images, I went

into the neon fruit supermarket, dreaming of your enumerations!

– Allen Ginsberg, “A Supermarket in California

OK, Eugene Saturday Market, step it up.  If a food cart pod South of Market under the freeway overpass in San Francisco can serve gravlax, Korean barbecue pulled pork sliders, and Peruvian ceviche with yam and parched corn, so can you.  Change the zoning laws or stranglehold on licenses or backwater policies or narrow aperture in the City Hallways or whatever it is that keeps new food carts, with glorious ideas and international treats, from opening up on the streets of Eugene.

Love,

Your childless, lonely old grubber

olive garden receives another warm welcome

OK, I wasn’t going to do it, but given the proliferation of excellent reviews on the Olive Garden, I have to add mine.

It was late in the summer of 1999 and we had just moved from Berkeley to rural Connecticut on a choking, dripping hot night, one of those nights that trick you into thinking it might rain at any moment. Californians can’t handle humidity; their blood is too thick and innocent. They count on the sun to rise in the morning and a gentle fog blanket at night.  I hadn’t experienced a hot night in almost ten years.

So we’re in our little cottage in the woods, half-naked and savage, crowded in by a sheen of oily sweat and by boxes, and it’s so late and we can’t breathe.  The electric fans are hopelessly, helplessly buried.  We’re a good 30 miles from civilization.  The crawling, singing things throb around us, pressing us in through the open windows.

I had just seen The Blair Witch Project, and with the keening of the forest and the cats bugging out and our soft California reality rotting into vampire meat there was absolutely no doubt whatsoever that the witches of the Joshua’s Tract Conservation and Historic Land Trust were closing in.

We have to leave.

What?

We have to leave. Now.

The car has air conditioning.  We drive.  There has to be somewhere cool to go, somewhere to wait it out…

Olive Garden.

I have no idea what we ate.

deli diaspora and the preservation renaissance

dscf0540New York-style Jewish delis ain’t what they used to be.  In yesterday’s New York Times, Joan Nathan reports on one family-run deli in Newark, NJ.  Hobby’s Deli still serves up traditional fare, but serves it to a changing demographic, due to new racial mixes in old Jewish neighborhoods and health concerns plaguing so many of the classics.   Delis have introduced salads (like with the green stuff!), and don’t sell nearly as many corned beef briskets as they once did.

If the traditional New York Jewish deli changes fundamentally due to changing customer taste, I’ll be sad, but also interested in how it will evolve in New York.  Like so many aspects of Jewish communities, deli food has moved on in other areas of the country.  My husband, who grew up eating Attman’s corned beef in Baltimore, chef d’oeuvre of one of two surviving eateries on Corned Beef Row, and my own salt-cured self, who scouted out any corned beef sandwich she could in the Jewish neighborhoods of suburban Detroit, are both products of what I call the deli diaspora.

I can happily recall the moment of rapturous discovery in each place we’ve lived when we discovered the local Jewish, or sometimes, Jew-ish deli:  Saul’s Deli in Berkeley, for example, or Rein’s New York-style Deli in Vernon, CT.  Rein’s Deli even has a glossary of deli terms.  (No, Totowitz, we aren’t in New York any more).  Saul’s, only a few blocks from our first house together, has always featured creative interpretations of deli specialties, but I see that they now specialize in seasonal foods, offering chard dolmas, chopped liver with tomato and onion jam, Moroccan chicken, and a side of long beans, almonds and white chard.  Hey, that doesn’t sound that bad at all to me.  A good cook is a good cook, and there are so many possibilities with the deli canon that it’s hard to believe that more hasn’t been done.  There is a huge and wonderful range of Jewish cookery, both Sephardic and unexplored regions of Ashkenazi cuisine, that would do very well in any deli if prepared with love and skill.

I know I’m usually wearing my Superior Oregonian hat when I talk about northern California (and almost always when I talk about New York), but we Eugeniuses have so much to learn from the Bay Area in terms of our local tastes.  I think even traditional deli would be seen as exotic here in Eugene, unfortunately.  But could we attempt a sustainable, local, deli-style restaurant?  Saul’s Deli surely is inspired by Chez Panisse, just down the street, as well as from Michael Pollan, who is a frequent customer.   In Eugene, we can similarly learn from restaurants like Belly, which makes French bistro new again in its seasonal, PNW-inflected dishes.

Saul’s has a lot to say about reinventing Jewish deli; you can read on the deli’s blog about their take on reviving traditions of Jewish vegetarian cooking, using sustainable beef, and reducing the size of sandwiches.  The Jewish deli, they emphasize, will not survive on nostalgia alone.

I couldn’t agree more.  After all, no one is particularly nostalgic about shtetl food, far more traditional than the deli.

But for those of us who love traditional kosher-style deli, we can keep some of the deli traditions alive in our own homes.  Joan Nathan seems to disregard the preservation renaissance when she writes:

In the old days, everybody cured their own corned beef and pastrami, made their own pickles, and used bread from a neighboring bakery. Now, few even make their own matzo balls.

This demise, of course, contributed to the rise of the deli and kept it flourishing in its heyday.  City life did not lend itself to the big crock of smelly sauerkraut in the studio or curing meat hanging from the ceiling of the bedroom.

DSCF2537But on the West Coast, where we’re preserving our hearts out, and even in some pockets of hip outer boroughs of NYC, where they’re acting like they invented preservation, the old days are new again. In Eugene, since we don’t have anything resembling a Jewish deli (although Barry’s on 13th does have matzoh ball soup, and my husband says he likes their other soups) and we undeniably make some sketchy moves (e.g., my tempeh Reuben and liberal-elite Reuben phyllo appetizers), we have to do what we can.

I thought I’d archive some of my deli-worthy recipes, so you can make your own deli at home.  I’m not a New Yorker, or an expert on deli food preparation, but I have to say my preserved food would give a deli a run for its money.  And yours can, too, because what I’m doing is not magic or difficult.

Here are some of my resources for making various deli specialties:

  • Kosher-style dill pickles.
  • Fermented full-sour and half-sour pickles.
  • Sauerkraut for Reuben sandwiches and soups.  Now is harvest time for fat, juicy cabbages, and if  you’d like to make red cabbage sauerkraut, the red cabbages are particularly good right now.
  • Brisket made with local dried cranberries and mushrooms.  This is my favorite brisket recipe.  (The other one in my recipe binder is titled “Traditional, if Dull, Passover Brisket.”)  I usually cheat and use prepared dried cranberries and mushrooms in this recipe, but why not dry your own?
  • Old-world chicken soup.  This often means “with cow bones added,” to beef up the broth.  My recipe is inspired by several old Jewish ladies, and one middle-aged one, who made the absolutely best chicken soup I’ve ever tasted in my life.  Mine’s not nearly as good as hers, I’ll admit, but I’m not sure if I’ve ever had a chicken soup in a deli that’s as good as mine.  They’re often washed out and watery.  Sigh.
  • Corned beef or tongue. I’ll be sharing my techniques at the October 10 Master Food Preserver meat class.  Please join us, if you’re local and interested in preserving meats!

I’d like to add to my repertoire in the upcoming months.  Here are my two quests:

  • Rye bread.  Polish rye bread, unseeded, is one of my great quests in the West.  I had to control myself when I was on fellowship in Buffalo because they had an entire shelf of Polish rye, freshly baked every day.  My project for 2009, to become an ace bread baker, did not even sorta kinda come to fruition.  OK, OK, I did help for a couple of hours at a fabulous MFP bread baking class, I put some baking cookbooks on my Amazon wish list, and I watched a friend bake bread in my kitchen.  Does that count?  No?  Really?  OK.  Onward to 2010!  If I can figure out how to make a Polish rye loaf at home, I will expire of happiness.
  • Potato pancakes.  We put the Ore- in Ore-Ida, yo.  Oregon potatoes are excellent, so excellent they were bought up by Heinz.  : /  But anyway, I’ll post a latke recipe this winter.  My recipe is quite good, if I do say so myself, but I am a latke purist, and I don’t even like onion messing up my pure, crisp potatoey pillows of heaven.  I’ll figure out the proportions and all that, but it might take a while.

DSCF2807And of course, you’ll need applesauce to accompany the latkes.  Don’t wait up for me!  Now is the time for canning and freezing fall apples as applesauce.  Homemade applesauce is about a thousand times better than commercially processed stuff.  I don’t have a preference, really, taste-wise, between canning and freezing, but a good, tart apple is essential.  Ask at your market which local apples are best for saucing.  I always, always freeze at least a cup of applesauce made with fall apples, since winter apples are kept fresh by cold storage, via a method that makes them reluctant to mush up nicely.

And that, my friends, is everything I’ve always wanted to say about deli.

berkeley bowl love

I could write an essay on my love for Berkeley Bowl, the produce market with some other stuff attached. Sure, I loved it more when it was in the old building, the bowling alley that became the market, but I love it now, too.

I could write about my strategies for maneuvering down the aisles with a overfilled hand basket because even first thing in the morning, even on a midweek afternoon, it was an obstacle course to get a cart through the store.

I could tell you of my discovery of zucchini flowers and purple taro root and habañero peppers and microgreens and fresh water chestnuts and garlic chives, each with their own funny story and delicious memory.

I could wax poetic about the cheap, plump, gorgeous vegetables I had the good fortune to be able to purchase in the poorest salad days as a college student, when I would regularly dine on okra and Brussells sprouts sautéed and added to my ramen noodles.

Indeed, I could yammer on about any number of dinner parties and my best memories of the Bay Area, my formative years of my 20s and the pleasures I was somehow lucky enough to have for so many years.

And I could, of course, write about the “other stuff attached,” like the entire grocery store with a full-service fish, meat, bulk foods, hot foods, olive counters and everything in between. I could tell you of expansion and the crowds and the zen of parking.

And any emigrant to Berkeley with even a single blood cell of Foodie in her would be able to tell you a story like this.

But I can’t find the words to describe how I feel when I visit Berkeley Bowl each I come back to town and still find new discoveries. This time, it was Palestinian limes and elderflower syrup and immature almonds and impossibly beautiful black plum tomatoes (in April? Oh yeah, mine used to grow now, too) and plump cactus fruit just begging to be made into liqueur.

And it was being a shameless tourist with a camera — no one kicked me out of the store!