Women have traditionally had a rough time in the kitchens of American restaurants. And it's even worse in France, where many of them have gone to train.
Catherine Brandel, who trained as an anthropologist at the University of California at Berkeley, is a case in point. When she went to work in French kitchens, her native competence and her experience working in the Napa Valley assisting legendary French chefs who came to teach at the Robert Mondavi Winery meant that she was given kitchens to direct. But she was discouraged from working on the stove, which was reserved for men.
Even after becoming chef of Chez Panisse—the Berkeley restaurant many consider to be the best in America—when Brandel would travel with a male assistant hotels would show him to the room with the welcoming flowers and champagne.
Brandel took and takes it all with good humor and down-to-earth practicality—qualities that serve her well as a chef-instructor at the new Napa Valley campus of the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone, a spectacular former winery. There she imparts hard-won wisdom to students and shows them some of her natural approach to cooking, in which simplicity and the best ingredients count for all.
Here are two of Brandel's recipes from the new Great Women Chefs by Julie Stillman (Turner Publishing, $29.95), a collection of stories about how several dozen American women have fared as chefs in traditionally male preserves. It's also full of recipes, including the ones below—both of which would be welcome at any Thanksgiving table or winter supper.
with Roasted Wild Mushrooms
1 1/2 pounds wild mushrooms, such as cepes, morels, or chanterelles Salt & freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons olive oil 1/2 cup white wine
2 sprigs fresh thyme (or herbs of your choice) 2-4 tablespoons juice from roasted chicken or game bird (optional)
1/2 pound ricotta cheese, drained 2 large eggs
Scant pinch freshly ground nutmeg 1-2 ounces grated Parmesan cheese
Salt &freshly ground black pepper 1 tablespoon melted unsalted butter
1-3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
To make mushrooms: Preheat oven to 375° F.
If mushrooms are dry and not gritty, brush or wipe them clean. If they are very wet, hard to brush, or gritty, fill a deep bowl with water, plunge the mushrooms into the water and agitate them with your hands. Lift the mushrooms out of the water and drain. Repeat the process with clean water until the mushrooms are clean. (You should never have to do this with cepes.)
Cut mushrooms into half-inch wedges or chunks. Place in a baking pan, season with salt and pepper to taste, sprinkle with olive oil, wine, thyme sprigs or other herbs, and bird juices, if using. Cover and roast 30-40 minutes.
When a good deal of juice has rendered, pour the juice into a small saucepan and cook over medium heat until reduced by one-third. Set aside.
Increase the heat to 425° F. Uncover and brown the mushrooms slightly. Pour a little of the reduced and well-seasoned mushroom juice over the cooked mushrooms and set aside.
To make gnocchi: In a medium-sized bowl, stir ricotta with a wooden spoon, until the cheese reaches a uniform consistency. Add eggs, nutmeg, Parmesan, salt and pepper to taste, and stir vigorously. Add butter, then flour in two batches. Stir in gently—gnocchi will toughen if stirred too much. (The dough will keep, refrigerated, for 2-3 days.)
On a floured work surface, roll dough into a cylinder shape. Cut into approximately 32 pieces and roll each piece into an oval dumpling shape with thumb.
To form and store the formed gnocchi for up to a couple of hours before serving, you can lay them out on sheet pans covered with floured parchment paper. Group a serving amount together. When ready to poach, cut off a section of the paper that has the number of gnocchi you want to serve, hold it over the pot of simmering water and scoot them into the water.
To serve: In a large pot of just-boiling salted water, simmer gnocchi gently until set in the center, not runny, about 3-4 minutes depending on the size. Remove the gnocchi from the water with a slotted spoon and gently place in shallow soup plates. Spoon roasted mushrooms into soup plates and drizzle with the reduced mushroom juices.
6-8 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil 1-3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 clove garlic, crushed Salt
3 large fennel bulbs 6 celery stalks, thinly sliced on the diagonal
8 large radishes, thinly sliced 1 large bunch Italian parsley, washed, dried, leaves removed
12 anchovy fillets, preferably cleaned, salt-packed 2-3 ounce piece of Parmesan cheese, shaved with a vegetable peeler
Freshly ground black pepper
In a small bowl or jar, whisk together olive oil, lemon juice, garlic, and salt to taste. Set aside.
Trim the feathery stalks and root of fennel so the base of the bulb is flat. Remove any tough outer stalks.
Using a sharp knife or mandoline, slice the bulb in half from top to bottom. Then slice crosswise as thinly as possible into half moons. In a plastic bag, toss the sliced fennel with a few drops of lemon juice to prevent discoloration. Set aside.
Just before serving, in a large bowl, toss the fennel, celery, and radishes with a little of the olive oil.
Arrange the vegetables and anchovies on 6 plates. Sprinkle with salt to taste and drizzle with the reserved lemon dressing. Sprinkle on a generous amount of shaved Parmesan. Finish with pepper to taste.