Articles in Chefs

Pickled Beetroot, Goat's Cheese & Chilli Jam. Credit: © Ryland Peters & Small/Loupe Images/Steve Painter

“Many’s the long night I’ve dreamed of cheese — toasted, mostly” Robert Louis Stevenson famously wrote. I share his feelings. Gorgeous, gooey melted cheese is still the top go-to comfort food in my book when Jack Frost is nipping toes and all you want to do is hibernate underneath the duvet.


“Grilled Cheese: Traditional and inspired recipes for the ultimate toasted sandwich”
By Laura Washburn. Ryland, Peters & Small, 2014, 64 pages
» Click here to buy the book


Grilled Cheese: Traditional and inspired recipes for the ultimate toasted sandwich. Credit: © Ryland Peters & Small/Loupe Images/Steve Painter

Grilled Cheese: Traditional and inspired recipes for the ultimate toasted sandwich. Credit: © Ryland Peters & Small/Loupe Images/Steve Painter

I think Stevenson would have enjoyed this small but perfectly formed volume on the art of the ultimate toasted sandwich. The toastie with the mostie can only be made with cheese as the author so wisely knows. It is a universal truth: Grilled cheese never disappoints.

Laura Washburn was born in Los Angeles, studied in Paris, trained at La Varenne and worked with Patricia Wells. She now lives in London, where she works as a cookery teacher and food writer, and she has brought her international experience and professional skills to bear on this seemingly simple equation of cheese, bread and pan.

The wonderful thing about this basic trinity is that it can be equally good — depending on mood and moment — whether toasted sliced white bread and ersatz block cheese satisfies a case of the munchies at midnight, or Poilâne sourdough bread and three artisan cheeses makes for a legendary lunch at London’s Borough Market.

The book divides into simple, global, wicked and gourmet sections. Leek and Gruyere is an elegant idea to be served with a glass of chilled white wine, and Brie and Apple-Cranberry Sauce on Walnut bread is a brilliant seasonal suggestion.

Chorizo, Mini Peppers and Manchego is a spicy, smoky treat with a Spanish accent, and Avocado, Refried Bean and Monterey Jack would make a great brunch. The purist in me questions a Welsh rarebit made with two slices of bread (traditionally it lacks the top slice), but Washburn nails the filling — and doesn’t forget the ale, mustard powder and Worcestershire sauce that gives the rarebit its feisty character.

Wicked grilled cheese sandwiches are mini meals (Burger Scamorza or Meatballs, Garlic Tomato Sauce and Fontina, for example). But the gourmet section really takes off with zingy concepts such as Pickled Beetroot, Goat’s Cheese and Chilli Jam, and a decadent Brioche-based Lobster Tail, Tarragon and Beaufort. That’s the one I’m going to dream of tonight.

Recipes from “Grilled Cheese” by Laura Washburn, photography by Steve Painter.

Basic Grilled Cheese

Basic Grilled Cheese. Credit: © Ryland Peters & Small/Loupe Images/Steve Painter

Basic Grilled Cheese. Credit: © Ryland Peters & Small/Loupe Images/Steve Painter

This is the basic grilled cheese method, which can be used as a blueprint for all sorts of experimentation. For a more complex taste, it’s a good idea to combine two relatively mild cheeses, such as a mild cheddar and Monterey Jack.

Yield: 2 servings

Ingredients

4 large slices white bread

Unsalted butter, softened

3 1/2 cups mixed grated/shredded mild cheeses, such as mild cheddar, Gruyere, Monterey Jack or Gouda

Directions

1. Butter each of the bread slices on one side and arrange buttered-side down on a clean work surface or chopping board.

2. It’s best to assemble the sandwiches in a large nonstick frying pan/skillet before you heat it up. Start by putting two slices of bread in the frying pan/skillet, butter-side down. If you can only accommodate one slice in your pan, you’ll need to cook one sandwich at a time. Top each slice with half of the grated/shredded cheese, but be careful not to let too much cheese fall into the pan. Top with the final pieces of bread, butter-side up.

3. Turn the heat on medium and cook 3 to 4 minutes on the first side, then carefully turn with a large spatula and cook on the second side for 2 to 3 minutes until the sandwiches are golden brown all over and the cheese is visibly melted.

4. Remove from the frying pan/skillet and cut the sandwiches in half. Let cool for a few minutes before serving and dunk to your heart’s content in a lovely steaming bowl of tomato soup.

Pickled Beetroot, Goat’s Cheese & Chilli Jam

A zingy combination of colors and tastes — perfect for brunch or a late-evening snack. Use an ordinary mozzarella for this sandwich, as its presence is merely for added ooze and to help hold the sandwich together.

Yield: 2 servings

Ingredients

4 slices white or brioche bread

Unsalted butter, softened

1 3/4 ounces soft goat’s cheese

2 to 4 tablespoon chilli jam, plus extra for serving

6 to 8 slices pickled beet

Freshly squeezed juice of 1/2 lemon

1 to 2 sprigs fresh dill, leaves chopped

4 1/2 ounces mozzarella, sliced

Directions

1. Butter each of the slices of bread on one side.

2. This is easiest if assembled in a large heavy-based, nonstick frying pan/skillet. Put two slices of bread in the pan/skillet, butter-side down. If you can only fit one slice in your pan/skillet, you’ll need to cook one sandwich at a time. Add half of the goat’s cheese to each slice. Top with half of the chilli jam, spread evenly to the edges. Arrange half of the beet slices on top, squeeze over some lemon juice and scatter over half of the dill. Top each slice with half of the mozzarella and cover with another slice of bread, butter-side up.

3. Turn the heat on medium and cook the first side for 3 to 5 minutes until deep golden, pressing gently with a spatula. Carefully turn with a large spatula and cook on the second side, for 2 to 3 minutes more or until deep golden brown all over.

4. Remove from the pan, transfer to a plate and cut each sandwich in half. Let cool for a few minutes before serving. Repeat for the remaining sandwich if necessary. Serve with additional chilli jam, for dipping.

Main photo: Pickled Beetroot, Goat’s Cheese & Chilli Jam. Credit: © Ryland Peters & Small/Loupe Images/Steve Painter

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Chef and

“Don’t use anything better — no brioche! no pain de mie! — in some attempt to make this ‘gourmet.’ We are not that kind of restaurant.” – Gabrielle Hamilton, in “Prune” (Random House, 2014).

It’s not every day a James Beard Award-winning chef wields the word “gourmet” as a barb, or exhorts you to use Pepperidge Farm bread instead of fancier alternatives, but Gabrielle Hamilton is not your average high-profile chef. Since 1999, when she opened Prune, her tiny restaurant in New York City’s East Village, she’s gone her own way, and the same can be said of her first cookbook, “Prune.”


“Prune”

By Gabrielle Hamilton, Random House, 2014, 576 pages

» Click here to buy the book


A companion piece to “Blood, Bones & Butter,” her critically acclaimed memoir, “Prune” deftly captures Hamilton’s personality as well as that of the restaurant, neither of which are easy to pigeonhole. She’s a self-taught chef who has a master’s degree in fiction writing, while Prune is the kind of place where a bar snack of canned sardines with Triscuits confidently holds court on the same menu as Tongue and Octopus With Salsa Verde and Mimosa’d Egg.

PruneCoverThe cookbook was written as if Hamilton is addressing her staff. It has been designed to look like a stylized photocopy of the recipes she types up for their regular use, complete with re-creations of the handwritten notes she pens when she’s forgotten some helpful detail. “If (the braising liquid) tastes too bright,” she scribbles at the end of a lamb recipe, “heavily char — almost burn — 2 slabs of peasant bread on the grill … push the burnt toast down into the liquid to soak it. … It will add body to the braise and soften the astringency.”

In its earliest days, Prune served only dinner, so that’s where the book begins, too. Tables of contents lead into the various subsections, but there’s no general index (though one will soon be available for download). Instead of lyrical head notes about a dish’s story of origin, Hamilton dives right in to the steps, though her voice is unmistakable when she directs you to “fully enclose the butter inside the dough, as if you were hastily wrapping a Christmas present.”

When I visited her at Prune recently, she explained the thinking behind the book’s form and content. “I tried writing it the conventional way for about five minutes, and it was immediately clear that I was lying my brains out, because I don’t use that language. The imperative was to tell the truth as I live it and experience it. I knew people would get it.”

The unique structure and tone are not the only things that set the book apart. There’s also a section called “garbage,” which details how the restaurant repurposes oft-discarded items such as zucchini tops and bacon rinds. At a time when Americans throw away nearly 40% of the food they buy, this chapter seems especially appropriate.

“Prune” includes many of the restaurant’s marvelously layered dishes, like Warm Lentil Salad With Fried Chicken Livers, Poached Egg, and Smoked Tomato Vinaigrette, as well as directions for assembling the more minimalist offerings (such as a bar snack of radishes with sweet butter and salt) whose unassuming appearance belies the care that underpins them. The first time I ever interviewed Hamilton, five years ago, we discussed the reaction to these “three-ingredient recipes,” a subject we revisited during our recent chat.

“They’re the ones that set you up for failure,” she says, “because there’s nothing to hide behind. Only radishes and butter and salt — what could possibly go wrong? And yet. You have overgrown, cottony, spongy radishes that have soaked in too much water, and they’ve lost their flame. Or the butter is over-tempered and greasy. Or you’re using the worst, overly granulated, way-too-salty salt. But when you have the right crispy-firm, hot-on-fire radish, the cool waxy butter, which not only tempers the heat but lets the salt adhere, and the salt, which brings back the flavor that the butter has started to tame.” She smiles. “I know it’s just three things, but can you believe what goes in to simplicity?”

There’s much to like about “Prune,” starting with Hamilton’s mouthwatering food, but what’s most appealing is the respect she shows her readers, a quality that took on paramount importance for her after she visited home kitchens during a road trip a couple of years ago. “I had lost track of who we were talking about when we use that phrase ‘for the home cook,’ and it turns out the home cook is incredibly diverse. … I think the cookbook industry in the main tends to underestimate them, and it’s time to stop.”

When she directs you to garnish a dish with a “lime cheek,” she trusts you’ll get it, and if not, you can figure it out from the photos. Even when her insider notes are not directly relevant to your kitchen reality, they often get you to reconsider some element of how you prep, cook, serve or store your food. And at their least practical, the asides to her staff (“If Health Department comes, take the serrano [ham] off the carving stand and throw in the oven.”) still offer us a peek behind the scenes, which is one of the reasons people buy chef cookbooks in the first place.

Ultimately, it’s that sense of transparency that remains at the heart of the whole endeavor. “The book is the same as Prune and me in every way,” she tells me. “We’re not to everyone’s taste — our food, our gestalt — and neither is the cookbook. We love you, and we hope you love us, too, but we’re not gonna lie about who we are.”

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Braised Fennel with Pernod Butter and Trout Roe. Credit: Eric Wolfinger

Farmhouse Chicken Braised in Hard Cider

[Excerpted from “Prune” by Gabrielle Hamilton. Copyright © 2014 by Gabrielle Hamilton. Excerpted by permission of Random House, A Penguin Random House Company. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.]

Even though it’s best to use homemade chicken stock, I opted for a high-quality, low-sodium supermarket brand, which produced good results. If you are using store-bought stock, be sure to factor in the sodium level when seasoning the dish. Since I mistakenly purchased a package of drumsticks instead of whole chicken legs, I cooked a total of eight drumsticks, two per serving.

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

4 large whole chicken legs

Unsalted butter

Extra virgin olive oil

3/4 cup slivered garlic

1 cup thinly sliced shallots

1 tablespoon tomato paste

1/2 cup cider vinegar

1 cup hard cider

1 tablespoon honey

1 cup chicken stock

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

Farmhouse Chicken Braised in Hard Cider, as made by Sofia Perez from the "Prune" recipe. Credit: Sofia Perez

Farmhouse Chicken Braised in Hard Cider, as made by Sofia Perez from the “Prune” recipe. Credit: Sofia Perez

Directions

1. Season chicken legs all over with more pepper than salt.

2. Brown chicken legs in mixed fats, more butter than oil. Brown perfectly, on both sides; don’t crowd and don’t crank it, either. Keep heat at medium-high and do a careful job. Remove chicken, pour off fat.

3. Add a good hunk of butter, the garlic and shallots to the same pan, reduce heat, and sweat.

4. Add tomato paste and stir to fully blend, melt, even toast a little.

5. Deglaze with cider vinegar and hard cider.

6. Add the honey. Simmer to cook off alcohol and reduce slightly, by no more than 1/3.

7. Stir in chicken stock.

8. Neatly nestle the chicken legs in the pan and be sure to taste the braising liquid for salt, acidity, sweetness. Adjust now or never.

9. Cover with parchment and tight-fitting lid, if you can find one that isn’t too warped. Check after 25 minutes. You want loose joints but not falling off the bone.

10. At pickup, reduce sauce per portion, to have body, but not to become viscous.

11. One leg per portion. Good bit of sauce. Shower with parsley, freshly chopped, at pass.

Main photo: Chef and “Prune” author Gabrielle Hamilton and the cover of her cookbook. Credit: Hamilton photo by Melanie Dunea

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Chef Jeremy Sewall and his new cookbook,

As far as I am concerned, we New Englanders own the winter kitchen, from the cranberries and pumpkin pies of Thanksgiving all the way to the corned beef and cabbage of St. Patrick’s Day. Our regional cooking is reliable and time tested, but possibly also a bit dated — in need of a pick-me-up, a refresher that catches us up with the way the rest of the country eats. Chef Jeremy Sewall is offering that refresher course in his new cookbook, “The New England Kitchen: Fresh Takes on Seasonal Recipes” (Rizzoli, 2014).

Sewall is one of the best chefs in Boston. A true New Englander (he descends from a family of seafarers and lobstermen), he is the chef and partner at four top Boston restaurants (Lineage, Eastern Standard, Island Creek Oyster Bar and Row 34). Following in the great tradition of Fannie Farmer, Jasper White and Lydia Shire, Sewall is widely seen as the new face of classic New England cuisine: heavy on the seafood, aware of the seasons, conversant with the flavors of the globe. This is his first cookbook, and it’s a modern classic — and a keeper.

New England fare for all seasons

Here’s my test for a new cookbook: If I’d instantly start prepping the first three entrees I come across, I know I’ve got my nose in a new classic. I hadn’t even finished the introduction before I started rummaging in my fridge, freezer and pantry to see if I could make the Steamed Mussels With Pilsner, Garlic and Fresno Peppers. I moved on to the Mushroom Ragout and the English Pea Soup before I acknowledged that I was getting very excited about ingredients that wouldn’t truly be available until early spring. So I thumbed deeper into the book and made Sewall’s recipe for Seared Sea Scallops With Creamy Turnip Puree and Crisp Shiitake Mushrooms. That held me for a while.

Sewall is a prodigiously talented, hardworking and remarkably humble chef. Not a TV commodity, he picked time in the kitchen over time in front of the camera, so you may not know him. But if you begin to work through his recipes, you’ll appreciate the skills honed over decades on the line.

For this book, he smartly teamed up with food writer Erin Byers Murray, the author of “Shucked.” The two share a connection to Island Creek Oysters, where Murray worked for a year as an oyster farmer, taking a sabbatical from her day job as a food writer and editor, and Sewall is the executive chef at two Island Creek Boston restaurants. The two seamlessly present a voice that is warm, confident and so infused with New England roots that you can hear the broad vowels as you read.

But there’s nothing provincial or backward looking in “The New England Kitchen.” It is stocked with food you want to eat because you love the flavors of New England and you live in this century. Razor clams and pot roast. Fried clams (of course) and a mussel dish that puts the French to shame. Pan-roasted hake and roasted duck confit. A recipe for skate wing I’ve made twice so far, and it’s made me a kitchen hero both times. A gorgeous lemon tart with lavender cream.

Each recipe is illustrated with a gorgeous large-format photo by Michael Harlan Turkell, making you believe that you can deliver on the promise of a perfect meal.

Reading through the book, you will get a good sense of the local bounty of New England season by season, and how a top-tier regional chef makes the most of it.

If you need a new cookbook to get you through the New England winter, this is the one.

Spiced Skate Wing

Recipe courtesy of “The New England Kitchen: Fresh Takes on Seasonal Recipes.”

Sewall’s note: “Skate might seem like an unusual choice for the home cook, but it has a nice firm texture and a really sweet flavor. Here, I toss it with a seasoned flour and quickly sauté it for an easy weeknight dish. Buy skate from a trusted fishmonger and give it a sniff before bringing it home (it takes on an ammonia smell when beginning to go bad). If you can’t find skate, freshwater trout is a great substitute, but it might require a minute or two longer to cook, depending on the thickness.”

Yield: Serves 4

Ingredients

Spiced Skate Wing With Toasted Orzo with Spinach and Chorizo. Credit: Michael Harlan Turkell

Spiced Skate Wing and Toasted Orzo With Spinach and Chorizo. Credit: Michael Harlan Turkell

4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1 garlic clove, crushed

2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice

1 cup all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1 tablespoon dry mustard

1 tablespoon ground turmeric

1 teaspoon freshly ground white pepper

1 teaspoon ground coriander

1 teaspoon curry powder

4 tablespoons canola oil

4 (6-ounce) skate wing fillets, trimmed, skin removed

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

Directions

1. In a small sauté pan, heat the olive oil and garlic over medium heat until the garlic starts to brown just a little, about 3 minutes. Remove from the heat and place in a small bowl. Let cool for 1 hour. Just before serving, whisk the lemon juice into the garlic oil.

2. In a large bowl, combine the flour with the cumin, dry mustard, turmeric, white pepper, coriander and curry powder. Set aside.

3. In a cast-iron skillet or large sauté pan, heat 2 tablespoons of the canola oil over medium-high heat. Dredge the skate in the flour mixture and shake off any excess. Season the fish with salt and black pepper. Place two pieces of fish in the pan and cook until they begin to brown lightly, 1 to 2 minutes. Flip over the fish and immediately remove the pan from the heat; let the fish rest in the pan for 30 seconds before removing it. Repeat with the remaining 2 tablespoons oil and the remaining fillets.

4. Place the fillets on individual plates. Drizzle with garlic oil just before serving. Serve with Toasted Orzo With Spinach and Chorizo (see recipe below).

Toasted Orzo With Spinach and Chorizo

Recipe courtesy of “The New England Kitchen: Fresh Takes on Seasonal Recipes.”

Sewall’s note: “I often pair this pasta dish with Spiced Skate Wing, but you can try it with other fish, chicken, or on its own. Chorizo is a spicy sausage that comes fresh or dry; for this recipe I use dry chorizo and cook it lightly. The heat from the sausage mellows when tossed with spinach and pasta.”

Yield: Serves 4

Ingredients

1 cup orzo pasta

1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil

Kosher salt

1/4 cup canola oil

6 ounces dry chorizo sausage, cut into thin rounds

1 red onion, cut in half lengthwise and then into 1/4-inch-wide strips

1 teaspoon grated lemon zest

3 tablespoons vegetable stock

2 cups lightly packed baby spinach

Freshly ground black pepper

Directions

1. Preheat the oven to 350 F.

2. Toss the orzo with the olive oil in a baking pan and toast in the oven for 7 minutes, stirring halfway through. The pasta should be lightly toasted and have a nutty smell to it.

3. Bring a large saucepan of salted water to a boil and add the toasted orzo, lower the heat and simmer until tender, about 12 minutes. Drain and spread on a baking sheet to cool.

4. In a large sauté pan, heat the canola oil over medium-high heat and add the chorizo and onion. Sauté until some of the sausage fat starts to render out and the sausage begins to lightly crisp around the edges, about 6 minutes. Remove from the heat and drain off any excess fat. Add the orzo, lemon zest and stock to the pan and warm through over medium heat. Add the spinach and immediately remove the pan from the heat; the spinach should be slightly wilted. Toss together and season with salt and pepper. Serve immediately.

Main photo: Chef Jeremy Sewall and his new cookbook, “The New England Kitchen.” Credit: Michael Harlan Turkell

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Anne Willan's

Although it has been a while since I set foot in a formal classroom, each year at this time, with the beginning of school fast approaching, I tend to think about new skills I can learn or old ones I can improve upon. It seemed fitting, then, that I recently received an email from a friend asking which cookbook he should purchase to help him become a better cook.

For me, the choice was quick and easy: Anne Willan’s classic cookbook “La Varenne Pratique.” Ever since I acquired it on my first day of chef’s school 18 years ago, it’s been my go-to resource whenever I’ve needed to reference a cooking technique or learn more about a specific ingredient.

The original volume, weighing close to 5 pounds, was published in 1989 and has sold more than 500,000 copies worldwide. Thankfully, this essential book, long out of print and challenging to find in a secondhand store, was recently reissued as an e-book.

During the first half of her 30-plus years running the legendary France-based cooking school La Varenne, Willan, a Zester Daily contributor, and her staff continuously researched and wrote about essential French cooking techniques and the importance of understanding every aspect of an ingredient. The laborious effort of distilling all this culinary information resulted in a 528-page tome that provides in-depth knowledge of how to choose, store, identify and handle ingredients. This knowledge of good ingredients is paired with clear, encouraging instructions and action photos of foundational cooking techniques, such as how to dice an onion, fillet a fish or prepare different types of meringues.

Willan’s cookbook goes beyond the surface

Many cookbooks these days take us on a wonderful culinary journey, tasting a region’s or country’s culture and table, yet only provide us with a fixed GPS map of how to get to the finished dish. When you get to a point in your culinary journey where you want to veer off course and understand why certain time-honored gustatory routes are so adored, “La Varenne Pratique” is the culinary guidebook to help you navigate your or any country’s kitchen.

The new e-book has been sliced and diced into four parts, each sold separtely. Part 1: The Basics discusses herbs and seasonings; soups; stocks; and sauces, as well as eggs, dairy and oils; Part 2 covers meat, poultry, fish and game; Part 3 examines vegetables, pasta, pulses and grains; and Part 4 dishes on our sweet tooth with baking, preserving, desserts, fruits, nuts and freezing. Each part also comes with a weight-and-measurement table (worth bookmarking for regular reference), list of cooking equipment, glossary of cooking terms and bibliography.

Because the book was written before the advent of modernist cooking, it does not include these techniques. However, if this is an area that interests you, I am sure Willan would recommend you check out her onetime student Nathan Myhrvold’s exhaustive six-volume series, “Modernist Cuisine.”

Having used the e-book version on both an iPad and laptop for the past month, I can vouch that the electronic version is reliable when adapting to different formats and layouts. Simply adjusting the font size or page orientation offers you a variety of almost personalized layouts. Because the images are scans of the original book and not high-resolution digital photographs, they can be enlarged only to a certain point. This is not much of a problem, as the images are large and easy to view.

How to purchase

The e-book version of “La Varenne Pratique” can be purchased through many major online retailers, including iTunes, Amazon, Sony, Barnes & Noble, Kobo and Copia. Each of the four parts is $6.99.

The greatest challenge I’ve encountered is using the search function. In this day and age where we type anything into a search engine and get countless results, using an e-book’s search function can initially frustrate. If you type in a technique such as “how to cut up a chicken,” zero results show up. However, if you are more specific and type “cutting a bird in pieces” the exact result pops up. I’ve found eliminating the term “how to” and being more direct with your keywords drastically increases the likelihood of getting precise hits. It’s also just as easy to simply thumb through a section’s e-pages to find the specific subject you’re searching for.

Aside from the comprehensive information about ingredients, the best thing about this book is the countless technique shots that teach you lifelong, fundamental cooking skills. It would be fantastic to have a single website that aggregates all the “how-to” photo instructions “La Varenne Pratique” demonstrates as videos. But until someone invests the time and money to produce those videos, you will need to visit many websites to find all this information.

Simply put, “La Varenne Pratique” is a cooking school in a book, and certainly cheaper than tuition. It is the best gift you could give a new culinary student, a child heading to college, a newly married couple or your friend who writes a food blog. Fortunately, the e-book version is both lightweight and affordable and will not take up much space or weight in their culinary backpack.

Main photo: Anne Willan’s “La Varenne Pratique” is now available as an e-book. Willan photo by Siri Berting; e-book photo by Cameron Stauch

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Chef Regina Charboneau's new book about Mississippi River cuisines includes the recipe for her legendary biscuits. Credit: Brooke Jackson

In Julia Reed’s foreword for “Mississippi Current,” the new book by chef and restaurateur Regina Charboneau, she tells how she visits Charboneau’s Southern home to get doses of “biscuit love.” It’s an apt metaphor for the chef’s graciousness and hospitality, which she conveys, in part, through her croissant-influenced biscuits. If that sounds like an unlikely fusion, think again, for “Mississippi Current” gently merges the many culinary cultures found along the mighty river’s path.

One of Charboneau’s roles is culinary director of the American Queen, a luxury paddleboat that sails the Mississippi. When I asked her recently about her inspiration for the book, she said, “It was a confluence of my experience growing up in Natchez, traveling along the river with the American Queen and time spent with my husband in his hometown of Minneapolis. The American Queen played a huge role, as I was introduced to so many towns and stops along the river all with different cuisines and menu staples.”

Each chapter represents a gastronomic region along the Mississippi with recipes laid out as menus for different meals. The journey begins at the headwaters in Minnesota. The river’s culinary melting pot includes Native American, European, Jewish, African-American and Vietnamese cuisines, using ingredients that include wild rice, corn, lemongrass, cabbage, specialty greens and herbs. Her menus feature pork bánh mì style sandwiches, pirogi made with bacon and sweet potatoes, fried walleye, and wild rice and corn fritters — to name just a few.

Next stop is “Twain Country,” which encompasses Missouri down to where the Arkansas River meets the Mississippi. Beyond the history and heritage of Mark Twain, French, German, Irish, Italian and, most recently, Bosnian influences help define the area. Ingredients such as black walnuts, figs, catfish and locally produced Missouri wine find their way into recipes with Charboneau’s signature touch. The inspired dishes in this chapter include a jazz brunch featuring Eggs Sardou, black walnut cake with brandied plum sauce, and toasted ravioli — a St. Louis classic.

In the lower Mississippi area, stretching from Memphis into the Louisiana bayou, dishes include ingredients such as shellfish, cornmeal for bread and tamales, pork, bacon and grits. Oh, and bourbon, lots of bourbon. You can almost feel the soft breeze off the river reading through the menus with names like “Blessing of the Fleet Lunch” and “Gulf Seafood Dinner.”

A native Southerner with French training

Charboneau’s background as a native Southerner influences her dishes as does her French training in the kitchen. “Most are inspired by classic recipes and the agriculture of each region of the river,” she said. “But I brought in modern and personal twists to all of the recipes. For example, deviled eggs, a Delta tradition, have my personal and nontraditional touch by adding the crab meat and wasabi caviar.”

This style carries over into the cocktails and use of bourbon, Herbsaint and other types of alcohol throughout the book. A classic New Orleans Ramos Fizz is updated using Magellan gin flavored with iris and rosewater, bourbon is infused with figs and used to make a classic sidecar, Herbsaint shows up in hollandaise and a martini is enlivened with limoncello.

Asked for her favorite recipe in “Mississippi Current,” she said, “The sweet potato pirogi is one because it is the epitome of what I have tried to do with the book: taking something traditional and experimenting with the ingredients to make something that feels simultaneously old and new. The shrimp and smoked tomato cream over savory grits because it is the way I cook and a tradition in my own home for friends and guests. It feels like the dish is catching up in popularity to my biscuits!”

Her biscuits are legendary, layered with a pound of butter and margarine making each bite puffy, flaky and crisp. The dough is barely mixed so that big lumps of margarine get incorporated by folding and rolling, similar to the French lacquered doughs of croissant and puff pastry. She shares the recipe in the book with copious notes about her technique. The dough is frozen after being cut in biscuit shapes, a step that Charboneau said is crucial to the flakiness of the final product.

Charboneau frequently says Mississippi River water runs through her veins. In “Mississippi Current” she shares her passion for the history, culture, heritage and food of the regions along the banks of that mighty river.

Regina's butter biscuits. Credit: Brooke Jackson

Baking the croissant-influenced biscuits in muffin tins helps keep their shape with perfect crispness on the bottom. Credit: Brooke Jackson

Regina's Butter Biscuits

Prep Time: 40 minutes

Cook Time: 30 minutes

Total Time: 3 hours

Yield: Makes about 2 dozen large

Serving Size: Start with one biscuit

Ingredients

  • 4 cups flour
  • ¼ cup baking powder
  • ¼ cup sugar
  • 1½ cups (3 sticks) salted margarine, chilled and cut in ½” cubes
  • ½ cup (1 stick) salted butter, chilled and cut in ½” cubes
  • 1¾ cups buttermilk, chilled

Directions

  1. Put the flour, baking powder and sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer. Turn the machine on low and blend the dry ingredients for 15 seconds.
  2. Add the magarine and butter cubes and the buttermilk to the flour mixture before turning on the mixer. Turn the mixer on medium and count to 10. This goes very quickly; the key is to not overmix the dough. There will be large chunks the size of quarters of butter and margarine in the dough. That’s just how it should be. Don’t mix it any more. Once the dough is rolled and folded, it will become smooth.
  3. Scrape the dough from the bowl onto a generously floured work surface and shape into a rectangle about 2 inches thick. Fold the dough into thirds and with a rolling pin, roll the dough out to a 2 inch thickness. Fold it again into thirds, give the dough a quarter turn, and roll it out again to a 2 inch thickness. Continue folding, turning and rolling the dough until it is smooth and the dough has yellow ribbons of butter and margarine. This is a sign that the biscuits will be flaky.
  4. Roll the dough to 1½ inch thickness. Using a 2 inch biscuit cutter, cut the dough into rounds. When rerolling the dough, gently stack it to retain the layers. Do not overwork the dough.
  5. Place the biscuits on a baking sheet and freeze. Once frozen, transfer the biscuits to plastic bags. The unbaked biscuits can be frozen for two months.
  6. To bake, preheat the oven to 350F. Place however many frozen biscuits you want to serve in the cups of muffin tins. Let thaw in the refrigerator for 20 minutes. Bake until golden brown, 23-25 minutes. Serve right out of the oven – biscuits are best freshly baked. Baking them in muffin tins is key as it helps the biscuits keep their shape and get the perfect crispness on the bottom.

Main photo: Chef Regina Charboneau’s new book about Mississippi River cuisines includes the recipe for her legendary biscuits. Credit: Brooke Jackson

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Ruth Reichl’s engaging books talk of her growing up years, her family and how she learned to cook. In her nonfiction titles she has written about waitressing in a restaurant where every worker was an owner and about her work as a food critic with the Los Angeles Times, as a food writer for the New York Times and as editor-in-chief at Gourmet magazine.

In one of her books I remember Reichl saying she learned early on that the most important thing in life is a good story. And that’s what we get in her first novel, “Delicious.” One of the reasons I love first novels is they often have an unrestrained, unbridled, generous energy that catches and pulls the reader in like a lasso and the wild ride through character and plot is exhilarating. And when there is food at the center of the story, I’m hooked.

Food-driven plot

As a child, Billie Breslin, our heroine in “Delicious,” spends much of her time in her mother’s kitchen. Her sister Genie says, “She’s always sniffing the bottles in the spice cabinet.” And sure enough Billie can deconstruct almost anything she tastes, including the gingerbread cake her deceased mother used to make every year for her father’s birthday. (Check out the cake’s recipe in the back of the book.)

The book opens with Billie, Genie and their Aunt Melba making cake after cake until they finally figure out the exact recipe. “It’s even better than your mother’s,” Melba tells Billie, who has inherited her mother’s natural ability in the kitchen along with her nose and delicate palate.

In Montecito, Calif., where Billie and her sister are growing up, they spend a summer making cakes to earn spending money. They quickly become somewhat famous in the area and end up having a company called The Cake Sisters. Their final cake sells for a huge amount of money, but it costs them dearly.

Eleven years later, our heroine moves to New York City and finds a job at a magazine called Delicious that operates out of the “stately, gracious, old Timbers Mansion in Greenwich Village.” Billie is an assistant to the director.

But before she is officially hired we are treated to a tour through restaurant kitchens, Italian charcuteries and farm markets. We meet cheese mongers, bakers and chocolatiers, each of them imparting their passion and knowledge. Their willingness to have in-depth conversations ultimately creates a community for Billie that we New Yorkers know and treasure.

The reader is exposed to amazing foods and herbs that include curry leaves, myrtle, cassia and hyssop. We discover Chinese blossoms called Osmanthus that are used for sweet and sour sauces and to concoct the most exquisite tea. When Billie is taken into a butcher shop, she smells the sweet mixture of sawdust that is on the floor “and the clean forest scent … mingling with the mineral aroma of good meat.” Who knew that there was a difference between fall Parmigiano and spring Parmigiano?

Ruth Reichl’s characters take readers through kitchens and food history

“Delicious” is full of interesting characters, each with a full-blown story that unfolds within the larger story of the magazine. We meet people such as Jake, the handsome director of the magazine who had some kind of intimate relationship with Maggie, who is now his angry friend and one of the test kitchen cooks. Thursday Brown is a terrific chef at The Pig, a pub that everyone at the magazine frequents so we can catch glimpses of her great food.

We also meet Sammy, who writes for the magazine and travels great distances and becomes close friends with Billie, with whom she shares her dark secret. The Complainer is one of my favorite characters and when Billie takes a Saturday job at Fontanari’s Cheese Shop, a distant flirtation begins around his choice of cheeses. Benny, who owns the butcher shop, teaches Billie “where the T-bone ends and the porterhouse begins.”

The novel continues to twist and turn through the streets of New York and we are folded into the hearts and minds of Reichl’s characters like the eggs of a good soufflé (and James Beard writes, “Don’t be afraid of a soufflé”).

There are secrets lives, secret rooms and secret letters exchanged during the early 1940s between Beard and a young woman trying to comfort herself after her father goes to war and disappears. There is loss, family history and tradition. There is even a discussion of how important food was for the war effort during WWII: “It took a ton of food to feed a soldier for a year.”

When Reichl worked at Gourmet, she gave us a worldly spread of the life of food and when the magazine abruptly folded, her agent reminded her, “You’ve always wanted to write a novel. Now’s the time.”

And “Delicious” is a swift ride. Billie Breslin comes into the novel with heartache. She grows, changes, makes peace with her past and finally finds happiness and love. Reichl’s philosophy bursts forth from her book: “The secret to life is finding joy in ordinary things … the pleasure of a perfectly ripe peach, the juice running down your arm … DELICIOUS.”

Main photo: “Delicious” and author Ruth Reichl. Credit: Fiona Aboud

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“Original Gourmet Ghetto 1970s.” Credit: L. John Harris

Mystique — and hyperbole — surround North Berkeley’s legendary Gourmet Ghetto after almost half a century. The neighborhood, ground zero for a gastronomic explosion that morphed into a California cuisine revolution in the 1970s, seems to get more media coverage today than in its heyday. And sometimes it’s just plain silly.

Consider, for example, the overhyped version of today’s Ghetto portrayed in an October Forbes magazine article by Lanee Lee titled “Spending 24 Hours in Berkeley’s Gourmet Ghetto.

Her mission to spend a whole day eating her way through the Ghetto begins at 9 a.m. But after just nine hours of nibbling and sipping at Ghetto icons such as the Cheese Board and Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse, and several of the nouveau arrivé spots such as Philz Coffee from San Francisco, Lee takes off south for downtown Berkeley and even Oakland. She as much as admits the aborted mission when she says about one downtown restaurant, “Technically, it’s not in the Gourmet Ghetto …” Technically? You are either in or you are out (see map).

Lee’s article reveals, however unintended, the unhyped truth that the Gourmet Ghetto struggles today to keep up with its own revolutionary legend, let alone the increasingly vibrant foodie meccas to the south.

The reality behind the hype

Two female chefs-cum-writers who can testify to the true gravitas behind the original Ghetto’s supersized legend are Ghetto legends in their own right — Joyce Goldstein and Victoria Wise. Both cooked at Chez Panisse during its formative years before moving on to their own fame: Wise with her Pig-by-the-Tail Charcuterie (1973-1986), across the street from Chez Panisse, and Goldstein at her Square One restaurant in San Francisco (1984-1996). Since the close of their much-missed showcases they have established themselves as culinary consultants and prolific cookbook authors with national reputations.

Both women have impressive new books out that attest to their continuing commitment to the revolution they served so brilliantly: Goldstein’s “Inside the California Food Revolution: Thirty Years That Changed Our Culinary Consciousness” (UC Press) and Wise’s recipe collection, “Bold: A Cookbook of Big Flavors,” co-authored with Susanna Hoffman (Workman).

With the publication of Goldstein’s book, we finally have a scholarly account of the California cuisine revolution based on hundreds of interviews of the food- and wine-loving souls who made it happen — cooks, artisan food producers, winemakers and farmers. Among them, adds Goldstein, were an “unprecedented number” of women. One of these was Victoria Wise herself. Before she opened “the Pig,” as her shop was affectionately known in the Ghetto, Wise was Chez Panisse’s first chef.

Wise’s new book, “Bold,” presents a collection of full-flavored and full-plated (bye-bye, little plates) dishes that further define the hearty international melting-pot foundations of a new American cooking that has emerged in the wake of California’s outsized culinary contributions.

When legends collide

I had known Goldstein and Wise professionally back in the day. Then in 2010, after publication of my “graphic memoir,” “Foodoodles: From the Museum of Culinary History,” I invited them to join me on an author’s panel at the Berkeley branch of Books Inc. I titled the presentation “Legends of the Gourmet Ghetto” and included Alice Medrich of Cocolat fame (1976-1991) as well as Bruce Aidells, Berkeley’s sausage king who got his start in the Ghetto in 1979 chefing at Marilyn Rinzler’s “still-clucking” ode to chicken, Poulet.

The panelists shared stories and laughs about the early years in the Ghetto and agreed that the revolution, though clearly Euro- and mostly Franco-centric in inspiration, was largely triggered by the lack of traditional culinary arts training in the Ghetto. An autodidact love of fine food translated our European food epiphanies into an ingredio-centric cooking language outside the narratives of haute cuisine and directly relevant to our own time and place.

A new body experience

To be sure, ours was not the first generation of Americans jolted by what we tasted in France and beyond. A generation before Julia Child’s fateful encounter with French gastronomy, The New Yorker’s “Letter From Paris” columnist, Janet Flanner, had her own Proustian moment in France. In the introduction to her book, “Paris Was Yesterday 1925-1939,” a collection of her still wonderfully readable columns, Flanner writes:

I can recall the sensual satisfaction of first chewing the mixture in my mouth of a bite of meat and a crust of fresh French bread … Eating in France was a new body experience.

Yes, a sensual body experience. Very different from the visual and brainy (as in left brain) extremes of fine food so common in today’s haute cuisine world of masculine high-tech art food offered in San Sebastian, Spain; Copenhagen; London; and New York.

And who better than women such as Goldstein and Wise a few generations after Flanner to seduce our sensual bodies with simple, traditional food sourced and prepared right in our own gastronomic region — California.

Cuisine bonne femme

If you study my map of the Ghetto of the 1970s you will note that it was, indeed, the women at their shops and restaurants who were calling the revolutionary shots: Joyce Goldstein, Victoria Wise, Alice Medrich, Marilyn Rinzler and, of course, Superwoman herself, Alice Waters.

I say “Superwoman” because Waters has always had the extraordinary ability — “genius,” Goldstein says — to get people to do her bidding — especially men, I’d add. When she came to the Cheese Board just before Chez Panisse was to open and asked whether I would wait tables, I jumped at the opportunity, as if I had been handed a first-class ticket to Provence. Waters must have memorized Dale Carnegie’s perennial bestseller, “How to Win Friends & Influence People.”

One of Waters’ leading men in those early Ghetto days, Mark Miller, who followed the epic reign of Jeremiah Tower as chef de cuisine, slyly observes in Goldstein’s book that the food emerging at Chez Panisse in the 1970s was far from revolutionary. It was, he notes, heavily influenced by the genre of French cooking known as cuisine bonne femme, the bourgeois home and humble restaurant cooking of French women. He’s right. But wasn’t that, if not the food per se, the Gourmet Ghetto’s revolution, or at least a key component?  Talented and powerful women running the show.

"Off With His Toque!" Credit: L. John Harris

“Off With His Toque!” Credit: L. John Harris

It was an increasingly feminist world we were living in circa 1970 and Berkeley was, of course, one of its capitals. Today, we take for granted women running professional kitchens, though it’s still a struggle for female chefs to get the same media attention as the men.

But back in those early days of the revolution it was, it seems to me, as if a Code Pink version of Mother Nature rose up and shouted out through Ghetto legends like Joyce Goldstein and Victoria Wise, “No more crap food! Off with his toque! You go girls!” And they still are.

Top graphic: “Original Gourmet Ghetto 1970s.” Credit: L. John Harris

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Richard Miscovich stands long and lean by the oven, a ponytail trailing down his back. Though the world doubts skinny cooks, he is the real deal, very aware of the fire behind him and all it can achieve.

The baker is also aware of the crowd in front of him as he leads classes, tending curiosity as if it were as important as loaves of dough. He knows his ingredients, so he can predict what those ingredients need. He’s also attentive to environments, so he can address questions that arise, in a wood-fired oven or a weekend workshop.

I’ve seen him at the Kneading Conference and Kneading Conference West, teaching workshops on baking with sprouted grain flours, and, most recently, making full use of the heat generated for wood-fired bread baking. He explores this potential — to make everything from beautiful bread to dried figs, not to mention rendering fat and building a classic pot of New England baked beans — in detail in his book “From the Wood-Fired Oven: New and Traditional Techniques for Cooking and Baking with Fire.”

Immersion in the American baking movement

The book puts his energy and knowledge at your fingertips, and appeals to a wide range of interests, from home bakers to those considering starting a small enterprise, or looking to revise an existing baking operation. These are the people Miscovich encounters at the Kneading Conferences, or when he guest-teaches at King Arthur Flour’s Baking Center, where he used to work in the bakery. He also sees these people in his baking and pastry classes at Johnson & Wales University in Providence, R.I., where he’s been an instructor for 11 years.

Miscovich speaks and writes as one not yet removed from the thrill of learning. The book is a scrapbook of his immersion in the American bread movement and features quotes from stars and sages of that movement, such as James McGuire and Thom Leonard. That immersion happened by chance and circumstance, more than design.

“I was working at a grocery store and they opened a bakery and I thought that would be fun,” Miscovich said in a recent phone interview, describing his random entry into the field. He was attending the University of Michigan, studying English literature. The store served an international population, and received deliveries from scratch bakeries in East Lansing. Once weekly, German bread came from Detroit. “I could tell that the bread that was delivered had more character than what we were thawing and proofing and baking.”

Pioneer bread makers

His passion for baking as a career, however, did not take root until much later, when the book “Bread Alone” exploded his idea of bread in 1994. The book ratcheted up his home bread-baking practice from yeast to sourdough, and inspired him to travel from North Carolina for two weeks of workshops at the newly formed San Francisco Baking Institute. This was in 1996, a big moment for bread in America.

Bread with creative scoring. Credit: Richard Miscovich

Bread with creative scoring. Credit: Richard Miscovich

On that trip, he met Alan Scott, the New Zealand-born baker and oven builder who, with oven plans, workshops and, later, the book “The Bread Builders” (written with Dan Wing) pioneered the wood-fired bread oven movement in America.

When Miscovich visited Scott in 1996, breadmaker Chad Robertson was using Scott’s oven. There was grain growing behind the house and inside, Scott had hooked up a Diamant mill to a washing machine motor, to mill flour for his baking.

“I distinctly remember him talking about the benefits of whole grains and showing me his little mill,” Miscovich said. “The whole wood-fired oven thing hadn’t started yet, and the local grain movement hadn’t even started yet.”

Practical and accessible

“From the Wood Fired Oven” is, like “The Bread Builders,” also published by Chelsea Green. There’s enough information on artisan baking to stand as a thorough guide, but the language is not too technical to lose the home baker who has never touched a sourdough. Similarly, the practical instructions on building an oven, and managing fire and combustion, are in depth enough for anyone who is ready to build a backyard oven or launch a microbakery.

The book has profiles of bakers and oven builders who are helping push community-scale artisan bread baking to another level. Information on equipment, oven size and production practices is presented to help show how to make baking and ovens physically practical and economically feasible.

“People get burned out,” Miscovich said of baking, but the improvements he and others outline in the book can help prevent burnout and help keep artisan bakeries alive. “I think the book talks about materials and design and efficiency in a way that’s hopefully going to help those businesses become or stay viable,” he said.

Yet cooking is at the core of the book, so these details didn’t drive me, who has little interest in starting a bakery, away. I love the book, and its author’s classes, for helping explain how ingredients become foods, and how those foods become most flavorful. Even in my $25 oven.

Top photo: “A Wood-Fired Oven” and Richard Miscovich. Credit: Courtesy of Red Door Media

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