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David Latt

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David Latt has been a television writer/producer for 30 years, working on "Hill Street Blues" (won an Emmy), "The Hitchhiker," "Bakersfield P.D.," "Get A Life," "EZ Streets," "Stir Crazy," David Lynch's "Twin Peaks" (nominated for a second Emmy) and many others. He co-wrote half a dozen pilot scripts and headed the writing staff of DotComix a motion-capture animation website. And through the long hours and stress of dealing with production craziness -- bad weather, out of control costs, needy actors, and distressed fellow writers -- he shopped at farmers markets, cooked, and wrote about how important it is to eat well.

At times after a difficult week, he would cook all weekend. Eight, 10 hours each day, he worked at the cutting board and stove, cooking until he got his focus back and filled the dining room table with small plates of California-Mediterranean style dishes for his family and friends to enjoy. Wanting to share his passion about food, he wrote recipes and described the fun of exploring the local farmers markets.

Putting his television experience to good use, he created Secrets of Restaurant Chefs, a YouTube channel, with lively videos by well-known chefs sharing their favorite recipes.

In addition to writing about food for Zester Daily and his own sites, Men Who Like to Cook and Men Who Like to Travel, he has contributed to Mark Bittman's New York Times food blog, Bitten, One for the Table and TravelingMom. His helpful guide to holiday entertaining, "10 Delicious Holiday Recipes," is available on Amazon eCookbooks. He still develops for television but finds time to take his passion for food on the road as a contributor to Peter Greenberg's travel site, New York Daily News and Luxury Travel Magazine.

Articles by Author

Truffle Mac And Cheese Makes Comfort Food Special Image

Thanksgiving dinner is a feast of comfort food’s greatest hits. But even as much as I enjoy traditional favorites such as mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, corn bread stuffing, cranberry sauce, Brussels sprouts and turkey with gravy, it’s important to bring something new to the party. When chef David Codney showed me how easy it is to make his signature truffle macaroni and cheese, I knew I was going to make this elegant dish for Thanksgiving.

Codney is executive chef at the The Peninsula Beverly Hills, a five-star hotel. When I met the chef, he led me upstairs to the hotel’s rooftop where pool guests were swimming and hanging out. On a warm, blue-sky Southern California afternoon, the view was fantastic.

Just below the rooftop’s railing were two gardens. Originally planted with flowers, the areas are now used to grow edible plants. While the guests relaxed on their chaise lounges, Codney walked past thick bunches of carrots, cucumbers, ginger, tomatoes, fennel, chard, strawberries, heirloom onions, radishes, edible flowers and herbs.  Although Codney has local suppliers who bring him high-quality produce, he loves having a garden of his own.

He fertilizes the garden with compost made from coffee grounds and the pulp left over from making fresh juices in the kitchen.  When he spotted a cluster of photo-shoot-ready tomatoes and an heirloom onion, he cradled them in his hands and held them up for me to admire.

Codney’s first job as a teenager was washing dishes in a restaurant kitchen. Curious by nature, he learned every recipe the chefs would teach him. Even though he studied at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA), he learned his craft in the kitchens of accomplished chefs.

For the video, Codney introduced three sous chefs who would join him in the cooking demonstration. Not that he needed so many cooks to prepare his easy-to-make dish, but their assistance made an important point. For Codney a successful kitchen is the result of collaboration, and he was happy to have them help demonstrate one of the hotel’s signature dishes: truffle macaroni and cheese. And with Thanksgiving and the holiday season approaching, the dish is a good way to celebrate.

Truffle Macaroni and Cheese

Codney’s riff on an American classic can be served as an appetizer, side dish or entrée.

Building flavors as the sauce reduces, he blends fats (butter, cream and cheese) with aromatics (rosemary, parsley and thyme) and uses sautéed mushrooms to anchor the dish. White wine provides acidity, cutting through the lovely richness of the dish.

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In the kitchen at The Peninsula Beverly Hills, truffle macaroni and cheese being prepared in a sauté pan by chef David Codney and his team. Credit: David Latt

Fresh truffles are not always in season and can be hard to come by for the home cook. Truffle oil is a good substitute and is available all year long. But where fresh truffles are a subtle addition to the aromatic quality of the dish, truffle oil can be perfumey, overpowering the other flavors, so Codney advises using it judiciously.

Yield: 8 appetizers or 4 entrees

Cooking time: 30 minutes

Ingredients

1 tablespoon kosher salt

1 pound elbow macaroni, preferably whole wheat and ridged

3 tablespoons sweet butter, divided

1 cup mushrooms (oyster, hen-of-the-woods, shiitake, brown or portabella), washed, stems trimmed, thinly sliced

Sea salt (preferably fleur de sel)

Freshly ground cracked white pepper, to taste

2 shallots, washed, peeled, ends trimmed, finely chopped

2 garlic cloves, skins and root end trimmed, finely chopped

1 tablespoon Italian parsley, washed, leaves only, finely chopped

1 tablespoon fresh rosemary leaves, washed, finely chopped

½ cup Chardonnay

2 cups stock — vegetarian, meat, poultry or seafood — preferably homemade

1 whole thyme sprig, freshly picked

1 cup salty pasta water, reserved from cooking the pasta

2 cups cream, to taste

1 teaspoon olive oil

1 tablespoon white truffle oil, to taste

1/2 cup freshly grated pecorino or Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

Directions

1. While the sauce is being prepared, heat a large pot of water salted with kosher salt. When the water boils, add the pasta. Stir every 2 to 3 minutes. Cook 7 to 8 minutes or almost al dente. Reserve 1 cup pasta water when the pasta is drained. Toss the pasta well with a drizzle of olive oil to prevent sticking. Set aside.

2. Heat a large sauté pan over low heat.

3. Add 1 tablespoon butter and mushrooms. Season with sea salt and freshly ground white pepper. After mushrooms begin to color, add shallots and garlic. Sweat until translucent. Season with parsley and rosemary.

4. Stir well to build the flavors. Add more sea salt. To balance the rich flavors, add the white wine and stir in 1 tablespoon of sweet butter. Add the pre-cooked macaroni. Stir well to coat the pasta with the sauce. Add stock and simmer. Add the sprig of thyme.

5. Reduce the stock and toss the pasta. Add a few tablespoons of salted pasta water for flavor and to thicken the sauce. Raise the heat to continue reducing the sauce.

6. Stirring the pasta, add cream in small increments. Taste and stop adding cream when you have achieved the desired richness. Add freshly ground cracked white pepper.

7. Drizzle olive oil into the sauce. Continue stirring and reducing. Add grated cheese, reserving 2 tablespoons and stir well.

8. If the sauce is too thin, raise the heat and reduce. If sauce is getting too thick, add more stock. In either case, add a drizzle of olive oil and 1 tablespoon butter to round out the flavors.

9. Taste and adjust with salt and pepper or more cream. Remove thyme sprig and discard. Finish with a drizzle of white truffle oil. Use the oil sparingly. Too much can overpower the other flavors.

10. Plate the pasta, decorate with edible flowers or an aromatic such as finely chopped Italian parsley and shaved fresh truffles when in season. Dust with grated cheese. Finish with a drizzle of quality olive oil.

11. Serve hot as an appetizer, side dish or entrée.

Main photo: In the kitchen at The Peninsula Beverly Hills are some of the ingredients used by chef David Codney and his team to prepare truffle macaroni and cheese, including hen-of-the-woods or maitake mushrooms, grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, sweet butter, whole wheat ridged macaroni and thyme sprigs. Credit: David Latt

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Savor Summer Tomatoes All Winter Long Image

Autumn and winter are wonderful seasons to enjoy family celebrations and the crackling glow of fireplaces. But for those of us who rely on farmers markets and a farm-to-table cycle, those cold weather months are not as much fun as summer.

With storm clouds outside, staring into the refrigerator looking for inspiration, I yearn for the produce of summer: leafy greens, corn and full-bodied tomatoes. But there is a way to enjoy the sweet-acidic deliciousness of tomatoes even in the darkest days of winter. Just look in your freezer.

Instead of relying on cans of store-bought whole stewed tomatoes, tomato paste and tomato sauce, buy ripe tomatoes at the farmers market, roast and freeze them to be used in braises, soups and sauces. Once blasted with heat in the oven, the tomatoes happily take to the freezer if they are covered in liquid.

Enjoy frozen roasted tomatoes whole or puree into sauce, and as rain beats against your windows and snow accumulates on your lawn, you will call back those heady summer flavors.

A Taste of Summer From Your Freezer


One in a series of stories about freezing late-summer produce to enjoy all winter.

Oven-roasted tomatoes to use as a side dish or in sauces

Use ripe and over-ripe tomatoes. If you can find only unripe, hard tomatoes, leave them in a sunny spot on the kitchen counter until they ripen. Bruised tomatoes are OK as long as you use a sharp paring knife to remove the damaged parts. Avoid tomatoes with broken skin because of the risk of mold.

Any kind of tomato can be used: heirloom, Roma, cherry, large or small salad tomatoes.

This time of year, over-ripe tomatoes are deeply discounted at our farmers market so I buy five pounds or more to make a lot of sauce to freeze.

A food mill is helpful when making the sauce. If one is not available, a fine meshed wire strainer will do almost as well.

When roasting the tomatoes, it is important to use parchment paper or a nonstick Silpat mat to prevent the tomatoes from sticking to the baking sheet. With a Silpat mat, none of the good bits that caramelize on the bottom are wasted.

Roasted Tomatoes

Tomatoes love the sun’s heat when they’re growing. And they love the oven’s heat that coaxes a rich umami sweetness out of their naturally acidic souls.

That sweetness is at the heart of the roasted tomatoes that will be in your freezer.

Prep time: 5 minutes

Roasting time: 60 minutes

Yield: 1 to 2 quarts

Ingredients

5 pounds tomatoes, washed, patted dry

1 tablespoon olive oil

¼ teaspoon sea salt

¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Directions

1. Preheat oven to 350 F.

2. Line a large baking sheet with a Silpat mat or parchment paper cut to size. Use a baking sheet with a 1-inch lip to capture any liquids created during roasting.

3. Use a sharp paring knife to cut a “V” shape around the stem, remove and discard. With cherry tomatoes, any stems can be brushed off the surface without making a cut.

4. Place the de-stemmed tomatoes on the lined baking sheet, stem side up.

5. Drizzle with olive oil and season with sea salt and pepper.

6. Place in oven and roast 60 minutes.

7. Remove and let cool.

Freezing Whole Roasted Tomatoes

When you remove the baking sheet from the oven, you’ll notice a clear liquid has accumulated on the bottom. Some of that is olive oil. But most of the liquid is a clear tomato essence prized by chefs for its clean flavor.

If you are freezing some of the roasted tomatoes whole, use the clear liquid to cover the tomatoes in the deli containers.

Use airtight containers that are about the same width as the tomatoes so you will need a small amount of liquid to cover them.

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Discounted tomatoes at the Wednesday Santa Monica farmers market. Credit: David Latt

Defrosting Whole Roasted Tomatoes

When you want to use the tomatoes, take them out of the freezer in the evening and let them defrost overnight. If any ice crystals have accumulated on top of the tomatoes, rinse off the ice before defrosting.

If you want to serve them whole, the tomatoes can be warmed in the oven or microwave. They are delicate, so handle them carefully.

Whole Roasted Tomato, Easy-to-Make Pasta Sauce

A deliciously simple pasta sauce to make any time of the year, not just in winter. Serve the pasta with steamed vegetables, a charred steak or a grilled chicken breast and you will have a perfect cold weather meal that warms body and soul.

The flavorful tomato sauce can become a vegan dish by simply omitting the butter and cheese.

Prep time: 5 minutes

Sauté time: 5 minutes

Pasta cooking time: 10 minutes

Total time: 10 minutes

Serves 4

Ingredients

1 tablespoon sea salt

1 pound fresh or packaged pasta

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 cup Italian parsley leaves, washed, roughly chopped (optional)

1 garlic clove, peeled, finely chopped

2 to 3 whole, large roasted tomatoes, skins removed

1 teaspoon sweet butter (optional)

Freshly ground black pepper to taste

1 cup freshly grated Parmesan or Romano cheese

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Directions

1. Place a large pot of water on high heat. Add 1 tablespoon sea salt to the water. Bring to a boil. Add the pasta. Stir well every 2 to 3 minutes.

2. Place a heat-proof cup in the sink next to a large strainer. When the pasta is al dente to your taste, about 10 minutes, pour the pasta into the strainer, capturing one cup of the salted pasta water. Reserve.

3. Toss the cooked pasta to prevent clumping.

4. At the same time the pasta is cooking, place a large sauté pan on a medium-high flame. Heat the olive oil.

5. Add the parsley and garlic. Lightly brown.

6. Holding the roasted tomatoes over the sauté pan, use your hands to tear them apart so you capture all the liquid. Add any liquid from the deli container.

7. Stir well and cook until the liquid is reduced by half.

8. Taste and salt, if needed; add a tablespoon or more of the pasta water.

9. Stir well and add butter. Taste and adjust seasoning by adding sea salt and black pepper.

10. When ready to serve, add the cooked pasta to the sauté pan. Over a medium flame, toss the pasta in the sauce to coat.

11. Serve hot with a bowl of Romano or Parmesan cheese.

Roasted Tomato Sauce

The tomatoes used to make the sauce are prepared and roasted in the same manner as those used to create whole roasted tomatoes.

Directions

1. Working with small batches, remove the roasted tomatoes from the baking sheet and put some of the roasted tomatoes into a food mill or fine mesh, wire strainer placed over a nonreactive bowl. Press the tomatoes through, collecting all the juice in the bowl.

2. Use a spatula to scrape off the pulp that will accumulate on the bottom of the food mill or the strainer. Add the pulp to the juice.

3. Discard the tomato skins. Or add to your compost. Or, even better, reserve in the freezer to use with other vegetable scraps to make vegetable stock.

Freezing Roasted Tomato Sauce

Put the open deli containers on a counter. Stir the tomato juice to mix with the pulp.

Fill each deli container to a half-inch below the top so that when the sauce freezes, the liquid will have room to expand and will not force open the lid.

When cooled, the filled containers can be placed in the freezer.

Defrosting Roasted Tomato Sauce

Even without defrosting, the frozen sauce can be used at the last minute, when you want to thicken a soup, add a layer of flavor to a braise or make a simple pasta sauce.

There are infinite ways to use this versatile sauce. One of my favorites is an easy-to-make pasta with sautéed vegetables.

If any ice crystals accumulate on the top of the sauce, rinse off the ice before defrosting.

Penne Pasta With Roasted Tomato Sauce and Sautéed Vegetables

Prep time: 10 minutes

Sauté time: 10 minutes

Pasta cooking time: 10 minutes

Total cooking time: 20 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

1 tablespoon sea salt

1 pound fresh or packaged pasta

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 carrots, washed, stems removed, peeled, cut into rounds

1 medium yellow onion, washed, stems removed, peeled, roughly chopped

8 large shiitake mushrooms, ends of the stems removed, washed, patted dry, roughly chopped

2 cups broccolini or broccoli, washed, cut into florets, the stems cut into slabs

2 garlic cloves, peeled, smashed, finely chopped

12 ounces frozen tomato sauce, defrosted on the counter overnight

1 tablespoon sweet butter (optional)

¼ teaspoon pepper flakes or pinch of cayenne (optional)

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

1 cup freshly grated Parmesan or Romano cheese

Directions

1. Place a large pot of water on high heat. Add 1 tablespoon sea salt to the water. Bring to a boil. Add the pasta. Stir well every 2 to 3 minutes.

2. Place a heat-proof cup in the sink next to a large strainer. When the pasta is al dente to your taste, pour the pasta into the strainer, capturing one cup of the salted pasta water. Reserve.

3. Toss the cooked pasta to prevent clumping.

4. At the same time the pasta is cooking, place a large sauté pan on a medium flame.

5. Heat the olive oil.

6. Add carrots, onion, shiitake mushrooms, broccolini and garlic. Sauté until lightly browned.

7. Add roasted tomato sauce, butter and pepper flakes. Stir well. Taste. If salt is needed, add a tablespoon or more of the pasta water.

8. Simmer on a medium flame and reduce.

9. Taste, adjust seasoning and continue simmering if you want the sauce to be thicker.

10. When the sauce is the consistency you like, add the cooked pasta, coat well.

11. Taste and adjust the seasoning with more sea salt or black pepper.

12. Serve hot with a bowl of grated Parmesan or Romano cheese.

Main photo: Roasted tomatoes in a wire mesh strainer over a nonreactive bowl. Credit: David Latt

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Have Fresh Corn All Year? Freeze It! Image

Wanting to cook with farm-to-table ingredients is much more difficult in colder months than in the summer. Eating locally in the fall and winter means switching to recipes that feature root vegetables, cabbages and hearty greens like kale. The summer ingredient I miss the most is corn. My solution is to turn my freezer into a garden.

With a few easy steps, I can have fresh-tasting corn even during the darkest days of winter.

A Taste of Summer From Your Freezer


One in a series of stories about freezing late-summer produce to enjoy all winter.

Healthy tips to beat back winter’s grip

After years of experimentation, I believe that corn kernels retain their flavors best when frozen rather than pickled or preserved in glass jars. The trick with corn kernels is cooking them quickly and then submerging them in their own liquid.

Frozen in airtight containers, the kernels retain their qualities for several months, long enough to carry the home cook through to the spring when the farmers markets come alive again.

Use stacking containers so you can keep a half dozen or more in your freezer. Besides the containers available in supermarkets, restaurant supply stores sell lidded, plastic deli containers in 6-, 8- and 16-ounce sizes.

Charred Corn Kernels

Once defrosted, the kernels can be added to soups, stews, pastas and sautés.

Yield: 6 to 8 cups depending on the size of the ears

Prep time: 5 minutes

Sautéing time: 5 to 10 minutes

Ingredients

6 ears corn, husks and silks removed, ears washed

1 tablespoon olive oil

Directions

1. Using a sharp paring or chef knife cut the kernels off the cobs. Reserve the cobs.

2. Heat a large frying pan or carbon steel pan on a high flame.

3. Add olive oil and corn kernels. Stir frequently so the kernels cook evenly.

4. When the kernels have a light char, remove from the burner.

5. To avoid burning, continue to stir because the pan retains heat.

6. Set aside to cool.

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Corn kernels sautéing in a carbon steel pan. Credit: David Latt

Corn Broth

Corn broth keeps the kernels fresh in the freezer. The broth is also delicious when added to soups, stews, braising liquids and pasta sauce. If your recipe only needs the kernels, after defrosting remove them from the deli container and refreeze the corn broth for another use.

Simmer time: 30 minutes

Cooling time: 30 minutes

Ingredients

6 corn cobs without kernels, each cob broken in half

4 quarts water

Directions

1. Place the cobs and water in a large pot on a high flame.

2. Boil uncovered until the water is reduced by half.

3. Cool. Remove the cobs and discard for compost.

Freezing Corn Kernels in Corn Broth

Directions

1. Fill the deli containers with the kernels, a half-inch from the top.

2. Add enough corn broth to cover the kernels.

3. Seal with airtight lid.

4. Place in freezer. Freeze any excess corn broth to use as vegetarian stock.

Chicken Soup With Charred Corn and Garlic Mushrooms

Perfect for cold, wet days, hot chicken soup is a healthy dish to eat for lunch or dinner. The charred corn gives the hot and nutritious soup an added brightness and sweetness.

Yield: 4 servings

Prep time: 5 minutes

Simmer time: 20 minutes

Ingredients

8 ounces frozen corn kernels including stock

1 teaspoon olive oil

6 cups chicken stock (preferably homemade)

2 tablespoons yellow onions, finely chopped

1 garlic clove, peeled, crushed, finely chopped

2 tablespoons Italian parsley, leaves only, finely chopped

1 cup shiitake, brown or Portobello mushrooms, washed, pat dried, sliced thin

Pinch cayenne (optional)

1 tablespoon sweet butter (optional)

Sea salt and black pepper to taste

Directions

1. Defrost the corn kernels overnight. If you are using homemade frozen chicken stock, defrost that overnight as well.

2. Remove the corn kernels from the corn broth and reserve separately.

3. In a large saucepan, heat the olive oil over a medium flame.

4. Sauté until lightly browned the corn, onions, garlic parsley and mushrooms. Stir frequently to avoid burning.

5. Add chicken stock and corn broth. Stir well and simmer 10 minutes.

6. Add cayenne and sweet butter (optional). Stir well, taste and adjust seasonings with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper.

7. Serve hot with homemade croutons or a loaf of fresh bread and butter.

Braised Charred Corn and Tuscan Kale

Adjust the amount of liquid to your liking. With more broth, the side dish is a refreshing small soup to accompany a plate of roast chicken. Reducing the broth to a thickness resembling a gravy, the corn-kale braise is a good companion to breaded or grilled filet of salmon or halibut.

Yield: 4 servings

Time: 15 minutes

Ingredients

8 ounces corn kernels and corn broth

1 teaspoon olive oil

1 bunch Tuscan (black) kale, washed, center stem removed, leaves roughly chopped

1 medium yellow onion, washed, peeled, roughly chopped

2 garlic cloves, skins removed, washed, crushed, finely chopped

1 cup vegetable or chicken stock, preferably homemade

Sea salt and black pepper to taste

Pinch cayenne (optional)

1 teaspoon sweet butter (optional)

Directions

1. Defrost corn kernels and broth overnight.

2. Separate the kernels from the broth, reserve both.

3. Heat a large frying pan.

4. Add olive oil.

5. Add kale and sauté, stirring frequently to avoid burning.

6. The kale will give up its moisture. When the kale has reduced in size by half, add the corn kernels, onion and garlic. Sauté until lightly browned.

7. Add the reserved corn broth and the other broth. Stir well.

8. Simmer 10 minutes.

9. Taste and adjust seasoning with sea salt and pepper. Add butter and cayenne (optional).

10 .Serve with more or less liquid as desired.

Onion-Corn-Mushroom Sauté

Personally, when it’s cold outside, I love a steak grilled on a high temperature carbon steel pan. The outside gets a salty crust while the inside stays juicy and sweet. Mashed potatoes are a good side dish, accompanied with an onion, corn and mushroom sauté. The combination of flavors—meaty, creamy-salty-earthly-summer sweet—is satisfyingly umami. Throw in a vodka martini ,and you’ll never notice that outside your warm kitchen the sidewalks have iced over and it is about to snow.

Yield: 4 servings

Time: 15 minutes

Ingredients

1 cup corn kernels

1 teaspoon olive oil

2 medium yellow onions, washed, peeled, root removed, thin sliced

2 to 4 garlic cloves, washed, peeled, crushed, roughly chopped

2 cups shiitake, brown or Portobello mushrooms, washed, pat dried, thin sliced

1 tablespoon sweet butter (optional)

Sea salt and black pepper to taste

Pinch cayenne (optional)

1 teaspoon fresh rosemary leaves, washed, pat dried, finely chopped (optional)

Directions

1. Defrost corn kernels and broth overnight.

2. Separate the kernels from the broth, reserve both. Refreeze the broth for later use.

3. Heat a large frying pan.

4. Add olive oil.

5. On a medium flame, sauté onions, stirring frequently until lightly browned. That caramelization will add sweetness to the sauté.

6. Add corn, garlic, mushrooms. Stir well. Sauté until lightly browned.

7. Add sweet butter (optional), cayenne (optional) and rosemary (optional). Taste and adjust seasoning with sea salt and black pepper.

8. Serve hot as a side dish or condiment.

Main photo: Corn kernels cut off the cob being prepared for freezing. Credit: David Latt

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When the Water Runs Out: Farming in a Drought Image

I feel for James Birch. He is having a tough year. Sitting in the shade, his weather-beaten hands on his lap, he describes prepping his fields for the fall planting. Cutting furrows with his tractor, the blades kicked up thick, Dust Bowl clouds of powder-dry dirt that made it difficult to breathe. In the telling of his story he laughed, no doubt because in the third year of a devastating drought, a farmer needs a sense of humor.

Birch doesn’t complain. He grew up around farming. And farming is what he knows, so he’s not about to quit even if these past several years have been really hard.

Throughout the Western United States and especially in California, farmers have been dealing with a multiyear drought that shows no signs of ending. It’s gotten so bad, fertile fields have been taken out of production because there’s no water for irrigation. That means lower crop yields and higher prices for consumers.

The problem begins in the mountains. Within sight of Flora Bella Farm, the Sierra Nevada runs for hundreds of miles. The line of rugged peaks cuts along the eastern side of the state. The importance of the snowpack that collects on the Sierras for California’s agriculture cannot be overstated.

The farms around Birch in Tulare County north of Bakersfield depend on that water. After a buildup of snow during the winter, when the temperatures warm, the snow melts and collects in the Upper Kaweah Watershed, which feeds the north, middle and south forks of the Kaweah River, irrigating Birch’s fields. But again this year the snowpack was below normal. And that was bad news for Birch.

A hundred-year drought

A dozen years ago I visited Flora Bella Farm because Birch and I were working on a farm-to-kitchen cookbook with California-Mediterranean recipes. On that visit, Birch walked me to the river next to the farm. The cool water ran fast and clear and was several feet deep. Last week he emailed a photograph that showed the problem in the most graphic way.

Birch stands on a completely dry riverbed.

Old-timers tell Birch that the last time the rivers dried up was in 1906 when a cowboy said he rode across the main fork and his horse’s hooves didn’t get wet.

In 2012 and 2013, the drought was bad. Knowing 2014 would be no better, Birch came up with a plan. He began converting his above-ground sprinklers to a drip system. He enlarged his holding ponds and filled them to capacity. But the drought was worse than expected.

Three rivers, now no rivers

One by one the Kaweah River’s three tributaries dried up. And by mid-August he had used all the water in the ponds. In late September, the only water on the farm comes from a low volume well that supplies his home.

Without water, Birch doesn’t have a lot to bring to the farmers markets where he sells his produce. When I saw him recently at the Santa Monica Farmers Market, he had only potatoes, squash, olives and grapes to sell. Around him the other farmers had their usual bounty on display. Why, I asked him, do they seem to be unaffected by the drought?

The answer was pretty simple. Birch relies entirely on the Sierras’ snowmelt to irrigate his crops. The other farms have allotments from the California Aqueduct, which transports water 500 miles south from the San Joaquin-Sacramento River Delta, or they have high-volume wells that pump groundwater from the vast aquifers, the water-bearing sandy soils that lie beneath many parts of California.

Birch does not have access to either the aqueduct or to groundwater. Because he is in the foothills of the Sierras, the aquifer is too deep for him to reach except at great expense. And, even if he had the money to dig a well, the water-drilling companies in the area have a two-year waiting list.

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James Birch at the Flora Bella Farm stall at the Wednesday Santa Monica Farmers Market. Credit: David Latt

After the rivers and his holding ponds dried up, the only water available was the low-volume house well. That was a tough moment. Whichever plants he didn’t water, died. “First it was the cucumbers, then the peppers, tomatillos, most of the squash, the greens, and then everything in the fields,” he said.

In the orchard, his mature fruit trees produce apricots, Santa Rosa and Golden Nectar plums, nectarines and sour cherries. He also has younger Mandarin orange, lemon and pomegranate trees. All the trees are stressed. He doles out the little bit of water he can from the house well. But ultimately he faces another difficult decision. If the river doesn’t start flowing soon, he’ll have to cut down the older trees and plant citrus trees, which use less water.

Between a rock and a hard place

Birch is preparing the next planting. In his greenhouse he is growing Swiss chard, broccoli, cauliflower, lettuce, chicory, collards, cabbage, artichokes, fennel and cardoon seedlings. Now they’re strong and ready to plant. His fields are tilled and planted with mustard, spinach, radishes, mizuna, arugula and kale seeds. If he gets these crops to market, he will do well.

But Birch is in a bind.

Both the seedlings and seeds need moisture to grow. Birch reads the weather forecasts hoping storms will give him the rain he needs. But he has another problem. Winter is coming. The temperatures will soon drop. If the rains are late and the plants aren’t mature enough before the frost comes, they won’t survive.

Looking to the future

The truth is nobody knows when or if the rains will come. If the drought continues, farmers who are currently unaffected will be impacted.

Farmers relying on the California Aqueduct will find their allocations curtailed or eliminated. That has already happened in parts of the San Joaquin Valley, one of California’s most important agricultural areas. In an extended drought, farmers whose water comes from wells will also be affected. Heavy use of the aquifer has caused a dramatic drop in the available groundwater.

To survive in a drier climate, farmers like Birch are pursuing conservation efforts.

Birch has applied for a federal grant from the Department of Agriculture’s NRCS (Natural Resources Conservation Service) so he can switch completely from above-ground irrigation to an underground drip system.

To keep out the deer and squirrels that come down from the mountains looking for food and water, he built an 8-foot-tall fence. He planted a hedgerow of native flowering plants along the perimeter of the property to attract predatory insects to fight back infestations of aphids and mites, which eat the water-starved plants and carry destructive viruses.

In the best case scenario, if winter storms build up the snowpack in the Sierras., then the rivers will run as clear and deep as they have in the past, the aquifer will be replenished and Flora Bella Farm will be back to its former glory but this time needing less water than before.

And if the drought continues, Birch will be as ready as he can be.

Main photo: The cucumber fields at Flora Bella Farm in Three Rivers, Calif., during the 2014 drought. Credit: Dawn Birch

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The Secret For Velvety Corn Soup Without Cream Image

As this best part of summer delivers a ready-to-eat bounty of fresh vegetables to the kitchen, Luigi Fineo, executive chef at West Hollywood’s RivaBella Ristorante, shows off a large bowl of Iowa yellow corn. With one taste, Fineo knew what he would do with these fat sun-ripened kernels. He would make a healthy, sweet tasting soup.

The youngest of five, Fineo grew up in southern Italy in Gioia del Colle. Like many chefs, he learned to love cooking in his mother’s kitchen. Helping to prepare the family’s meals, she taught him the basics. That early training would serve him well as he worked in demanding restaurants around the world from Francesco Berardinelli’s Shooeneck Ristorante in Falzes, Italy, to Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry in Yountville, Calif..

From the outside, RivaBella has the appearance of just another upscale restaurant. Inside, the sprawling interior is set-dressed to look like an elegant version of a rustic Italian country inn. Full-sized trees and a 7-foot tall brick hearth dominate the interior. During the day when the retractable ceiling is open, the bright blue Southern California sky hangs overhead.

The current menu recalls the kitchen of Fineo’s mother and the refinements of his colleague, owner-chef Gino Angelini, who helped popularize quality Italian cooking in Los Angeles. The entrees include fine-dining versions of Italian classics: risotto with porcini mushrooms, spinach lasagna, Veal Milanese and pasta with broccolini and salmoriglio.

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A bowl of Iowa corn used to make a yellow corn soup with sautéed crab and chives, prepared by Chef Luigi Fineo in the kitchen at RivaBella Ristorante, West Hollywood, Calif. Credit: David Latt

Reflecting his time spent in Santa Monica’s La Botte where he earned a Michelin star, Fineo also enjoys using the high-tech tools that are popular in many contemporary restaurant kitchens.

For his slow-cooked lamb shoulder ragù, he adds summer flavor with peaches he dehydrates, then rehydrates in a white wine bath flavored with cinnamon, anise and bay leaves. The handmade pappardelle he serves with the ragù is made with flour, flavored with a fine pistachio powder that is first frozen in liquid nitrogen before being  ground into the fine powder.

Of the corn, by the corn and for the corn

When I first tasted the corn soup at RivaBella, it was so velvety, I asked if heavy cream or butter were used. The answer was neither.

In his kitchen for the video demonstration, Chef Fineo explained that he did not need cream or butter to create his soup. All he needed was farm-fresh Iowa corn, a little water, a pinch or two of salt and a lot of stirring.

Usually when Fineo makes soups, he begins with a sauté of shallots and aromatics. Cooking with corn, he’s inclined to roast the kernels. But with this sweet corn, he decided he didn’t need to add flavor and he didn’t need to employ any high-tech machines. To prepare his corn soup, he would return to the basics he learned from his mother.

Yellow Sweet Corn Soup

Total Time: 1 hour, 15 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Because, essentially there is only one ingredient, use high quality, fresh corn to create a soup that is healthy and delicious. When picking corn, choose ears that have green, healthy husks and kernels that are plump. If the kernels are indented or the husks are brown, choose different ears. In the restaurant, the soup is served with fresh crabmeat to enhance its upscale qualities. But Fineo recommends that the soup is a treat served entirely as a vegetarian or vegan dish.

Ingredients

  • 12 ears yellow corn, shucked, washed, pat dried
  • ¾ cup water
  • Sea salt to taste
  • 1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh chives
  • ½ cup crab meat, preferably crab leg meat (optional)
  • 1 tablespoon butter (optional)
  • 2 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil (optional)
  • ¼ teaspoon black pepper (optional)

Directions

  1. Using a sharp knife, cut the raw kernels from the cobs.
  2. Working in batches, two cups at a time, place the kernels into a large blender and blend with just enough water, about one tablespoon water for each cup of kernels. To create a vortex, if needed, add more water.
  3. Blend each batch about 45 seconds.
  4. Again, working in batches, strain the resulting corn mash through a chinois or a fine meshed strainer, capturing the liquid in a large bowl. To release all the liquid, press on the corn mash gently, using the back of a large ladle or large kitchen spoon.
  5. Transfer the corn juice to a large saucepan or small stock pot and place uncovered on the stove.
  6. Using high heat, bring the liquid to a boil and then lower to medium.
  7. Using a wire whisk, gently stir the liquid 30 to 40 minutes until reaching the desired thickness. Very importantly, the liquid must be stirred constantly to prevent the corn’s sugars from sticking to the bottom and burning.
  8. As the liquid thickens, lower the heat.
  9. Taste and add sea salt as desired. Serve hot, topped with a drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkling of finely chopped chives.
  10. Optionally, in a non-stick pan on low heat, sauté the crab pieces in olive oil or butter until crispy on all sides, then place one or two pieces on top of each bowl of soup and garnish with chives and a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil. Instead of crab, Chef Fineo also recommends using shrimp or scallops.
  11. Season with a pinch of sea salt and black pepper. Drain the crab on a paper towel. Place on top of the soup. Drizzle with olive oil and finely chopped chives.

Main photo: Yellow corn soup with sautéed crab and chives. Credit: David Latt

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Chef Giacomino Drago Gives Panzanella A Healthy Twist Image

Chef Giacomino Drago smiles a lot. The youngest member of a family of cooks to immigrate from Sicily, Drago, along with his brothers, has opened a dozen restaurants in Los Angeles, many in Beverly Hills, over the past four decades.

A contributor to the Beverly Hills Centennial Cookbook,” Drago declares that using the highest quality, freshest ingredients is the essence of Italian cooking. In his video he demonstrates an easy-to-prepare, classic Italian panzanella salad with diet-friendly spelt instead of bread.

Drago enjoys cooking. He smiles as he drops a handful of spaghetti into one of the half dozen pots of salted water on the stove and when he quickly renders a red onion into a mound of thin, pungent ribbons.

Come to Italy, he says, and one of the first salads you will eat is one made with vine-ripened tomatoes,  basil, red onions, extra virgin olive oil, red wine vinegar, and salt and pepper. Simplicity, he says several times, is the essence of Italian cooking. Find the freshest, highest-quality ingredients and prepare them in what Drago calls the rustic way, roughly cut so the dish is not overly fussy. The result is delicious, healthy food that is easy and fun to make.

A panzanella salad is the perfect dish for summer. To pursue the “current fashion,” as he puts it, he has traded spelt for bread in a signature salad at Via Alloro in Beverly Hills. He chose spelt because it has a refreshing texture and nutty quality that contrasts well with the acid of the tomato and vinegar. A heritage grain and cousin to wheat, spelt was developed hundreds of years ago as a flour in bread making. High in protein and fiber, Drago says spelt is heart-healthy because it is high in niacin. Because “panzanella” refers to a bread (“pane”) salad, it might be more accurate to call chef’s creation a speltzanella.

Chef Drago loves all his restaurants. But he designed the kitchen at Via Alloro in a special way. The area where the line cooks work is a horseshoe space with stoves in the middle and counters running along the walls. There are no dead-ends in this kitchen. Moving efficiently Drago and Executive Chef Paolo Sicuro prepare dishes with an unhurried ease, transferring their love of cooking onto the plates.

Fresh tomatoes are key to the flavor and pleasures of the salad. To protect the tomatoes’ richness of flavor, Drago insists they must never be refrigerated. That is why buying tomatoes from farmers markets is so important. Supermarket tomatoes may have been refrigerated for days, even weeks during their journey from the field to your kitchen.

Drago is precise about his cooking but flexible in terms of ingredients and seasoning. When cooking at home, he encourages that you use only ingredients you enjoy. If you do not like onions, don’t use them in the salad. The same goes for cucumbers and ground black pepper.

Diet-Friendly Spelt Panzanella Salad

Prep Time: 15 minutes

Cook Time: 1 hour

Total Time: 1 hour, 15 minutes

Yield: 4 servings as a salad portion, 2 servings as an entrée.

To capture all the tomato juice, chef cuts the tomatoes over the bowl. Use a variety of tomatoes for contrasts in shape, color and flavor. For the demonstration, Drago and Siruro used vine ripened, cherry and grape tomatoes. Yellow and heirloom tomatoes could also be added for contrast. To make the onion slices more “friendly,” Drago suggests double rinsing in water. This will result in a more mild flavor. Not widely available, spelt berries can be purchased in specialty markets and ordered online from purveyors such as Bob’s Red Mill. Cooked like pasta in boiling salted water, kosher salt should be used for the cleanest taste. Chef Drago uses English or hothouse cucumbers for the dish. If those are not available, Persian cucumbers would be a good substitute because they have a lower water content than garden cucumbers. The spelt may be cooked ahead and refrigerated. The other ingredients should be prepared immediately before serving to preserve their freshness.

Ingredients

  • 3 tablespoons spelt
  • 2 medium-sized tomatoes, washed, stem removed, cut into a small dice, reserving the liquid
  • 5 cherry tomatoes, washed, quartered
  • 5 plum tomatoes, washed, quartered
  • 1 small hothouse cucumber, washed, skin on, a small dice the same size as the tomatoes (optional)
  • ¼ medium red onion, washed, root and stem removed, thin sliced (optional)
  • 4 fresh basil leaves, washed, pat dried, roughly torn or chopped
  • 1 tablespoon kosher salt
  • Pinch of salt to taste
  • Pinch of freshly ground black pepper to taste (optional)
  • 4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon red wine vinegar

Directions

  1. Add kosher salt to three quarts of water. Bring to a rapid boil. Add spelt. Boil uncovered 30-50 minutes or longer depending on the desired doneness. Taste at 30 minutes to determine what is al dente for you and then again at 10-minute intervals until you reach the texture you like. I prefer cooking the spelt 50 minutes. Drain and set aside to cool
  2. Using a sharp paring knife, cut the tomatoes over the salad bowl to capture all the juices.
  3. Cut the skin-on cucumber into pieces similar in size to the tomatoes and add to the bowl.
  4. Slice the red onion. Submerge in cold water, rinse, drain, submerge in fresh cold water, rinse and drain. Add to the tomatoes and cucumbers.
  5. Add the cooked spelt berries.
  6. Roughly chop the basil leaves or tear them with your hands. Add to the salad bowl.
  7. Toss the spelt, vegetables and aromatics with the extra virgin olive oil and red wine vinegar.
  8. Season with sea salt to taste and freshly ground black pepper, as desired.
  9. Serve as a salad or a side with grilled meats, fish and poultry.

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