Saturday, November 17, 2012

Livermore Community Olive Pressing at Olivina - 2012


I have to say, although my children don't know it yet, they get to live a pretty easy, if not a bit pedantic life.  There were no iPads or Apple TVs or DVRs or computer games when I was growing up. Heck!  We had a TV with about 10 channels on it, with some of them only coming in clearly occasionally.  If you wanted to see a show, you had to be there when it was on...or you just didn't see the show.

Tough luck for me...perhaps?

Back then, I remember going to visit family in Sicily...this was about 1977, when disco was king!  I was 12 years old then, and I remember flying on the plane with my Sicilian Grandparents.  Back then flying was a really big deal.  Nonna took me to the department store and bought me some new clothes to wear for the flight.  You always dressed up for a flight back then.  Everybody had a decent seat and everyone got a nice little travel bag for their flight from the travel agent, with the logo of the airline on it.  Mine was a cool bag with the Alitalia logo emblazoned on it in bright green.

I was stylin'!

I remember arriving in Sicily...Palermo to be exact, to the sight of tough looking Sicilian soldiers walking around the airport with full battle fatigues and machine guns.  They looked quite menacing to a 12 year old boy from Cleveland, Ohio.  Despite the fact that 1977 was one of the most violent years in Cleveland mob history, with news stories nearly every day about another car bombing taking place somewhere in Cleveland, I was a bit intimidated by the machine gun toting military men in this strange new land.

It only got more interesting, and intimidating in a different way, when we drove into Palermo.  There were all sorts of crazy people zipping around on their Vespa motorbikes, with little to no regard for any sort of traffic rules...and certainly not much care for pedestrians.  I remember my cousins telling me to be careful when going to the large open market because there were gangs of Vespa riding thugs that would zip by you and pull gold chains off of your neck or steal purses, pick pockets...and perform all sorts of thug-like activities.

I remember going to bed that first night feeling a bit homesick.  I didn't have my Etch-A-Sketch, nor my wrist radio, not any of the familiar trappings of my rather humble upbringing.  The next morning did not bring me much comfort either, since nobody in Sicily seemed to have any knowledge of packaged cereal and milk, opting instead for a bowl of hot milk and coffee with an assortment of bread products to dunk in the concoction.  I suddenly realized that I was going to live in this for the next two months of summer, while my brothers got to partake in Dairy Queen soft serve cones, Frosted Flakes, and machine-gun-free travel.

I sighed heavily as I watched my crusty bread pieces sink to the bottom of my breakfast bowl.

After a rather long and rather unsatisfying breakfast (I was just not ready for this change) we all piled into a FIAT that sounded like a sewing machine, and headed out for the long road trip to Lucca Sicula, the birth home of nearly my entire Sicilian family.  I remember noticing the loops of rigid rubberized plastic hanging from the edges of the car ceiling, and wondering what they were for.  As soon as we were out of the city, and on the rather narrow, winding, twisting country roads of the Sicilian countryside, I knew what they were for, as I watched all the passengers grab onto them and not let go for the next several hours, in order to prevent themselves from getting tossed about inside the tiny excuse for an automotive vehicle we were destined to live in for the better part of the afternoon.  The roads were rather treacherous, and there did not seem to be any signs anywhere, let alone lane markers and traffic lights.

As we moved further into the country we kept having to slow down (which Italians do by slamming on the brakes, further necessitating the passenger hand holds) as we came across bands of rather salty looking countrymen with their donkeys and mules towing parcels of harvested what not and large jugs of water from the many springs along the way...which were essentially pipes jammed into the side of a mountain, spewing forth crystal clear water.  The springs all had large catch basins that the mountain men would water their mules and donkeys with.  Occasionally we would see one of the rugged older mountain men stripped down to his waist and giving himself an impromptu bath while his livestock drank heartily.
A Donkey Resting By The Roadside
Despite throwing up a couple of times during this road trip, I was beginning to find it all quite fascinating.  The large and rugged mountains surrounded us, with the occasional house or religious institution of one sort or another majestically perched on the peaks of some of the mountains.  


The animals all seemed content and a part of this rather rural, agrarian lifestyle that my ancestors had lived in for as far back as anyone could remember.  Since I had spent nearly every summer growing up with my Sicilian Nonna, I spoke fluent Sicilian dialect, which allowed me to carry on a conversation as we moved further and further south, the scenery getting more beautiful with each passing kilometer.

The Beachside Town Of Siculiana 
When we finally arrived in Lucca Sicula, I was very worn out from the car trip, and suffering from jet lag.  We all decided to have a quick bite to eat, and then take a nap, which turned into an all night affair for me.  I awoke soon after sunrise and made my way down the ancient stone stair in the stone house (old houses are not made of wood in Italy) my mother, uncles, and grandparents had all grown up in.  It was a gorgeous July Summer morning, and I walked outside and made my way next door to my cousin Giuseppe's woodworking shop, where Peppino (as we all called him) greeted me warmly with a wood plane in his hand and an ever-present cigarette hanging from his jaw.  Alongside him stood his young apprentice Nino (short for Antonino), who politely smiled as he steadfastly held down the gorgeous wood door that Peppi (Giuseppe's even shorter nickname) was putting the finishing touches on.  I gazed at the woodworking shop in fascination, marveling at all the tools and random pieces of machinery that I had never had the opportunity to witness growing up.  Peppi gave me a block of wood wrapped in sandpaper and told me to sand the door while Nino held it down, occasionally blowing off cigarette ashes that landed on the wood as Peppino barked barely comprehensible Sicilian commands to his young apprentice, who seemed to find all Peppino said and did utterly charming (as did I).

We finished the door (or so I think we did), and Peppino decided it was a good time to head to the bar to get a "Tazzina d'caffè" (or cup of coffee for the uninitiated) and a "Briocha con granita", which was an eggy bun split open and filled with sweet lemon ice (granita), made in house from the locally grown and plentiful lemons.  I was already liking this breakfast a lot better than my first one, and perhaps a bit more than the ones back home.  As it turned out, this was a fairly common early morning respite in Lucca Sicula, and I was all over that like white on risotto!

By this point, only about an hour or two into my new career as an adopted apprentice woodworker/lemon ice loving fool, Nino and I had become fast friends.  For the next several months we were always together doing something or other, and when I returned to Italy for my return visit...25 years later, Nino and I recognized each other in the town square of Lucca Sicula almost immediately.  He had grown up a lot, and had a gorgeous girlfriend named Paola, but he was still the same Nino I had remembered...living in the town of about 1000 people where he had been born and raised.

Paola and Nino In Lucca Sicula

During the hottest part of the day, we worked in the wood shop, which was a good shelter from the scorching July Mediterranean sun.  As the afternoon waned on, we piled into another one of those ubiquitous little FIAT cars, and headed to what would end up being my favorite place of all...the campagnia.

My Cousin Salvatore (Totti) In His Campagnia

A campagnia is a special place for all Sicilian families.  Nearly everyone has at least one in their family, and they are passed down from generation to generation.  They are the family plantations, generally acres in size, where life sustaining food and livestock are grown and raised.   It was here that I first witnessed fresh figs, peaches, cactus pears, and plums growing profusely.  It was here that I tasted my first fresh, immature almond.


Cactus Pears and Fresh Figs

It was here that rows and rows of tomatoes, and coops of chickens and rabbits surrounded a small countryside home or shelter, with an outdoor stone oven for cooking in the countryside on hot summer nights.  After a late afternoon toiling in the campagnia, we would gather some ripe vegetables and take them back to the stone oven, where the Sicilian ladies of the family, young and old, had fired up the oven and were frantically kneading dough for stone oven cooked pizza and a delicious minestrone stew brimming with the flavors of the freshly picked squash, tomatoes, parsley, basil...and whatever else we could hold in our tired arms.  It was here that I first truly EXPERIENCED that food was a product of the Earth, and that food was something the entire family took part in not only creating, but cooking and enjoying together.  It was magical!

Top: Family At The Campagnia
Bottom: Family Bottling Tomato Sauce At The Campagnia

...and it was here that I saw my first olive tree...EVER!!!


When I first saw an olive tree, or rather the hundreds of olive trees in the campagnia, I naturally had to walk up to the tree and pick an olive to eat.  I mean, why not?  I absolutely LOVED (and still love) olives.  I reached up to a branch and picked a gorgeous green olive, and popped it in my mouth, biting into the crisp...and unbearably bitter...flesh.  Peppino and Nino both laughed at my hysterically as I spit out the vile tasting fruit, admonishing me for eating an un-prepared olive.  Peppi explained to me that they had to be soaked in water and salt to get rid of the bitterness for weeks before eating, and that most of these olives were going to be pressed into olive oil.

Peppino drove us to a large building strategically placed among the various family-owned campagnias, explaining to me that this was the community olive pressing mill, and that it was owned by everyone in the co-op, made up of olive growing families (which was essentially every family in Lucca Sicula).  He told me that in the fall, before the first freeze hits, the campagnia owners would harvest all their olives and bring them to the community mill, where they would be weighed and then piled all together for one huge community pool of olive oil.  The growers could then take home what they needed, based on what they contributed to the pool, and sell the rest to an olive oil broker, who would then sell it commercially far and wide (but mostly in Sicily, to be sure).

I thought this was supremely fascinating!  I am not sure why I did at the time, but it stuck with me for decades.  Every time I would eat olive oil I pictured hundreds of Sicilians, with cigarettes hanging out of their mouths, hairy armpits, and baskets of olives being poured into a mill, while they watched their precious cargo being made into what was essentially the elixir of life for these rugged agrarians.  I remember going back there with my new bride, in 2002, and asking my cousins to take me to the mill, which was still there.  I longed for a day when I could witness the community milling first hand, and partake of the fruit of people!

It was this, and a request from my Nonna right before she died, that led me to plant two olive trees in my own yard in Northern California.  Nonna loved olives and olive oil dearly, and she wanted me to carry on the family tradition in America, and I felt this was an admirable thing to do.  As much as I longed for my own campagnia in Northern California, I soon realized that acres of land here cost as much as entire cities in Sicily, so I had to settle for my backyard, where I planted an almond tree (from a seed smuggled in my fanny pack from Sicily), figs, fennel, apricots, berries, herbs, lots of other edibles...and my two olive trees.

The trees were very small when I first got them.  One was a Leccino varietal, and one was a Frantoio varietal.  I was told these could pollinate each other, which was essential for fruit production.  I proudly planted them and watched them slowly take root and grow for several years, and after about the 3rd or fourth year I harvested the olives and decided to brine my own.  It was a very laborious process...not the small harvesting I did...but the brining of the olives.  It took weeks, and the olives were good, but just not worth the constant attention and daily ritual of rinsing and draining I had to go through for weeks in order to leech the bitterness out of the olives.  I tried a shortcut method of soaking them in lye to neutralize the bitterness, which did indeed work, but it left my olives tasting rather bland in comparison to the old-fashioned water method.  I did this one year only, and then decided to let the birds devour my crop of olives from that point forward, deciding that trips to the store olive bar were less time consuming and a great source of delicious (if not a bit costly) olives.

In the meantime I had visited many great farmer's markets throughout Northern California, and I had become a regular at my own local Livermore Farmer's Market, and had met (and eventually become well acquainted with) the Crohare family, who sold their locally grown and pressed Olivina brand California Extra Virgin Olive Oil to market visitors.  I can remember this being the first (of many to come) Certified California Extra Virgin olive oil I had ever tasted, and I immediately fell in love with the wonderfully fragrant, bright, peppery, and eminently fruity flavor.  It was from that moment forward that I vowed to make this locally produced olive oil a staple in my kitchen, and today it is the only olive oil I purchase (but not the only olive oil I consume...more on that later).

The Old Olivina Ranch Gateway - Now Part Of A Public Park and Vineyard Entrance

Eventually I made my way over to The Olivina, nestled among vineyards in the Livermore countryside, and wrote a story about this long-established Northern California producer of premium olive oil.  Charles Crohare Junior and Charles Crohare Senior both live there and run the orchard and in-house harvesting, milling, packaging, and shipping operation.  Both of the Charles' were very cordial, and loved to explain what they did and loved...which was anything to do with olive oil.  They had finished all milling at this point (it was early spring, and milling happens in the fall).  It was the following year, if I recall correctly, when Charles Jr. told me I could come by and watch the harvest and milling, if I promised to be careful.  Having been an chef at one point, I had learned how to behave around machinery in the food service industry, and Charles obviously knew that I would love to see it happen, and could be, hopefully, trusted around the process.

I remember going there my first time, and watching the olives get milled, then the oil being separated from the mashed olives, and finally emerging in a wonderful green and golden stream at the end of the process.



I tasted this freshly pressed olive oil and was immediately blown away by it.  I had never tasted anything that even remotely tasted like this.  It was unfiltered and unsettled olive oil, known as "Olio Nuovo" in Italy, which was still cloudy with microscopic particle of olive pulp, much like the pulp in freshly squeezed orange juice, but much smaller in size.  Like freshly squeezed orange juice, it had a remarkably bright, fragrant, and intensely fruity flavor, with loads of peppery pungency tickling the back of my throat as I savored this most prized of all olive oil products.  I just knew I had to have some of this, and convinced Charles to sell me a few bottles of this delicious treat, which he now sells for limited time through his website, for the short time it is available.  The intense fruity freshness dissipates after a month or two in the bottle, so getting this early is essential to maximum enjoyment.

I remember talking to Charles about the community milling they did in Sicily, and he told me that he did indeed mill olives for other local growers, for a modest fee, but had not yet done a community milling for small, personal growers (like me).  I really wanted my olives to be pressed into olive oil, and felt like a total heel for letting them turn into winter bird feed, but Charles told me that the minimum amount needed to run the press was around 500 lbs., which my two trees did not come close to producing.

...then one year, it happened.

I can't remember where I first heard it, but I found out that Olivina was going to have a community pressing for any and all growers to bring their olives to (no matter how big or small your crop), and for a modest fee, Olivina would throw all your olives together in a big community pile.  It was the end of the Indian Summer in Northern California, and I was staring at the absolute most gigantic crop of olives I had ever seen on my trees.  THEY WERE EVERYWHERE!  I marked the date off in my calendar (November 11, 2012), and waited anxiously for the day to come.  I was going to not only get to witness a community olive oil pressing, but was also going to partake in the entire process, from harvest to final product!

November 10th finally came around, and I gathered my reluctant family together to help harvest my olives.  The children were happily playing with their iPads and computer games, or otherwise being rather laid back and unproductive (which is fine with me most of the time), so I made them drop their electronics, grab a basket, and started picking and gathering olives.  First of all, I had to cut the massive branches off of the trees, which had now grown to about 20 feet in height, and then they all got down on their hands and knees and began gathering, sorting, and bagging olives.




You can be sure that I had to deal with a lot of moaning and wailing...for 8 hours.   Yes, it took us 8 hours to pick and sort them all (getting rid of the leaves and rotten or bug infested olives), and my hands were raw, and we were all exhausted.  Nonetheless, we all spent time together, as a family, partaking in a ritual my ancestors (and existing family in Sicily) had gone through many times before.  It was time to harvest the olives, and all hands were on deck...like it or not!

Sorted Olives

My Baby Girl Watching Over Community Olives
We ended up picking 116 lbs. of olives (although I swear it felt like 200 lbs. at least), leaving probably close to 40 lbs. behind because the sun was going down and it was getting cold outside.  We brought them to Olivina early the next morning, and were the first to arrive.  Charles Jr. and Sr. were both there to greet us, and they then carefully weighed our olives and dumped them in a bin with other Italian cultivars, because they wanted to keep the various cultivars separated by similar features (e.g. varietals for large crops and nationality of cultivars for smaller crops).  We then left and I returned later to film the milling, and got to collect 2 gallons of community olive oil that included my very own olives in the mix.  Woohoo!


So how is the olive oil, you may ask?  It is absolutely delicious, and it is what I am now consuming (along with the Olivina brand olive oil I always have on hand).  I transferred it to empty, clean Olivina bottles I have collected over the years (obviously perfect for this), and will likely give some away as Christmas presents to those lucky enough to make it on my list :-)

It is absolutely delicious drizzled on just about any food you like, and I think it is particularly delicious drizzled over stacked tomatoes and fresh mozzarella, or freshly steamed vegetables, such as asparagus.




More importantly to me, however, is not the delicious olive oil.  What matters to me the most is the amazingly clear memories this community pressing evoked in me, and the fact that I was able to close the loop on something that became a part of my consciousness over 30 years ago, during that wonderful trip to Italy, where I first became aware of REAL community, both in family, and with neighbors and complete strangers.  I am happy to be blessed with the ability to impart this to my children, and be a part of any effort to bring people together for worthy causes, even if it is simply to press olives.  It really meant a lot to me, and I filmed the entire wonderful event for all to see.  Please enjoy this (long) and complete record of my experience:


Thank you Olivina, perhaps now you know how much this really means to me, and perhaps others you serve with this wonderful event!

Have a delicious day!


Thursday, October 25, 2012

Grape Jelly For The Masses



I am republishing this at the request of a fan of my former blog site.  When Apple, in their infinite wisdom, decided to end iWeb and MobileMe websites, out went my blog.  Fortunately, I copied all the posting contents into my awesome MacGourmet program, so I still have all the content.  It will take me a while, but I will get it all back up here for my adoring fans :-) (and thank you for the adoration, it means a lot to me).


Anyone who lives in a place where grapes like to grow soon discovers that grape vines like to produce lots of grapes.  Let me say that again...grape vines like to produce LOTS OF GRAPES.  Given the right conditions, grapes are one of the most tenacious vines you will ever encounter.  All they need is a little water and some heat and sunlight, and they just grow and grow. My first (and still current) home had a wonderful trellis over the backyard deck, so I decided it was appropriate to plant some grape vines that could then climb and create some wonderful shade, which they have done marvelously.  I planted some Sauvignon Blanc, Zinfandel, and Cabernet Sauvignon vines.  It was not long before I realized that I would end up with more grapes than I could ever imagine.

These varietals, as you perhaps know, are wine grapes.  I am truly a lover of fine wine, and it was for this very reason I decided not to make wine.  I am quite certain that it would be fun to do, and I am sure I will give it a try...someday.  For now, I think I will trust the making of wine to the many wonderful winemakers scattered within anywhere from 3 to 40 miles away from my house, or even further than that, thanks to the availability at my local wine merchants.  I decided instead it was best for me to dabble in the fine art of preserve making.  After all, homemade preserves make wonderful Christmas gifts, and my family just loves peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.  Yes, preserves it had to be.

The good old fashioned American Concord grape is, by far, the most popular grape jelly grape in the United States.  Every child in America is familiar with the deep purple goodness this grape has delivered to many a PB&J or slice of toasted Wonder Bread in the form of Welch’s (and other) Grape Jelly.  I have had the pleasure of making some grape jelly from this wonderful varietal, and it was every bit as good as (if not better than) the store bought grape jelly of my youth.

Some may ask “But isn’t homemade always better?” and my answer to that is a resounding “NO”.  Homemade is better for most foods, but it is not generally better when you have a food “memory”.  McDonald’s does not make what I would consider a good hamburger, but they make the BEST “McDonald’s Food” I have ever tasted.  I mean really...take a deliciously prepared hamburger grilled on your outdoor grill and compare it to a Quarter Pounder and you will quickly see the difference (as if you must do this to know the difference).  Now, I do not frequent McDonald’s, but when I want that taste borne of the years of childhood food memories, there simply is no substitute.  The same goes for cheapo yellow mustard on a hot dog, American Cheese on a grilled cheese sandwich, and grape jelly.  I expect it to taste a certain way, and my homemade concord grape jelly tasted like the real thing.  What is even more amazing is that my lovely wife, Becky, who is a bonafide PB&J junkie thought so as well, and made short work out of devouring my stash.  Oh well !  I made it for her anyway.

This takes me to my wine grapes.  While the concord is ideal for grape jelly, wine grapes are ideal for wine.  Does this mean that wine grapes cannot make good preserves ?  Absolutely not !   Wine grapes make absolutely FANTASTIC preserves, but you have to understand when and how in order to achieve success.  Wine grapes generally are intensely flavored (a very good thing), and when fully ripened are ridiculously high in sugar and low in acid.  They are indeed pleasant to taste at this point, but you will soon grow tired of the cloying sweetness of ripe wine grapes (yes, they are THAT sweet).  The concern with using fully ripened wine grapes for preserves, however, is that in order for proper setting to occur with pectin, you need a correct balance of pectin, sugar, and acid.  Fully ripened grapes are too low in acid to guarantee a good set, as well as being too high in sugar.  When you purchase pectin at your local grocery store (I use MCP or SureGel) the instructions for grape preserves are generally balanced for concord grapes.  It is therefore important to try to strike a balance with wine grapes that closely resembles the concord grape profile.


Ingredients

If Using MCP Pectin:
5 cups Grape Juice or Juice and Pulp (about 6 lb. grapes)
Juice of 1 Fresh Lemon
1 box MCP Pectin
5 1/3 cups Sugar

If Using Sure Jell Pectin:
6 1/2 cups Grape Juice or Juice and Pulp (about 7 lb. grapes)
Juice of 1 Fresh Lemon
1 box Sure Jell Pectin
7 cups Sugar


Method

1. Prepping Canning Materials Clean and sterilize 8 - 8 oz. canning jars and bands.  Wash canning lids in soap and hot water.  The best way to sterilize the jars is to wash them in a dishwasher and leave them in there until ready to can (the heat from the dishwasher will sterilize them).  The best way to sterilize the bands is to boil them in water.  Turn off the heat and when the boiling stops you can drop the washed lids in with the bands, but do not boil the lids.  You should also wash a pair of kitchen tongs or a magnetic lid lifter as well, and place them in the boiled water with the bands and lids, with enough sticking out of the pot so you can easily remove it.  You do not want to touch anything with your hands that will be in contact with the jar contents once they are sterilized.  


2. Sourcing Grapes So what does this all mean ?  How do I know when the grapes are right for preserving ?  I  simply taste them.  As the grapes ripen they will go from tannic and sour to sweet and tasty.  The sweetness continues to build as time goes on.  I pick them for preserving when they resemble table grapes in sweetness.  No rocket science is needed for this, just taste the grapes.  There should be a bit of acidity in the flavor profile, and tannins should be a bit tame.  At this point you generally have a few weeks where the grapes are good for preserving, so if you want to spread the chore over a few weekends (as I did), rest assured that you will be okay.

If you have several varietals of grapes (as I do) you can either combine them into a “Meritage Blend” of sorts, or make a preserve for each individual flavor.  They are your grapes, so the choice is yours.  The resulting preserves will be delicious either way.  I chose to make a clear grape jelly from the Sauvignon Blanc grapes, which resulted in a gorgeous jelly with the color of fine champagne.  I chose to turn the Zinfandel and Cabernet into individual grape jams, and then I took all three and made a “Meritage” grape jam.  All turned out fantastic!


3. Prepping Grapes After picking my grapes I put them in a sink of cold water and washed they very well.  You may wish to rinse them off with a hose while outside before this step, as there are going to be lots of little insects and spiders to contend with.  After a thorough washing I removed the grapes from the stems and put them in a large bowl and crushed them all by hand.  You can also use a potato masher for this, but do not use a blender or food processor.  You do not really want to mince up seeds for your preserves, as the seeds tend to be tannic and can throw off your flavors.  Just crush them.  After they are crushed put them in a pot and bring them to a gentle boil, skimming off any foam that collects at the top.  I like to add a pinch of sea salt at this point.  Boil the grapes for no more than 10 minutes.  You want to extract some of the tannins from the skins and seeds, as well as the color from the skins.  After the 10 minutes are up, turn off the heat and let the grapes cool to room temperature.  During this time the color will extract from the skins and deepen the color of the juice and pulp.  Once the grapes are at room temperature, you will want to strain out the seeds and skins.

If making jelly you will also want to strain out the pulp.  Let’s talk about the differences.

The difference between jam and jelly is the presence of or absence of pulp.  Jam contains the juice and pulp and jelly contains only juice.  For a light colored (white) grape I like to make jelly, as I like the clarity.  To accomplish this I strain the grapes through a fine sieve and then let the juice sit in the refrigerator overnight to allow the solids from the grape juice to settle.  I carefully pour the clear juice off the top of the vessel, reserving it for my jelly, and discard the cloudy sediment.  For a dark colored grape, I do not bother with this step, and opt instead to get as much pulp as I can by passing the grapes through my hand cranked food mill, discarding the seeds and skins to the compost heap.   At this point, you are ready to make your preserves.  You will need some pectin, sugar, and lemons, as well as some canning jars.  Please refer to my posting on preserving tomatoes for guidance about canning jars.

Generally, you will need approximately 1 or 2 lemons, 4-5 cups of sugar, and a quart of grape juice or juice and pulp per box of either MCP or SureGel pectin.  You can use any pectin you like, just make sure you follow the directions for amounts that come with the pectin.  Nearly all the recipes I have used call for the addition of water to my grape juice and pulp, but I opt to use more grape juice instead, and have never had a problem.  The lemons will be used for lemon juice, which is required for acidity in the recipe.   Follow the recipe on the package (with my substitutions if you wish) and you will get a good set.  DO NOT cut back on what will appear to you as an enormous amount of sugar.  

4. Stir the Pectin into the Juice (or Juice and Pulp)  with the Lemon Juice until completely dissolved.

5. Bring this to a rolling boil while stirring.

6. Add all the Sugar at once and stir in until completely dissolved.

7. Bring back to a full rolling boil and cook exactly 2 minutes.

8. Canning Fill sterilized jars to within an inch from the top and then top with a lid and band.  I use a magnetic lid lifter to lift the bands and lids out of the sterilized water bath, and a canning funnel to get the contents in the jar without spillage.

9. Sterilizing Filled Jars Boil the jars in a pot of water that has some paper towels in the bottom (or a cloth towel) to prevent the jars from cracking.  Make sure you have enough water to completely cover the jars.  Boil for 10 minutes, and then let the jars cool in the water a bit to make them easier to remove.  You can remove the jars with a jar lifter, but I use kitchen thongs.

10. The jars should form a vacuum and seal.  Do not re-tighten the bands, as this may break the seal.  The center of the band should snap down when the seal is complete.  If you have a jar or two that does not snap down, simply refrigerate those jars and use them first.  They will keep for months in the refrigerator.

11. Sealed jars can be stored in a cool and dark place for years (although they do not last for years at my house).  Make sure you label the jars with the contents and date.


Cutting back on sugar is a sure guarantee that your preserves will not set. Once your preserves are cooked, it is time to can them, and this needs to be done while the cooked mixture is still liquid. Ladle the cooked preserves into the jars and seal them using the method outlined in my preserving tomatoes blog entry. Properly canned preserves will keep for years. Make sure to label the jars with the contents and canning date. You will probably have a lot of preserves, so give some away as Christmas gifts. Your friends and family will love you for it.

As for the rest of the grapes, thank God the birds love them.

Enjoy in good health !


Friday, September 28, 2012

Smoked Jalapeño Barbecue Sauce





I have often felt little twinges of jealousy when watching my Mexican friends eat jalapeño peppers. I mean, for God’s sake, those guys can put away A LOT of jalapeño peppers, and without breaking a sweat. I get an upset stomach just watching them do it.

The truth is, I love jalapeño peppers. They are absolutely delicious, and, like many peppers, they have a unique flavor profile. I simply cannot tolerate the heat of more than a few of these in my dishes, and my family tolerates even less than I can. I can remember going to the farmer’s market and buying a small package of these delicious peppers, only to have them spoil before I could consume them all.

It was just too much for my frugal heart to bear, and I decided that I should instead grow my own, and then I would have a nice supply on hand without having to waste those I did not eat.

A lot of good that did me ! As it turned out, my first attempt at growing jalapeño peppers was a disaster. Not because they would not grow, but because they went ballistic, and I ended up with about 5 pounds of peppers on my first harvest. There I was again, staring at more jalapeños than I would ever use in a year. I had to think fast.

...and then it came to me.

I decided that I was going to smoke them (not like tobacco...the other way), and then they would be preserved for whatever I wanted to use them for. It was a stroke of genius, I tell you...I was inspired.

Let’s talk about smoked jalapeño peppers for a moment. Smoking jalapeños is actually quite common. The resulting product is referred to as a chipotle pepper, and they are a mainstay of Mexican and Southwestern cuisine. Chipotle peppers are made by smoking very ripe jalapeños (bright red) until they shrivel up like raisins and turn nearly black in color. The process dries them out, and they can then be stored at room temperature for a very long time. I opted NOT to use this method, because my jalapeños were not ripe, but bright green. I wanted to preserve them a bit, but did not want the somewhat pungent smokiness to overpower the “green” flavor of the unripe jalapeño. I formulated my plan.

I did not have a smoker at the time (I do now), so I decided to create a makeshift smoker using my gas grill and some wood chips and aluminum foil. I simply fired up one side of my grill (leaving the other side cool) and soaked some wood chips (which I bought at the local home improvement store, in the barbeque department) in water, then wrapped them in a layer of aluminum foil. I poked holes in the foil pouch of wood chips, and set it on the lit side of the grill.

I carefully laid my jalapeños out on the grates on the other side of the grill, turned the heat down to as low as it would go, and then covered the grill. After a while the heat under the foil pouch of wood chips made them smolder, and the inside of the grill was soon filled with smoke. I let these smoke for about 3 hours, turning the peppers frequently, until they were shriveled up but not quite black (there was still a bit of green showing). I removed them from the grill and spread them out in some baskets in a single layer and let them dry in the sun for several days, until they felt a bit like dried apricots. They were ready to go.

At this point, I packed them into Ziplock freezer bags and froze them, but not before setting some aside to make what is now my soon-to-be-famous Smoked Jalapeño Barbeque Sauce. Here is how it all came together:

Ingredients:

20 each Smoked Jalapeño or Chipotle Peppers, entire fruit
16 ounces Cider Vinegar
12 ounces Amber Ale
6 ounces Tomato Paste
5 each Tomatoes
2 each Onions, fresh
3 cloves Garlic
2 tablespoons Onion, minced, dried
4 sprigs Thyme
½ cup Brown Sugar
16 ounces Molasses, full flavor
1 teaspoon Black Pepper
1 Tablespoon Dry Mustard
2 teaspoons Cumin
2 teaspoons Paprika
1 teaspoon Seasoned Salt
3 Tablespoons Worchestershire Sauce
3 Tablespoons Teriyaki Sauce

Instructions:

1. Peel and coarsely chop the Onions and Garlic.
2. Combine all ingredients and simmer on very low heat for 3-4 hours.
3. Let cool and then puree using an immersion blender or in a standard blender.
4. Strain and refrigerate.


This sauce is absolutely delicious served as a side sauce for barbeque ribs, chicken, beef, pulled pork, or whatever else you want to barbeque. I have to warn you it is a bit hot (smoking jalapenos intensifies the heat), but you will still find yourself licking it off of your fingers, because it is very tasty. I have kept this in a refrigerator for over a year and it not only remained delicious, I believe the aging mellows it into an even more delicious sauce than when it is first made.

For an extra delicious treat, try adding some raspberry jam to the sauce and serving it with a barbeque leg of lamb, paired with an intense Australian Shiraz. Outstanding !!!

As for the rest of the smoked jalapeños, I pull some out every so often when I cook Southwestern or Mexican food, and use them for a smoky and hot flavor burst.

Enjoy in good health !



Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Perfect Buttermilk Biscuits and Sausage Gravy

Originally Published Wednesday, December 24, 2008


In the United States we are often known for culinary contributions of dubious distinction.  Deep fried macaroni and cheese can be spotted on a menu along with the glorious juicy burger.  The juicy burger must share its place with the aspirin sized pseudo-burgers found in our favorite fast food establishments.  At least one fast food establishment (yes, I mean McDonald’s) is both home to the aspirin sized burger and the most delicious fries I have ever tasted.  I mean, c’mon, can anyone tell me they have truly had a fry that is even in the same league ?  If you have, can you consistently get it in any of 15 to 20 locations within an hour drive from your home ?  Let’s give credit where credit is due !

Yes, we Americans have contributed our share of entries into the world of food, and some regions are just known as the quintessential home of many of these foods.  New England has its Lobster Rolls.  New Orleans has its Red Beans and Rice.  California has its Duck Pizza.  None of these, however, puts me in a region of this magnificent nation we live in quite like the Southern Buttermilk Biscuit.  To me, a good old American biscuit just screams “The South” like nothing else does.  Slathered with butter and jam, covered in an artery clogging sausage flavored goop, or housing delicate slices of delicious Kurobuta Ham...it does not matter to me.  This regal king of quick-breads belongs to the states south of the Mason-Dixon line.  God Bless America !!!!

There was a time in America where you had to travel to “The South” to get a decent biscuit.  Sure, you could get a scone in a fancy hotel or tea room, and scones are indeed the great grandaddy of all biscuits, but the difference between a scone and a biscuit is like the difference between meat loaf and meat terrine.  Sure, they are essentially the same thing, but they are also quite different, and that is why they continue to exist in two separate worlds.

Biscuits, however, have made it onto nearly every breakfast menu found in the USA, as well as onto eclectic catering menus and into our kitchens.  With the introduction of Bisquick in the grocery store, the fine art of biscuit making has been transformed to a “just add water” event, and the biscuits are actually not bad !  I, however,  am not satisfied with food that is merely “not bad”.  I have this obsession with finding the best, and will stop at nothing until I do.  So my quest for the perfect biscuit led me to countless years of experimentation until one day I stumbled upon an absolutely fantastic recipe at the “Cooks Illustrated” website.  I decided to give it a try, and there it was...THE PERFECT BISCUIT !!!

...with a little modification, of course.

Of course I had to modify it to my taste!  I altered the fats a bit, because their recipe called for shortening (perish the thought!), and I prefer my technique.  I feel I can safely call this my own recipe (but I give credit where it is due).

I must first take a moment to describe what I mean by “Perfect Biscuit”.  Perfectly prepared biscuits must be very light in texture, must melt in your mouth (yet not crumble when you try to make a little sandwich with one), and must be so delicious you simply cannot eat just one.  They must also look so appetizing you begin drooling the moment you set eyes on them, much like an ex-convict who is taken to a burlesque show does...well, you know what I mean.  They must immediately come to mind every time you think of biscuits, see biscuits, or see pictures of plantation owners in white hats.  Anything else just will not cut it.

Now that I have hopefully peaked your curiosity, I am going to tell you how to make these wonderful pillows of gravy sopping ecstasy.  Read on.

Lets start with the ingredient list.  For a dozen biscuits, about the width of the rim of a drinking glass, you will need the following ingredients:

Perfect Biscuits
Yield: 12 Biscuits


2 cups  Unbleached All-Purpose Flour (I like King Arthur, available at Trader Joe’s) or 50/50 All-Purpose and Whole Wheat Flour
1 Tablespoon  Baking Powder
½ teaspoon  Baking Soda
1 Tablespoon  Granulated Sugar
1 teaspoon  Salt (I do not use iodized salt)
2 Tablespoon  Unsalted Butter (chilled and cubed)
2 Tablespoons  Lard or Bacon Fat (chilled and cubed)
1½ cup  Buttermilk (chilled)

Let me discuss the ingredients for a moment.  I use Unbleached Flour because bleaching flour changes both the taste and texture of the flour, and since biscuits are little more than fat and flour we want to retain as much character as we can.  You can also use a 50/50 blend of whole wheat and white flour if you want a slightly wheaten biscuit. You will need some extra flour for the biscuit preparation surface as well.

I do not use iodized salt because I can taste the iodine, and it is not pleasant.  I like using plain sea salt.

Then there is the fat.  Some of you may decide to use margarine and shortening instead of Butter and Lard or Bacon Fat (Bacon Fat and Lard are essentially the same thing).  Do not do it !!!  Butter and Lard not only contribute fantastic flavor to the biscuits, but the texture is completely different.  Both Butter and Lard melt at body temperature, giving you that melt in the mouth feeling you simply love.  Margarine and shortening, on the other hand, do not fully melt at mouth temperatures.  They essentially soften and coat the mouth with a film of fat.  Side by side, you can immediately tell the difference.  For the health conscious out there, remember that Butter and Lard or Bacon Fat are natural products, and margarine/shortening are not.  There was a time when we all believed manmade fat products were better for us, and science has now decided they are not.  I am a firm believer that, in moderation, we are better off eating fats that God has given us.

But I digress...we are trying to make PERFECT BISCUITS, and for that you need Butter and what the hog has given us.  Now that we have that clarified all that, lets move on to the steps:

1. Preheat oven to 500° F  and set oven rack to the center of the oven.

2. Combine dry ingredients in a food processor and pulse to blend.  Add chilled Butter and Lard and pulse until the the mixture looks pebbly (do not over mix).
Dry Ingredients With Butter and Lard in Food Processor
Pulsed Mixture
3. Remove from the food processor and put this mixture in a bowl and gently stir in the Buttermilk (I use a fork) until just incorporated.  The dough will be very wet and sticky at this point.
4. Turn onto a generously floured board and generously flour the top, and fold over, flour, pat, fold, flour until workable but still a little tacky.  This should take about 5 folds.  Try not to add too much flour, as that will toughen the biscuits, and do not knead the dough, which would also toughen the biscuits.  Simply fold and pat out flat.  The final pat before cutting should leave your biscuit dough about 1/3 inch to 1/2 inch thick.
Wet Biscuit Dough On Floured Board 
Flattened Biscuit Dough 
Folded Biscuit Dough
5. Cut biscuits using a floured biscuit cutter or the floured rim of a drinking glass and put them on a baking pan prepared with a baking sheet or lightly greased or sprayed with nonstick coating, with the sides just kissing each other.
Cutting Biscuits 
Panned Biscuits
6. Put them in the oven, close the oven door, and turn the temperature down to 450° F.  Bake for 10-12 minutes.  If you have a convection oven, use the convection fan and cut the baking time down to 9-11 minutes.  The circulating air will create a taller and more evenly baked biscuit.  The tops of your biscuits should be a lovely brown, and the sides will be considerably lighter.   Remove these from the oven and serve them immediately.




Biscuit making is as much technique as it is ingredients, so let me give you some valuable pointers.  Make sure the initial oven temperature is fully at 500 degrees Fahrenheit.  You need the initial heat blast to get the gases moving the biscuits up before the dough cooks, otherwise you will end up with a dense biscuit which will resemble a hockey puck in taste and texture.  Make sure your fat and Buttermilk are as cold as possible for as long as possible.  You do not want the fat to become fully homogeneous with the dough.  Rather, you want a suspension of small fat particles dispersed throughout the dough, which will create flakes and pockets of lightness when the biscuits bake.  You want to avoid creating as much gluten as possible with biscuits.  Gluten is the protein part of the flour which, when combined with water and physically worked, creates that unique stretchiness found in bread doughs.  With a bread dough, you want gluten because you need to trap as much CO2 from the yeast as possible for as long as possible as you condition the dough (that is what you do when you let it rest and rise).  The yeast based conditioning and gluten give yeast breads the wonderful chewy texture we love about bread.  Biscuits do not go through any conditioning.  Once the Baking Powder and Baking Soda have release their gases, it is over.  We do not want chewiness in our biscuits.  We want enough firmness to bite through, and then we want them to melt away on our palates.   Once I have added the Buttermilk to the dry mix, I mix only to combine, and then I like to dump this mixture onto a generously floured (you want a solid 1/4 inch layer of flour on the surface) flexible plastic cutting board.  I then generously flour the top of the dough and pat it flat, and use the flexible cutting board to help me fold the dough.  Each fold gets as little flour added to it, which helps create a layered effect in the biscuits.  Once I have cut my biscuits (cut them as close to each other as you can) I gently reform the scraps and flatten the dough out again (avoid using flour at this point) and cut some additional biscuits.  Re-forming the dough once is okay if you initially do not overwork the dough.  Re-forming too many times will make the biscuits from the re-formed dough tough.

Some recipes call for brushing the tops of biscuits with molten fat before baking.  You can do this if you wish, but I do not.  You can, if you wish, add additional ingredients to your biscuit dough.  My favorite add-in is cheese and green onions (biscuits pictured above).  Chop 2 green onions (scallions) and 2 leaves of fresh sage or any other herb you like (optional) and add this to the initial dry mix along with 1/3 to 1/2 cup shredded cheese.  Prepare as above.  These are especially delicious served with baked ham or sausage gravy.

Green Onion and Sage Biscuits
Sausage Gravy
Yield: 1 1/2 cups
Note: This can be frozen and then reheated.


8 oz.  Breakfast Sausage (bulk, not links)
1/2 (approximately 1/4 cup)  Chopped Onion
1/2 teaspoon  Freshly Ground Pepper
Pinch of Garlic Powder
1 leaf  Fresh Sage (chopped) or 1/2 teaspoon Dried Sage
4 teaspoons  Flour
1 1/4 cups  Milk
Salt to taste

  1. Brown the Sausage in a small saucepan while breaking it up as it cooks
  2. Add the Onion, Pepper, Garlic Powder, and Sage and cook until the Onions are lightly browned.  DO NOT drain off the fat.
  3. Add the Flour and cook until the Flour is absorbed.
  4. Add the Milk and stir over medium heat until the mixture thickens and boils.  If it is too thick, add a little more Milk.
  5. Serve immediately over fresh biscuits, or as a side gravy with breakfast items.
Once you have made your own Perfect Biscuits, you will want to do it again and again, and you will get better at it the more you practice.



Enjoy in good health !



Sunday, July 8, 2012

I Make The Best Pie Crust...There, I Said It!




Originally Posted January 17, 2009

Pie Crust is as American as Pie Crust.  Sure, we have all had those fancy, smancy French tarts that require you to contort your face and clear your throats to properly pronounce.  We have all enjoyed all the bizarre variations that have appeared over the years.  Whole wheat, freeform, schmeeform...it is all a load of mullarky ! Thats right !  I SAID MULLARKY !!!  DO SOMETHING !!!

Phew...I have got to go back to half-caf coffee !!!  Now where was I ?  Pie Crust, yes, PIE CRUST !!! Happy thoughts, yes, happy thoughts.

I make the best pie crust, and so shall you.  Yes you shall !

Okay, so what do I know about Pie Crust ?  I know that some of it is really bad, and perhaps you have had some bad pie crust.  You know the kind I mean.  Soggy on the bottom.  Hard, tough, chewy.  Name your poison here.  I also know that some of it is great.  That is the kind usually made by a toothless grandma in a log cabin smoking a corncob pipe.  Yup !  Granny could whip up a pie crust and castrate a wild boar without breaking a sweat.

Not my Granny, however.  Not my Mother, Cousins, Brothers, Uncles, Aunts, or any of their cooking friends.  Not most of the people I had ever met.  Where did they fail ?  Why no Pie Crust joy for me and my brood ?

I will tell you why...shortening and margarine is why.

Back in the day, when most of America was farmland, the reigning kings of the fat kingdom were lard and butter.  Good old pig fat and cow fat.  They still rule, but it took years of clogged arteries to bring them back.  Clogged arteries and deplorable pie crust, that is.

You see, dear reader, the general consensus when I was growing up was that margarine and hydrogenated vegetable shortening were healthy.  Yes, we all knew that the lard and butter tasted better, but it was surely going to kill us if we even thought of eating it.  Butter was eaten only on special occasions, and lard was treated with the same disdain as Agent Orange.

Then we all discovered that margarine and vegetable shortening were bad for us.  Go figure !  Something made by scientists and marketed by large corporations is bad for us.

We are a lot better about all this today.  Butter is back on top.  I am sure Dr. Atkins was at least partially responsible for this.  I owe him a debt of gratitude, even if he died with clogged arteries.  I just wanted more butter.

Lard, on the other hand, is still the proverbial weird uncle you do not want to be alone with.  It is still seen as the root of all animal fat evil.  Sure, we will eat it in the guise of smoked pork belly (aka bacon), but never as LARD.  What would the neighbors think ?

Truly, this is a shame, since you CANNOT make a perfect pie crust without butter and lard.  So go get some right now.

Butter is great because it is butter.  No need to explain.  Lard, on the other hand, is nothing short of miraculous in pie crust.  Lard is the secret.

One reason lard is so great is because it tastes better than shortening, which tastes like a cross between Vaseline and plastic.  Lard tastes good.  It also melts at a lower temperature than shortening does.  In fact, like butter, the other great animal fat, it melts on the tongue, at body temperature.  Shortening does not.  This means that shortening users never get to experience that crumble then melt in the mouth texture we get from using lard.  It may be light, and it may be flaky, but it will not melt in your mouth.

Some recipes call for oil.  This does melt in the mouth, but cannot make a flaky crust.  Flaky means crumbly and tender, and that is a good thing in a pie crust.  But how do we get these flakes ?  What is the secret to flaky pie crust ?  The answer lies in the mixing technique.

Mixing pie crust is actually very easy.  It is, in fact, easy as pie.  Thus the phrase.

Having the right ingredients is part of the equation.  The other part is how you put this all together, and this is where many fail.  Before we move onward, lets gather some ingredients.  For 2 crusts you will need the following:

Butter And Lard Pie Crust

3 cups  All-Purpose Flour
1½ teaspoon  Salt
3 Tablespoons  Granulated Sugar
------------
¾ cup (6 ozs. or 1½ stick)  Unsalted Butter , chilled and cubed
¾ cup (6 ozs.)  Lard, chilled and cubed
------------
4-5 Tbs. (~1/3 c.)  Iced Water

This crust is based on one I found elsewhere, except the original did not use lard.  Try making 2 pies, one with lard and the other with shortening.  You’ll notice the difference then, and will henceforth be a lover of lard.

The best way I have found to make a perfect pie crust is with a food processor.  Put the dry ingredients in the bowl and mix well.  Add the chunks of chilled butter and lard on top and pulse the food processor until it looks like coarse meal.  Do not overmix this, and make sure the fats are cold !  Dump this into another bowl.  It should still have large chunks of fat in it, ranging in size from the size of a pea to the size of shelled walnuts.  Add the water and mix it with a fork until it comes together.

 
Stir with a fork until it gathers together.  It should still be crumbly.










Divide this in two and dump it onto a piece of waxed or parchment paper (or plastic wrap) and flatten it to a disk, about 4-6 inches in diameter.


Divide into two piles, and dump each onto some parchment or waxed paper (or plastic wrap)










Gather the pile together gently with your hands.  DO NOT KNEAD THE DOUGH !











Wrap the dough in the parchment, waxed paper, or plastic wrap and flatten it.  Chill in the refrigerator, or freeze for later use.











Cover the disks well and let them chill until very cold.  The dough should not be wet at all.  In fact, it should be somewhat dry and crumbly and difficult to work with at this point.  As it cools in the refrigerator, the flour will absorb the water, and solidify.  You do not want to knead this at all.  Kneading this will form gluten, which is the enemy of pie crust.  Gluten makes a pie crust very tough.

You can also freeze these disks of pie crust for a very long time.  I am not really sure how long, but I know I have gone a year (hey, it got buried in the freezer) and the crust was perfectly fine.  Just make sure it is tightly wrapped.

Once your crust is very cold, it is time to roll.  Flour your work surface and take out the crust.  Place it on the flour and roll it gently from the center outward.  Roll it a bit larger than the pie tin you will be using.  If you made this correctly, you will see the chunks of fat in the dough, and as you roll the dough these will flatten, and THAT IS WHAT MAKES THE FLAKES.  You cannot do this with oil.  Nope !

Gently press this into your pie tin, and proceed with your pie of choice.  If you want to bake this “blind” (empty),  chill the finished crust in the pie tin and then poke holes in the bottom with a fork.  Place some baking parchment paper or foil inside the crust and add some beens or rice to weigh down the crust. Bake this at 375 degrees Fahrenheit for approximately 15 minutes.  Let the crust cool and remove the beans or rice.  Bake the crust again for another 10 minutes, or until a nice golden brown.  If you bake the crust without the beans or rice in it, the crust may shrink while it bakes.  If you bake the crust completely with the beans or rice in it, then the inside of the crust will not bake.

Remember, when baking a pie where the filling is cooked in the crust, set the oven rack low and start with a high temperature (around 400 Fahrenheit) and then turn the temperature down after about 10-15 minutes.  This will assure the bottom crust does not end up raw and soggy.  A metal pie pan is better than glass for insuring a properly cooked crust.  Glass pie pans take too long to transfer heat to the crust, and the pie top sometimes gets overdone while the bottom crust stays raw.  Glass pie pans are okay for baking blind crusts, because you can just bake it longer to get it done.  Foil pie pans are great, but do not look as nice.  I like to flip my pies out of the foil for serving, and the foil pans can be washed and reused.  Hey !  Every penny counts these days.

A blind baked crust can be filled with pastry cream and bananas for a delicious banana cream pie...one of my personal favorites.



This, my dear friends, is what a good pie crust is all about.

Enjoy in good health !

Alice Waters and Chez Panisse




Originally Posted on Friday, February 20, 2009

I am currently reading and enjoying a book written by Nassim Taleb titled “The Black Swan - The Impact Of The Highly Improbable”.  It is truly a fascinating book, and I highly suggest everyone reads this fabulous tome.  In this book, Taleb speaks of events which happen all the time that have an enormous impact on the world we live in.  Some of the outcomes of these events are absolutely horrible (i.e. the world trade center 911 attack), and some of them are absolutely wonderful (i.e. the discovery of penicillin).  We really have no way of quantitatively knowing when these “black swans” will emerge.  They just happen, and they happen all the time.  All we can do is hope that when they do emerge, we are prepared for them, and, if not, hope they are one of the good black swans.

Chez Panisse, that wonderful little restaurant in the heart of the “Gourmet Ghetto” in Berkeley, California is one of those wonderful black swans.  No doubt about it.  Nobody could have ever have imagined that this little gem would rise out of its roots as a sort of food lover's co-op Alice Waters started as a young food lover in Berkeley, hoping to feed her friends and family the best food she could get her hands on.  Nobody could have imagined that she would give rise to a trend in cooking which continues on to this very day, and has forever changed the world of cooking, as we know it, for the better.

God Bless You, Alice Waters !  God Bless You and all your granola loving Berkeleyian friends.  You are truly my modern day culinary superhero.

Let me explain, oh dear reader, why I worship what Alice has done so much.  Let me fill you in.

Brace yourself, this is a long story.

We have to begin with my initial foray into the world of professional cuisine.  It all began in the mid 1980’s when I was hired as a busboy at York Steak House, in the Great Lakes Mall in Mentor, Ohio.  I was 17 at the time, and I had been cooking for myself and my family for approximately 10 years.  The fascination with all things gastronomic began at an early age for me, being the child of a Sicilian Mother and Iranian Father, who both came from families who can cook food so delicious you would drool just thinking about supper.  I am not sure how old I was before I realized that bread also came from a store, or that yogurt also came in little cups with fruit concoctions cleverly nestled in the bottom.  Everything was essentially made in house, just like I still do it today.  It was a wonderful way to learn how to appreciate food, and it made me love culinary arts with a passion.

Although I started as a mere busboy at York Steak House, I embraced the duty with fervor.  I remember being told that, as a busboy, always make sure that you are paying attention to the needs of the guests.  If I noticed that a guest had an empty soda glass (or pop glass as we called it in Ohio), I got him a refill.  If I passed by a guest and our eyes met, I asked her if I could get her anything else.  I did this with passion and with a smile, for they were my guests, and they had come to MY establishment to dine on MY food.  It did not matter that I did not prepare it.  I treated them as if they honored me with their presence.

Yet, it was not really about the guest, as much as it was about the food.  I did not care that they were eating sirloin tips that had been ordered at one end of a line and served to them a minute later a the other end of the line, along with a small dish of chocolate pudding topped with canned whipped cream, a Maraschino cherry, and plastic wrap.  It did not matter to me that they were drinking Lite beer from bottles.  What mattered is that they were there to partake of one of the most spiritually fulfilling activities we all partake of on a (hopefully) daily basis.  They had come to pay their respects to food, and food is worthy of our respect, oh indeed it is !

Food is life.  Food begins as life (plants and animals), and we take the life away and we then use the food to nourish ourselves, perpetuating more life.  Ancient religions the world over talk of the sacrificing of animals and the consequential feeding of the masses from their flesh.  Legends have been passed down through the ages which proclaim the beneficial healing and rejuvenating powers of plant life, and these same legends have prevented scores of progeny from untimely deaths through the consumption of toxic substances which took the lives of their ancestors.  Without food, we would have perished long ago.  Without the interaction of mankind with food, our demise would have been just as certain.  It is a powerful force worthy of the utmost respect, and I inherently understood this at a very early age.

This was not the case with so many I worked with at York Steak House.  It is not the case with so many I encounter in some of the less lofty eating establishments we have littered our world with.  Some view the production and serving of food, and the management of the shrines in which the food is meant to be revered in, as nothing more than a paycheck.  My dear reader, the reverential treatment of the life giving sustenance is no less appropriate in a fast food chain than it is in the finest 5-Star dining establishment.  The food in the local greasy spoon is no less life sustaining than the food in your mother’s kitchen.  I shudder at the way some places treat this most noble of gifts, and I weep inside every time I see such sacrilege.  I was not at York Steak House because I was a busboy.  Being a busboy was only my vocation.  My PURPOSE was to create the environment which would lead to the nutritionally spiritual enlightenment one receives from food, and the management saw that in me, and they quickly promoted me to the coveted position of “Broiler Chef”, the most revered position of all.

I cooked my heart out on that broiler line.  I was making something that someone else was going to eat, and I knew that was no small matter.  I went home each evening smelling of fryer grease, beef fat, and sweat, and went back every day I was scheduled for more of the same.  It was heaven to me, and it terrified my parents.

I went on to become a line chef at a local supper club (Nate’s), where I learned how to cook food like they showed on those fancy cooking shows.  Back then there was no Food Network with 24 hour a day, 7 day a week cooking.  No...you had to FIND a cooking show on TV back then.  You would occasionally see Julia Child slurring her speech as she sauteed slices of milk fed veal with mushrooms and wine.  You could sometimes see Graham Kerr slurring his speech as he proclaimed the virtues of slowly cooked scrambled eggs.  There was a lot of alcoholism among celebrity chefs back then, but also a lot of great cooking, and I wanted more...much more.

I made it through the summer after my senior year in High School sautéing shrimp scampi for clubgoers at the supper club, and learning how to make Hollandaise sauce without curdling the eggs.  I laugh now thinking about how difficult it was to learn this tricky sauce, because I now make it as effortlessly as some people open a can of soup.  Patience and passion paid off.

I was going to attend College at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio in the fall.  My parents made sure that my aspirations of culinary greatness did not interfere with their plans to see me become a medical doctor.  My father, as it turns out, had a doctor fetish.  It was beyond weird.  He literally knew more doctors than most medical professionals do, and he was an engineer.  From the earliest age I can recall, he made sure to let me know that I was going to be a doctor.  I realized, in my adulthood, that this was because it was his ticket into the inner sanctum of doctors.  You could get into the “VIP Lounge” by either being a doctor, or having offspring who were doctors.  Except for his incessant hypochondria I really had no understanding about why he was so fascinated by those who wore the Caduceus Symbol. Suffice it to say, his mind was made up.  His eldest son was going to become a doctor.

I really had no problem with this.  I liked fixing things.  I liked taking care of people.  I heard doctors made lots of money, and that certainly sat well with me at the time.  I embraced my new digs at Case, and looked forward to years of long, hard studying as I aspired to become a brain surgeon, or neurosurgeon, or whatever else could bring in the big bucks.  I was going to be rich and make my family proud.

Yeeeeah...not so much.

You see, dear reader, my college campus happened to have a fine dining establishment right in the middle of campus, about 500 feet from my dorm.  The restaurant was known as “That Place On Bellflower”, which was located on Bellflower Road (hence the quirky name), and I passed by it every day on my way to classes, and I savored the aroma of shallots, mushrooms, herbs, and whatever else was on the menu that day as I pictured myself among the staff, cooking for the cheerful masses.  It was a well loved culinary shrine at the time, spoken of in the most prestigious local culinary publications.  It was a “mecca” of Haute Cuisine fused with the newly popular surge in California Cuisine, brought to the world by none other than the originator of California Cuisine herself - Alice Louise Waters.

I was on a work-study program at the time. I got to clean lots of glassware for a lab located within the very fine medical school at Case.  The lab itself was quite fascinating, as they were cloning ducks at the time, if I recall correctly.

“Mmmmm...ducks”  I thought, as I washed and autoclaved Pyrex beakers, flasks, and pipettes for what seemed like an eternity, picturing a crispy roast duck skin glazed with a delicate fruity sauce.  It was Hell, but it paid me enough money to prevent me from begging my parents for cash.

Then came the bad news one day, as I walked in to collect a batch of slimy glassware.  I was told that I had earned the maximum amount of money I could earn and still qualify for my grants.  I was jobless and penniless, and the weekend was only 5 days away.  I had to act fast, because there was no way I was going to go home and beg for money.  As I walked home from my former place of employment, I caught yet another scent emanating from our local 4 star eating establishment (yes, I mean “That Place on Bellflower” or “That Place” as the employees called it), and decided to walk in and ask for a job application.  What did I have to lose ?

As it turned out, one of the prep cooks had recently quit...my dear friend Alex.  In fact, I remembered him telling me he had quit his job there.  The position had not yet been filled, and my brief experience at the supper club was enough to land me a job as a prep cook.  I was elated beyond belief.  I was going to earn money while cooking AND eating great food.  Oh the joy !

It was a wild ride from the very beginning.  I was playing with the big boys (and girls) now.  I thought that my experience in the supper club back in Mentor was the big leagues, but THIS was light years ahead of that.  I was surrounded by people who spoke several different languages, gay waiters, artists, entertainers, you name it.  Hey, I know it is no big deal to many of you, but I was an 18 year old kid just out of High School and living in “The City”.  I was NOT used to this at all, and I was absolutely fascinated by the entire experience.  Most fascinating of all, however, was the menu.  It was, in a word, eclectic.

I have cooked menu menus in my years as a chef, but I remember none more vividly as the first menu I was exposed to at “That Place”.  I will never forget seeing dishes like “Smoked Trout and Cold Pasta with Fresh Greens in a Mustard Vinaigrette”, and “Chilled Whole Artichoke with Black Currant and Grapeseed Oil” ,  and “Sauteed Buffalo Mozzarella with Fresh Herb Salad”, which was finished with a mysterious black liquid they called Balsamic Vinegar.  Sure, you may chuckle at these dishes today, as they are commonplace fare in many establishments you may frequent (or have frequented), but in 1984, IN OHIO this food was WAY ahead of its time.  It was like landing on an alien planet, with delicious food served by strange creatures with lisps, out of place piercings, and multi-colored hair.  I had graduated to another level of Heaven, and I did not want to leave.

I had a voracious appetite for learning, and the executive chef, Bernard, who had recently been chosen as the PM Magazine Chef (a local favorite TV show), was happy to share all he knew, and boy did he know a lot !  I was assigned mundane and messy tasks like cleaning pounds of monkfish, or shucking oysters, or making gallons of salad dressings.  If I got my job done quickly, Bernard would take me aside and show me how to make a walnut torte with coffee buttercream frosting, or a dacquoise with whipped cream and tart Michigan cherries, or raspberry sorbet, or whatever else he was inspired to create.  Soon he started letting me come up with ideas of my own, and he helped me bring them to fruition.  He was one great chef...yes he was.  I loved good old “Barney” as we affectionately called him.

One evening, as I was enjoying a nice glass of Haute Medoc with Barney, at the end of a particularly long service, he handed me a book and told me to read it.  “What is it, a cookbook ?” I inquired.

“Not exactly” he replied. “More like an inspirational guide for great chefs”.  The book was “Chez Panisse Cooking”, by Alice Waters and Paul Bertolli.

“Strange title for a book”, I thought.  “Sounds Chinese”.

I took it home and read it from cover to cover in one evening.  I awoke the next morning and knew I was destined to break my father’s heart.  I had to understand cooking like Alice understood it before I could consider moving on to something else.

Alice is the reason American Cuisine and American Chefs are now revered here and throughout the entire world of cooking.  Before Alice began her quest to find the essence of what made California Cuisine the crown jewel of American Cookery for decades to come, American cooking was little more than a reflection of the melting pot America had risen from.  Traditional California Cuisine was little more than the traditional foods prepared by Mexican farm workers, Chinese laborers, and rugged cowboys who had shlepped their way West in search of their fortunes in lodes of gold.  Mind you, it was, and still is tasty AND popular.  Who doesn’t enjoy a tortilla topped with beans and grilled meats infused with cumin and chile, with a sprinkling of cheese ?  I smile as I walk down the street of San Francisco and peer in at the restaurants in Chinatown, watching serious looking Asian men and women tossing vegetables and meats in large woks sizzling over hot flames, as I drink in all the wonderfully hypnotic aromas of this most ancient of cuisines.  I still enjoy a fat, juicy burger accompanied by a side of fries and a thick chocolate malt, born of the obsession early California had (and STILL has) with burger joints.  It is all quite delicious, and NONE of it is a reflection of what California is about.  You could take any of those establishments and drop them anywhere you like, and it would not make one iota of difference at all.  This all changed when Alice entered the building.

Alice ventured to France in the 1960’s and fell in love with the French passion for food.  Inspired by a meal she enjoyed in Brittany, she decided to bring it all home to Berkeley.  Here is a quote attributed to Alice:

I've remembered this dinner a thousand times,” she says. “The chef, a woman, announced the menu: cured ham and melon, trout with almonds, and raspberry tart. The trout had just come from the stream and the raspberries from the garden. It was this immediacy that made those dishes so special.

Alice was not studying to be a chef, but the seductiveness of the fresh local ingredients and simple yet delicious cooking techniques sucked her in like a jet engine sucks in migrating birds, and she was forever changed by the experience.  I KNOW how she felt quite well...indeed I do.  When she returned home to Berkeley she set out to show everyone the way cooking should be.  She gathered together her team of food loving friends and set out to show the world what California Cuisine was truly meant to be.  Gathering the freshest and finest local ingredients, creating menus based on what the FOOD told her to create.  Alice was not the first person in California to cook this way, but she was the first person that burned with the passion to the extent that she could not be stopped, much like a nuclear chain reaction.  Her vision and undeniable dedication to the gifts of the Earth fueled a growth in the food industry like no other before it, and perhaps since.  SHE was the one who made organic farming the pinnacle of food production it is today, by supporting those dedicated to the art.  SHE was the one who gave dishes their pedigree, such as “Frog Hollow Farms Peach Tart” and “Brentwood Corn Chowder” (I am paraphrasing a bit here).  Before that, food descriptions on menus generally consisted of names attributed to people or dining establishments (i.e. “Veal Oscar” or “Waldorf Salad”), and did not attribute anything to the place the FOOD itself came from.  It simply honored the shrine and preparer, and not the soul itself.

Alice Waters and Chez Panisse were indeed the Black Swan of the culinary world that changed all we know and love about food today.  She inspired MILLIONS of Americans to look at their local food in a completely different way, and gave rise to American Cuisine as a tremendous force to be reckoned with throughout the entire world.  She, quite literally, changed the entire course of American Cooking from the tiny little restaurant on Shattuck Street in Berkeley, and the industry is STILL building on the same exact method she (and those she influenced) introduced.

For me to simply write a review of a meal at Chez Panisse would not come close to doing it justice.  It is like writing a review of a Roman Cathedral, or the Uffizi art museum in Florence, Italy.  What could you say in a review that would even come close to explaining the significance of such institutions ?

Alice Waters is still with us today, as of this posting, and spends most of her time as more of an ambassador to the world of cuisine than as a chef.  She has done more than enough to influence so many in the world of cooking, and she can now sit back and ponder her magnificent achievements.  The world of food is a much better place because of the love she brought to it.

Is it any wonder I gush about her ?

Enjoy in good health !