Twenty-five top chefs from across the country spread out their most media-minded creations for the press to taste; the buffet table stretched across New York, at least it seemed so against the windows of the World Trade Center. Aspics, chaud-froids, careful mosaics of seafood pa te'. The painstaking, the artful, the precious, the exquisitely elaborate. It was all so beautiful and all so much the same.
Except a bowl of salad. Green salad. Green salad as only Alice Waters would make it, with a multitude of wild greens she had transported -- still rooted in flats of earth -- from California, where her Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley has become world-famous.
It has been several years since that gala, and all the pa te's and terrines are forgotten, but that green salad remains distinct in guests' memories as the perfect salad eaten at the moment most perfectly needing a salad.
Now Alice Waters has written a book, "Chez Panisse Menu Cookbook" (Random House, $16.95), which she introduces with, "I wish I could just sit people down and give them something to eat; then I know they would understand." Those who have eaten her food do indeed understand.
While this is a book of menus and recipes, it is really meant to be an inspiration rather than a specific guide. It is meant to set an example from which every cook should break through to his own path. Says Waters, "I want to suggest the expected taste; I want to suggest the appearance of the complete dish; I want to suggest the combination of ingredients; and I want to suggest the overall harmony and balance of the meal." Every head of garlic is different in strength and sweetness. Every branch of basil has its own intensity. Each tomato demands individual understanding.
In other words, stop focusing on the recipe and pay attention to the ingredients.
If Waters sounds an obsessive, an idealist, a purist, you've heard it right.
"I used to buy 10 heads of lettuce and take the hearts out of each one," she explained recently, sitting in a Long Island garden on one of her rare trips east. But that wasn't good enough. Now she grows her own; her unshakable conviction is that lettuce should be hand-picked and eaten within a few hours. Seventy-five percent of what makes her restaurant special, she says, is in the shopping. For Craig Claiborne's birthday party, which brought her east, she contributed marinated peppers and anchovies, but the peppers included brown, yellow, red, lime green and golden ones she flies in from a ranch in southern California, and the anchovies were fresh ones, cured in vinegar and marinated in olive oil, red basil and garlic.
All this was being described by a small, soft-spoken woman in the plainest and purest of white dresses and a close-fitting black hat, a woman who looks more like a choir boy than like a chef respected by and intimate with the great culinary stars. Breathy and intense, she makes you want to smell things the way she smells them, taste things the way she tastes them.
But outside of a costly and fully booked fixed-price dinner in Berkeley, you can't.
What is a home cook and supermarketer to do?
"The first thing I do is eliminate anything with preservatives," said Waters of her supermarketing. "Not even english muffins." That eliminates, she warned, 90 percent of what is in a supermarket.
Among packaged goods, her list is pretty much down to imported dried pasta, imported olive oil and roasted peppers in jars. Italian canned tomatoes will also do, plus the dill pickles in the refrigerator case. And nowadays one can find some good breads without preservatives.
In the dairy section, she can abide the heavy cream without preservatives, organic and natural yogurts and--though not many supermarkets have them--brown fertile eggs. Cheeses are a problem not only because they are cut and wrapped, but because usually they have been kept too cold or too warm.
As for meats, she never buys salamis or nitrate-added sausages, but lamb and beef are often acceptable by her standards. "I'm very suspicious about chickens," she cautioned, because of the hormones that may have been added to them.
The produce section is a continual challenge. "Everything you think is reliable is unreliable," she complained. "You have to check every time all over again." Each time you shop for vegetables, you have to "pick them up and play with them" to find a firm eggplant or a ripe Italian plum tomato. You want to carefully avoid watercress with yellow around the bottom, for it gets bitter and stemmy. Even garlic: for the roasted garlic in her cookbook, you can't buy it in boxes in the supermarket.
"You think potatoes are potatoes." She drew closer and spoke even more intently, about to reveal a secret. "Not from the store." A garden potato cooks differently.
There is so much to learn. But even, she said sympathetically, by her. The most tense shopper ever? "I am."
One of the compliments that has most touched Waters was from a reader of her book who said, "Whenever I go to the store I think of you."
Life must be pretty exhausting for someone who takes every potato so seriously. And so it is for Waters, who has had to constantly resist all kinds of offers and requests as her restaurant's reputation has grown.
"I'm right there on the edge," said Waters, with hardly the energy to even say that. "I'd like to have some calm moments in the kitchen."
She was about to return home to do nothing but run the restaurant. You have to watch your health, she warned. "You can't hire somebody to sleep for you at night." No publicity tour. No book signings. Her restaurant, she said, has become so busy that it is not possible to keep above the water. "It runs like a boat that needs repairs," she sighed.
The restaurant has three gardens going, now gets wonderful cream and butter and eggs, has a really good source for beef and pork, as well as that farmer who sends her five kinds of peppers plus melons and white Japanese eggplants. Her purveyors, she explained, love what they are doing: "They love giving it and I love getting it."
She was more than ready to get back to them. After all, as she put it, "I feel very much better when I am connected with the kitchen."
Not many people, even among those at Claiborne's party, have had a chance to taste Waters' food. But they can try her cookbook, with the warning, "You should never feel locked in to a recipe."
And we agreed, in testing these recipes. They take attention; they require the exercising of some independent thinking, to remove your garlic before it browns too much, or to reduce the chicken stock in your vegetable ragout because it would otherwise be too soupy. Not only are these special tastes, calling for the best ingredients or substitutions if those recommended are not the best in your market, there are errors and vaguenesses scattered through the recipes. Those recipes calling for fresh wild mushrooms or fresh fava beans you will surely not find very useful, and finding fresh red Mexican garlic for a soup or "48 very lively crayfish" may daunt you. But Waters' is a cookbook that reveals a very personal taste, a book for someone who would sooner buy a basket of glossy fresh blackberries at any price than a can of fruit cocktail. LAMB SHANK DAUBE (8 to 10 servings) 3 large lamb shanks, about 6 pounds 6 to 8 cloves garlic 3 small carrots 1 large onion 3 cups red wine, preferably a bandol from Provence 1 sprig fresh thyme ( 1/3 teaspoon dried) 1 sprig fresh marjoram ( 1/2 teaspoon dried) 6 sprigs parsley 1/2 teaspoon fennel seeds 2 strips orange peel About 1/2 cup virgin olive oil About 1/4 cup cognac 3 tablespoons flour 1/4 pound salt pork About 2 cups lamb stock 1/2 cup water Half a pig's foot 1 ripe tomato Salt and black pepper
To prepare the lamb shanks for the marinade, bone them and trim off excess fat and connective tissue. Cut the meat into 2-inch cubes.
Peel and chop 6 or 8 cloves garlic roughly. Peel and slice thin 3 small carrots and 1 large onion. Make the marinade of 3 cups red wine, the sliced vegetables and garlic, 1 sprig thyme, 1 sprig marjoram, 6 sprigs parsley, 1/2 teaspoon fennel seeds, 2 strips of orange peel with no white pith, 1/4 cup of the olive oil, and 2 tablespoons of the cognac. Put the lamb in the marinade and leave it, covered, in the refrigerator overnight, or at room temperature for 4 hours. If the lamb is marinated overnight, let it stand at room temperature for 3 or 4 hours before cooking.
To assemble the daube, remove the lamb from the marinade and pat it dry. Remove and discard the herbs, strain the marinade, and reserve the vegetables and marinade. Brown the lamb over high heat in 3 tablespoons olive oil. Pour the oil from the pan when the lamb is well-browned, and sprinkle the meat with 3 tablespoons flour. Immediately flame the meat with 2 or 3 tablespoons cognac and remove from the heat.
Cut 1/4 pound salt pork into 1-inch cubes and blanch them in plain water for 4 or 5 minutes. Drain the pork and pat dry. Saute the pork with the reserved vegetables in 2 tablespoons olive oil over gentle heat for 5 to 10 minutes. Add the vegetables and pork, along with the reserved marinade, to the pot with the lamb and bring to a boil over high heat. Put the hot lamb and marinade in an earthenware crock that has a lid, and add about 2 cups lamb stock and 1/2 cup water. Add the pig's foot and a peeled, seeded, and roughly chopped tomato. Seal the lid of the crock with a flour-and-water paste and bake at 325 degrees for 2 to 2 1/2 hours.
After it is done, let the crock come to room temperature, then break the seal. Remove the lid from the crock and season the sauce with salt and black pepper if necessary. The sauce should be medium thick; if it is not, ladle most of it into a saucepan and reduce it to the desired thickness.
The daube is absolutely best if it is cooked the day before serving. Cover the crock loosely and refrigerate overnight. Reheat the daube in a pot on top of the stove over medium heat. Serve with egg pasta that has been flavored with saffron. BAKED FISH WITH GARLIC CONFIT (6 servings) For the garlic confit: 4 large heads garlic 3 sprigs fresh thyme or 1 teaspoon dried thyme 2 sprigs fresh marjoram or 1 teaspoon dried marjoram 2 bay leaves About 2 cups rendered duck or goose fat (light olive oil or clarified butter may be substituted for the fat) 2 bay leaves For the fish: 2 pounds fish fillets (rockfish, sea bass, halibut, or salmon would work well in this recipe) Zest from 1 lemon and 1 lime 3 medium-sized ripe tomatoes 8 sprigs fresh parsley 1 sprig marjoram ( 1/2 teaspoon dried) 6 pieces baking parchment, each about 9 by 12 inches Reserved fat from the confit Salt 6 tablespoons unsalted butter
Break the 4 heads of garlic into cloves and leave them unpeeled. Put the cloves into a heavy-bottomed pan in one layer, add 3 sprigs thyme, 2 sprigs marjoram (or 1 teaspoon dried thyme and 1 teaspoon dried marjoram), and 2 bay leaves. Cover the garlic with the fat or oil. Cook very slowly for about 30 minutes, until the garlic is completely tender. Remove the cloves from the fat and let cool; then peel and slice them about 1/8 inch thick.
Cut the 2 pounds of fish fillets into six even portions, about 1 inch thick. Thinner pieces of fish should be sandwiched to keep the same thickness. Blanch the zest of the lemon and the lime for 10 seconds and drain. Peel and seed the tomatoes, and dice them finely. Stem 8 parsley sprigs and 1 sprig marjoram and mince finely.
Arrange the parchment so the fish will be placed on the center of one half of the shorter side. Brush this center of each piece of parchment with a little reserved fat. Place 3 pieces of garlic confit in the center of the fat on each piece of parchment. Put the fish fillets on the garlic. Sprinkle the fish with salt, then put 3 more slices of garlic confit on each piece of fish. Divide the diced tomatoes evenly among the fish, spreading them over each fillet. Sprinkle the fillets with the minced herbs, and strew about 1 teaspoon of the combined zests on each fillet. Put 1 tablespoon of butter on each piece of fish and fold the parchment loosely over the top; roll and crimp the edges of the parchment well. Place the packets on a large baking sheet and bake at 450 degrees for 5 to 8 minutes, or until the parchment just begins to puff and turn brown.
EDITOR'S NOTE: The fish only uses a very small portion of the garlic confit; the rest can be used for the chicken recipe that follows, to season other dishes or to spread, warm, on bread accompanied by a mixture of cream cheese and goat cheese. CHARCOAL-GRILLED CHICKEN WITH GARLIC PUREE (4 servings) 3-pound frying chicken 2 heads garlic 1/2 bottle red wine 2 to 3 sprigs fresh thyme or 1 teaspoon dried thyme 1 cup virgin olive oil Salt and pepper to taste
Cut the chicken into serving pieces; peel 8 to 10 cloves of the garlic and chop them roughly. Marinate the chicken in 1/2 bottle red wine with the chopped garlic and 2 or 3 fresh thyme for 2 to 4 hours in the refrigerator.
Spread the remaining cloves of garlic, with the skins on, in a small baking dish in one layer and cover with the cup of olive oil and a cup of water. Sprinkle with salt and pepper, cover and bake in a 300-degree oven for 1 1/2 hours or until the garlic is completely soft. Pure'e the garlic through a food mill when it is done. Discard the skins and reserve the puree.
About an hour before cooking the chicken, remove it from the refrigerator. Prepare a medium-low charcoal fire. When the fire is ready, remove the chicken from the marinade, pat the pieces dry, and salt and pepper them. Cook the chicken on the grill slowly for about 35 minutes, turning frequently. The chicken should be nicely browned, but a bit rare and juicy. Spread the garlic pure'e over the chicken and heat it in a 375-degree oven for 5 minutes. Serve the chicken on a platter with oven-roasted potatoes, garnished with watercress and lemon wedges. LINDSEY'S ALMOND TART (6 to 8 servings) Pastry: 8 tablespoons butter 1 cup flour 1 tablespoon sugar 3 to 4 drops each almond and vanilla extracts 1 tablespoon water Tart: 1 cup blanched sliced almonds 1 cup whipping cream 3/4 cup sugar Pinch of salt 1 tablespoon Grand Marnier 1 tablespoon kirsch 2 drops almond extract
To prepare pastry, cut 8 tablespoons butter into bits and let soften slightly. Mix 1 cup flour with 1 tablespoon sugar in a bowl. Cut the butter into the flour mixture with a pastry blender or knives until it resembles very coarse meal. Mix 3 to 4 drops each almond and vanilla flavoring with 1 tablespoon cold water and quickly stir the mixture into the butter and flour. Gather the dough into a ball and flatten it slightly. Cover it with plastic wrap and chill for at least 1 hour.
Allow the dough to stand at room temperature until it is malleable. Divide it in two sections, one part twice as large as the other. Put the smaller section in plastic wrap and chill.
Press the larger section into a tart ring 8 inches wide and 1 1/2 inches deep and with a removable bottom. Press the dough evenly and gently to form a crust about 1/8 inch thick, and rising about 1/8 inch above the top edge of the ring. Cover the shell lightly with plastic wrap and chill in the freezer for at least 1 hour. The dough may be refrigerated for 8 hours, or it may be frozen.
Partially bake the tart shell in a 400-degree oven for 10 minutes, until it begins to set and brown. Remove from the oven and cool the pan on a cake rack until it reaches room temperature. Patch any holes in the shell by smoothing a very small bit of reserved dough over them.
In a heavy saucepan, mix 1 cup blanched thin-sliced almonds with 1 cup whipping cream, 3/4 cup sugar, a pinch of salt, 1 tablespoon each Grand Marnier and kirsch, and 2 drops almond extract. Cook the mixture over low heat until the sugar has dissolved and the texture is silky, about 10 to 15 minutes. Cool the mixture slightly and pour it into the prepared tart shell.
Line the floor of the oven with foil. Bake the tart on the center rack for 25 to 30 minutes at 350 degrees. The filling will bubble up and may overflow, then it will settle and begin to caramelize. Rotate the tart frequently during the last 15 minutes of baking so the top is an even deep golden brown. Remove the tart to a cake rack and let cool to room temperature before cutting. PAT'S BISCOTTI (Makes about 100) 6 eggs 2 1/2 cups sugar 1/2 pound unsalted butter, melted and cooled almost to room temperature 1 1/2 teaspoons anise seed 6 ounces chopped nuts (almonds, walnuts or hazelnuts) 6 ounces raisins 1/2 teaspoon vanilla 2 1/4 pounds (8 3/4 cups) flour 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder Pinch of salt
Separate 6 eggs and beat the egg yolks with 1 1/4 cups sugar until they are pale lemon-colored and the sugar has dissolved. Beat the egg whites stiff and fold in 1 1/4 cups sugar a little at a time. Fold the egg whites into the egg-yolk mixture and then add 1/2 pound melted butter. Lightly blend in 1 1/2 teaspoons anise seed, 6 ounces chopped nuts and 6 ounces of raisins. Stir in 1/2 teaspoon vanilla. Mix 2 1/4 pounds flour with 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder and a pinch of salt. Fold the flour into the egg mixture one quarter at a time. It will become stiff at the end and require a wooden spoon.
Roll the dough lightly into cylinders about 1 1/2 inches in diameter and 8 to 10 inches long. Put the cylinders on lightly buttered baking sheet and bake at 350 degrees for 15 to 20 minutes, until they are lightly brown on top. Remove the cylinders from the baking sheets and cut them into cookies about 3/4 inch wide at a 45-degree angle. Return the cookies to the baking sheets, with the cut surfaces down. Bake for 5 to 10 minutes, until they are lightly brown and the edges are crisp. WHITE VEGETABLE PUREE (6 servings) 2 potatoes 3 pounds celery root 10 medium turnips 3 cloves garlic 4 medium leeks Bouquet garni: 4 thyme sprigs; 1 bay leaf; 2 cloves garlic; 6 to 8 parsley sprigs; 10 to 15 black peppercorns 1/4 pound unsalted butter About 1/2 cup whipping cream Salt and white pepper
Peel potatoes, celery root, turnips and garlic. Trim all the green from leeks and wash them well. Chop the vegetables roughly and make a bouquet garni from herbs and seasonings. Put the vegetables and the bouquet garni in a pot with lightly salted water to barely cover. Cook, covered, over medium heat for about 15 minutes, until the vegetables are very tender.
Remove the bouquet garni, drain the vegetables, and pure'e them through a food mill. Put the pure'e in a bain-marie or double boiler over very low heat; stir in 1/4 pound butter, cut into bits, and about 1/2 cup whipping cream, and season with salt and white pepper. RED POTATO AND RED ONION GRATIN (6 servings) 2 pounds red potatoes, about equal size 3 medium red onions 1/4 cup and 2 tablespoons light olive oil 2 to 3 sprigs thyme Salt and pepper 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
Peel the potatoes and slice them 1/4 inch thick into a bowl with plenty of cold water. Keep them covered with 1 inch of water, changing the water as it becomes starchy. The number of changes depends on the potatoes; three to four times is usual.
Peel the onions and slice them 1/4 inch thick. Cook them in 3 tablespoons olive oil with thyme over very low heat. Cover the pan, but stir occasionally. The onions should be sweet, slightly softened, and still crunchy after 10 minutes. Remove from the heat, uncover and set aside.
Rinse the potatoes in a colander and pat them very dry between tea towels. Toss them in the remaining olive oil.
Layer a lightly oiled, shallow 2- to 3-quart earthenware casserole with potatoes slightly overlapping in concentric circles, and salt and pepper lightly. Remove the thyme from the onions and strew some of them lightly over the layer of potatoes. Continue layering and seasoning the potatoes. End with a layer of potatoes.
Dot with 2 tablespoons softened butter and bake at 425 degrees for 25 to 30 minutes until the potatoes are a deep golden brown.