California Cuisine In France

July 28, 1991|By William Van Swearingen

Mary Jo Thoresen, sous pastry chef at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Calif., knows what it's like to travel light: an extra pair of jeans and shoes, a sweater, the essential toiletries.

Befitting a pastry chef, her main luggage recently contained dough, prepared several days before departure, frozen and then packed especially for her trip from San Francisco to Bordeaux, France.

When she reached the maximum allowed weight on her airline ticket, the 36 pounds of pate sucre and 15 pounds each of pistachios and almonds were simply divided among fellow travelers -- chef Peggy Smith and her assistant Michael Sullivan and other staff from Chez Panisse, so no extra baggage fees had to be paid.

The food-ladden travelers were part of a team that recently cooked California style to showcase California wines at VINEXPO, the wine industry's largest international trade show, which this year drew a record number of 2,100 exhibitors from 33 countries and nearly 50,000 visitors.

"We really do have a unique cuisine that combines the freshest produce of our abundant soil with an amazing variety of ethnic tastes from the many groups that make up California," said Axel Fabre, the French-born Californian who managed the California Grill. The restaurant, housed in a tent just outside the main exhibition hall, served 200 each day and turned away 100 more, according to Ms. Fabre.

Depending on your perspective, California is either at the beginning or at the end of the Pacific rim, which was the restaurant's theme for this year's VINEXPO event. Shiso (from the Japanese aromatic mint leaf family), ginger, nori and coriander found their way into a variety of first-course fish dishes like shiso fish salad with frisee and radicchio or pan-fried scallops with lemon grass butter. Other Oriental seasonings flavored main courses: star anise for roasted duck breast or sesame seeds for garlic lamb with grilled eggplant. "However, any Thai, Japanese or Chinese would find our dishes extremely tame on the seasoning end," said Ms. Smith. After all, she affirmed, the main requirement for all dishes was to let the wines shine.

California, of course, has led the country toward a cooking style that favors the intense, direct flavors of fresh, natural ingredients without butter and cream sauces -- a "lite" cuisine, meaning low in fat and calories. It is a style California vintners have adopted as a wine country cuisine. A number of wineries, such as Robert Mondavi, Beringer and Cakebread Cellars, each year invite well-known chefs to design meals around the Asian, Southwest and Mediterranean traditions to showcase California wines as a healthful approach to eating.

One item Ms. Thoresen did not carry in her suitcase was the 95 pounds of fresh salmon flown in from California on the night before it was served for the last day's menu. In that menu, reproduced here, the salmon may either be poached or pan-fried (no extra oil needed since the fish already has enough). It was served with a light mustard sauce over pieces of fresh cucumber that provided both a contrast in texture and a reinforcement of the delicate salmon. And a slightly chilled sauvignon blanc with its "grassy" vegetal quality will further heighten light flavors, guaranteed to cool as well as any breeze off the Pacific rim.


Poached salmon

with sweet mustard sauce

Wine: Simi Winery, Sonoma

County, Sauvignon Blanc 1989

Sesame garlic lamb

with grilled eggplant

Wine: Cakebread Cellars,

Rutherford Reserve, Napa Valley,

Cabernet Sauvignon 1985

Gingered peach crisp


Poached salmon with sweet mustard sauce

Serves four.

4 4-ounce salmon fillets (fresh and boneless)

1 tablespoon Chinese mustard

3/4 cup mayonnaise (homemade works best, with just a little bit of sesame oil added to the base)

1/2 teaspoon honey

2 lemons juiced

1 pound fresh spinach

1 1/2 quart court bouillon

The court bouillon serves as the poaching liquid for the salmon. It is easy and fast to make, and it adds a softness to the salmon. Simply put 1 1/4 quart water, 1 cup white wine, 3 slices of fresh lemon, a few sprigs of parsley and a bit of tarragon in your poaching pan. Bring this mixture to a simmer and let it simmer for 5 minutes. At this point the court bouillon is ready for poaching.

Once the spinach is washed and the court bouillon is ready, you should prepare the sweet mustard sauce. This will allow the flavors time to come together before you serve it.

The mustard sauce is a mixture of the Chinese mustard, mayonnaise, honey and the juice from one lemon. Right before the sauce is served, you thin it with a little of the cooled poaching liquid. The poaching liquid will not only allow the sauce to coat the fish more evenly but provides a little depth to the sauce itself.

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