Posted by Rob Eshman
Every two years, the Culinary Institute of America hosts its World of Flavors conference in its castle-like Napa Valley compound.
Some of the planet’s best chefs show up, along with food purveyors from across the globe, and the endless meals, spread out in a massive hall lined with wine casks the size of Spanish galleons, each revolve around a single educational theme, so that the attendees — institutional food vendors, manufacturers, restaurant chains, journalists — can deepen their understanding about one aspect of food, and in turn use that knowledge to impress, entice and engorge you, the ever-hungry consumer.
Last year’s subject: spices.
I went — first, because I knew I would get to eat some of the world’s best food and wine in the company of great chefs over two crisp fall days in Napa, and second, because the World of Flavors is a stealth United Nations. It quietly, consistently, draws chefs from countries and cultures that otherwise are in conflict, if not active warfare. I scanned the roster and found chefs straight from, or originally from, Iran, Egypt, Greece, Turkey, Lebanon, Syria, and, yes, Israel.
World of Flavors is a kind of chefs sans frontiers, where cooks come to cook and learn from other cooks—and they bat away questions about politics from people like me. It’s a cliché—but one that I never get tired of-- that food can break barriers. But in Napa, I actually began to see how, and it had exactly to do with the subject of this particular conference.
Chefs from Italy, Sri Lanka, Iran and Israel, divided by culture, religion, distance, and even by cuisine, nevertheless all share a common language -- spices.
It turns out those fragrant ingredients haven’t just inspired cooks, they have shaped history and culture. We are the beneficiaries of an ancient spice trade that started millennia ago, with no concern for modern borders. The arc of flavor began in the far-off, exotic spice-producing countries and spread to Europe, China and the New World.
Not that the process was always pretty. The Dutch decided to take over the West Indies clove and nutmeg trade, and in doing so massacred entire islands full of people. The Spaniards plundered tropical America and returned to Europe with chilis and chocolate.
But the upshot was the beginnings of Tom Friedman’s flat world. Most of the world’s basil, which is indigenous to India, now comes from Egypt’s Nile River valley. Most herbs come from the Mediterranean, home to 17 species of oregano. Dutch food is inflected with Indonesian spices.
“The ramifications of the spice trade are that the world came together through food,” according to Michael Krondl, author of “The Taste of Conquest: The Rise and Fall of the Three Great Cities of Spice,” who was a featured speaker at the conference.
On the second floor of the CIA’s Greystone headquarters, a historic castle-like property in St. Helena, chefs from around world took over the stations of a gleaming, cavernous kitchen and proved Krondl’s point, dish by dish.
I was most curious, for obvious reasons, about the Middle Eastern chefs. I wandered over to demonstrations by cookbook author Joan Nathan and the Israeli chef Erez Komarovsky.
"From Thailand to Israel every dish begins with onion, garlic, and chili,”Komarovsky said.
For a dish of baby cauliflower stuffed with lamb, he added spoonfuls of cumin, cinnamon and clove, all of which he ground by hand. The room filled with fragrance.
Fragrance, rare and familiar, was everywhere. Singaporean Indian chef/author Devagi Sanmugam brought kapok blossoms and stone flower, a lichen that grows inside wells, from Singapore. Musa Dagdeviren—the Turkish Emeril Lagasse-- made a lamb and eggplant dish flavored with cumin, lamb fat—loads of it -- a slab of butter and a sun-dried Turkish chili called marash. Marash, mark my words, will be the chipotle of 2014.
In another room, Khulood Atiq, one of the first professional female chefs in the United Arab Emirates, was preparing a typical Emirati spice blend: dried lemon, cumin, coriander, and fennel. Outside, Moroccan chef Mourad Lahlou prepared a rub for lamb shoulder: saffron and cumin blended with soft butter.
“In Morocco,” he said, “food and cooking is about memories, looking back more than looking forward.”
Back inside, Yotam Ottolenghi, chef and author of the best-selling “Jerusalem: A Cookbook,” made a kind of shakshouka with ground lamb and harissa — yes, there was a lot of lamb everywhere — while chef Greg Malouf, whose family is Lebanese, looked on, and traded notes.
As the dishes piled up, the conflicts that bedevil cultures seemed to whither under the relentless sensual assault of fragrance and flavor. The chefs ran from their own classes to taste dishes prepared by their fellow chefs.
I stood beside a Thai chef as we sampled Djerba chef Abderrazak Haouari’s chickpea sous vide egg, harissa, olives, capers and croutons. It was the best breakfast dish you’ve never heard of. “I want to hug him,” the Thai chef said.
Spices, so often acquired in conflict, now serve as a bridge among cultures. If only we all understood what chefs do: It would be a dull world, indeed, without the strange, the new, the different.
“You almost think,” Ottolenghi said, “a little lemon juice would solve all the world’s problems.”
Read my last column on the 2009 conference here.
There is a ridiculously small fee ($7.99) to watch the videos from the conference. They are 1000 times more educational than the Food Network. The link is here.
Chef Abderrazak Haouari uses this Djerban version of harissa on sous vide eggs, served with chickpeas, capers, croutons and olives. It is brick red and warmly hot: great with fish, eggplant, chicken.
Makes 1/2 cup.
1 medium onion, very thinly sliced
Pinch of turmeric
2 tablespoons kosher salt
4 ancho chiles, stemmed and seeded
3 dried chipotle chiles, stemmed and seeded
1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
1/2 teaspoon ground caraway seeds
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
Pinch of cinnamon
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
In a shallow bowl, toss the onion slices with the turmeric and salt. Cover the onion with plastic wrap and let stand overnight at room temperature.
Meanwhile, heat a cast-iron skillet until hot to the touch. Add the anchos and chipotles and toast over moderate heat, pressing lightly with a spatula until the chiles are very pliable and fragrant, about 1 minute. Transfer the chiles to a work surface and let cool completely, then tear them into 1-inch pieces. In a spice grinder, coarsely grind the chiles.
Drain the onion slices in a strainer, pressing hard to extract as much liquid as possible. Transfer the onions to a food processor and pulse until pureed. Add the ground chiles, coriander, caraway, pepper and cinnamon and process to a paste. With the machine on, gradually add the olive oil and puree until fairly smooth.
The harous can be refrigerated for up to 6 months.
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July 12, 2013 | 11:35 am
Posted by Rob Eshman
Last night after seeing a movie at what seems to be the cultural center of West Los Angeles Jewish life — the Landmark Theatres at the Westside Pavilion — we walked over to the new Lenny's Deli.
Lenny's filled the void left by Juniors — and I'm talking about a literal void. Juniors was 11,000 square feet of real estate at the corner of Westwood and Pico Blvd. For 53 years it served as bakery, deli counter, restaurant, meeting place and all-around noshery for LA Jews. As Michael Aushenker reported in the Jewish Journal, when Juniors abruptly announced it would shut it doors on Dec. 31, 2012, one regular summed up the feeling of generations of custimers by calling the news, "horrific."
Then Lenny Rosenberg rode into town.
Actually, Lenny is a pretty familiar face: he owned the Bagel Nosh in Beverly Hills, and tried, unsuccessfully, to take over the cursed Morts space in the Pacific Palisades. The latter effort foundered for reasons that have more to do with that stretch of property, and the internecine battles over retail in the Palisades. As restauraneurs from Danny Myers to Joe Bastianich will tell you, a successful restaurant's fate depends as much on the location and the lease as it does on the chef. Maybe more.
Lenny took over the Juniors space. He hired back almost all of the deli's 100 laid-off workers. He updated the menu with more organic foods, vegetarian and healthy options and even put in the now standard line about using local ingredients whenever possible. That means, I think, the kishke comes from Sherman Oaks.
We ate at the late Juniors about a month before it closed, and frankly, you could tell it was a deli in the fourth stage of a terminal illness. The deli counter looked like it had been lifted from Communist Poland, the wait staff moped, the food tasted of salt and apathy.
Lenny Rosenberg has revived the place. It's not called Juniors any more. It's called Lenny's.
At 10 pm, many tables in the cavernous space were full. The place itself was remodeled — new upholstery, new floors — not retro Lower East Side like the delicious, hipster Wise and Sons in San Francisco, just functional, pre-modern San Fernando Valley circa-1990.
The menu is vast and traditional. My wife's lox and bagels was very good, my kids ate their meaty meat things — pastrami, corned beef, etc — and liked it. The sandwiches are of the piled high variety, and come with cole slaw. I ordered my usual late night deli treat: grilled swiss on rye with Dijon mustard, sauerkraut and tomato. I told Lenny it's a vegetarian Reuben. My son wondered why, with five pages of food on offer, I had to order off the menu.
I had wine from a good selection. The kids had egg creams, which were delicious. We almost ordered the kishke, but this is 2013, and there's only so much Lipitor I can take.
The food was absolutely good. Much better than good in the case of the lox, my sandwich and the egg creams and the homemade rugalach. While Juniors had become a regular let down, Lenny's, I think, will now be a pleasant surprise.
Lenny came over to say hi — he knows me from the Journal. The man is working hard, hard to make Lenny's succeed. He's back to running a bakery, a deli counter, a restaurant and a catering outfit. He instituted actual Shabbat services in a meeting room at the rear of the place. He looks exhausted, but driven. He's also thin as a rail, which ordinarily I would think disqualifies you as a deli owner, but in his case is probably just the delightful side effects of stress and overwork.
But Lenny's does work. The booths are back to being filled with the mishmash tureen of film-goers, hipsters, Persian Jews, seniors and soccer families that used to fill Juniors. Not every foot of the 11,000 suare feet is teaming, but if Lenny can hold out, maybe he'll get there. I hope so.
Because it's good to have a deli on the corner of Westwood and Pico.
June 30, 2013 | 12:15 am
Posted by Rob Eshman
Last night I made dinner for my mother's 83rd birthday. I know my mother likes cooking for us at her home-- because mothers like being mothers. But I like cooking for the woman who cooked for me for so many years.
It wasn't nearly as hot in Venice, CA as it was in the rest of LA, or the rest of the States. The temperature hit 75 degrees, maybe. But that made it hot enough to come up with a menu that was fast, light and didn't heat up the kitchen. I also wanted to use up the rainbow chard, lemons and tomatoes from the garden. I made Greek Salad, Rainbow Chard with Onion and Lemon, Eggplant with Mint Yogurt and Harissa Oil and Grilled Wild Salmon.
The eggplant was my mom's favorite, so I'm passing on the recipe. A birthday present to her, back to you.
[RECIPE] Eggplant with Mint Yogurt and Harissa Oil
3 medium eggplants (I used a slender variety)
2 cups Greek yogurt
2 cloves garlic, crushed and minced
2 T. chopped chives or scallions
3 T. chopped fresh mint
3 T. olive oil
salt and pepper
Harissa or Chili Oil*
Heat a gas or charcoal grill. While it's heating, blend together yogurt, garlic, herbs, salt and pepper.
Place whole eggplants on grill. Cook, covered, about 7 minutes, until soft. Turn and finish cooking until eggplants are very soft and the skin is just beginning to char.
Remove to serving platter and slice eggplants lengthwise. Using a fork, mash the soft, hot bellies. Drizzle with olive oil, then spoon yogurt mix into each eggplant.
Drizzle with harissa oil, and serve hot, warm or room temperature.
*Harissa is a North African chili sauce. The oil in it separates and is very flavorful. You can also mix some store-bought harissa or other Middle Eastern chili paste (schug, harif) or sauce with a little oil and use that. If this all sounds like a big hassle, just dust the eggplants with paprika and call it a day. The brand I like is made by Pereg. Here's a picture. It is schug, a Yemenite hot sauce, but it tastes more like harissa than the schug I used to eat in Jerusalem.
June 20, 2013 | 4:39 pm
Posted by Rob Eshman
Cooking with my kids makes me ridiculously happy. It’s unfair, really, the power they have over my moods simply by saying, Yeah, sure when I ask them if they want to make dinner with me.
A couple of nights ago my daughter Noa walked into the kitchen as I was throwing together a last minute, late-work night dinner and said, “I want to help.”
I played it cool— Yeah, sure—but it made my day.
We kept it simple. As the kids get older I feel the clock ticking on the time I have left to teach them how to fend for themselves in a kitchen. Oh my God, can Adi even sauté a chicken breast?! – I actually woke myself up one morning thinking that.
As if after they turn 18 and leave home, I’m no longer allowed to show them anything. As if they can only watch Bobby Flay, but not me.
Of course that’s ridiculous, but still—I want them to leave with the basics. Grill a fish. Cook an omelet. Make pasta. Poach an egg. Whatever they like to eat, they should learn to make. The Talmud says it’s incumbent upon a father to teach his children to swim. But if the mother doesn’t cook, who will teach them to cut an onion?
We decided on turkey burgers with grilled peppers and French fries. Noa mixed the ground turkey with salt, pepper, balsamic vinegar, garlic, and Dijon mustard. I showed her how to shape them into almost tennis ball-sized rounds, then slightly flatten them. No one likes a thin, dry turkey burger.
Then we sliced peppers and onions and fried them until they were soft and caramelized. She cut the tomatoes and avocado and lettuce to pile on the bun-- truly some of the best turkey burgers we've ever had.
For the French fries, I showed her all the tricks: use a gizmo to cut them evenly. Soak them in three changes of water, fry them twice, once to blanch, again to brown. Serve them in a newspaper cone— because newspaper absorbs the oil, it looks cool, and, hopefully, it will remind her of her dad.
[RECIPE]Newspaper French Fries
4 small baking potatoes
Peel potatoes. Use a Veggiematic or Frnech fry cutter to cut all at once in thin fry shapes. In heavy Dutch oven or cast iron pan, heat oil to 400 degrees. Drain potatoes and dry well in cloth kitchen towels.
Add 1/3 of the fries to the oil and cook about 2 minutes, until just soft but still white. The oil temperature will drop. Remove with slotted spoon and let cool. Do the same with the rest of the potatoes. Allow the fries to cool.
Preheat the oven to 200 degrees. Return the oil to 400 degrees, add 1/3 of the fries and cook 3 minutes until golden brown. Remove to a sheet pan and place in the oven while you cook the remaining fries.
Form a sheet of newspaper into a paper cone. Fill with hot fries, sprinkle with salt and serve.
Reheat oil to 400 degrees.
June 13, 2013 | 12:11 pm
Posted by Rob Eshman
I think the love of seltzer is passed down from father to son.
Seltzer, just the word "seltzer" puts a smile on my dad's face. He will never refuse a spritz. And neither will I. I have a bottle on my desk as I write this. I don't care how fancy-shmancy the dinner party, I always have bottles on the table. And not Pelligrino, not Perrier, not Crystal Geyser, not even Soda Club-- I mean, seltzer.
Seltzer is carbonated water under pressure, delivered through a siphon. It tastes fresher and keeps longer than the bottled stuff. Open a bottle of Pelligrino, and if you don't finish it all at once, after a day or two it starts to fade and flatten. But a seltzer bottle holds in the spritz for weeks if not months. It's always ready to go, a gun that's always cocked and loaded. Manly, yes.
When Naomi and I married, one of our first gifts to ourselves was seltzer home delivery. I found a man named Julian Diamond who ran a family business, A-1 Seltzer and Beverage, out of a a warehouse in North Holywood. He was 74 years-old, and delivered the stuff in the original glass bottles.
"If you drop them," Julian told me, "They'll go off like a bomb."
When we had kids, we switched to the plastic version. It was one of the hardest things about having kids.
Julian was brusque-- he still humped these heavy wood crates all over LA. I thought I was doing him a favor when I assigned a reporter at the Jewish Journal, Leilah Bernstein, to do a story on him.
"In the first half of the 20th century, Diamond remembers, there were at least 500 bottling companies in the area," Leilah wrote. "The 1920s and 1930s were the industry's heyday. By mid-century, however, just a handful of seltzer bottling companies remained here, including Arrowhead, Sparkletts and Shasta."
Julian was the last of the seltzer men. After it ran I called him expecting to collect some gratitude.
"It's awful," Julian told me. "I'm getting all these calls. Too much work. I'm tired."
When Julian died, an employee took over the business. His name is Joe.
Joe brings cases of fresh seltzer to our door whenever we need it. It’s old school. I’ll be in a meeting, my cell phone will ring, and I’ll look down and see the ID: Joe Seltzer. I call back, and Joe greets me like a grand prize winner.
“Mr Robert! How many cases you need?!”
I always feel like Joe is disappointed with my rate of consumption, as if real men drink more seltzer.
“Two," I say.
When I was growing up, we had a milk man deliver milk bottles, a fruit man who came by and honked his truck horn, and my favorite, the Helms Bakery man, who stopped, opened the panels of his truck, and reveal rows of fresh bear claws and donuts and warm bread—and always gave the kids a sparkle cookie.
These were holdovers from a different era, and their presence in the sterile surburban streets of Encino, with Gelsons and Ralphs just a few blocks away, always felt out of place, like they drove in not just from a different neighborhood, but from a different dimension. Sometimes the way food comes to us is as important as the food itself. Those old-fashioned delievery men didn't just bring food, they connected communities.
Today all we have is Joe the Seltzer Man.
Of course, a few months after Joe started delivering to us, my father called. He had been to the house the night before for dinner.
"I need the name of your Seltzer Man," my father said.
As much as I love the seltzer, which is still a hit at every dinner party, I also like the connection it represents, through my father, back to my grandfathers, and their fathers-- generation after generation of Jewish men who sought comfort in the bottle.
This Sunday I'll spritz a bit in a glass and raise a toast: "Happy Father's Day."
Limonana is the Israeli mint-lemon slush. I use lemon verbena instead of mint (you can use either), and finish it with a spritz of selzter.
Lemon Verbena Limonana
This is more delicate than the usual limonana made with mint.
½ c. freshly squeezed lemon juice
½ c. packed fresh lemon verbena leaves
½ c. superfine baking sugar or regular sugar
1 c. water
Place all ingerdients except seltzer in a blender and whir until smooth. Pour into a glass and top with a seltzer blast. Stir and serve.
May 31, 2013 | 5:58 am
Posted by Rob Eshman
How do you spell knaidel? M-a-t-z-o-h B-a-l-l.
The word that 13 year-old Arvind Mahankali from Queens, NY spelled to clinch the 2013 Scripps National Spelling Bee championship last night is German for a small mass of dough. But its most common meaning in America is matzo ball.
Normally the word, which is German and Yiddish, is used in its plural form, knaidlach—because who can eat just one matzo ball?
From Los Angeles to Queens, the only place you’ll see the word is on deli menus. And not just in America: the menu at the venerable Harry Morgans deli – branches in London and Latvia—features Chicken Knaidlach Soup for £5.95.
I feel for the kids who lost out to Mahankali. They’re home Googling knaidel, finding that it’s spelled in English many different ways: knaidel, kneidel, kneydl.
There’s just as many ways to make knaidlach as there are spellings. You use matzo meal, of course, and eggs, liquid, along with a fat and salt. The liquid can be water or chicken broth or even seltzer. The fat can be schmaltz—solidified chicken fat—or oil. If you use lard you’re in the wrong cookbook.
You can eat turkey outside of Thanksgiving, and you can eat matzo balls when it’s not Passover. But the spring holiday that marks the deliverance of the Children of Israel from slavery in Egypt is the time when most matzo balls get made and eaten. Jews had to flee Egypt before their bread had time to rise, so they are commanded to observe Passover by eating matzo, which is made only with flour and water. Those matzos, ground fine, become a meal that can be used to make dumplings—which is all knaidlach are.
You might wonder why we eat matzo to remind us how we had to hurry out of Egypt, then make matzo balls, which take a almost two hours to mix, rest and simmer. You could knock off a few loaves of quick bread, or even some pita, in that time. The deep theological answer is this: matzo balls taste really good.
You mix the ingredients, simmer them in soup or water, and the dry, unforgiving shirt cardboard that is matzo transforms into a small, warm bosom, tender and soft. A knaidel is our small miracle of transubstantiation—maybe that’s why we eat them in Spring.
Great matzo balls should be as soft to eat as knaidel is hard to spell. There are certain Jews who claim to prefer the kind their mothers made, the ones with a dense core of unfluffed dough. These sinkers can require a steak knife to cut and a load of seltzer to digest. I suppose you can get used to them, even come to think they’re delicious, in the same way the Romneys convinced themselves Karl Rove was telling the truth about the Ohio results. People we trust can feed us crap and we’ll think it tastes like truffles.
As with most simple foods, the important variations are in technique, not ingredients. If you’ve been blessed to learn how to make matzo balls by watching your grandmother, mother or mother-in-law, and she knew what she was doing, you’re fortunate: it’s all in the details: Mix the batter lightly, don’t beat it. Let the dough sit in the refrigerator until it is well-chilled. Give those matzo particles time to absorb liquid and fat deep into their stiff-necked cells. Form the dough again with a very light, but confident touch. Roll pieces the size of a large walnut between your palms, quickly, but don’t rush it. The rounder the ball, the more attractive—a misshapen ball floating in soup looks disturbingly like brain. But don’t obsess: you don’t want to press the air out. You’ll get the hang of it.
Finally, once your balls are simmering, DO NOT lift the lid to peak. There are many commandments in the Jewish religion. This is the one I’m most scrupulous about following.
The knaidel maker at the Passover seder is the central object of scorn or praise. At our seders, where my wife, the rabbi, leads the service, beautifully, I notice that few people will judge her either way. But that moment when the chicken soup with matzo balls finally arrives, and people pick up their spoons and cleave a knaidel in two, and lift a portion to their mouths, and swallow— that moment is an eternity. If the soup is hot and the balls are light, and well-salted, the entire table erupts in a semi-orgasmic chorus of ahhs, like the Children of Israel have been delivered all over again. It is a moment of sheer joy, and relief, and for the cook, a feeling of utter victory and vindication.
Arvind Mahankali would understand.
[RECIPE] Rob Eshman's Matzo Balls
1/4 cup schmaltz (chicken fat) or vegetable oil
1/4 cup chicken stock or water or seltzer
1 cup matzo meal
1 teaspoon salt
1/4-1/2 teaspoon ground white pepper
In a large bowl, mix all the ingredients. Do not overbeat. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until well-chilled-- two hours or more.
Bring a large pot of well-salted water to a boil. Wet your hands. Take a lump the size of a large walnut and using your palms, form into a round shape. Drop into the water, reduce heat to a simmer and cover. Cook for about 40 minutes.
Remove the balls with a slotted spoon. Taste one to make sure they're cooked through-- they probably will be. Serve in hot soup, sprinkled with fresh parsley and dill.
May 30, 2013 | 1:12 am
Posted by Rob Eshman
For two years, from 1984-1986, I lived in Jerusalem. I went to learn Hebrew, to work as a writer, to break up a relationship without facing the breakup.
I had been living in San Francisco after college, typing out plays and freelance articles. I was trying my best to be a starving artist, except for the fact that I landed a job as a baker at a new place near Union Square called Il Fornaio. It was the first American branch of the Milan-based bakery, and everything they taught me to make was novel, and delicious.
My day began by creaming 20 pounds of sweet butter in a stand up Hobart mixer the size of a Datsun. When it was fluffy and white I poured in quart pitchers full of white sugar, then egg yolks, cornmeal, flour, lemon zest and vanilla. I extruded the thick batter onto sheet pans from conical pastry bags to form crumiri, a polenta butter cookie. You can’t be a real starving artist when breakfast is a quarter pound of raw cookie dough, followed by warm, fresh crumiri.
I liked the job, and I was good at it. This was in the days before every dishwasher had a culinary degree, so the crew was as aimless and hungry as me. The dark, handsome main chef, also an Italian import, had a reputation, and when he wasn’t showing us how to stir risotto for 100, he was kneading the narrow, muscled shoulders of the head baker, the most attractive woman on the staff, who also happened to be his American protégé. Every once in a while his very pretty, dark-haired Italian wife would stage snap visits, and they’d lock themselves in the small office and scream Italian at each other.
I strongly believed that the entire staff was going out after work without me to drink and get high and sleep together—boys, girls, Italians. They showed up for work tired and smiling and ravenous. Their breakfast of choice was espresso along with handfuls of nuts from the bulk bins. To this day it’s a miracle to me Il Fornaio survived long enough to expand across America, when the company must have lost thousands of dollars in pine nuts alone.
After work, I rode my bike over the hills back to my apartment on Duboce Triangle, where I read classics that for some reason I chose not to read in college, and wrote those plays, and nursed my sourdough starter. I also got involved with a woman, a food-lover, and fell in love, and it all happened like most things did to me in my twenties, as if in a dream, and when I awoke I thought: Jesus, get a grip, she’s married….
My first roommate in Jerusalem was a South African woman, also in her twenties. She rented me a room in her flat, and was pleasant when she had to be, but otherwise greeted me with a constant look of disapproval. She was more observant than me, which is to say, she was observant. And she was in graduate school, and busy, and I seemed to her to be wasting my time.
I started freelancing, and it paid just enough. And just as in San Francisco, I spent a lot of time finding new food to try, and eat, and cook. I fell in with a group of young Israelis who were in love with the actual land of Israel. On weekends and holidays we traveled and hiked the tiny country, so long before the first feta and watermelon salad or za’atar flatbread immigrated to America as “Small Plates,” I tried them at the farms of their relatives, or in homes of friends in neighboring Arab villages, or at ramshackle cafes overlooking the sea in Jaffo.
I shopped for the ingredients to these things in the open market in Jerusalem, Mahane Yehuda, and brought them back to the small, shared kitchen. My roommate ate toast, marmite and, on Shabbat, sweet kugel from a local takeout.
Meanwhile I bought a cutting board and made Israeli salad with tomatoes, cucumbers and chopped fresh mint. A friend in the village of Ibelin showed me that proper tabouli is-- mostly parsley, mint and romaine, with just a handful of bulghar wheat-- so I went through bushels of those greens. I made tea from lemon verbena which, like manna, grew in Jerusalem parkways, while in winter I steeped long, blue-silver sage. I ground cilantro—kusbara— with chilis and fenugreek leaves into a green hot sauce, schug, which I ate with everything. And I dumped handfuls of fresh bay leaves, basil and oregano into chopped tomatoes for sauce.
“Robert!” my roommate said one day. I was in the kitchen, at the cutting board, and she had burst out of her room, not able to hold her disgust, or her tongue any longer. “What is it with you and…and……and LEAVES?”
She pointed to the counter, which was covered in bunches of cilantro, parsley, sprigs of verbena and spears of bay.
“They’re herbs,” I said. “I cook with them.”
“They’re just… leaves,” she said. "This kitchen is always full of leaves."
With a South African accent, it sounded particularly disgusting, as if I had spread garden refuse all over our home.
I moved out a few weeks later, and fell in love again not long after that with an Israeli who, for one thing, shared my love of leaves.
Two years later, I came back to America . I had learned Hebrew. I was writing about the kinds of things I cared about. But I hadn’t learned enough about breaking up to be able to stay on the same continent when I did it.
In my garden, in Venice, I grow every leaf I ever ate in Jerusalem. Verbena, parsley, basil, oregano, cilantro, sage. My favorite is the bay laurel I planted outside our family room window 15 years ago. The foot-long shoot is now a 40-foot tree, thick with fragrant California bay laurel. I use them in sauces, I tuck a dozen in a pan of roasting potatoes, I braise them with my artichokes, I grill them under fish filets, I crush them into my gin and tonics.
California bay is a coastal native. The ones in Israel are the smaller Turkish variety, which cookbooks will tell you are less pungent and more refined. Don’t believe it. These beauties carry the essence of the Santa Monica Mountains right into your food. Before I start cooking a big dinner, I go outside and cut a branch, stripping them off as I need them, happy to see my countertop adorned in a crown of leaves, leaves, leaves.
[RECIPE] Cucumber and Bay Leaf Gin and Tonic
Muddle 6 fresh California bay leaves and a 3-inch section of cucmber in a cocktail shaker with a 1/2 teaspoon of sugar or agave syrup. Add two jiggers of of gin and ice. Shake vigorously. Pour into highball glasses filled with more ice, and top with tonic. Garnish with a fresh bay leaf and a slice of cucucmber.
May 24, 2013 | 12:54 am
Posted by Rob Eshman
We didn’t know anything about Boulettes Larder when we stumbled upon it in a corner of San Francisco's Ferry Building last February. That in and of itself seems to be a faux pas in food-obsessed San Francisco, if not an actual Class B Felony.
The counter was filled with jars of exotic salts and spices with handwritten labels. Behind that was a large kitchen, full of working cooks. There was just one large farmhouse style table by the kitchen—either, I assumed, for setting out more products for sale, or for some kind of scheduled Williams and Sonoma-esque cooking demonstration.
“Do you serve food here?” I asked a young, pretty woman behind a counter.
“Yes, we do,” said the woman. And as she said it, two customers just ahead of us, a pair of middle aged women in Bay Area chic, audibly snickered. Oh—nothing makes a person feel more welcome, more embraced, in a restaurant than being immediately mocked.
The hostess covered quickly. “We just finished our breakfast service,” she said. “Our lunch service begins at 11:30.”
“Can we see a menu?” my wife asked. I checked over to Mrs and Mrs Snicker—they had already taken their seats at the farmhouse table.
“Chef doesn’t release the menu until 11:30,” she said.
It was 11:26. The hostess had to see our confusion-- what was this menu, FedExed from Langley?
“But I think I have yesterday’s I can show you," the hostess added.
There were seven dishes on the small printed menu from the previous Thursday. Example: Greens Soup with harissa. Vadouvan braised chicken legs. Lamb shank ragu braised with red wine and herbs (and creamy rice). Vegetarian Farmhouse (“Caramelized cauliflower, warm lentil hummus, our cows milk yogurt, toasted cumin crispy rusks, olive oil fried eggs, shallots). I turned to my wife. They could laugh at me all they wanted, but I was staying put. Attitude or not, somewhere here knew how to cook—or at least how to make food sound really good.
The place was mostly kitchen—seating seemed to be an afterthought. Gleaming copper and stainless steel pots and skillets surrounded a large central stove. Men and women in chef’s aprons tended to their chores with librarian-like quiet and surgical focus. A woman shaped macaroon dough into mounds. The pastry chef, I figured.
Our waiter was a man in his thirties with a well-trimmed beard and a friendly manner. He sat us at the head of the table, closest to the chef. I caught the eye of Mrs. Snarky, who now was smiling at me.
“You must be VIPs,” she said.
At 11:34 the hostess handed us the menu. It was a single 8 ½ X 11 inch piece of cream-colored paper, hot off the laser printer, folded in half. We looked: Parsnip soup. Persian Salad (sweet lettuces, butter lettuce, mache, feta, citrus, herbs, dried persimmon, cucmber, radish, za’atar, pomegranate molasses) Seafood rice congee with braised shrimp, black cod, kampachi coriander and kaffir lime, warm roasted chicken breast salad (little gem lettuce, chicken broth vinaigrette, sibley squash puree, roasted baby carrots and marinated mushrooms). The Vegetarian Farmhouse was steamed barley and chickpeas with poached eggs nettle pesto and radicchio.
At the center of the battery of cooks a stern woman, her black hair pulled back tight, worked at the stove. She never looked up to acknowledge us. Occasionally she broke from her cooking to direct or consult with the others. So she’s the chef, I thought. There were twelve diners around our table. There were thirteen staff and cooks, including the chef.
The chef set to work on our meal. With one hand she cracked the eggs into a skillet of simmering water. With the other she centered a stainless steel bowl that she soon began filling with the tips of chervil, lettuces, madeleine-thin slices of radish and cucumber. She never once looked at us, her guests. She never smiled in welcome, or at anyone.
“Fire a parsnip” I heard her say.
Moments later the parsnip soup arrived, hot, drizzled with sharp olive oil. If she had asked I would have said it was one of the finest soups I’d ever tasted. But she didn’t ask.
She laid some raw wild white shrimp in a saute pan, let them seize up, then braised them in a broth. We were three feet from her hands as she fileted, in deft economical movements, a loin of sea bass and a side of hamachi, for the bowl of congee.
“Nice job,” I said, loud enough to warrant, at least, a grunt. Nothing. What’s the point of an open kitchen if you have a closed personality? I got the feeling she enjoyed every aspect of the restaurant, except for the part about feeding people. It made me begin to resent the whole place, except for two things:
The first is that the food she made was just superb. Her focus rewarded us first with that soup and the Persian salad— this ideal blending of za’atar and feta and dried persimmon. Then came the congee of deeply flavored seafood broth, bright with kaffir lime, along with its perfectly poached seafood and sterling fresh fish. Then for the kosher among us there was a dish of two eggs she poached in a pan so close to us its steam swirled past my daughter’s curls. The chef placed these eggs on a stew of grains and garbanzo beans and ladled a bright pesto sauce over it. At last came a persimmon pudding, dense and light and autumnal. All, perfect.
The second reason I couldn’t resent her aloofness was because, well, I understand it. I love spending time cooking. When it’s over, when the guests arrive, I can feel loss, imposition. A couple glasses of wine later I bounce back. But for me, the really fun part is over. I learned, Googling, later, that we had lucked into one of the Bay Area’s best dining experiences. For all my food reading, I’d never heard of Boulettes Larder, or the Hungarian born chef, Amaryll Schwertner. I read, too, that Mark Bittman declared her breakfast the single best breakfast he ever had-- and that man has had a few good breakfasts. Boulettes has since outgrown its space and is moving, in July, to a larger one, where Chef Schwertner, I assume, won't be so close to the mouths she must feed.
Sure, it’s nice for the chef—for someone—to make you feel at home., to welcome you into their restaurant like you’d welcome them into your home. But that wasn’t going to happen with Amaryll Schwertner. Instead, she just put her feeling, her passion, her knowledge, onto the plate. As they say in sports, she left it all on the field. Which, in the end, was more than good enough for me.
1 Ferry Building Marketplace
San Francisco, CA 94111
Note: Boulettes Larder is not kosher, but it is a Foodaism favorite.