rustic parmigiano polenta with greens

I found my thoughts provoked before I sat down to write this post, because I just read this terrific essay by Emma Marris, which lays out how the “gospel” of Alice Waters and her restaurant Chez Panisse has become a cultural force in dining, especially high-end dining, while reminding us more than once that Alice Waters cooks peasant food “but only rich people can afford it.”

I parsed the reality that the kind of cooking that captivates my heart and senses, and moves me toward what I do (and share with you here) is exactly that kind. Call it “cucina povera” – Food of the Poor Peasant – or any one these favored words; “rustic” “simple” “seasonal” and let’s not forget “artisanal.” 

I feel the irony of the situation.  [Read more…]

chopped kale salad with hot smoky dates

I would love to eat a fresh date, preferably right now while taking in the sight of an azure Mediterranean sky through a spray of palm fronds. Today, instead of that, I have muted gray winter light (a chance of snow, they say) and some dried dates.

In Miami, where I once lived, huge majestic date palms were planted all around the grounds of fancy hotels and private homes, and at one of my favorite public spaces anywhere, the Fairchild Tropical Gardens. I’m pretty sure the clusters of brilliant yellow fruit that would sometimes appear on the trees were not good to eat. Date palms are natives of hot, dry desert places.

They’re grown in the humid zone of South Florida, often dug up and imported there from other places at huge expense. But while they can flourish on South Beach like sunbathing debutantes, it’s not their ideal climate for fruit-bearing.

I’ll have to wait until I’m in a place like California in winter to bite into a fresh date, an experience that Alice Waters describes in Chez Panisse Fruit as “soft yielding flesh, with a mildly sweet, rich flavor entirely different from that of the hard, wrinkled and cloyingly sweet dates in the package.”

Medjool dates are dried dates, but far from hard and dry, I think. They have a rich quality – kind of luscious really – plump and tender inside. And you can find them in almost every well-stocked market in the produce section at this time of year.  [Read more…]

spicy calabrian cauliflower carbonara

A while back (a long, long while…) I was paying a visit to California wine country.  I was exploring the town of Yountville one afternoon, and wandered into a NapaStyle store. Right there in the middle of the place was Michael Chiarello himself, working the room like the smooth guy he is. He was wearing an immaculate lavender-colored oxford shirt, slim Italian-tailored trousers and his megawatt Food Network smile.

Feeling a tiny bit starstruck, I went over to say hello. I don’t remember what we chatted about, but I do remember him handing me a jar of hot chili pepper sauce, telling me it was from his family’s hometown in Calabria and that I couldn’t leave the store without it. Okay! He didn’t have to work that sales angle too hard.  [Read more…]