"What exactly is this California cuisine?" some friends from England asked me the other day. Rather than try to explain one of the most elusive of recent culinary trends, I cooked them a dinner of Four-Cheese Pizza With Eggplant, Red Peppers and Sage, Salmon Escalopes with Mustard and Tarragon, and citrus-flavored California Pots de Cre me.
The new pizzas, with toppings ranging from smoked fish to wild mushrooms and lamb sausage, are far removed from their Neapolitan ancestors. In England, pizza is confined to fast-food joints, so my friends were intrigued by my new-style version, with its generous topping of the four cheeses (parmesan for piquancy, mozzarella and fontina for richness and, most importantly, goat cheese for taste), red pepper and eggplant.
The main course was deceptively simple, the salmon thinly sliced as escalopes to make an expensive ingredient go a long way. Typical of new style cooking, components are prepared in advance, then cooked rapidly at the last minute and served with a little sauce of reduced pan juices. The pink salmon, topped with a julienne of carrot and leek, looks ravishing on the plate.
"Ah," said my friends when they glimpsed dessert, "something familiar at last!" You too must have been tempted by little mousse pots in your local cookware store -- pretty little porcelain pots topped with lids and often decorated with flowers. Traditionally they are filled with baked egg custard flavored with chocolate, coffee and vanilla.
Guests selected two or three flavors and eyebrows lifted in surprise at dinner when the pastel gold and yellow custard shades proved to be orange, lemon and lime. It is such small-but-crucial changes that mark the inventive brilliance of California cuisine. Timetable
A schedule that divides work evenly between advance and last-minute preparation.
Up to two days ahead: Bake pots de cre me and refrigerate.
Up to 4 hours before serving: Make pizza dough and leave to rise; prepare filling. Prepare salmon escalopes, cook julienne and refrigerate. Set the table. Chill the wine.
Up to 1 hour before serving: Complete pizzas, cover and keep in refrigerator. Let pots de cre me come to room temperature.
Thirty minutes before serving: Heat oven to 500 degrees. Heat water for fettucine.
Ten minutes before serving: Bake pizzas. Simmer fettucine, drain, rinse and keep in warm water until serving.
After serving pizzas: Cook salmon and make sauce. FOUR-CHEESE PIZZA WITH EGGPLANT, RED PEPPERS AND SAGE (6 servings)
The honey in the dough helps tenderize it. Lacking a pizza stone to ensure a crisp crust, I've found that sliding the unbaked pizza onto a preheated baking sheet has almost the same effect.
2 small eggplants (about 8 ounces), thinly sliced
7 to 8 tablespoons olive oil
2 onions, sliced
3 red bell peppers, cored, seeded and thinly sliced
2 cloves garlic, crushed
Salt and pepper to taste
1/2 cup sage leaves, very coarsely chopped
1/2 teaspoon ground red chili pepper
4 ounces goat cheese, crumbled
4 ounces fontina cheese, coarsely grated
8 ounces mozzarella cheese, thinly sliced
2 ounces grated parmesan cheese
FOR THE DOUGH:
1/2 ounce fresh yeast or 1/4 ounce dry yeast
3/4 cup warm water, more if necessary
3 cups flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon honey
2 tablespoons oil
For the dough: Crumble or sprinkle yeast over 3 to 4 tablespoons of the water and let stand until dissolved, about 5 minutes. Sift flour with salt onto a board and make a well in the center. Add dissolved yeast, honey, oil and remaining water. Mix with the fingertips to form soft crumbs, gradually drawing in the flour with a pastry scraper. If the crumbs are dry, add more water. Press dough together into a ball; it should be soft and slightly sticky.
On a floured board knead dough until smooth and elastic, about 5 minutes. Form it into a ball and put in an oiled bowl, turning it so the top is oiled also. Cover bowl with a wet cloth and leave in a warm place until dough is doubled in bulk, 1 to 1 1/2 hours.
For the topping: Brush eggplant slices with a little oil, set them on an oiled baking sheet and bake in a 350-degree oven until browned, 10 to 15 minutes. Heat 2 tablespoons oil in a frying pan and fry onions until soft but not brown. Add red bell peppers, garlic, salt and pepper and fry until peppers are soft. Take from heat and stir in sage. Taste for seasoning. Mix ground chili pepper with remaining oil.
Knead dough lightly to knock out air and divide into 6 balls. Roll balls to flatten slightly, then pull and slap them on a floured board to stretch to 6-inch rounds. Set on floured pizza paddles or baking sheets.
Brush dough with pepper olive oil. Spread with red pepper mixture and sprinkle with goat and fontina cheeses. Top with eggplant and mozzarella slices and sprinkle with parmesan. Let stand 15 minutes so dough rises. Pizzas can be prepared up to 1 hour ahead and kept covered in the refrigerator, or they can be frozen.
To finish: Put heavy baking sheets or pizza from paddle or baking sheet onto hot surface and bake until crust is brown and cheese bubbles, 10 to 12 minutes. SALMON ESCALOPES WITH MUSTARD AND TARRAGON (6 servings)
The salmon is cut in thin diagonal slices and cooked in a nonstick pan, with a minimum of butter. Serve it with green fettuccine.
1 large fillet fresh salmon (1 1/2 pounds)
1 carrot, cut in julienne strips
Green of 1 leek, cut in julienne strips
1/2 tablespoon butter for brushing
Salt and pepper
1 cup cream
2 teaspoons mild dijon mustard, or to taste
2 tablespoons chopped fresh tarragon
Tarragon sprigs (for decoration)
1 pound fresh fettuccine, cooked (for serving)
To cut escalopes: with a sharp knife cut the largest possible diagonal slices, about 1/4-inch thick, from the salmon fillet, working toward the tail.
To cook the julienne: put carrot and leek strips in a pan of boiling salted water and boil 3 to 5 minutes or until tender but still firm. Drain, rinse with cold water and drain thoroughly. Escalopes and julienne can be prepared up to 4 hours before serving; keep covered in refrigerator.
Brush a large nonstick frying pan lightly with butter; heat until very hot. Sprinkle escalopes with salt and pepper and add to pan a few at a time. Cook until browned, about 1 minute, turn and brown other side. Arrange on one side of individual plates and keep warm. Cook remaining escalopes in the same way.
Add cream to pan and bring to the boil. Whisk in mustard, salt and pepper. Add julienne vegetables and heat gently 2 minutes. Stir in tarragon and taste. Spoon sauce and vegetables over salmon to partly cover it and top with tarragon sprigs. Pile fettuccine on the other side of the plate and serve at once. CALIFORNIA POTS DE CREME (Makes 12 individual pots to serve 6)
Only the zest of citrus fruits is used to flavor custard, as juice would curdle the milk.
1 quart milk
12 egg yolks
14 tablespoons sugar
Finely grate the zest from oranges, lemons and limes and put one flavor each in 3 bowls. Scald the milk.
Meanwhile, beat egg yolks and sugar until light and thick, 3 to 5 minutes. Stir in scalded milk. Pour mixture in 3 equal portions over citrus zests. Leave 10 to 15 minutes to infuse.
Strain each mixture through a fine sieve into 4 individual mousse pots or ramekins. (You will need a total of 12 individual pots, one flavor per 4 pots.) Add lids to pots or cover ramekins with foil and set them in a water bath. Bring to a boil on top of the stove. Cook in a 350-degree oven until custards are almost set and a knife inserted in the center comes out clean, 20 to 25 minutes. Let them cool.
Pots de cre me can be stored up to two days, tightly covered, in the refrigerator. Serve them at room temperature.