Sunday, July 29, 2012
We’ve all had a pivotal food moment right? Even those who care nothing about the taste of what they eat, consume calories purely to stay alive, have had a moment that stopped them for a second. Sometimes it is when you’re a kid and grandma is visiting or you are visiting her and she gives you something out of the ordinary family fare you get used to at home. Maybe as a young adult you hit a new restaurant and previously unknown intensity is pulled up from your startled gut. Perhaps dining out with a foodie friend finds you at a “real” restaurant that serves food that someone actually picked and cooked for you. At the time, a sudden taste rolls onto your tongue setting off a chain of events. Your breath is quieted or momentarily stopped. Your eyes close, and for a moment you lose touch with where you are and your surroundings. All sounds stop and taste takes over queuing the brain center to ask, what the fuck is that flavor? Slowly breath is released and if you are even the least bit in touch with yourself, you realize that you just had a pivotal food moment or as some call it, a foodgasm. Indeed the excitement recedes being tucked away into the far corners of your food center until something comes by to trip it and you remember and if you are anything close to me, you absolutely must recreate the flavor. I’ve had many experiences with flavor that I loved and noted. My Mom’s Satsuma plums, canned off the tree. Her rhubarb stewed with sugar and draped over ice cream. A and W root beer floats from the actual A and W on Contra Costa across from the drive in. Salisbury steak at Grandmas and divinity she brought to our house at Christmas time. Awesome food memories all, but not pivotal moments. My first hard core pivotal moment came when I was 15 and for some inexplicable reason, my parents took me, with my aunt and uncle but none of my other siblings, to hotel Mac in Point Richmond. Having been granted permission to order anything I wanted, alone unbelievable, Filet Mignon with Béarnaise caught my eye. Prawn cocktails with sweet, plump beer steamed shrimp resplendent in spicy ketchup and horseradish sauce commenced the meal. Huge, crisp salads, drowning in blue cheese dressing, cheesy garlic bread, crusty, crunching in your mouth as it melted, deliciously followed. I was already stuffed. As the formally clad waiter started dropping entrées in front of us, my nose caught an unidentifiable scent causing my mind to reel and my blood to start pumping. We had a lot of kids in my family and filet mignon did not ever, not once, start on any menu in our home growing up and I had no idea what to expect. With an underwater quality my knife poetically slid through the beef, slipping into the puddle of Béarnaise and I was curiously mesmerized. As the perfectly medium rare bite glanced my tongue followed milliseconds later by the smooth, thick sauce I became sensuously overloaded. My heart stopped and my head filled with nothing but taste. All portions of my tongue were alive and excited. Unconsciously I started to hum, almost turning into song. Slowly chewing the buttery piece of meat I realized that something incredibly special had over taken me and there was absolutely no thought of going back. Tarragon became my favorite herb. Even now as a devoutly non red meat eating food freak, I can taste that meal and tarragon is always growing in my garden. I recreate the flavor as often as I can, using crazy combinations that totally delineate from filet mignon with béarnaise but always raise the same kind of excitement with similar flavor combinations and mouth feel. Pivotal food moments are just about equal to a splendid sexual moment. Foodgasm. Is that crude or realistic? I choose real as they or so basically connected in my everyday life and I believe the everyday lives of everyone that chooses to feel the food feelings. I have just this moment finished making Satsuma plum jam and canned a mess of plums from my plum tree that I had to purchase as soon as I bought my house to recreate splendid childhood memories of my Mom’s fabulous foods. Tops are popping, each time causing excitement in my tummy as I hear it. It means it worked and I did it right. Of course it becomes anomalous, vanilla bean and cinnamon stick along with crudely refined turbinado sugar to give it a caramel kind of taste and lots of lemon in the jam to give it a sweet tart tongue experience. One of my favorite candies to this day is sour gummy worms. Pivotal food moments. We all have them and they all must contain an element of delusion to create ultimate excitement but are real enough to create impact. It is how we and what we do with them that differentiates us. Summer time is probably the best time of year to faithfully fulfill childhood memories and longings due to sheer volume of seasonal foods. Go with it. Be a kid, be true to that precious moment and close your eyes and feel. Satsuma Plum Jam 8 cups chopped Satsuma plums 3 tablespoons fruit pectin 2 cups turbinado sugar 1 tablespoon vanilla extract Peel and juice of 1 big, juicy lemon Heat plums in a deep, heavy pan that won’t scorch. Mix ½ cup sugar with the pectin and stir into plums. Bring to a complete rolling boil that you can’t stir down and add the rest of the sugar, lemon juice and vanilla. Bring back to a rolling boil that you can’t stir down. When you reach that point, set your timer for 2 minutes and boil for 2 minutes. Turn off heat and place into sterilized half pint jars. Close lids tightly. Process in a boiling water bath for 10 minutes. Makes 8 half pints.
Saturday, July 14, 2012
Marion Cunningham has made her way to the great, wonderful, perfect kitchen in the sky to be with family and friends that got there before her. I love my life but the thought of that kitchen up there does keep the fear of death at bay for me. Marion was an internationally known chef and author having been friends with Julia Child and James Beard and was known and respected far and wide for her revamp of the Fannie Farmer Cookbook. But she was also a local gal who lived in Walnut Creek and mentored lots of us budding chefs in the area in the 1980’s and 1990’s. I was fortunate enough to be one of them. When I bought my restaurant, Haute Stuff in downtown Martinez from Kate Miller and Jeff Jelton in the late 1980’s it was Marion Cunningham who gave me the nerve to branch out on my own. I had done my much anticipated week at Chez Panisse after graduating from the California Culinary academy in 1987. Having had that week on my dream list since it had opened in my teens, I was beyond excited and nervous to do it. It was not a good scene for me. I was relegated to a corner in the basement shelling beans and actually had my tool box lifted before being told that I was not a fit for the French place because I had not been to Europe and did not have any knowledge of that kind of cooking even though I had been cooking professionally for 13 years before graduating as a classically trained French chef from CCA. I was instructed to go next door the new American, down homey type restaurant where I would probably be a better fit. I was devastated for about 10 minutes until I went down the street and interviewed at said restaurant. It was Marion Cunningham’s along with others and she and I hit it off immediately. I hated to drive on freeways and over bridges and she said that she did as well but if you got drunk enough it was easy. Then she joked about overcoming alcoholism as well as phobias and that I could as well. I related to her deeply jokes aside and was grateful for her personal insights. She instructed me to “not let anything stop you dear, life is too short”. A year or so later I bought the restaurant I was working in, Haute Stuff, in Martinez. She came in and then her friends started coming in. She told me things I should and should not do. She told me I had talent and was a born cook. She brought the Contra Costa Old Guard Culinary Brigade in, Ken Wolf, Narsii David and Maggie Crumm, who were all equally supportive of our little venture in a refinery town and opened many doors for me that previously were shut tight to young women chefs at the time. Years later I worked as a special events person for farmers markets and she was always the first to sit in the market and sign copies of her books when I asked her to. Anything to help the farmers markets succeed and linger. She was adamant about teaching people to cook and getting them to sit down together. In writing her Learning to Cook book, one of her last, she told me that she brought people into her house everyday to have them learn what a kitchen was , what a knife was and how to use it, how to work an oven, how to follow a recipe and how to sit down and eat with each other. She did it with patience and a single minded drive to get people back to the table together. She felt that it was going to save our species if we all ate at least one meal a day together. She was right about that and many other ideas and opinions she held. Marion will be missed by the culinary community as a great contributor to the art but she will also be missed by me as a great gal that encouraged me when I was down and will always be listed fondly as one of the few amazing cooking mentors I have had in my life. Happy cooking doll and I vow to keep doing my best to get people to cook and eat at a table together. Carry on.