It's a bleak morning in Central Park, the wind so chilling and the sky so gray, there's not a jogger or cyclist in sight. The growing season is long gone.
But bundled up in a cherry-red scarf, Alice Waters is out searching for edible plants and nuts and roots with a group of aspiring chefs from the French Culinary Institute.
"Taste these," says their guide, naturalist Steve Brill, offering some rose hips to Waters. "They're one of the best sources of Vitamin C."
She hesitates, worried that collecting them will interfere with the bush's growth. "Picking them will stimulate it to grow more," Brill tells her.
Reassured, she bags a few rose hips for a class she's teaching later in the day and continues, ever on the lookout for flavorful seasonal ingredients--no matter what the season or how unlikely the locale.
"Foraging like this is a lovely way of introducing the natural world," she says.
It's been almost 30 years since the onetime Montessori school teacher Alice Waters opened the doors of Chez Panisse, her landmark Berkeley, Calif., restaurant that many credit with launching the movement of cooking with organic seasonal produce and local products.
Since then that standard has spread to restaurants all over the country, even though fruits or vegetables may sometimes have to be flown in from a growing season in a faraway place. But in sunny California, where Waters still lives, that's rarely a problem.
In the urban East, however, even at the turn of the millennium, it's got to be a different story. Nevertheless, Waters is in town this day to convince students at the FCI that even in New York, there's always something terrific in season. She's bagged garlic mustard plants in the park too, with roots that taste like horseradish, and spice berries and ginkgo biloba leaves.
In the afternoon, she adds them to the incredible in-season red and green and gold bounty laid out across the vast kitchen counter in the school's amphitheater. Several kinds of apples and pears, of course. And root vegetables galore--Jerusalem artichokes, baby turnips, carrots, parsnips, celeriac, golden beets, red beets. Potatoes too. And radicchio. Garlic. Shallots. Lettuces. Mushrooms. Kohlrabi. Burdock root. Sage. Rosemary. Wild watercress. Beets. Watermelon radishes. Brussels sprouts on the stem. Tat soi. Squashes. Walnuts. Meyer lemons. Blood oranges. Local cheeses.
Even Waters is impressed at the haul, which was collected for her from four local organic farms by Seen Lippert, a former longtime Chez Panisse staffer now living in New York. "I don't ever want to hear you say 'That's fine for you to only use seasonal produce in California, but we don't have anything like that in New York,' " she tells the class.
As she surveys the counter, most of the finds evoke a useful culinary suggestion that she shares with the class.
Like baby bok choy: "I like to oil it a bit and grill it," she says.
Several kinds of chard: "In Mexico they use the cooked, chopped-up stems in tamales and save the leaves for wrapping."
Seckel pears: "We poach them and serve one in the syrup and another that's skinned and raw."
And fennel: "One of my favorite vegetables. We chop it and eat it raw, we stew it, we pickle it."
And kumquats: "We use them a lot at Chez Panisse--they're good sliced and poached over ice cream. Or we candy the peel."
Of course, there are no tomatoes in this harvest. No asparagus. No strawberries or raspberries. Is that a problem? Should these future tastemakers ever be tempted to cook or eat such out-of-season delicacies, when such cool-weather wealth is available?
Silly question. "I suspect having mediocre vegetables all year long dulls your palate," says Waters. "You should eat tomatoes at the right season to your heart's content. And then you really don't have the desire for them until they're in season again."
Besides, when you work with a vegetable over and over throughout the length of its season, she explains, you really get to understand it. Take turnips. You can eat the baby ones raw, steam the little ones and dress them with olive oil, puree them when they get bigger and stew them when they're mature.
"If I had a cooking school, I'd make everybody go out and work on a farm," she says. "So much of the end result of a dish depends on the quality of the ingredients--what is grown, how it's tended, when it's picked, how you decide to use it, and how fast it's used."
The chefs at Chez Panisse and its more moderately priced upstairs sibling, the Chez Panisse Cafe, don't exactly have time to farm, but they get that desired intimacy with their ingredients in another way: by doing all the prep work--the cleaning and trimming and peeling and chopping. That's certainly not standard operating procedure at most big-name restaurants, but it reflects Waters's philosophy. "That to me is all part of it," she says.
Growing up in New Jersey, Waters, 55, certainly didn't experience such reverence for fresh seasonal foods. The cooking was straightforward: frozen peas or green beans, potatoes, meat--"plain simple food." Her mother was concerned about nutrition and health (yes to whole-wheat bread, no to desserts). But she did can applesauce and rhubarb from the family victory garden, which was also the source of Waters's first fresh asparagus, tomatoes and strawberries.
But Waters didn't encounter the idea of food eaten simply for pleasure until her junior year in college, when she went to France to study--and Paris did it. "I was captivated by the experience of eating there," she says. "It was a sensual reawakening for me. I just had never thought about the world that way.
"My French friends were so particular," she says. "When we went out to eat, they had to read all the menus posted outside the restaurants. There was a lot of discrimination and discernment. And it didn't make sense to me at first--I would probably have stopped at the first place. But as my palate opened up, it did."
She returned to the States a confirmed Francophile and started cooking. Mussels. Pates. Salads. Baguettes. "I loved eating and I loved cooking," she says. But it wasn't only the food she was trying to recreate. "It was the way the French lived," she says, "hanging out in cafes and looking for beauty in everyday life."
After graduating from the University of California at Berkeley, cooking and teaching for a few years, and spending some time in England cooking and qualifying as a Montessori teacher and more time in France, she returned to Berkeley. She cooked some more and became even more discriminating. "I was always looking for ingredients," she says. "It was part of my French education. I just wasn't going to accept the first person's lettuce. I was a non-compromising perfectionist, driven and obsessed."
That quest eventually led her to write a column (with recipes) in a local paper and to a need for ingredients she could find only if she grew them. And the column led to Chez Panisse, the place she opened with a few friends in a little two-story house in Berkeley in 1971, which she named after a character in a 1930s French movie trilogy. She hoped it could be both a bistro and a serious restaurant committed to the kind of food she cooked in her own home.
And that, of course, has led to where Alice Waters is today: the owner of the phenomenally successful original restaurant and the upstairs cafe; the author of a series of cookbooks (the most recent, which she's been touring the country to promote, is the "Chez Panisse Cafe Cookbook" [Harper Collins, $34]); and a gurulike stature in the organic food movement.
She takes it all seriously--especially what she sees as her responsibility to the growing number of organic farmers who make cooking and eating this way possible. "It's like any relationship," she says. "You have to work at it. And if we want to eat like this, if we want that support system, we have to buy from people who are taking care of this land for future generations."
In recent years, she's continued to extend the faith through the restaurant's comprehensive Web site (www.chezpanisse.com) and through the Chez Panisse Foundation and its educational and cultural projects.
The one she's particularly proud of is the Edible Schoolyard, a model curriculum at the Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School in Berkeley, where students participate in organic gardening as a part of their studies, thereby learning, Waters maintains, to respect and care for the land, their community and themselves.
Lofty goals? Maybe. But maybe not. Waters feels an urgency about the children she meets who seem disconnected with an old-fashioned everyday rhythm of life, and she sees how they've changed through the Edible Schoolyard. "If we don't get involved, the consequences are dire," she says.
"I believe eating like this can change people's lives. That's why I'm a missionary on the subject. Beautiful nourishing foodstuffs can be irresistible to anyone. I do believe that. But there's a big group out there that needs to be educated. And when they are, they'll make the right decisions."
How can she be so sure?
"Because it happened to me," she says, "I believe it can happen to anybody."
From Chez Panisse Cafe
Baked Goat Cheese
With Garden Lettuces
Waters has kept this dish on the menu every day since Chez Panisse first opened. It works wonderfully, as either a first course or a combination salad and cheese course following the meal. She varies the accompaniment depending on what's available seasonally, such as slices of pear with watercress in the fall. From "Chez Panisse Cafe Cookbook" (HarperCollins, $34).
8 ounces (2-by-5-inch log) fresh goat cheese
1 cup extra-virgin olive oil
3 to 4 sprigs thyme
1 sprig rosemary
1/2 sourdough baguette, preferably day-old
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
1 teaspoon sherry vinegar
Salt to taste
1/4 cup walnut oil, extra-virgin olive oil or a combination of both
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
1/2 pound mixed lettuces, washed and dried
Slice the goat cheese into 8 1/2-inch-thick disks and transfer the disks to a rimmed platter or resealable container. Drizzle with the olive oil and sprinkle with the thyme and rosemary. Cover and refrigerate for several hours or up to 1 week.
Preheat the oven to 300 degrees.
Cut the baguette in half lengthwise. Bake the bread until dried and lightly colored, about 20 minutes. Using a grater or food processor, grate the bread into fine crumbs. (May be made in advance and stored until needed.) Place the crumbs on a shallow plate.
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
Remove the goat cheese disks from the marinade; roll each disk in the crumbs to coat thoroughly. Transfer the disks to a baking sheet and bake until the cheese is warm, about 6 minutes.
In a small bowl, stir together the red wine and sherry vinegars and a pinch of salt. Whisk in the walnut and/or olive oil and pepper to taste. Taste and season accordingly. Toss the lettuces with the vinaigrette and arrange on salad plates. Using a metal spatula, carefully transfer 2 disks of baked cheese to each plate and serve immediately.
Per serving: 508 calories, 17 gm protein, 30 gm carbohydrates, 35 gm fat, 45 mg cholesterol, 14 gm saturated fat, 673 mg sodium, 3 gm dietary fiber
Avocado and Beet Salad
With Citrus Vinaigrette
Waters suggests adding any of the following to the salad: blood orange, grapefruit, Meyer lemon, kumquat, watercress and Belgian endive. From "Chez Panisse Cafe Cookbook" (HarperCollins, $34).
6 medium red or golden beets, trimmed
About 2 tablespoons water
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
About 3/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 large shallot, minced
2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 tablespoon orange juice
1 tablespoon chopped chervil
1/4 teaspoon minced lemon zest
1/4 teaspoon minced orange zest
2 ripe avocados
Chervil sprigs (for optional garnish)
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
Place the beets in a baking dish large enough to hold them in a single layer, add the water, cover tightly and roast until cooked through, about 45 minutes. Uncover the beets and set aside to cool slightly.
Peel the beets, cut into wedges and place in a large bowl. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Add the red wine vinegar and 1 tablespoon of the oil and toss gently.
In a small bowl, stir together the shallot, white wine vinegar, lemon and orange juices and a pinch of salt. Set aside for 15 minutes.
Whisk the remaining 3/4 cup oil into the shallot-juice mixture. Stir in the chervil and lemon and orange zests. Taste for seasoning.
Cut the avocados in half lengthwise and remove the pits. Leaving the skin intact, cut the avocados lengthwise into 1/4-inch slices. Using a large spoon, carefully scoop the flesh from the peels and arrange the slices in a single layer on a platter or individual serving plates. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Arrange the beets on top of the avocado slices and drizzle with the vinaigrette. If desired, garnish with chervil sprigs. Serve immediately.
Per serving: 262 calories, 3 gm protein, 13 gm carbohydrates, 23 gm fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 3 gm saturated fat, 149 mg sodium, 5 gm dietary fiber
Soupe au Pistou
With Lamb Shanks
Here is an adaptation of Alice Waters's take on the classic provencal garlic- and basil-infused vegetable soup. With her emphasis on seasonal ingredients, Waters uses fresh green beans and romano beans; you may want to substitute your favorite frozen beans or dried beans that have been soaked and cooked until tender. If you prefer, cook the stew in a 350-degree oven instead of on the stove for the same amount of time. From "Chez Panisse Cafe Cookbook" (HarperCollins, $34).
For the soup:
6 small lamb shanks (about 2 pounds)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
5 tablespoons olive oil
2 medium onions, sliced
1 large carrot, peeled and sliced
1 stalk celery, sliced
14 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
2 medium tomatoes, quartered
10 cups chicken stock or broth, plus additional if desired
1 pound romano beans, cut into 1/2-inch pieces**
1 pound green beans, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
1 large bulb fennel, diced
2 carrots, diced
2 medium potatoes, peeled and diced
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
3 large onions, diced
2 small zucchini, diced
4 medium tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped
2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
2 teaspoons chopped fresh thyme
1 cup cooked pasta, such as orzo or orecchiette (optional)
For the pistou:
2 tablespoons toasted pine nuts
3 cloves garlic
Salt to taste
2 cups basil leaves
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
For the soup: Season the lamb shanks generously with salt and pepper. Cover and refrigerate for several hours or overnight.
In a large, deep skillet over medium heat, heat 3 tablespoons of the oil. Add the shanks and brown on each side.
In a Dutch oven over medium heat, heat the remaining oil. Add the onions, carrot, celery and garlic and cook until lightly softened. Add the tomatoes, chicken stock, bouquet garni and salt and pepper to taste. Bring to a boil; add the lamb shanks in a single layer. Cover, reduce the heat to low and simmer until the lamb is very tender, about 2 hours.
Meanwhile, in a large pot bring about 2 quarts salted water to a boil. Add the romano beans and cook just until tender, about 6 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, remove the beans from the cooking water and set aside to cool. Repeat the cooking process with the green beans, then the fennel, carrots and potatoes, cooking each type of vegetable separately and boiling just until done, then removing the vegetables with a slotted spoon. Replenish the boiling water as necessary. Set aside the pot of cooking water.
Remove the shanks from the broth; set aside. Strain the broth; discard the solids. Set aside to cool to room temperature. Skim any fat from the surface of the broth. Combine the cooking broth and enough additional chicken stock or broth, vegetable cooking water or water to measure a total of 10 cups. Return the shanks and the broth-water mixture to the Dutch oven; set aside.
In a large saute pan over medium heat, heat 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil. Add the onions and cook, stirring, until soft and translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the zucchini and cook for 3 to 4 minutes. Add the parboiled romano beans, green beans, fennel, carrots and potatoes, stirring to coat with the oil. Add the tomatoes, parsley and thyme. Season with salt and pepper to taste and cook for 2 minutes.
Place the Dutch oven with the shanks and broth over medium heat and bring to a simmer. Stir in the sauteed vegetable mixture and cook for about 3 minutes. Taste and adjust the seasoning accordingly. If desired, stir in the cooked pasta. (The soup may be cooled to room temperature and refrigerated overnight.)
For the pistou: Using a mortar and pestle, grind the pine nuts, garlic and a pinch of salt. Add a few of the basil leaves and grind. Add some oil and grind. Repeat the process, alternating basil leaves and oil, until a smooth paste is formed. Stir in any remaining oil and season with salt and pepper to taste. (You will have about 1 cup of pistou.)
To serve, place 1 lamb shank in each of 6 individual soup plates. Ladle the soup around the shank; swirl about 1 tablespoon of pistou into each soup bowl.
* Note: Bouquet garni is an assortment of herbs used to flavor soups, stews and broths. The herbs are bundled together with string or cheesecloth for easy removal. In this recipe, use a piece of thyme, a bay leaf and a few parsley stems--the traditional combination.
** Note: Romano beans are a type of snap bean, also known as Italian flat beans.
Per serving: 715 calories, 62 gm protein, 40 gm carbohydrates, 35 gm fat, 153 mg cholesterol, 8 gm saturated fat, 784 mg sodium, 11 gm dietary fiber
(4 to 6 servings)
Kale is available in a number of varieties. Try serving it with pork, potatoes or beef.
2 pounds kale, stems trimmed and discarded, leaves coarsely chopped
1/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
Salt to taste
4 to 5 cloves garlic, minced
Crushed hot pepper flakes to taste
Red wine vinegar to taste
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
Wash and drain the kale but do not dry it.
In a large saute pan over high heat, heat 1/4 cup of the oil. Add enough kale to just cover the bottom of the pan and cook, stirring constantly, until the leaves begin to wilt. Add more kale, repeating until all has been added. Season with salt to taste, cover, reduce the heat to medium and cook, stirring occasionally, until tender, 4 to 5 minutes. (If the leaves begin to scorch, add a splash of water to the pan.)
Uncover the pan and cook until all of the liquid has evaporated. Push the kale to one side of the pan and add about 1 tablespoon oil along with the garlic and crushed hot pepper flakes to taste to the oil already in the pan. When the garlic becomes fragrant, stir to combine it with the kale. Remove the pan from the heat, add a splash of vinegar and season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve warm or at room temperature.
Per serving (based on 6): 100 calories, 3 gm protein, 10 gm carbohydrates, 6 gm fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 1 gm saturated fat, 79 mg sodium, 2 gm dietary fiber
The Perfect Hard-Cooked Egg
Odd as it may seem, a good hard-cooked egg is hard to find. Most have been overcooked to a chalky green afterthought. But a fresh egg, cooked until just set, is a delightful addition to a whole range of dishes. We use hard-cooked eggs to add richness and flavor to all sorts of things: halved or quartered, as a class element of a Nicoise salad or as garnishes for simple plates of grilled fish, lettuces and tapenade croutons; sliced over an anchovy pizza; or chopped, over vegetables such as asparagus and green beans.
Over high heat, bring to a full boil enough water to cover the eggs. Lower room-temperature eggs gently into the water with a slotted spoon, reduce heat slightly and cook for exactly 8 minutes (for firmer yolks, 9 to 10 minutes). Have a bowl of ice water ready.
Remove the eggs from the water and immediately plunge them into the ice bath to cool. After a minute or so, when the eggs are cool enough to handle, crack them all over on the table or counter and then return them to the ice water for another 5 minutes. This will make peeling easier. Remove from the ice bath and peel away the shells under cold water.
The yolks will be a deep golden orange and slightly moist at the center, and the whites will resemble a firm custard.
Per egg: 78 calories, 6 gm protein, 1 gm carbohydrates, 5 gm fat, 212 mg cholesterol, 2 gm saturated fat, 62 mg sodium, 0 gm dietary fiber