CALIFORNIA has finally invented what Washigton has been cooking and serving for years: California cuisine.
All this time, while we thought we could smell the Pacific in every avocado-alfalfa sprout salad, California was busy looking for a culinary identity. And now it is emerging, the food true to the spirit of the West Coast.
You may think you've heard it somewhere before. But this time around it is cooked by French chefs -- or at least chefs who built their careers in the French tradition.
Alice Waters of Chez Panisse in the San Francisco area (Berkeley, to be precise), and Wolfgang Puck of Ma Maison in Los Angeles have each developed not just a fine restaurant in the haute culinary tradition; they have each developed a cult. Both have inspired a wave of kitchens in their respective cities. Puck has guided five years' worth of students through the Ma Maison cooking school (though he has since left the restaurant). Waters is finishing a cookbook, and Puck is in town this week to publicize his ("Wolfgang Puck's Modern French Cooking for the American Kitchen: Recipes from the Cuisine of Ma Maison," Houghton Mifflin; $19.95).
And both have launched pizza-and-pasta parlors. Waters' Chez Panisse Cafe, upstairs from her restaurant, is already open. In addition to pastas like fettuccine with artichokes, hazelnuts and cream, the inevitable California salads and calzone with imported goat cheese and mozzarella, it features pizza, but not in the shaved-pepperoni-and-mushroom mold. Hers has escarole, pancetta and hot pepper, or maybe eggplant and fontina along with the sausage and mozzarella. And it is baked in a wood-burning brick oven constructed by a local fireplace maker. The kitchen is in full view of the dining room, for the activity upstairs is meant to be, as Waters puts it, "an examination of food and seduction by it."
Puck, fresh from the stellar-priced kitchen of Ma Maison, similarly seeks to spread the gospel of superb but simple, fresh food. "A good green bean salad is as hard to make as good fish," he explains. He is calling his restaurant Spago, insisting that "the name is Italian but the restaurant represents California." No more flown-in turbot, French foie gras. His ingredients are going to be Californian. He is having 22-pound baby lambs raised so he can serve a leg of lamb for two. Large ducks, again specially raised, will have their breasts decorated with his ravioli and mushrooms. No tarte tatin, but American apple pie -- cooked to order at the last minute. And the pizza, its oven constructed by the same fireplace maker Waters used, baked in the dining room, as Waters' is, will reflect Wolfgang Puck, rather than Naples: It will be California pizza, with cre me frai che and golden caviar or fresh shrimp.
Puck, who left Austria at age 17 to apprentice in the kitchens of France and eventually wound up in Indianapolis, where he insisted he would not cook hamburgers, now has developed a reputation for his hamburgers as well the fish mousses and pigeon salmis featured in Ma Maison and his cookbook. At age 32, he has fed the elite, and now seeks to satisfy the middle class.
Of course the California middle class is not the same as the Topeka or even Washington middle class.
Los Angeles has so many sushi bars that someone has found it fruitful to publish a whole sushi guidebook. California liquor stores sell trail mix and carob brownies.
California is so full of traditional European bread bakeries that there are James Beard's favorite (Sonoma French Bakery, in Sonoma) and Julia Child's favorite (Les Belles Miches, in Santa Barbara), and enough alternatives for a dozen other food authorities to choose from -- the Vallejo French bread, the San Francisco sourdoughs, the Il Fornaio Italian chain (with which Williams-Sonoma hopes to blanket the country) just for a start. California makes its own goat cheeses in Sonoma, and supports wurst factories in the Sonoma and Napa valleys.
California palates are so jaded that people go around vowing never to eat another cold pasta primavera again -- and are no longer even enchanted that the vegetables are carefully julienned so that they look like multi-colored pasta.
Californians can support obsessions -- a chain of bakeries called Cocolat, which carry nothing but chocolate cakes and candies. They can maintain extravagances like Jurgensen's fancy food markets, which don't even bother to put prices on the shelves, much less on the individual items (strawberries, should you ask, were recently $4 a pint).
California can afford to luxuriate in eccentricities. Its vegetarian restaurants have ocean views and serve creamed fresh chanterelles. San Francisco can fill weekly wine-tasting luncheons at the Stanford Court Hotel that cost $38.50 for a three-course meal with five wines to sample; and some of its 25 subscribers come every week. The Oakville Grocery in San Francisco is a genre familiar to Washington or New York -- a concentration of the broadest and highest quality produce, delicatessen, packaged goods, cheeses and the like. But the produce section can encompass squash blossoms, Brussels sprouts the size of a small grape, two or three kinds of eggplant and radishes, two kinds of sorrel, not to mention the deli's five kinds of bacon, five kinds of prosciutto and homemade tortillas and salsa on Wednesdays.
This is the state where people tell you its agricultural production is second-highest to any nation in the world.
And it shows.
Then there is wine. Restaurant wine lists are so extensive and up-to-date that some are presented as computer printouts. The Stanford Court's 21,000-bottle wine cellar is as beautiful as many another celebrated hotel's lobby. Grapes garnish California plates so routinely that they might be called California parsley. And the abundance of wine is such that a Sonoma community recipe book specifies St. Jean Late Harvest Johannisberg Riesling instead of water for a bundt cake mix. Wineries hire chefs to use their wines in creating dishes that complement their new releases. Beringer, for example, has given its first fellowship to two culinary graduates, who in their apprenticeship devised an unsweetened "cheesecake" based on California goat cheese to serve as a novel cheese course. (A crust is made using 1 1/2 cups bread crumbs, 1/2 cup sesame seeds and 1/2 cup melted butter, patted in a springform pan and chilled well, then filled with 1 pound goat cheese, 1 pound cream cheese, 6 eggs, 2 tablespoons chopped fresh rosemary and 1/2 teaspoon white pepper, blended well, baked at 350 degrees for 25 minutes).
But even in California familiarity breeds contempt. The Oakville grocery boasts New England pumpkins, restaurants feature Long Island oysters and a restaurant in Los Angeles, named Wildflour, brags that it serves Boston pizza.
California has Brooklyn pizza, Chicago pizza and Italian pizza that is called focaccia. And now it has haute pizza.
Store away your bean sprouter and start proofing your yeast. In the meantime, here are some classics from Wolfgang Puck's French period.
SHRIMP WITH MUSTARD (Crevettes a la Moutarde) (6 servings) 36 to 48 medium shrimp Salt and freshly ground pepper 4 tablespoons mild-flavored oil, such as almond or safflower 2 medium shallots, minced 1 bunch fresh tarragon, minced 1/2 cup dry sherry 1/2 cup heavy cream 1/2 pound unsalted butter, cut into small pieces 2 tablespoons dijon-style mustard 1 tablespoon minced chives
Season the shrimp with salt and pepper. Using two large saute' pans, heat the oil until it begins to smoke. Over very high heat, saute' the shrimp for 6 to 7 minutes. Transfer to a warm plate, set aside and keep warm. To each saute' pan add 1 minced shallot and 1 tablespoon minced tarragon. Saute' for 2 to 3 minutes. Deglaze each pan with the sherry and then combine the sauce in one pan. Add the cream and reduce the sauce until it coats the back of a spoon. Whisk in the butter, one small piece at a time. Whisk in the mustard, just at the last minute. Do not let the sauce boil, or the mustard will become grainy. Correct seasoning to taste.
Arrange shrimp decoratively on serving plates, nap with sauce, and sprinkle with chives. Suggested wine: a fume' blanc.
SCRAMBLED EGGS GARIN (Oeufs Brouille's Garin) (6 servings)
This recipe comes from the now-defunct Parisian restaurant Garin. Eggs should be so softly scrambled that you can eat them with a spoon, not a fork. 4 to 6 slices of whole-wheat bread, with crusts removed 12 large eggs 1 tablespoon freshly chopped fines herbes (mixed parsley, chervil, tarragon and chives or just parsley) 1 teaspoon salt 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper 4 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into small pieces 3 tablespoons heavy cream 2 or 3 tablespoons dijon-style mustard 3 small tomatoes, peeled, seeded, diced and drained 1 teaspoon chopped chives
Cut each slice of bread into fingers approximately 1-by-4 inches. Place on a baking sheet and, under a hot broiler, toast both sides until golden brown. Reserve. Break the eggs into a large mixing bowl, reserving 2 yolks in a separate bowl. To the large mixing bowl add the fines herbes, salt, pepper and 2 tablespoons butter. Combine with a whisk. Combine the heavy cream and mustard with the 2 reserved egg yolks and mix well. In a heavy saute' pan, over low heat, melt the remaining 2 tablespoons butter. Pour in the whole eggs and cook, whisking, until creamy and slightly thickened. Add the egg yolk mixture and tomatoes to the slightly thickened cooked eggs and continue to whisk, stirring constantly. Perfectly scrambled eggs should be creamy with very soft curds.
Serve on lightly warmed plates garnished with toasted whole-wheat-bread fingers. Sprinkle with chopped chives. Suggested wine: a light red or white wine.
GROUND STEAK WITH ROQUEFORT CHEESE & GREEN PEPPERCORN SAUCE (Biftek Hache' au Roquefort avec Poivre Vert) 3 pounds coarsely chopped beef (fillet tips or ends of New York steak) 2 eggs 2 shallots, minced Salt and freshly ground pepper 3/4 cup roquefort cheese, crumbled 3 tablespoons mild-flavored oil, such as almond or safflower 1 cup port 3 to 4 tablespoons green peppercorns 1 cup heavy cream 1/2 cup unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
In a bowl, combine meat, eggs, shallots, and salt and pepper to taste. Mix well. Divide into 12 rounds. Stuff each round with roquefort cheese, taking care to cover cheese completely. Flatten slightly. Heat a heavy saute' pan. Add the oil and saute' the meat, turning once, until cheese melts and hache' is rare. Transfer meat to a heated platter. Pour off fat from saute' pan. Deglaze with the port. Add peppercorns and cream. Reduce until sauce begins to thicken. Whisk in the butter, one small piece at a time. Nap hache's with sauce.
Variation: Do not stuff meat rounds with cheese. Deglaze the saute' pan with port, add cream, and reduce. Thicken the sauce with the roquefort cheese. Serve 2 hache's on each dinner plate. Suggested wine: A co te ro tie or a cha teauneuf-du-pape
CARROT LOAF (Ga teau de Carotte) (8 servings)
A perfect dinner-party vegetable. The loaf can be prepared in advance and baked when needed. 2 pounds carrots, peeled and cut into 1/4-inch slices 10 tablespoons unsalted butter 1/4 pound mushrooms, sliced 1/2 pound spinach, cleaned, with stems removed 5 eggs 4 ounces grated swiss cheese 1 teaspoon salt 1 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
Saute' the carrots slowly in 4 tablespoons butter until tender. Chop coarsely and reserve in a large mixing bowl. Over high heat, saute' the mushrooms in 2 tablespoons butter for 2 minutes. Chop coarsely and add them to the carrots. Saute' spinach in 2 tablespoons butter. Chop coarsely and reserve separately. When the spinach is cool, add 1 egg and mix thoroughly. Beat together the remaining eggs and the cheese. Combine this mixture thoroughly with the carrots and mushrooms. Add salt and pepper. Taste and correct seasonings if necessary. Line an 8 1/2-by-4 1/2-by-2 1/2-inch loaf pan with aluminum foil. Butter the foil with the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter. Fill the pan with half the carrot mixture, cover with the spinach, and top with the remaining carrot mixture. Place in a bain-marie, or in a pan of hot water, and bake at 400 degrees for 1 hour and 15 minutes, or until a knife plunged into the center comes out clean.
When done, invert onto a warm serving platter and remove the foil. Slice and serve immediately.
GREEN BEANS AND MUSHROOMS WITH WALNUT DRESSING (Salade d'Haricots Verts et Champignons au Noix) (6 servings)
Small green beans and large, white, firm mushrooms are necessary for this salad's taste and appearance. 1 pound small green beans 1 pound large white mushrooms Juice of 1 lemon 2 tablespoons walnuts 1 tablespoon dijon-style mustard 2 tablespoons sherry wine vinegar Salt and feshly ground pepper, to taste 1/2 cup light oil, such as almond oil 1 tablespoon minced fresh tarragon or chives
Remove the ends and strings of the green beans. Cook in boiling, salted water until al dente. Refresh in ice water. Slice the mushrooms into strips the size of the beans. Sprinkle with lemon juice. In a blender or food processor, pure'e the walnuts, mustard, vinegar, salt and pepper. Add the oil and blend well. Combine green beans and mushrooms. Add dressing to taste, and refrigerate any unused dressing.
Arrange the salad on a serving platter. Sprinkle with minced tarragon or chives.
CHOCOLATE BREAD PUDDING (Ga teau Ne'gresco) (Makes 12 1/2-cup servings)
This is simple to prepare and the results are always perfect. As delicate as a chocolate souffle', ga teau ne'gresco does not need the meticulous attention a souffle' requires.
For the Gateau: 1/2 cup plus 3 tablespoons butter, at room temperature 8 slices (5 ounces) challah, brioche or other egg bread 3/4 cup heavy cream 6 ounces bittersweet chocolate, cut in pieces 5 eggs, separated 3/4 cup finely ground almonds 1 cup sugar
Creme chantilly: 2 cups heavy cream 1/4 cup sugar
Butter 12 1/2-cup molds with the 3 tablespoons butter, reserving some for the paper in last step before baking. Combine the challah, brioche or other egg bread with the heavy cream and let stand 30 minutes. Melt the chocolate. Let cool and reserve. In a food processor or large mixing bowl, cream the butter. Add egg yolks, almonds, 3/4 cup sugar, the soaked bread and the melted chocolate. Process until well-combined. Whip egg whites until soft peaks form. Gradually beat in remaining 1/4 cup sugar and continue to beat until stiff and shiny. Fold into the chocolate mixture. Pour into prepared molds and set in a bain-marie or a large pan filled with hot water halfway up the sides of the molds. Cover loosely with buttered foil, buttered side down. Bake at 350 degrees for 45 to 50 minutes, or until set.
To make the cre'me chantilly, whip the heavy cream with the sugar, only to the chantilly stage, that is, until it reaches a mousse-like consistency. The cream should not be stiff.
To serve, unmold ga teaux on a serving platter or tray. Surround with creme chantilly.
Recipes from Wolfgang Puck's Modern French Cooking for the American Kitchen