In the 1970s, Alice Waters championed sustainable farming, eating local foods, and equipping a green kitchen. That was long before those concepts became commonplace.
Waters' restaurant in Berkeley, Calif., Chez Panisse, and her many cookbooks are as familiar to home cooks as Betty Crocker. Waters has visited the Bluegrass many times, but I never thought I would have the opportunity to dine at the famous trendsetting spot.
While in San Francisco earlier this year, I had dinner at Chez Panisse on a Wednesday evening. Monday night's menus are typically simpler and more rustic or regional than on other days; and Friday and Saturday nights' are more elaborate.
Our dinner was somewhere in the middle, although more elaborate than I had imagined. The prix fixe dinner menu at Chez Panisse consists of three or four courses. The menu changes every night to be appropriate to the season and features the finest seasonal ingredients, including meat, fish and poultry.
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Our menu featured asperges et sauce gribiche (asparagus with a sauce similar to tartar sauce), raie au beurre noir (skate wing with black butter), gigot d'agneau sauce béarnaise et petis pois à la francaise (lamb and peas) and tarte feuilletée aux pommes (apple tart).
It was an incredible meal, and when Waters' newest book arrived a few weeks later, I was thrilled to add it to my collection.
In the Green Kitchen: Techniques to Learn by Heart (Clarkson Potter, $28) is about simple, uncomplicated food.
It was conceived at a Slow Food Nation event. A demonstration kitchen was set up to show what all good cooks have in common: a set of basic techniques universal to all cuisines. "Once learned by heart, these are the techniques that free cooks from an overdependence on recipes and a fear of improvisation," Waters writes in the book's introduction.
For the demonstration kitchen, there were a table, a couple of sharp knives and a cutting board, a hot plate and a few pots, a mortar and pestle, and a compost bucket. It was called the Green Kitchen, and several cooks were invited to give short presentations. The demonstrations can be seen online at www.alicewatersgreenkitchen.com.
The benefit of learning a foundation of basic techniques is that once these skills become instinctive, you can cook comfortably and confidently without recipes, inspired by the ingredients you have. Recipes in the book are intended as examples of methods and techniques that apply to cooking everywhere.
Something as simple as homemade bread crumbs can jazz up many dishes: as a crunchy finishing touch for whole-wheat pasta with cherry tomatoes tossed in oil and vinegar, or pasta with spicy fried squid; to garnish grilled squash and eggplant; or to scatter over slices of roasted meats. Unroasted fresh bread crumbs are good in stuffings and meatballs, for coating a chicken breast or a fish fillet to be fried, and for making a golden crust for vegetables that are roasted or gratinéed.
Bread crumbs are best made from tasty, high-quality bread that is a day or two old. For toasted bread crumbs, use white bread (not sliced sandwich breads) or coarse-texture levain or country-style bread.
Here's how to make them:
Remove crusts and cut bread into cubes. Process cubes in a blender or food processor in small batches. Crumbs for toasting can be coarsely ground.
To toast bread crumbs, toss them with about 1 tablespoon olive oil for every cup crumbs. Spread crumbs on a rimmed baking sheet in a thin layer, and bake at 350 degrees until golden brown, stirring the crumbs every few minutes for even coloring. If you like, toss them with finely chopped garlic and freshly chopped herbs — parsley, thyme, rosemary, tarragon, marjoram, and oregano, singly or in combination.