Articles in Restaurant
Culinary icon Anne Willan has just released “Secrets From the La Varenne Kitchen,” a brief compendium of “50 Essential Recipes Every Cook Needs To Know.” This amazing book includes the recipes that are the backbone course for professional chefs and that Willan’s legendary school Ecole de Cuisine La Varenne in Paris has been creating since 1975.
Among the dishes are fish aspic, exquisitely specific details on puff pastry and 10 types of sorbet. But one recipe caught my eye: Court Bouillon — or in rough English translation: “Quick Broth.” As a mom who doesn’t have the time for more intricate recipes and whose two young girls don’t have the palates for aspic yet, I liked the sound of that. I called Anne Willan to get her thoughts.
“It’s very interesting that you’ve chosen court bouillon,” Willan said from her home in Santa Monica, California, “because it’s not something anybody thinks of using nowadays. It really is right in sync with contemporary cooking,” she continued. “It’s very useful because today people always want to cook things healthfully and simply.”
Willan’s definition of court bouillon is simple and clear: “It’s a meatless and fatless broth, so very simple, but something that just adds flavor to whatever’s cooked in it.” The recipe, which is included below, is easy, but I was hoping to get some insider secrets. Willan was happy to comply, although clearly none of this seemed like a big secret to her: “Thinly slice the carrots,” she told me, “so that they give up their flavor in 15 or 20 minutes. Slice the onions fairly thinly, but not to worry about it. The green herbs you just drop in, keep the stems, they have lots of taste.”
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The real secret of court bouillon is properly pairing the food being cooked in the broth with a sympathetic acidic ingredient. Traditionally, the acid used in court bouillon would be vinegar, wine or lemon juice. Willan provided more nuanced distinctions: “For whitefish, I’d probably go for wine, because you don’t want too strong a flavor. For darker fish, possibly lemon juice or vinegar because it balances the stronger flavor of the fish.”
In traditional French cuisine, court bouillon is a liquid used for simmering, and then it’s tossed out. But as we discussed using the broth as a part of the meal, Willan became intrigued, because that’s simply part of her cooking ethos. “Never throw anything away,” she said. “When you’ve got lovely cooking liquid from something like a big salmon, do something with it — fish soup with the leftover.”
I could hear her brain begin to click as she explored the Culinary Thought Experiment: “The liquid will have acquired the flavor of what’s been cooking in it,” she said. “So what I would like to do is boil it down, and make a little sauce with it, mount it with butter or something.”
Then her brain went into high gear: “You could do lovely experiments with it. I certainly haven’t gone into it myself, but you could do an Asian court bouillon, or a hot court bouillon. You’d use chili peppers, wouldn’t you? It’s got to be something pure, hasn’t it?”
From the wisdom behind La Varenne
This was more intriguing than interview questions: Willan was asking and answering herself, giving me a view into a creative culinary mind that has long fascinated me as I’ve gobbled up her writings and her recipes from the classic “From My Château Kitchen” to her dish-y memoir “One Soufflé at a Time.” As she brainstormed the possibilities for court bouillon, her encyclopedic knowledge of cooking became clear, as did her passion for food and good eating.
“Perhaps I’d use coriander instead of parsley. And then, what would you use it for? If you push it a little bit, you could use it for a risotto or cooking quinoa. Or even grits or corn meal.”
By the time we were done, Willan had improvised a court bouillon for down-home Southern cooking and an Asian-influenced broth with the addition of soy sauce, cilantro and rice wine vinegar. She cautioned me against using too much chili pepper if I wanted to try a hot version because the flavor of the pepper would concentrate as the broth cooked down. It was an invigorating conversation — an insight into a culinary mind-set deeply rooted in the basics, but excited to jump in and experiment.
I love my copy of “Secrets from the La Varenne Kitchen,” and I intend to use it to build those basic skills that every cook needs to know — whether they’re a chef at a high-end restaurant or a mom with kids to feed. And court bouillon seems to be an inspired place for me to start. Check out the slideshow that includes Willan’s secrets and two dishes that riff on the recipe.
By Anne Willan, courtesy Spring House Press
Prep time: 10 minutes
Cook time: 15 minutes
Total time: 25 minutes
Yield: 1 quart
1 quart water
1 carrot, sliced
1 small onion, sliced
1 bouquet garni
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup white wine or 1/3 cup vinegar or 1/4 cup lemon juice
1. Combine all the ingredients in a pan (not aluminum), cover and bring to a boil. Simmer uncovered 15 to 20 minutes and strain.
Main photo: Court Bouillon is tap water with a little bit of salt, peppercorn, sliced onion, parsley, bay leaf, sliced carrot and something acidic — often lemon juice, but equally often white wine and occasionally vinegar. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz
The lesser partner of center-stage bacon and eggs at breakfast, toast is often pushed to the edges of the plate waiting for a bit of butter and jam. But toast is forgotten no longer. Chef Jason Travi of Superba Food + Bread in Venice, California, has placed toast center stage, and not just for breakfast. No longer just dressed in sweet jams, toast appears on the restaurant’s menu topped with sautéed kale, prosciutto, avocado, smoked trout and muhammara, the spicy Middle Eastern condiment.
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Why toast? Why now?
Dishes long associated with childhood meals have been improved with quality ingredients to the delight of diners. Chefs gave kid-friendly mac and cheese a makeover by adding English cheddar, fresh Maine lobster and truffle oil.
Travi was following a toast trend begun by all accounts by chef Giulietta Maria Carrelli of Trouble Coffee & Coconut Club in the San Francisco Bay area. At Superba Food + Bread, chef Travi took me into his kitchen for a video demonstration of a signature dish: grilled toast with walnut muhammara and burrata. Before we began, he talked about his partnership with Jonathan Eng, the baker responsible for making the freshly baked breads used in the restaurant.
Good toast requires great bread
At Superba Food + Bread, Eng was encouraged to be innovative. The restaurant promoted collaboration. Often Eng will come up with an idea for a new bread. He and Travi would then explore toppings that would be a good match for the texture and flavor of the new bread. Sometimes Travi asked for a bread to go with a particular dish, such as the sprouted wheat loaf he asked Eng to make with millet, flax and sunflower, pumpkin and sesame seeds. While the many sandwiches on the menu come with a variety of breads, all the toasts are made with the pain au levain.
To make his version of the classic French sourdough, Eng modified the recipe using a 16-hour cold fermentation. Using an Italian Bassanina Tubix steam pipe oven, he bakes the pain au levain loaves in 750- and 1,500-gram sizes. Both are used in the restaurant and sold in the bakery.
The only way the restaurant will be guaranteed to have freshly baked bread for the day’s service is if Eng starts work at 2 a.m. six days a week. When he arrives, the cleaning crew is just leaving. For a few hours he enjoys having the quiet restaurant all to himself. By the time Travi’s crew arrives for the breakfast service, Eng has his loafs stacked high on the wood counters, ready for the day’s diners.
A mother’s recipe passed down to her son, the chef
Chef Travi remembers watching his mother cook when he was growing up. From her Lebanese family, she learned to prepare Middle Eastern classics. One particular dish stayed in his memory, her muhammara, a spicy dip made with peppers, walnuts, bread crumbs and olive oil.
To complement the spicy flavors of the muhammara, Travi adds freshly made burrata and the crunch of pickled radish.
Muhammara-Burrata Toast With Pickled Radish
While the spread will work on any bread, Eng encourages using a good quality sourdough that is baked fresh and eschews preservatives. Although ready-made bread crumbs can be used, the quality of the muhammara will be improved when they are homemade.
The muhammara can be made the day of use or reserved covered in the refrigerator for up to five days. The radishes should pickle for two days and then can be refrigerated in an airtight container in the pickling liquid for several days.
The Aleppo powder Travi prefers is frequently unavailable. He suggests substituting cayenne powder. The heat from the two are different, so taste and adjust the amount used.
Pomegranate molasses is available in Middle Eastern and Israeli markets and sometimes in the International sections of supermarkets.
Prep time: 15 minutes
Cook time: 30 minutes
Total time: 45 minutes
Yield: 4 servings
1 whole red pepper, washed, to yield ¾ cup roasted red peppers
6 slices freshly baked bread, divided
¼ cup raw walnuts
1½ teaspoons pomegranate molasses
¼ teaspoon ground cumin
¼ teaspoon ground coriander
¼ to ½ teaspoon Aleppo powder or cayenne
1 tablespoon olive oil
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
2 cups fresh burrata
1 tablespoon Italian parsley leaves, washed, dried
1 tablespoon pickled radishes (see recipe below)
1. Heat oven to 450 F. Place the whole red pepper on a piece of parchment paper or a Silpat sheet on a baking sheet. Cook 15 to 30 minutes depending on size or until the skin is lightly browned and the flesh is tender. Remove from the oven and set aside to cool.
2. When the pepper is cool to the touch, use a pairing knife to cut off the stem and peel away the skin. Discard the skin and seeds. Finely chop the flesh. Measure out the amount needed in the recipe and reserve the remainder for another use in a refrigerated, airtight container.
3. Tear two slices of fresh bread into pieces. Heat a nonstick pan. Toast the pieces in the pan. Remove. Allow to cool. Place into a blender and pulse to make crumbs. Return the bread crumbs to the pan. Do not use oil. Toast the bread crumbs until lightly brown. Set aside to cool. Measure out the amount needed in the recipe and reserve the remainder for another use in a refrigerated, airtight container.
4. Reduce the oven to 325 F. Place the walnut pieces on a piece of parchment paper or a Silpat sheet on a baking sheet. Bake about 10 to 12 minutes or until lightly brown.
5. Remove and allow to cool.
6. Place red peppers, walnuts, pomegranate molasses, ground cumin, ground coriander, Aleppo powder or cayenne and olive oil into a blender or food processor. Blend until smooth.
7. Taste and adjust flavor by adding sea salt and freshly ground pepper.
8. Heat a grill or a grill-pan. Place the remaining bread slices on the grill just long enough for grill marks to appear. Remove.
9. Place the toast slices on a cutting board and then spread a layer of muhammara on each slice. Decoratively spoon on three or four teaspoon-sized mounds of burrata, season with sea salt and black pepper, sprinkle on pickled radish and parsley leaves.
Lebanese-Style Pickled Radish
At a supermarket or farmers market, buy fat, firm radishes with unwilted leaves attached to ensure they are freshly picked.
Prep time: 5 minutes
Cook time: 2 minutes
Pickling time: 2 days
Yield: 8 servings
2 large radishes, washed, stems and root ends removed
¼ cup water
¼ cup white vinegar
¼ cup white sugar
1. Clean the radishes to remove all dirt. Cut away any blemishes and discard.
2. Using a sharp chef’s knife, julienne the radishes, cutting from stem top to root end. The strips should be as uniform as possible, about 1/8-inch thick.
3. Place the julienned radishes in a non-reactive bowl.
4. Place water, vinegar and sugar into a small saucepan. Bring to a boil. Stir to dissolve sugar.
5. Pour the hot liquid over the radish. Cover. Let sit on the counter 2 days.
6. The pickled radish will keep up to a week in an airtight container in the refrigerator.
Main photo: Muhammara-burrata pain au levain toast with pickled radish. Credit: Copyright 2015 David Latt
La Vie en Rose: Bread and pain. The staff of life and the pain of life. One could hardly imagine more disparate phenomena, n’est-ce pas? Nevertheless, the French word for bread is le pain. Given no etymological connection whatsoever between the French “pain” and the English “pain,” it would appear that this is a random frisson de langue. With a common alphabet of only 26 letters there are bound to be odd bedfellows in English and French. Oui?
Well, let’s explore our little frisson a bit further. Our Café French™ lesson today brings us again to the vibrant Rockridge district of Oakland, Calif., and Oliveto restaurant and cafe, where I am joined for breakfast by Lisa Taylor, a Paris-born linguist, who can shed light on our subject.
Oliveto’s menu, of course, leans toward Italian, but its upscale cafe is one of the few in the East Bay that hints at the spirit of “cabal,” that 19th-century socialist philosopher Charles Fourier believed to be the essence of French cafe society. Where better to conspire over the linguistic nuances of bread and pain?
Breaking bread is a pain
Taylor, who now lives and teaches in Oakland, arrives in an outfit that screams “Paris” — skin-tight pants, a beautiful floral blouse, a skimpy leather jacket and, of course, a perfectly arranged scarf. Evidently, you can take the linguist out of Paris but you can’t take the Paris out of the linguist.
After settling in and ordering — poached eggs and a latte for me; smoked salmon, cream cheese, toast and tea for our linguist — I present Taylor with my understanding, admittedly meager, of a symbolic link between le pain and pain in Christian doctrine.
When one “breaks bread,” le pain (pronounced “pan” with a soft “n”) does not feel the pain (la peine, pronounced “pen”). Yes, but when scripture speaks of Jesus Christ as “the bread of life” and then, on the cross, as “broken bread,” well, that’s another story. The agony of the cross is, ergo, the agony of the bread. Now fast forward through Christ’s resurrection and the birth of the church to the liturgy of Holy Communion where the body (bread) and blood (wine) of Christ are symbolically ingested.
Here Taylor, a lapsed Catholic, stops me short. “French Catholics believe that the body and blood of Christ are literally, not symbolically, present in the bread and wine.” She then translates the French saying, Nul pain sans peine — No bread without pain. “We take our bread and our pain very seriously!” Taylor clarifies one more minor point. “The cultured French would never break bread with their hands,” she says. “They cut bread with a knife, and usually on a diagonal.”
Our server delivers our beverages and while we sip, I take notes as Taylor, fluent in five languages, ventures into etymology. The French word “le pain” has its roots in Sanskrit and Latin. The Sanskrit pa (long) and nis (to feed or nourish) evolved into Latin as panis. And when we break bread with another, we are copains — friends. The co is from the Latin cum, meaning “with” — with bread. In English, the word “companion” literally means bread mate.
How you say it matters
My perfect poached eggs arrive along with Taylor’s silky smoked salmon and thick Philly cream cheese. Taylor takes a piece of Oliveto’s levain toast and holds it up. “The word ‘levain’ is pronounced with that same nasally vowel sound as ‘pain,’ ” she says. “It sounds the way a French baby cries, ouin, ouin. English and American babies go whaa, whaa.”
Taylor emphasizes the importance of correct pronunciation. “If you don’t pronounce zee words correctly,” she says charmingly while spreading the cheese on her slice of toast and layering it with salmon and cucumber slices, “your server may not understand what you are ordering and express dédain.”
French words like le dédain (disdain), le lapin (rabbit), vingt (20), and of course, le pain, are all words that contain versions (ain, in, ing, etc.) of the 40 ways to write the ouin, ouin sound in French. Taylor also advises getting the French articles and genders right. “Order la pain instead of le pain and you could end up with a plate of lapin.”
Speaking of rabbits
All this talk of pain, le pain and le lapin stimulates Taylor’s childhood memories of the little chocolate rabbits she consumed during Easter services. Aha! More links. Broken bread is resurrected as chocolate lapins. Easter’s rituals were associated by early Christians with the pagan celebration of spring, and rabbits are symbols of both fecundity and resurrection. The female rabbit’s prodigious procreative capacities are evident in her ability to get pregnant twice in the same season, carrying two litters simultaneously.
Finishing off my délicieux repas, I’m feeling rather pregnant myself. I announce in my best French: “Je suis vraiment plein” — I am really full. (It’s the ouin, ouin sound again.) Taylor, laughing, corrects me. “Plein is not used for human fullness. Rabbits can be plein, but not people. Your pockets can be full of money (pleines de monnaie) but you are repu — Je suis repu.”
“Oh,” I respond. “So if I eat too many chocolate rabbits it will be Je suis repu de lapins en chocolat. But if I buy a box of chocolate rabbits, it will be Une boîte pleine de lapins en chocolat.”
“C’est ca!” Taylor responds.
And with that, our poly-lingual fashionista rises, kisses me on both cheeks and strides off. Alone again at the table, I order another latte and scan my notes. I feel the relief that always follows the intensity, and vague humiliation, of my Cafe French™ sessions with Lisa Taylor. My brain is full — Mon cerveau est plein.
Main illustration: “Bread, Friends, Rabbit and Pain.” Credit: L. John Harris
Nordic chef Poul Andrias Ziska offers a fresh way from the Faroe Islands to prepare spring lamb. The tangy carrots give the lamb a nice lift. Ziska, of KOKS restaurant, in the Foroyar Hotel, above Tórshavn, reflects the trend of many Nordic chefs, who are working with the home-fermented vegetables that were once a Scandinavian staple in the days before refrigeration. The vegetables are usually made in big batches and keep well in the refrigerator. But they take at least a week to prepare. For a quicker, easier version of this Faroe Islands recipe, use store-bought pickled or fermented carrots. They’re available from some health-food stores. This recipe also calls for Faroese lamb, but fine organic lamb can be substituted.
Faroese Lamb Fillet With Fermented Carrots,
Wild Herbs And Lamb Bouillon
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Prep time: 15 minutes
Cook time: 20 minutes
Total time: 35 minutes
Yield: 4 servings
3 cups lamb bouillon (use liquid bouillon rather than a stock cube)
1 tablespoon elderflower or other delicately aromatic vinegar
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
2 lamb fillets
2/3 cup fermented or pickled sliced carrots
a handful of edible flowers and leaves, such as oxalis (wood sorrel), cuckoo flower (cardamine pratensis), violets
1. Preheat the broiler.
2. In a small saucepan, bring the bouillon to the boil and continue cooking until the liquid has reduced by half. Remove from the heat and stir in the vinegar. Taste for seasoning. Keep the sauce warm while you cook the lamb.
3. Broil the lamb fillets for 2 to 3 minutes on each side, turning them 2 or 3 times. The meat should be medium rare. Remove from the pan and allow to stand for 5 minutes before cutting it into thick slices.
4. Divide the lamb slices between 4 shallow serving bowls. Arrange the carrot slices on top, and scatter with the wild leaves and flowers. Spoon the sauce over the lamb and serve.
Main photo: Faroese Lamb Fillet With Fermented Carrots, Wild Herbs and Lamb Bouillon. Credit: Carla Capalbo
The pursuit of a healthy diet is frequently lamented as an exercise in deprivation. Often the ingredients that must be given up are ones that delight the palate and excite the soul. Chef Paul Fields saw no such deprivation when he signed on to be the chef at the upscale, gluten-free Inn on Randolph in Napa, California. He serves a breakfast of Beluga lentils with roasted vegetables, sausage and a poached egg.
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The Napa Valley is renowned for quality vineyards and award-winning restaurants. The city of Napa is less well-known. Recently in the news because of an earthquake that caused considerable damage in the downtown commercial district, the city is reviving and becoming a locus for inventive chefs and quality accommodations.
Fields is one of those chefs drawn to the valley’s bounty of agricultural products. He prides himself on being a good purveyor. He collaborates with local farmers and has a garden on the property so the produce he cooks comes fresh and organic to his kitchen. For him, no matter what a guest’s dietary restrictions might be, his goal is to create nutritious, well-plated delicious meals.
In search of a breakfast that would do just that, Fields turned to an old favorite: lentils.
Hungry guests about to begin a day of wine tasting, cycling or hiking in the valley need a hearty meal. Often regarded as low on the culinary totem pole, lentils are a heritage legume, mentioned in the Bible and served around the globe as a source of low-cost protein that is rich in vitamins, minerals and fiber. It is cultivated in a rainbow of colors and sizes including the Red Chief, the brown Pardina, the Crimson and the French Green. For his signature breakfast dish, Fields uses the glossy black Beluga lentil.
Fields accomplishes a bit of magic with what some might call the most prosaic of ingredients — a handful of lentils, a carrot, a piece of squash and an egg. A combination of contrasting flavors and textures, the dish is delicious and visually beautiful, a good way to begin the day.
Beluga Lentil, Roasted Vegetable Gluten-Free Breakfast
In addition to being gluten-free, the dish can be vegetarian-vegan when the butter, sausage and egg are omitted.
The organic Beluga lentils that Fields uses come from the Timeless Food company based in Conrad, Montana. To add heat without spiciness, dried cayenne peppers cook along with the lentils and charred onion.
Adding to the convenience of the dish, the lentils, roasted vegetables and sausages may be cooked beforehand and reheated just before serving. Only the poached egg should be prepared at the last minute.
Prep time: 10 minutes
Cook time: 35 minutes
Total time: 45 minutes
Yield: 4 servings
1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1/2 medium yellow onion, washed, peeled, root and stem removed, roughly chopped
1 whole dried cayenne pepper
1 cup black Beluga lentils
2 1/2 cups water
4 carrots, washed, peeled, root and stem removed, cut on the bias or into rounds
1 cup squash (butternut or acorn), washed, peeled, cut into 1/2-inch chunks or long slabs
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
4 sausage links, chicken apple sausage or use what you like from your local market
1 tablespoon sweet butter
5 tablespoons sherry vinegar, divided
4 large eggs
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar, heated over a low flame, reduced to 1 tablespoon
2 tablespoons micro-greens (kale, chives, pea shoots), washed, dried and Italian parsley leaves, finely chopped
1/2 cup parsley leaves, washed, dried, roughly chopped
1. In a large saucepan or small pot, heat ½ tablespoon olive oil. Sauté the onion over medium heat until lightly charred. Add dried cayenne pepper and continue sautéing 5 to 6 minutes. Add lentils and water. Stir well.
2. Bring to a simmer and cook for 25 to 35 minutes uncovered or until the lentils are a little softer than al dente. Set aside.
3. Preheat oven to 450 F. Toss carrots and squash with 1/2 tablespoon olive oil, season with sea salt and black pepper.
4. Place on a baking sheet lined with a Silpat sheet or parchment paper. Using tongs, turn after 10 minutes and cook about a total of 15 to 20 minutes or until al dente. Remove and reserve.
5. Large sausages can be prepared whole, in which case the skin should be punctured all over with a sharp paring knife so the sausages do not swell during cooking, or cut into 1/2-inch rounds or 2-inch bias-cut pieces. Heat a sauté pan over a medium flame. Place the sausages into the pan and sear on all sides, using tongs to turn them frequently. When the sausages are cooked, remove from the pan, drain on a paper-towel-lined plate and reserve.
6. Heat a large sauté pan. Transfer the lentils from the pot to the sauté pan. Simmer to reduce the liquid by half. Add butter and combine with the lentils’ broth to create a sauce. Stir well.
7. Add 1 tablespoon sherry vinegar to brighten the flavors. Taste and adjust the flavors using sea salt, freshly ground black pepper, a bit more butter and vinegar. The sauce should be thick, so, if needed, simmer a few minutes longer to reduce excess liquid.
8. Fill a medium-sized sauce pan or a small pot with a quart of water. Add the remaining 4 tablespoons vinegar, which will help coagulate the egg white around the yolk. Bring to a simmer.
9. If the lentils, roasted vegetables and sausage have been prepared ahead, reheat.
10. Open an egg, being careful not to break the yolk. Stir the hot vinegar water before sliding in the egg. The gentle vortex helps shape the egg.
Cook 3 1/2 minutes for a loose yolk and 4 1/2 to 5 minutes for a medium yolk. Fields suggests using a kitchen timer so the eggs do not overcook.
Using a slotted spoon, remove the poached egg from the water and drain on a paper towel for 2 to 3 seconds.
11. If possible, heat the plates. Drizzle or use the back of a spoon to mark each plate with a small amount of the reduced balsamic vinegar, which is not only decorative but adds another layer of sweet-acidic flavor.
12. Put the carrots into the pan with the lentils and toss well to coat with the sauce. Place the squash on each plate. Spoon the lentils and carrots onto the squash. Add the sausage and top with the poached egg.
13. Dust with sea salt and black pepper. To add color and a little crunch, sprinkle micro-greens and chopped Italian parsley leaves on top. Finish with sea salt and a drizzle of olive oil.
Main photo: Beluga Lentil, Roasted Vegetable Gluten-Free Breakfast. Credit: David Latt
Sam Fromartz’s new book, “In Search of the Perfect Loaf, A Home Baker’s Odyssey,” is a departure. The journalist and editor began his career as a reporter at Reuters, and his previous book, “Organic, Inc.,” was a standard work of nonfiction about the evolution of the organic food industry. But as his hobby became his subject, the writer leaped into the picture of this book.
“In Search of the Perfect Loaf: A Home Baker’s Odyssey”
By Samuel Fromartz, Viking, 2014, 320 pages
» Enter here for a chance to win a free copy
» Click here to buy the book
“Baking for me was relief from my daily grind of journalism,” Fromartz said in a phone interview. “I really enjoyed the moment in the day when I would leave my keyboard and just bake, shape loaves, bake them. I really didn’t want to lose that sense of specialness, of what bread meant in my life. I thought if I mixed it up in my work too much, it would just become part of my job. I really didn’t want to do that.”
As the recession downsized his income, however, everything became a potential topic. In a single afternoon, he lost most of his steady freelancing gigs. Querying a contact at the travel magazine “Afar,” he proposed a story about going to Paris to study baguette baking.
The editor said yes, and the adventure began. Consider yourself lucky that his escape became his work, because the result is a really nice journey through baking led by a skilled reporter.
“This book was a lot more personal,” said Fromartz. “It wasn’t a journalistic investigation. But I am a reporter, so all of those tools I use in my work became tools I used in the book.”
Tools like reading, asking questions and framing the answers in good stories. There are some beautiful descriptions, like the one at Della Fattoria, a bakery in Petaluma, California.
“Everyone seemed to be working at a pace just short of a jog,” he writes, setting the stage for each reader to witness, as he did, the bread baking one morning. The baker-writer joins the action, helping shape loaves of bread. But once the actual baking begins, he stands on the sidelines and tells us plainly what he sees. We readers fall into the rhythm of the observed work.
As a small herd of bakers usher hundreds of would-be breads into the oven, Fromartz puts you right there, watching the “dance of the peels,” as loaves go into the oven, and then come out. You are just shy of smelling the bread and tasting it.
The pacing of the stories and information are spot-on. Fromartz takes you through a long baking lesson, baker by baker, describing the process and progress. Beginning with baguettes, which were a challenge for him to bake at home, you learn as much or more about the social history of this bread and its place in French culture as you do about the practical route he found to making this loaf.
Yes, there are elaborate recipes, heavy on method, at the end of chapters in case you want to bake along. But no baking is required to enjoy the research he presents as part of his journey. This odyssey is not just for serious home bakers or professionals, but also for anyone mildly curious about wheat.
Guided by his curiosities
“I wanted to understand things for myself,” he said. “A lot of baking books dealt with some of the questions I had, but there was no sort of central resource, and no book that tied together everything from the origins of grains to sourdough microbiology to how to shape a loaf.”
Writing the book really answered his curiosities. His dives into sourdough are deep; at one point he compares cultivating sourdough cultures to farming, and nurturing microlivestock. Holding all this heady material together is the importance of craft, and what he got out of learning a craft at the hands of people who really value bread, its historic framework and its future.
One of the most surprising discoveries he found on his journey was learning about flour, specifically locally grown and milled grains. As he started using local grains, and flour that came from small mills, he realized how variable bread’s main ingredient could be.
“It made me realize what’s been lost and sacrificed along the way in that quest for uniformity,” he said. Anything that threatened that uniformity got lost, like grains with different flavors, and non-standard types of gluten or proteins.
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“My sense is those guys probably knew something about flavor,” he said. “We have this real singular expectation of what bread should be. “Even whole-wheat loaves generally estimate that puffy bread ideal. “When you have such a narrow idea of what bread should be, you lose a lot of possibilities.”
Exploring those possibilities through different grains and flours engages him as a baker. It’s useful ecologically, too. Pursuing lesser-known grains is good for agricultural diversity and dietary diversity.
When I was reading, I was worried that baking might have lost some charm for the writer. But by the end of the book, he says he’s been able to protect his special connection to baking. I wanted to know how he preserved it. His answer was reassuring, if elliptical.
“I still bake a lot and baking is really a part of me,” he said. “I want to keep that sense of discovery about it. So I think will.”
Main photo: Sam Fromartz’s newest book will have you smelling and tasting the featured breads. Credit: Sam Fromartz
Noelia Garcia grew up helping her mother make and sell tamales — those golden packages of cornmeal and spices steamed in cornhusks and tied like little presents. In Mexico, tamales are always made fresh, but Garcia figured her neighbors in her adopted state of Minnesota could use these steaming packages any time they wanted. And that is her gift to Minnesota: frozen tamales with the authentic taste of Mexico.
Today, her Minneapolis tamale business, La Loma Tamales, produces Oaxaqueno tamales with spicy red sauce inside; tamales with a mole sauce of chilies, nuts and chocolate; and a dessert tamale filled with pineapple and raisins. That’s not to mention her signature chicken tamales with a green sauce of serrano chili peppers, onions, garlic and tomatillos. All are the flavors of Garcia’s childhood.
Growing up in Mexico
It’s a childhood Garcia remembers lovingly, even though it’s been 17 years since she last saw Quebrantadero, the tiny village where she grew up buying gorditas in the plaza, preparing for fiestas and sleeping in her family’s dirt-floor adobe house.
“We slept three or four kids in one bed, everybody in the same house, seven brothers and sisters, my mom, my dad, my grandma and grandpa,” says Garcia, 40. She and her friends loved to play on a little hill, la loma in Spanish, and that’s what she named her company.
“When you’re a child, you don’t care that you don’t have shoes. You’re just innocent and happy,” she says. “For me, it’s transporting myself to a place and bringing something from where I grew up to this place.”
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Quebrantadero was her entire world until, at age 16, she met Enrique Garcia, age 17, and fell in love. What they did next surprises even Noelia. “We got married on Friday and we came to the United States on Sunday,” she says. “In a small village, there is nothing else to do.”
The Garcias long to revisit Quebrantadero, which they left nearly two decades ago. They can’t go back across the border until they resolve their immigration status, which they are working hard to do. In the intervening years, Enrique has lost his mother, grandmother and an uncle. He has had to miss all three funerals.
Shortly after coming to Minnesota, Enrique heard that a bakery in Minneapolis needed workers, so that’s where they headed. It was 30 below zero the day they arrived. “I remember we went to the bus and we kind of showed our hands with the coins, because we don’t know the value of the coins,” Noelia says.
Neither spoke English, but they got jobs and worked long hours. In the evenings, Noelia started cooking tamales to sell at a Mexican restaurant. Those tamales, based on her mother’s recipes, caused a sensation. Eventually, the demand proved too much for the small kitchen in the couple’s home.
Selling tamales … and coffee
In 1999, the Garcias quit their jobs and opened a tiny restaurant in Minneapolis’ busy Mercado Central marketplace. The landlord had one requirement for the renters of the 80-square-foot kitchen: They had to sell coffee. Although neither Noelia nor Enrique knew how, they agreed. “We bought a coffee machine and people trained us on how to use it,” Noelia says.
Largely thanks to the Garcias, Minnesotans’ taste for tamales has expanded like luminarias on a winter sidewalk. The couple’s wholesale business sells frozen, handmade La Loma tamales to grocery stores and restaurants throughout Minnesota. It took a year to get the license for the tamale factory. The reason? “The health inspector didn’t know what a tamale is,” Noelia explains.
In recent years, the couple added downtown locations in Minneapolis and St. Paul and a seasonal stand at TCF Bank Stadium. This past summer they debuted at three local farmers markets.
Noelia loved math as a child, but her parents didn’t have the money to send her beyond eighth grade. Once La Loma was established, she earned her GED and went to college to study business. Now she has started a scholarship fund so her employees’ children can attend college, too. For Noelia, La Loma is not just a business — it’s a community of family and friends who take care of one another, much like in the Mexican village of her childhood.
“This country has given us a lot, but we also suffer a lot,” Noelia says. “For 17 years, I didn’t see my mom, and I don’t know if someone can pay that. But my kids grew up here, we’ve got a really successful business, and I got to go to school. It’s kind of a balance. You cannot have everything.”
Although she has been separated from her mother for years, Noelia feels close to her in the kitchen. She based La Loma’s signature chicken tamales in green sauce on her mother’s recipe. It’s a taste of what her fans can get at her Twin Cities restaurants, wholesale store and the St. Paul Farmers’ Market.
La Loma’s Mexican Chicken Tamales in Green Sauce
Prep time: 1 hour
Cook time: 2 hours
Total time: 3 hours
Yield: 30 servings
Chicken and green sauce preparation
Yield: About 36 ounces
3 pounds chicken, cut into pieces
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 1/2 pounds tomatillos
8 serrano chili peppers
4 cloves garlic
4 cups of water
Chicken bouillon to taste
1. Add the chicken and salt to water and simmer for 30 minutes. Once the chicken is cooked, shred and set aside.
2. Boil the tomatillos, serrano peppers, onion and garlic in water. Once the sauce ingredients are cooked, discard the water and process the sauce ingredients in a blender with the chicken bouillon until smooth.
3. Add 12 ounces of the sauce to the shredded chicken, and reserve the remaining sauce (about 24 ounces) to use in the dough mixture.
Yield: About 30 portions
1 ½ pounds cornhusks for tamales
5 pounds tamale dough
About 24 ounces green sauce
1 pound lard or vegetable oil
1. Soak the cornhusks in water for 10 minutes. Wash the cornhusks and allow them to drain.
2. Mix the dough, green sauce and lard or oil together. Knead the dough until it obtains a uniform texture.
3. Press a small, 4-ounce ball of dough and spread evenly onto the cornhusk.
4. Add the desired amount of meat and sauce on top of the dough and wrap with the corn husk.
5. Once you have finished assembling the tamales, place them in a tamale steamer and steam for 2 hours.
6. Serve immediately.
Main photo: The La Loma tamale is made from scratch out of corn dough and filled with chicken, serrano chile peppers, tomatillos, onions and garlic. Credit: Ben Bartenstein
Ben Bartenstein, based in St. Paul, Minn., reported this story for Round Earth Media.
Portions of this story first appeared in Mpls. St.Paul Magazine.
During a hosted visit to explore the city of Napa, I stayed at the Inn on Randolph in a leafy neighborhood within walking distance of downtown. Waiting to meet chef Paul Fields, I was offered a golden brown chocolate chip cookie, a good litmus test of a baker’s skill.
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All too often chocolate chip cookies are overly sweet or undercooked. In either case, that puts one’s teeth on edge. When chef Fields joined me, I complimented him on the cookies. With pride he explained they were gluten-free.
The Inn on Randolph is one of the few gluten-free upscale inns in the country. Fields was challenged by owner Karen Lynch to create flavorful, quality dishes that gastronomic visitors to Napa Valley would enjoy.
Fields makes virtually everything he serves from scratch using local ingredients. Many ingredients come from the inn’s gardens and fruit trees. He doesn’t make wheat-based breads and pastries. So to satisfy the need for morning carbohydrates, the day I stayed at the inn, he served a hot plate of Beluga lentils, a poached egg, roasted carrots and squash, with maple chicken sausages.
Anyone who bakes knows how well wheat flour mixed with a liquid and a fat creates elastic dough and batters. Many supermarkets and health food stores carry gluten-free flours made from a variety of plants: chickpeas, corn, chia, buckwheat, rice bran, barley, arrowroot, amaranth, nuts, potato, millet, quinoa and tapioca. But these flours have flavors and binding properties different from wheat.
Chocolate chip cookies are part of my childhood sense memory. They evoke my mother’s kitchen, where my sister and I vied to eat the first cookie warm from the oven.
Fields’ cookies passed my-mother-used-to-make-these-cookies test. They had the right amount of chewiness and sweetness with a lovely melted chocolate flavor. They were delicious.
Inn on Randolph Chocolate Chip Cookies
Fields suggests making a good supply of the gluten-free flour blend. The flour recipe below will make 6 dozen cookies. With the holidays coming up, the flour will not go to waste. Store the blend in an airtight container in a cool, dark pantry or in the refrigerator.
Having a good supply of pre-shaped frozen cookie dough is a great help for spur of the moment holiday celebrations.
Prep time: 30 minutes
Freezer time: 10 to 12 minutes or overnight
Cooking time: 10 to 15 minutes
Yield: 3 dozen cookies
3 sticks unsalted butter, room temperature soft
2 1/4 cups dark brown sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract without alcohol
2 teaspoons baking powder
2 3/4 cups Inn on Randolph flour blend (see below)
8 ounces chocolate chips of your choice: milk, dark or a blend of the two
1. Preheat oven to 350 F.
2. In a mixing bowl, combine softened butter and brown sugar. Mix to combine and break up any lumps. Stir until smooth.
3. Add egg and vanilla. Mix until fully incorporated into the butter and sugar. In a separate bowl, mix baking powder with gluten-free flour blend.
4. Add the flour mixture to the butter and sugar mixture and mix well until most of the flour is incorporated. Leave some of the flour unblended.
5. Add chocolate chips. Fold together the unblended flour and the chocolate chips to prevent the chips from sticking to one another. Then mix together with the batter until no flour can be seen. Scoop out the cookies with a 1-ounce scoop or with a large spoon. Prepare a nonstick baking sheet or a baking sheet covered with parchment paper or a Silpat sheet. Place the balls of dough next to each other.
6. Freeze a minimum of 10 to 12 minutes or overnight. If the cookies are going to be baked on another day, transfer the frozen balls to an airtight container and return to the freezer.
Just before baking, remove from the freezer. Place the balls on a nonstick baking sheet or a baking sheet covered with a Silpat sheet or a piece of parchment paper. Remembering that as the cookies bake, they will expand, leave 4 inches of space between each ball of dough and the sides of the baking sheet.
7. Bake for 10 to 15 minutes to desired doneness. Remove from oven and cool on a wire rack.
Inn on Randolph Flour Blend
Weight is more accurate, but you may use cup measures. Store the blend in an airtight container in a cool, dark pantry or in the refrigerator.
Prep time: 10 minutes
1 1/2 cups or 167 grams sorghum flour, superfine
3/4 cup or 101 grams cornstarch
1/2 cup or 82 grams potato flour, finely ground
3/4 cup or 117 grams potato starch, unmodified
1/2 cup or 56 grams tapioca flour
Measure out each dry ingredient.
Mix together. Stir well.
Store in an airtight container.
Main photo: Gluten-free chocolate chip cookies made by chef Paul Fields for guests at the Inn on Randolph, Napa, Calif. Credit: David Latt
In the video, Fields shows how to freeze the cookie dough in individual portions.