A couple of years ago I attended a lecture on what was supposed to be a new style of cooking called "California cuisine." The major principles outlined were the importance of fresh, natural ingredients, brief cooking of foods, creativity in seasoning and presentation, and a preference for sauces without flour.
Having just returned to the U.S. after five years in France, I was astonished. These, of course, are the same principles of the French style of cooking called "nouvelle cuisine" a few years ago, and now often referred to as "modern" or "contemporary" cuisine. Yet they were presented as new ideas of California chefs.
Even more than in fashion and the arts, in fine cuisine the French set the tone, the style and the standards. If we take a look at the chefs who are considered to be at the forefront of "California cuisine," we will see that most of them have trained or studied in France, no matter what their origin.
Even more revealing is a look at their menus. At one of the best restaurants in the Los Angeles area, which labels its cuisine "Californian," the names of the dishes on the menu are written in both French and English. When I dined there, most of the dishes on the menu, such as the salmon with beurre blanc and the sweetbreads with wild mushrooms and cream, were clearly French.
Alice Waters, who is acknowledged as one of the leading California chefs, gives in her "Chez Panisse Menu Cookbook" (Random House, 1982) recipes for such French dishes as Eggs Cooked with Truffles, Bourride, Champagne Sauerkraut, Confit of Duck, and Pear Tarte Tatin.
Several cookbooks on the cooking of California have appeared in the last few years. Most of them give a recipe for making cre me fraiche, the wonderful thick French cream. Roquefort, camembert, brie and other French cheeses are popular ingredients for their dishes, as are salad dressings with French oils, vinegars and mustards. Some favorite dishes of this cuisine, judging from restaurant menus and the cookbooks that have recently appeared on the subject, are: baked goat cheese, often served with a salad of "exotic" greens; seafood terrines; fish served with fresh herb beurre blanc; ratatouille; sorbets; lemon mousse; chocolate mousse cakes; pears in red wine; and fruit tarts. All of these are well-known specialties in France.
In a recent major work, "The Los Angeles Times California Cookbook" (Abrams, 1981), by the food staff of the Los Angeles Times, recipes of a variety of origins are presented, that "illustrate the rich diversity of California tastes." There is no claim or attempt to define a style of "California cuisine."
The newest phenomenon in California restaurants is the mixture of French and Oriental cuisines called by various names such as "Franco-Japanese" and "Chinois," or Franco-Chinese cuisine. These are the hottest eating places in Los Angeles. Even the ideas for these, however, can be traced to France. The trend of using ingredients of the cuisines of the Far East in French cooking and arranging plates with Japanese precision has been apparent in fine restaurants in France for several years. The well-publicized trip by a group of top French chefs to the Far East in the 1970s demonstrated this interest. In France we can easily find dishes flavored with star anise and fresh ginger, for example.
Diane Rossen Worthington, in "The Cuisine of California" (Tarcher, 1983), finds multiple influences on this cuisine. She gives many recipes that use a French technique or dish with ingredients from another cuisine. For example, in the introduction to her recipe for "Grilled Chicken with Salsa and Mustard Butter, she notes, "The mixture of dijon-style mustard and Spicy Red Salsa elevates plain broiled chicken to a zesty California-style original. The chicken is garnished with a slice of compound spicy butter." (Compound butter is known in classic French cuisine as "beurre compose.") Her Chicken with Pancetta and Zinfandel was inspired by the traditional coq au vin, but replaces the bacon with pancetta and uses California Zinfandel wine.
For the moment, most of the best restaurants that characterize their cuisine as Californian appear to be following this approach. They often use French dishes, techniques, sauces and flavorings but add ingredients from other cuisines, especially Oriental and Mexican.
Carmel Berman Reingold, author of "California Cuisine" (Avon, 1983), writes, "How does the concept of French nouvelle cuisine combine with the new ideas in California cuisine? The definitions are remarkably similar: nouvelle cuisine is based on cooking the best of seasonal ingredients with a light and creative touch, and completing each dish with a delicate sauce and a imaginative garnish. Much of the new California cooking has the same intent."
A similar viewpoint was expressed by Christian Millau in his guide to L.A. restaurants, "The Best of Los Angeles" (Crown, 1984): "It would be more honest to recognize nouvelle cuisine's merits and respect its evolution rather than deluding oneself by believing in the spontaneous birth of a California cuisine, as if it were created with a stroke of a magic wand -- when it was, in actuality, a pure product of nouvelle."
Yet, we are all encouraged and excited by the intense interest in food in California. It is helping to promote quality ingredients and refined cuisine, not only in restaurants but also at home. Many foods that were not available a few years ago, such as live crayfish and fresh chanterelles, can now be found in certain markets. Some excellent wines and good cheeses are being produced here. Many California cooks and food writers are eager to make it clear that this is no longer the "land of bean sprouts and avocados" but rather a center for fine food. At the present time, however, the cooking in California cannot be defined as a distinct cuisine.
The following recipes, which are translated from cookbooks of leading comtemporary French chefs, illustrate types of dishes that during the last couple of years have been called by some people "California cuisine." MARINATED RAW SALMON WITH OIL AND BASIL (Escalopes de saumon frais, marine a l'huile de basilic) (2 servings)
Various versions of the following recipe often appear as "sashimi salad" in restaurants that serve California cuisine. The recipe is from "Roger Verge's Cuisine of the South of France," (Morrow, 1980). The original version of the book appeared in France in 1978.
3/4 to 1 pound very fresh boneless salmon fillet (from the tail)
1 1/2 lemons
Salt and freshly ground white pepper
10 large fresh basil leaves, or substitute 1 teaspoon chopped fresh dillweed (or serve simply, without herbs)
5 tablespoons olive oil
7 ounces fresh white mushrooms
1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley
To prepare the salmon: Using a very long thin knife, cut the fillet on a diagonal into wide thin slices, without breaking through the skin (the slices should have the same delicate thinness as professionally sliced smoked salmon). Spread the slices out on chilled plates, without overlapping. Sprinkle with the juice of 1 lemon, salt and several good turns of the pepper mill.
Cut the basil leaves into fine julienne strips and scatter them over the salmon. Then let 1 1/2 tablespoons of the olive oil run over the surface of each portion. Tilt the plate from side to side until the entire surface of the salmon is coated. This must not be done any earlier than 30 minutes before the salmon is to be served.
To prepare the mushrooms: Trim the mushrooms and wipe with a damp cloth, or rinse briefly without letting them soak. Dry the mushrooms and cut them into thin slices. Then mix with salt, freshly ground pepper, remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil, parsley, and juice of 1/2 lemon.
When ready to serve, arrange a fan-shaped garniture of sliced mushrooms on each plate next to the slices of salmon, or if you wish, serve them separately on a small plate.
The following two recipes are translated from Alain et Eventhia Senderens' "La Cuisine Reussie" (J.C. Lattes, 1981). The first recipe is flavored with cilantro and the second with fresh ginger in a fine strainer. MONKFISH WITH LEEKS, CILANTRO AND SAFFRON (Lotte aux blancs de poireaux, coriandre fras et safran) (4 servings)
4 small leeks, white part only
2 medium shallots, peeled
2 small white mushrooms, rinsed
2 teaspoons butter
1 1/2 pounds monkfish, trimmed of skin, cut in 4 pieces and pounded until flattened slightly
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1/2 cup dry white wine
1 1/4 cups cre me frai che or whipping cream
2 sprigs of cilantro (fresh coriander), leaves only
Pinch of saffron
Rinse the white part of the leeks and cut them in pieces about 1 1/2 inches long. Reserve them on a plate. Finely chop the shallots and reserve. Chop the mushrooms and reserve.
In a saucepan bring 1 quart of water to a boil with 1 teaspoon coarse salt. Melt the butter in a large gratin dish or shallow flameproof baking dish over low heat.
Season the fish on each side with 2 pinches of salt and 4 turns of the pepper mill. When the butter melts in the gratin dish, add the chopped shallots and cook, stirring, for 1 minute. Add the mushrooms and mix well. Set the monkfish pieces in one layer on top and pour the wine over them. Bring to a boil. Transfer to a 425-degree oven and bake for 6 minutes or until just tender.
Put the leeks in the pan of boiling water and simmer for 5 minutes. Remove from the water and drain on paper towels.
When the fish is cooked, transfer it to paper towels to drain. Simmer the cooking liquid until reduced to 2 tablespoons. (If desired, this can be done in a frying pan.)
Add the cream to the reduced cooking liquid and bring to a boil, whisking. Simmer for a few minutes or until the sauce is creamy and thick enough to coat a spoon. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Put the leeks in a saucepan with the cilantro and saffron. Strain the sauce over the leeks, pressing on the shallots in the strainer. Bring to a boil and simmer for 3 to 4 minutes.
Heat the platter or 4 plates and arrange the fish on them to keep warm.
Coat the fish with the cilantro and saffron flavored sauce and arrange the leeks around it. Serve immediately. VEAL CHOPS WITH GINGER AND LIME (Cotes de veau au gingembre et au citron vert) (4 servings)
2 ounces fresh ginger
3 teaspoons sugar
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
4 veal chops (total about 1 3/4 pounds)
5 ounces tomatoes, cut into 1/2-inch dice
1 1/4 cups cre me frai che or whipping cream
Salt and freshly ground pepper
Peel ginger, cut in pieces and chop finely.
In a small heavy saucepan combine the ginger, 1/3 cup water and sugar. Bring to a boil. Cook over low heat about 25 minutes or until the water evaporates completely.
Cut off the zest of the lime without the bitter white part. Cut the zest in pieces and chop finely. Rinse it rapidly with cold water in a fine strainer. Put it in a saucepan, cover with water and bring to a boil. Boil 2 minutes and drain. Rinse under cold water and drain thoroughly.
Heat the oil in a large frying pan. Add the veal chops and brown 5 minutes. Turn over and brown the second side, about 4 minutes.
Set an overturned saucer on a large plate and set the veal chops resting on the saucer so they can drain thoroughly and their juices drain onto the plate.
Wipe the frying pan with paper towels. Add the tomatoes to the pan and cook over low heat, mixing well with a wooden spoon and scraping the bottom of the pan to dissolve any caramelized juices. Let the tomatoes cook about 3 minutes. Add the veal juices that collected in the plate, then the cream. Stir and simmer for a few minutes or until the sauce is creamy and thick enough to coat a spoon. Transfer the veal chops to a heated platter and keep warm.
Whisk the sauce lightly and season it to taste with salt and pepper.
Put the ginger and the lime zest in a saucepan. Strain the sauce over them into the saucepan. Heat for a few minutes, stirring. Coat the veal chops with some of the sauce and serve the rest in a sauceboat.