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about learning to cook in L.A.

Thi N. | Nov 21, 2002 01:27 AM

This is in response to Jean Claude's post last week "Cooking Courses, Classes, Places to Learn". He wrote:

"I'd love to walk through a farmer's market and be overwhelmed with ideas. For exapmle, I just got back from China with some wonderful eggplant dish recipes in tow... tastes that I never knew one could gain from this veggie. How do I keep the ball rolling to other dishes? I can turn some dishes out of a number of things offered, but I'd love for a real professional to show me how to find magic in a leek, orange or celery stalk."

Jean Claude was pushing to find some classes to learn how to do stocks and reductions. Just had some things I was thinking about on these lines:

When I learned to cook in Boston, it was very un-Farmer's Market-y. The produce was OK, it was pricier, and I had to work some magic with it. Cooking there was about *production* - about taking alright produce and maybe a little money for meats and turning it into something with *effort*. I leaned on a lot of urban-style cookbooks - Paris-style French, Cantonese, etc. Very stock-intensive. Etc. A very *recipe* based system - one that involved going home, looking up a recipe, going to the market, and buying the stuff for the recipe.

When I moved to L.A., I tried to do this. But soon got sucked into the beauty of the farmer's market. But my cooking style drifted. I didn't know what to do. I could only go to the markets once a week. I didn't want to go back to the supermarkets - a lot of that produce, even the Whole Foods stuff, is *depressing* after you find your favorite vendor of this-or-that at the farmer's markets. I found myself trying to plan the weeks' menus in advance and buying exactly what I needed. It was stressful.

Where I eventually drifted was just a different cooking *style*. One pushed towards simpler recipes, improv, and cooking based less on technique and more on a certain clarity of presentation of the produce. I found myself drifting more towards Provencal, Italian, and Japanese cooking. Which - especially for the Provencal and Italian - makes sense. There's a climate match. There's the abundance of produce. And how *good* the produce is at the f.m.'s makes all that stock making sort of unnecessary, at least on a day to day basis.

So - the lifestyle now is, buying whatever looks fresh, going home and, doing some pretty simple stuff to it.

So: the gist of it all is that what helped me to learn to cook in this place, at our markets, the most - what helped me see the magic and the leek and the carrot and all that crap - was a few very good books:

First, John Thorne's Outlaw Cook, and Simple Cooking. Outlaw Cook is what pushed me away from recipe cooking, and Simple Cooking is just... great.

Then: most importantly, a set of two cookbooks for vegetables. They are: Chez Panisse Vegetables, by Alice Waters, and Red, White, and Greens by Faith Willingers. These are, I feel, not only brilliant recipes, but perfect for LA-style Farmer's Market cooking. Not just because they play to the strength of our vegetable supply, but because the books are vegetable centric. I mean, the organization is by vegetable, and the recipes are frequently one-vegetable + pantry items. Elemental-simple. Like CPV's recipe for baked sweet potato with lime and cilantro, or RWG's boiled kale with garlic-rubbed bread, or butternut squash risotto (with no meat stock!) or grilled asparagus with sea salt and lemon juice and orange juice sprinkled over the top, or fava beans cooked with bacon, or... It's very easy to go into your fridge, stocked with vegetables from the last farmer's market run, and pick one out and then pick out a recipe and just make it.

These two books will also help you learn to pick out good vegetables at the market.

Two more after that: less vegetable centric, but also right for our climate: Richard Olney's Provence the Beautiful, and Patricia Wells' At Home in Provence. (The latter is the least simple-improvable, but does have some of the most perfect simple vegetable dishes I know. Especially the one where you slow-braise carrots and then add whole garlic cloves and tarragon.)

Anyway, that's enough rambling. But I feel much more at home in L.A. cooking like this than the stock-and-stew-and-reduction-and-deglaze routine that worked in colder climes. I actually don't think I can move to a place without good farmer's markets, anymore. I think the stock-and-deglaze routine made by once-a-week special dinners better, but those cookbooks above, and weekly trips to the farmer's markets, have vastly improved my daily life and eating.

Yesterday I walked into my kitchen and stared at the stuff I had in there for a few minutes. Settled on the squash. Opened up Faith Willinger. Looked at the squash section for a few minutes. Threw in some old onions and leeks for vegetable stock. Took a shower. Came back and started cooking. Half an hour later, I had butternut squash risotto. Swear to god.


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