Sunday, April 5, 2009

Alice Inspired.

I just finished reading a wonderful, inspiring book.

“Alice Waters and Chez Panisse - The Romantic, Impractical, Often Eccentric, Ultimately Brilliant Making of a Food Revolution” by Thomas McNamee

In August of 1971, Alice Waters opened a restaurant called Chez Panisse in Berkley. Throughout the 70’s it was all the rage for restaurants to import everything they possibly could onto their menu. While the trend continued on for almost another twenty years, Alice attempted to turn it on it’s nose by insisting on using only the most local and fresh ingredients she could find. In the meantime, Chez Panisse was declared the most influential restaurant in America and Alice Waters, among the best chefs.

“Food shouldn’t be fast and it definitely shouldn’t be cheap.” -Alice Waters
My favourite quote of the book. Here’s how I see it: A lot of people love tomatoes, but in British Columbia they only grow in the summer months. However, there are plenty of tomatoes year round coming from Mexico to our grocery stores. Since they ripened on the truck, or plane, or however they got to Vancouver instead of on their vine, they are pink. And the shocker is that they don‘t cost very much. Cheap pink tomatoes. And then when summer rolls around and the farmers markets are packed with big huge amazing tomatoes grown within 30 kilometres of your home, and they cost a dollar or two more than Mexico’s, some still choose the cheaper alternative. I get that we are all getting a bit more frugal these days, but food should not be something we cheap out on. No question. It’s what keeps us healthy and alive! Hold up a Mexican tomato next to a vine ripened one - the differences are almost embarassing.

Also, I bet you would love tomatoes even more if you didn’t eat crap Mexican ones all winter and saved yourself for the best ones in the summer. But that’s another rant…

The book is lovely, giving not only the history of Chez Panisse but a few conversational recipes for things like “Tom Guernsey’s Omelette aux Fine Herbs” and “Lulu Peyraud’s Tapenade, Sea Urchin Toasts and Sardines” as well. If anything is going to convince me to eat something wild like sea urchin or cow tongue (it’s in there!), it would be this book.

Reading about Chez Panisse made me excited about local food again: about searching out the freshest ingredients and spending the time to prepare delicious food for my friends. I searched out the Chez Panisse Café Cookbook at the library and brought it home with me with that very intention.

A group of good friends from work came for dinner last night. First off, my partner in crime Kimmie and her fiancé brought a bunch of oysters and taught us all how to shuck them. We set up our own oyster bar in the kitchen and took away more than one person’s raw oyster virginity.

They also brought mussels - serious seafood lovers here - and we steamed them with some white wine and had lots of crusty bread to dip in it. We also had fennel salad (fennel, red onion, parm, olive oil, lemon juice and lots of pepper), kale, and roasted zucchini , and then topped it all off with spaghetti and meatballs. Pretty classic stuff. It was quite the spread, although I only owned six forks so there were a few people using chopsticks for their pasta. For dessert I had the best intentions on making a tart but chickened out and stuck with my new standby, apple cake. Shout out to Alice Waters who inspired it all!

Garlicky Kale
-Kale is something that grows almost year round in Vancouver, and it’s full of healthy stuff like iron and fibre and vitamins. For a while there I used to not like it’s bitter taste, but it gets a bit sweeter in the spring time and if you finish cooking it with something acidic it gets even better.

Clean your kale and give it a good shake to dry it off, and then chop it up roughly. Not too big but not too small either.
Heat some olive oil in a big pan and add enough kale to cover the bottom of it. When that starts to wilt, add some more. Do that until it all fits into the pan and then cover it with a lid or another pan to seal it off and let things start steaming. If there isn’t enough liquid in there it will start to scorch the greens so add a bit of water.
When it is cooked (it will be a really rich green) uncover it to let the excess water cook off, then push the kale to the side. Add a bit more oil and then add about four or five thinly sliced garlic cloves. Let them sizzle a bit and as soon as you can smell them pour in some red wine vinegar. Toss it around a bit, add some salt and pepper, and then serve it warm.

Spaghetti and Meatballs from the Chez Panisse Cafe
Mark Kelly, who was raised Italian just like me (Kelly - just as Italian as McDonald), approved of what went into the meatballs. Thank god…
Now, I’m not usually a red meat eater but this time I went way down the street to a butcher that only sells local, organic, free-range meat. The nice man there told me that his cows are coming from a farm in Pemberton these days so that’s something I can buy into.

¼ cup soft bread crumbs
1 small onion, finely chopped
Extra-virgin olive oil
1 pound freshly ground beef
1 egg, beaten
Freshly grated parmesan reggiano cheese
Italian parsley, chopped
Fresh thyme, chopped
Black Pepper

Sauté the onion in a little oil without letting it color. Season it with some salt and then set it aside to cool.
Next, gently mix everything up with your hands in a big bowl until it’s all an even consistency. With wet hands, shape it into walnut sized spheres (I’m trying to limit the number of times I write ’balls’) and put them on a baking sheet. This can be done a few hours before dinner, just let them sit well covered in the fridge.

Olive Oil
1 onion, finely chopped
3 garlic cloves, finely chopped
2 pounds ripe tomatoes, skinned, seeded and chopped*
Fresh parsley, thyme, and basil

Warm the oil in a big heavy bottomed saucepan and cook the onion until it’s soft and a little bit brown. Add the garlic and let it sizzle for a while, then add the tomatoes and herbs (just add big sprigs, you are going to take them out later). Bring it to a boil, then let it simmer away for about 45 minutes, uncovered so that it thickens up a bit. Whenever you figure it’s done, pull out the herbs, add some salt and pepper and you’re done!
You can use this sauce for anything you feel like, not just spaghetti. Also try jazzing it up with some olives or peppers or vegetables…
*if you can’t get your hands on ripe tomatoes, canned work equally as well - they were canned when they were ripe. Use a can or two of any variation, just not seasoned or stewed ones.

1 medium red onion, thinly sliced
Olive oil
2 or 3 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
Hot pepper flakes
Oregano, fresh or dried
1 pound of spaghetti

Put a big pot of water on to boil, and chop up your onion and garlic.
After the pasta is in to cook, heat a skillet large enough to hold all of the meaty orbs in one un-crowded layer. Add the onion and enough oil to just cover it, and when that begins to sizzle add the meat. Shake the pan a bit to keep it from sticking and then just let them start to brown on all sides. Add the garlic and let it cook for a few seconds and as soon as you can really start to smell it add your tomato sauce, hot pepper flakes, oregano and a bit more of the flat leaf parsley. Season it with salt and pepper and let it all cook until the pasta is done. Cut one of the globes in half to see if it’s done and if it is, put the pasta in a big bowl and pour the sauce over top. Serve with a lot of parmesan cheese.

Meatball replacement count: four

Unfortunately for this meal, it became much more important to maintain the red wine levels than take photos of the food and the camera fell by the wayside. Even though it looked just like a usual bowl of pasta, the taste was something else! You will just have to make it for yourself.

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