Wednesday, March 10, 2010

"Did You Learn How To Eat Yet?" Part 1

As a self-confessed food explorer I often reflect on just how it all began. Maybe it was those sub zero upstate New York mornings when my mother would wake me for school. As my eyelids slowly found their way open she immediately inquired, “What would you like for dinner?” Thoughts of the decided upon Italian delicacy warmed my cold day; I used my minds palate to tune in and taste this dish several times throughout my day.

We were far from a wealthy family, yet we regularly purchased the best quality of foods that were available. Having dinner together every night and discussing the finer points of what we were consuming was a ritual. As a child Saturday’s were usually devoted to our weekly food hunt. My father would often wake me at the crack of dawn to accompany him on our journey to the public market. The local public market was a greenmarket, open to chefs and the public as well. Farmers proud of what they displayed, yelled loud descriptions of their wares, from local cheeses, to a colorful variety of fruits and vegetables, a real feast for the eyes and ears. There was an immense level of enthusiasm in the air and that feeling had a lasting effect on the way I think of food until this day.

After the market we moved on to the Italian Specialty store for the weeks supplies then on to the German market for meats, as they had the best quality and most knowledgeable butcher in town. Next up came a variety of bakeries, where we would add to our food excursion, warm crusty Italian bread, freshly made Italian pastries, deli style dark baked seeded corn rye, and with my encouragement, a Black Forest cake. The cake was a delightful combination of rich chocolate, layered with custard cream, liquor soaked cherries topped with whipped cream and chocolate shavings.

When we returned to our home base the arguments between my Mom and Dad ensued due to my father’s over purchasing. Relatives were enlisted to aid in the distribution of the abundance of purchases. My Mom made packages for each one of them. This event added more color to my day as they all gossiped over Anisette and espresso about each other. My Mom would demand to know what they intended to make with their package as they gave her their recipes and anxiously awaited her nod of approval. My Mom was a recognized advanced cook and in today’s world would have been one of its culinary stars. I used to watch her at work in the kitchen and ask constant questions that never tested her patience. As a child food often interfered with my rest and hygiene routine, for example preparations for Christmas Eve began the previous day when sheets were laid over beds, tables and furniture, topped with freshly made pasta drying, and the bathtub was filled with Baccala {dried codfish} desalting in water. The activity level at Christmas would increase by the minute, along with the excitement. There was a constant flow of people bringing over their contribution for Mom to cook for the anticipated feast, which always exceeded expectations.

My Family had an unspoken philosophy that nowhere was too far to travel or out of reach when it came to obtaining seasonal delights. Every year when the moment presented itself my dad would go to Maryland, accompanied by an equally adventurous friend to secure bushels of cooked, seasoned, Chesapeake Bay Crabs that filled our refrigerator. There were trips to Connecticut where relatives made homemade spicy sopressata salami that took up most of the backseat of the car on the ride home.
One can certainly say that this was an auspicious culinary beginning for the development of any young palate. By the time I was 10 years old I was anxious to apply my accumulated knowledge. I had skipped school and in an attempt to lessen the anticipated punishment, I thought it would be a good time to test my ability and cook a dinner for my working Mom and Dad. So it began.

Berkeley CA – In the beginning of the 70’S I began to prepare for a move to Berkeley CA by weaning myself away from the importance of all good foods that I had grown accustomed to, on top of that I was now a vegetarian. I thought that I would be entering a culinary wasteland; instead I found the beginnings of a food revolution, and a complete explosion of experimentation and innovation that lead to a new way America looked at food. It seems The Bay Area took to opening its collective minds and exploring foods in the same way as it did to hallucinogenics in the sixties.
My new home added much to the way that I approached cooking and eating; it was another level of discovery. The finest freash ingredients were available for any amateur cook to use in their kitchens. Many establishments served as a place of education, like The Cheese Board in Walnut Square where cheeses from all over the world could be found. The knowledgeable owner and staff would encourage you to taste, recommend cheese choices, and then volunteer background information on the history of each one.
It was the start of what has become known as the Alice Waters movement that began when she opened the acclaimed and iconic Chez Panisse restaurant on Shattuck Ave in Berkeley. Her purveyors were local cheese makers and farmers who cultivated the restaurants specific requests.
Going to a green market daily and creating a dish based on what’s available is nothing new in Italy or France for the chef and the home cook alike. In America at the time, shamefully even in California, where climate was waiting for chefs to catch on, we still seemed to not yet get it. Shelf life concerns and processing still ruled the day.
Alice Waters brought a new kind of “Grow Your Own,” to the Bay Area, which ignited the imaginations of chefs all over the U.S. I used to walk down the hill from my Berkeley home, tie up my dog outside and try exciting new worlds of foods that Alice served up, like young garlic soup.

I also made good friends of The Crotti family at Tommasso’s restaurant of North Beach in San Francisco. Tommasso’s was a who’s who of the culinary world; it was a Mecca for Alice, Julia Child, Wolfgang Puck and more. The reason for its fame was Tommasso’s had the first wood burning pizza oven in the U.S since 1935, he was a consultant for Alice, Wolfgang and any one else that wanted to serve up wood burning delights. The Crotti’s brought a little bit of Italy to San Francisco by using their oak wood oven for more than delicious pizzas. They would wrap the freshest fish that they could possibly acquire, like sea bass wrapped in herbs and cook it near the burning pile of wood, also clams, veal, even eggplant parm would become something special when baked in their oven. Each bite brought a smile to the diner as the smoky miracle exposed itself.

In nearby Oakland there was an Italian store that made pesto. It was the first time I ever tasted this perfect combination of fresh basil, toasted pine nuts, that were all ground together with a stream of ligurian olive oil, imported Romano and Parmesan cheeses. Italians from Genoa had settled in the Bay Area in groves after arriving in New York’s Ellis Island, because unlike their southern Italian brethren they had the extra $100 it took to go west. These natives from Genoa introduced pesto to the Bay Area when the rest of the country did not even know of its existence. They also were the only ones who had access to ligurian oil indigenous from the region of pesto’s birth that made it a 10.

I was fascinated by and became quickly addicted to Mexican cuisine in the Bay area. Mexican food was as foreign to New York as finding someone from the Bronx who rooted for The Red Sox.
I began to experiment with Mexican sauces, such as various ways to use a host of chilies. I cooked and honed the sauces for years, until I was ready to serve my dishes to others. I learned the best way to make sauces was use a roasting process. When making a green tomatillo sauce I would not only roast the chilies but all of the other vegetables too. The sauce came alive, with a new layer of flavor, when first roasted slowly to caramelized perfection, before blending and reducing with additional herbs and spices.
I also, thanks to the expanded minds of Bay area residents, discovered the joys of a little known cuisine in America back then, Indian.


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