Seeking the magic of Alice Waters


October 03, 2007|By Jill Rosen | Jill Rosen,Sun reporter

The Art of Simple Food

By Alice Waters

Clarkson Potter / 2007 / $35

If it weren't for Alice Waters, would "organic" be a household word? Would restaurants be boasting about their locally caught salmon, their heirloom tomatoes, their artisan cheese?

Waters, the chef behind Berkeley, Calif.'s Chez Panisse, is credited with launching what has become a national awareness about where food comes from and how it's grown.

With The Art of Simple Food, Waters has created not so much a cookbook as an introduction to her philosophy of food, a clinic in what she considers to be "the underlying principles of good cooking." Eat locally and sustainably. Plant a garden. Conserve, compost and recycle. Remember food is precious.

"When you have the best and tastiest ingredients," she writes, "you can cook very simply and the food will be extraordinary because it tastes like what it is."

Unlike her previous books, Waters aims this one at the home cook - at beginners, even.

While at Chez Panisse she recently served dishes such as sea scallops and Manila clams in sweet herb brodo; cucumber gelee with tomatoes, chervil and tarragon; and plum ice cream profiteroles with plum caramel, here she scales back - way back.

It's everyday stuff - spinach lasagna, beef stew, succotash, coleslaw, strawberry shortcake. Not at all ooh-and-ah fare.

And the book, with its simple layout and absence of photos, looks like a textbook and reads like Waters is teaching.

It flows like a 101 course, opening with fundamentals - how to stock a pantry, what equipment a kitchen shouldn't be without. Then it's on to building-block recipes - "essential" sauces, basic salads and broth - and suggestions on how people can incorporate these various concepts into everyday dishes.

Of the recipes I tried - ratatouille, crab cakes and butter cookies - I really only felt anything close to Alice Waters' magic with the ratatouille.

I went to the farmers' market the morning I cooked, and I hand-picked everything the recipe called for. I felt good about buying from local farmers, and geekishly enjoyed the whole coming-home-with-harvest-bounty thing.

When I made the crab cakes, I'm ashamed to say that I failed miserably at Waters' order to make mayonnaise from scratch. I cheated with mayo I had at home (at least it was organic!) and the result was crab cakes that tasted quite nice, but didn't hold their shape at all. I felt like I flunked Chez Panisse.

With the cookies, I slavishly followed Waters' suggestions for unbleached flour - "far superior in flavor," she says - and I avoided ultra-pasteurized milk because she won't cook with it. I ended up with buttery, dainty - almost elegant - cookies. And even better, the dough can be frozen so I can bake fresh ones in 10 minutes.


Makes 6 to 8 servings

1 medium eggplant, cut into 1/2 -inch cubes

salt to taste

4 tablespoons olive oil, plus more if needed (divided use)

2 medium onions, cut into 1/2 -inch dice

4 to 6 garlic cloves

1/2 bunch basil, tied in a bouquet with kitchen twine

a pinch of dried chile flakes

2 sweet peppers, cut into 1/2 -inch dice

3 medium summer squash, cut into 1/2 -inch dice

3 ripe medium tomatoes, cut into 1/2 -inch dice

6 basil leaves, chopped

extra-virgin olive oil to taste

Toss the eggplant cubes with salt. Set in colander to drain for about 20 minutes. Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in heavy-bottomed pot.

Pat the eggplant dry, add to the pan and cook over medium heat, stirring frequently, until golden. Add a bit more oil if the eggplant absorbs all the oil and sticks to the bottom of the pan. Remove the eggplant when done and set aside.

Pour in 2 tablespoons olive oil. Add the onions and cook for about 7 minutes, or until soft and translucent.

Add the garlic, bouquet of basil, salt and chile flakes. Cook 2 or 3 minutes, then stir in the sweet peppers. Cook a few minutes and then add the squash. Cook a few minutes and then stir in the tomatoes.

Cook 10 minutes longer, then stir in the eggplant and cook for 10 to 15 minutes more, until all the vegetables are soft. Remove the bouquet of basil, pressing on it to extract all its flavors, and adjust the seasoning with salt.

Stir in chopped basil and extra-virgin olive oil to taste.

From "The Art of Simple Food"

Per serving (based on 8 servings): 113 calories, 2 grams protein, 7 grams fat, 1 gram saturated fat, 12 grams carbohydrate, 5 grams fiber, 0 milligrams cholesterol, 7 milligrams sodium

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