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Corby's Table
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Persian Appeal

Baked Goat Cheese with Garden Lettuces
Savory Herb Meatballs With Spaghetti
Simple Tomato Sauce
Brine-Cured Pork
Comice Pear Crisp
Wood Oven-Baked Figs with Raspberries

September 15, 1999

Chez Panisse, in Berkeley, California, is a legendary restaurant that's very hard to get into. It's more than worth the wait for reservations in the small, moderately formal downstairs dining room, where the same four- or five-course meal is served to every diner, as befits a restaurant that began as a kind of countercultural collective and has had enormous national influence.

I have eaten some of the most memorable meals of my life at Chez Panisse, where the quality and freshness of ingredients take precedence over all else. But I have eaten far more often at the lively café upstairs, which is far easier to get into and where the food is more rustic (and also likelier to include olive oil than butter or cream -- France was the original influence for Chez Panisse, Italy and Spain the influences for the café). In the café's simple, slat-wood surroundings, designed by Japanese-American architects and craftsmen in a style uniting California Arts and Crafts with traditional Japan, people are generally comfortable and happy, and of course the cooks are in view -- open kitchens, like many features that have become restaurant clichés, practically began at Chez Panisse.

Discuss this column in Post & Riposte.

Previously in Corby's Table:

Charmed by Chile -- August 18, 1999
A new collection of home-style recipes reflects the Chilean way of life.

Hail to the Chef -- July 15, 1999
A tribute to Patrick Clark, a chef who was a model for many young African-Americans and an inspiration to other chefs.

Persian Appeal -- June 3, 1999
A look at Najmieh Batmanglij's A Taste of Persia, and the subtle yet persistent spices of Iranian cuisine.

Help! My Child Is a Vegan! -- April 28, 1999
Stephanie Pierson's useful new guide for teenage vegetarians, and those who love them anyway.

Seasons and Seasonings -- March 3, 1999
A seasonal guide to cooking from the garden by Amanda Hesser, a young woman who knows and loves food.

Seductions of Rice -- January 27, 1999
Selections from a new guide to the universal grain's many flavors.

A Passion for Pastry -- December 17, 1998
Two books that will have you dreaming of the perfect holiday dessert.

Soup With Style -- November 11, 1998
A look at the new book by Barbara Kafka, a cook who takes a fearlessly original approach to soup.

Mangia, Mangia in the Mountains -- October 7, 1998
A trip to Abruzzo with Anna Teresa Callen, whose new book draws on culinary memories of this less-traveled Italian region.

Adventures in Grains and Greens -- August 26, 1998
Paula Wolfert's latest Mediterranean explorations.

More by Corby Kummer in Atlantic Unbound

Alice Waters, founder and continuing inspiration, has assembled a team of the usual impassioned eccentrics -- the kind who have kept the restaurant alive and changing and flourishing for more than twenty years -- to produce the new Chez Panisse Café Cookbook. The recipes are clean, workable versions of the kind of simple Mediterranean fare I gravitate toward at any restaurant.

Alice Waters
Alice Waters    

Although the book contains some exotica, relying on ingredients that can be hard to find like fresh wild fennel and fresh sardines and even fresh foie gras (every PC environmentalist should be allowed a few soft spots), most dishes are straightforward and don't require extensive "foraging" (specific Chez Panisse employees have long been designated to find farms and sources for the absolute freshest food possible).

If you can find fresh goat cheese, for instance, and nice salad greens, as you can in almost any supermarket, you can assemble an easy and impressive first course of baked goat cheese with garden lettuces. If you've reflexively thought of spaghetti and meatballs as leaden, overseasoned, and "inauthentic" (the dish is in fact Italian-American rather than truly Italian), take the simple approach of using freshly ground sirloin, a few herbs, and an easy homemade tomato sauce with hot pepper flakes for an ideal family supper. If you have time and think to buy a boneless pork loin or shoulder five days ahead of the night you want to serve it, you can see how most restaurant chefs get flavor back into today's admirably lean but often dull and dry pork -- curing it in a garlicky herbed brine (either grilling or sautéing the sliced meat is very fast). The café desserts are as simple and right as everything else, and include ways to intensify the flavor of the star ingredients. I've included recipes for figs baked with honey and sweet wine, which will improve even underripe fresh figs, available this month in most markets, and a pear crisp that features the luscious Comice but is good with any pear.

One more endearing thing about this plain cookbook: It is beautiful, with lush colored woodcuts by David Lance Goines, the artist who has helped define Chez Panisse style and whose work turns up in movies when the hero or heroine is supposed to be hip but thoughtful.

    -- Corby Kummer

Excerpts from Chez Panisse Café Cookbook, by Alice Waters and the Cooks of Chez Panisse

Baked Goat Cheese with Garden Lettuces

We have kept this dish on the menu every day since we opened. We vary the accompaniment sometimes, according to what's available, adding slices of ripe pear and watercress in the fall, for instance, or rocket leaves and hazelnut oil. Delicious as a first course, it can also be served after a meal, as a combination salad-and-cheese course. Our goat cheese is made for us in Sonoma County. Investigate fresh local goat cheeses in your area, or use a French chèvre.

Serves 4

1/2 pound fresh goat cheese (one 2 by 5-inch log) 1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
1 cup extra virgin olive oil 1 teaspoon sherry vinegar
3 to 4 sprigs fresh thyme, chopped Salt and pepper
1 small sprig rosemary, chopped 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil, walnut oil or combination
1/2 sour baguette, preferably a day old 1/2 pound garden lettuces, washed and dried

Carefully slice the goat cheese into 8 disks about 1/2 inch thick. Pour the olive oil over the disks and sprinkle with the chopped herbs. Cover and store in a cool place for several hours or up to a week.

Preheat the oven to 300°F. Cut the baguette in half lengthwise and dry out in the oven for 20 minutes or so, until dry and lightly colored. Grate into fine crumbs on a box grater or in a food processor. The crumbs can be made in advance and stored until needed.

Preheat the oven to 400°F (a toaster oven works well). Remove the cheese disks from the marinade and roll them in the bread crumbs, coating them thoroughly. Place the cheeses on a small baking sheet and bake for about 6 minutes, until the cheese is warm.

Measure the vinegars into a small bowl and add a big pinch of salt. Whisk in the oil and a little freshly ground pepper. Taste for seasoning and adjust. Toss the lettuces lightly with the vinaigrette and arrange on salad plates. With a metal spatula, carefully place 2 disks of the baked cheese on each plate and serve.

Savory Herb Meatballs With Spaghetti

These tender, delicate beef dumplings have no relation to the overcooked, dry, flavorless meatballs that some of us remember from grade school cafeteria lunches. The bread crumbs and herbs give them their texture and flavor. The meatballs can be served with rice instead of pasta, or served by themselves as a first course with a little fresh tomato sauce. Sometimes we make tiny meatballs and poach them in a vegetable soup or broth.

Serves 6

1/2 cup milk 1/8 teaspoon cayenne
1/4 cup soft bread crumbs 1 medium red onion, sliced thin
Extra-virgin olive oil Olive oil
Salt 2 to 3 cloves garlic, very finely chopped
1 pound freshly ground beef sirloin 2 cups Simple Tomato Sauce
1 egg, beaten 1/4 teaspoon hot pepper flakes
3 tablespoons freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, plus more for garnish 1/2 teaspoon finely chopped fresh oregano
2 tablespoons chopped Italian parsley, plus 2 tablespoons more for sauce Salt
1 teaspoon finely chopped thyme 1 pound spaghetti
Black pepper

Put the milk and bread crumbs in a small bowl and mix with a fork. When the bread has softened, squeeze out most of the milk with your hands. Discard the milk.

Sauté the onion in a little olive oil without letting it color. Season with a light pinch of salt and set aside to cool.

Combine in a medium-size bowl the beef, bread crumbs, onion, egg, 3 tablespoons Parmesan, 2 tablespoons parsley, the thyme, cayenne, black pepper, and 1 teaspoon salt. Work the mixture gently and thoroughly with your hands until it has an even consistency. With wet hands, shape the mixture into walnut-size balls. This can be done a few hours ahead. Store the meatballs in the refrigerator in one layer, tightly wrapped, until you are ready to cook them. The meatballs can be cooked in the time it takes to boil the spaghetti.

Heat a skillet large enough to hold all the meatballs in one uncrowded layer. Add the red onion with enough olive oil to coat it lightly and cook over medium heat. When the onion begins to sizzle, add the meatballs, shaking the pan to keep them from sticking. Using tongs or a wooden spoon, gently turn and toss the onions and meatballs so they brown lightly. Add the garlic and cook for a few seconds, taking care that it doesn't color. Add the tomato sauce, hot pepper flakes, oregano, and the remaining 2 tablespoons parsley. Season with salt to taste. Simmer gently, uncovered, stirring the meatballs to coat them with sauce. Test for doneness by cutting one meatball in half with a paring knife. Keep warm.

A rule of thumb for gauging how much pasta to cook -- one that actually uses the thumb -- is to make a ring about the size of a dime with your thumb and forefinger. A dime-size bundle of pasta is one portion. Dry spaghetti will take 7 to 10 minutes to cook. Boil the pasta in a large quantity of salted water. Drain the spaghetti and turn into a deep warmed platter or pasta bowl. Pour the meatballs and sauce over the pasta. Serve with more Parmesan cheese.

Simple Tomato Sauce

This tomato sauce, made quickly and almost without effort, is a good one to have on hand for general cooking, or for a fast pasta or pizza. It can be enlivened with chopped capers, olives, hot pepper, and anchovy, added at the end of cooking, or finished with a little good oil and snipped summer herbs. On a pizza, use the sauce cold, or the crust will be compromised.

Makes about 2 cups

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil 2 pounds sweet, ripe tomatoes, skinned, seeded, and chopped
1 yellow onion, diced fine 1 teaspoon salt
3 garlic cloves, chopped fine Bouquet garni of parsley, thyme, and basil sprigs

Warm the olive oil in a heavy-bottomed nonreactive saucepan over medium heat. Cook the onion, stirring occasionally, until softened and slightly browned, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and let it sizzle for half a minute. Stir in the chopped tomatoes and salt, and add the herb sprigs, bundled together with kitchen twine.

Bring the sauce to a boil, then reduce the flame to low. Simmer the sauce, uncovered, for 30 to 45 minutes; it will thicken as it cooks. Remove and discard the herb bundle. Taste for salt and adjust. The sauce will keep for 5 or 6 days refrigerated.

Note: For a more refined sauce, pass through a food mill or purée in a blender.

Brine-Cured Pork

The classic French way to cure pork is to brine it. Typically, brine for curing contains salt, sugar, herbs, and spices. It acts as a marinade and a cure at the same time, producing pork a bit like a mild ham. (The most delicious turkey I ever tasted was cured in brine in just the same way.) A pork loin or shoulder will need to sit in brine, completely submerged, for about 5 days; large chops will be ready in 2 or 3.

Serves 6 to 8

1 cup salt 2 small dried chili peppers
3/4 cup sugar 3 garlic cloves
2 bay leaves 1 tablesppon dried thyme
A few peppercorns 3 pounds boneless pork loin or shoulder
1 clove Optional: chopped parsley and garlic
6 allspice berries

Put 2 1/2 gallons cold water in a large nonreactive container that will hold the meat and brine. Stir in the salt and sugar. Slightly crush and add the bay, peppercorns, clove, allspice, and chili peppers. Add the garlic and thyme. Add the pork and put a plate on top to keep the meat submerged. Refrigerate for 5 days or more.

Remove the pork from the brine and pat dry. Roast pork loin for about 1 hour, grill over a medium fire, or slice into very thin chops and brown them in a cast-iron pan. They will cook very quickly, about 1 minute per side. Finish with a good fistful of chopped parsley and garlic if you wish. A brined shoulder is good boiled or braised, and is delicious to add to cooked beans.

Comice Pear Crisp

Among the pear varieties, we prefer the silky, juicy flesh and slightly winy flavor of Comice pears for eating, and they are exceptionally good in this crisp. (For poaching and in tarts, good Bosc pears have the right texture and body.)

Serves 4 to 6

1/2 cup walnuts or almonds 6 ripe pears (about 2 pounds), peeled, cored, and cut in 1/2-inch dice
1 cup all-purpose flour 1/4 cup sugar
3 tablespoons brown sugar 2 tablespoons flour
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon
A pinch salt
6 tablespoons (3/4 stick) unsalted butter

Preheat the oven to 375°F. Toast the nuts until fragrant, about 7 or 8 minutes, and chop them medium-fine. Combine the flour, brown sugar, granulated sugar, cinnamon, and salt in a mixing bowl. Cut the butter into small pieces. Work it into the flour mixture with your fingers until crumbly. Add the chopped nuts and mix well -- the topping should hold together when squeezed. (The topping can be prepared up to a week ahead and refrigerated.)

Put the diced pears in a large mixing bowl. Add the sugar and taste; adjust if necessary. Sprinkle the flour over the pears and mix gently. Turn the mixture into an earthenware dish just large enough to hold the fruit, slightly mounded at the center. Spoon the topping over the pears, pressing down lightly. Place the dish on a baking sheet to catch any overflow and bake on the center rack of the oven for 40 to 50 minutes, until the topping is dark golden brown and the juices have thickened slightly. Serve warm with ice cream or Armagnac-flavored whipped cream.

Variations: Other fruits may be substituted with the same general proportions, but some fruits require more or less sugar and flour, depending on their natural sweetness and juiciness. Rhubarb, for instance, requires more of both; apples require no flour at all.

Wood Oven-Baked Figs with Raspberries

Our wood oven gives these figs a wonderfully smoky, roasted flavor, but similar results can be achieved in a hot oven at home. These figs get caramelized around the edges and have a great aroma from the honey and sweet wine. If you use more than one variety of fig, this dish is even more beautiful. Heating figs can transform less-than-perfect fruit -- figs that are a little tough or slightly over- or underripe -- into a delicious and savory dessert.

Serves 4 to 6

10 medium-size figs, about 1 1/2 pounds 1 1/2 tablespoons sugar
1/4 cup sweet wine, such as Beaumes-de-Venise,vin santo, or Sauternes 1/2-pint basket raspberries
1/3 cup honey, warmed

Preheat the oven to 425°F. Remove the stem ends of the figs and cut each fig in half. In an earthenware baking dish, place the halves skin side down, lining them up so they all fit evenly. Pour 1/4 cup water and the sweet wine into the bottom of the dish. Drizzle the figs with the warm honey. Sprinkle the sugar over the figs, making sure each fig gets a tiny bit of sugar.

Bake the figs in the upper part of the oven for 15 minutes. Baste with the water and wine mixture and bake for another 5 minutes. When the figs are starting to caramelize at the edges, add the raspberries, tucking them into the spaces between the figs. Save any extra berries to garnish the dish. Bake for another 5 minutes just to warm the raspberries through. Serve the figs warm with vanilla or honey ice cream.

Corby Kummer is a senior editor at The Atlantic Monthly and the author of The Joy of Coffee
More by Corby Kummer in Atlantic Unbound

Copyright © 1999 by Corby Kummer.
Recipes and links from Chez Panisse Café Cookbook by Alice Waters and the Cooks of Chez Panisse. HarperCollins Publishers: New York, New York, 1999. Hardcover, 267 pages. ISBN: 0060175834. $34. Copyright © by Alice Waters.
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