From the Good Cafe
In my corner grocery store late one night, I found myself agonizing over a tomato. It wasn't organic, I knew, and it sure wasn't local. I bought it anyway, but my conscience twinged all the way home.
I don't normally have these problems when buying produce, but I'd just read the Chez Panisse Café Cookbook, Alice Waters's latest—written with the ''Cooks of Chez Panisse'' (particularly David Tanis and former maître d' and cook Fritz Streiff)—and her irresistible idealism had had its effect. For close to thirty years, through her landmark Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California, and through six earlier books she's either authored or coauthored, Waters's philosophy has never wavered: If you buy fresh, preferably organic ingredients from local suppliers whose growing methods are ecologically sound, you'll not only get more flavorful food but will also be doing the earth a favor.
In 1980, with throngs of people unable to get into the restaurant, Waters turned the lower level into a more formal place with a set-price menu and opened the Café upstairs as a bistro, with an improvisational spirit guiding it. This cookbook, a compilation of recipes from several generations of Café cooks, is very beautiful, with gracefully rustic woodcut-style illustrations by David Lance Goines, a longtime customer at Chez Panisse. But it probably won't stay pristine for long: The recipes sounded so appealing to me that within hours of bringing it home, I had it propped on the kitchen counter, spattered with pomegranate juice and olive oil.
As a recipe writer, Waters's voice is both vivid and warm. ''Roughly chop the egg,'' she writes in her recipe for cold beef-tongue salad, ''and strew it over everything''—just the kind of language that makes me want to start cooking. And the range of recipes is amazing. Waters tells us how to make the simplest food—those hard-boiled eggs, for instance—and then, a few chapters later, gives us headcheese. The remarkable thing is that she points out the hidden challenges of doing the easy stuff right, and makes the complex stuff sound gleefully easy: Of that headcheese, she writes, ''Thinly slice the ears and snout—you may encounter some cartilage that is too tough to eat, but it is nice to have a little crunch.'' Making salmon caviar sounds enticingly straightforward, too. Essentially, you rinse the egg sack in hot water and soak it in brine, skimming off the bits of sack. Curing an entire foie gras for a salad (see recipe) intimidated me at first, but was merely a matter of burying it in lots of kosher salt for three days, to delicious effect.
Even the more straightforward recipes are intriguing, either because of an ingenious cooking method or because the flavors marry perfectly. Baked salmon, for instance, stays moist because it cooks at a very low temperature over a pan of water. And the warm lamb salad with greens, pomegranate seeds, and toasted walnuts tasted wonderful, and was so pretty that my dinner guests all said ''ooh'' when I brought it out.
Waters can be demanding, though. In a recipe for wild nettle frittata, she encourages readers to ''forage in the wild'' (I might, if I only knew what a nettle looked like), and later blithely observes that while you could cook an entire small pig in your home oven, with ''a little effort and ingenuity you can construct a workable outdoor spit from a few pieces of wood tied together to form tripods and a rod.'' (No instructions follow.) Some readers will, no doubt, revel in these challenges, but I'm happier sticking to a clearly marked path.
Waters devotes a large chunk of her book to paying tribute to her favorite farmers, foragers, and fishermen. There's Bob Cannard in the Sonoma Valley—''a fanatical biodynamic farmer'' who plants his carrots in weeds to shelter them from sun, wind, and marauding insects. There's Nancy Warner and her family, near Stockton, who have actually slept with their chickens to keep away wolves and dogs. And then there's Paul Atkinson, up in Oregon, whose pigs frolic in pastureland and slurp up milk and hazelnuts.
The word friend appears constantly in these pages. Friends designed and built the Café; friends cook and wait tables, supply the food, and come to eat. Waters warmly urges her readers to join the collective, too—''a community of friends, lovers, and relatives that spans generations and is in tune with the seasons, the land, and human appetites.'' At times, though, such purity of purpose can seem a bit insistent, as when Waters asserts, ''Our ultimate goal is to use cattle that are raised with organically grown feed. Ask your local butcher or supermarket to give you the same kind of choice.'' And when she describes good nights at the Café, they're great not just because ''the place is really humming and smells of fresh garlic,'' but because ''the customers are 'getting it.''' Can't they just enjoy the food—especially when it tastes so good?