California, Here I Come!
by Kate Heyhoe
If any part of the United States could be called "the land of abundance," California would certainly qualify. Just as emigrants from all lands live side-by-side in this bountiful western region, so too do non-native plants, migrated from disparate locales, thrive in the same rich California climate.
From apples, artichokes, apricots and almonds to melons, pears, pomegranates and zucchini, California's eclectic crops and cultures have understandably resulted in a cuisine that's equally diverse, yet in some intangible way, as unified and representative of this state as any cuisine can be.
Long before today's produce began being whisked by air from all parts of the globe to New York, Chicago and other urban centers, California chefs were throwing together meals that seemed as if their ingredients were being flown in. But in fact, these ingredients had already taken root in California, so assembling them in innovative manners was only natural. Kiwifruit may have first been imported from New Zealand, but it wasn't long before the vivid green fruits were being harvested in the San Joaquin and Sacramento valleys. The sugary, buttery Deglet Noor date came from Arabia, but be the end of the 19th century, its offspring in California's Coachella Valley had given rise to date bars, date cookies and refreshing ice-cream and date shakes.
On California menus, stir-fry, sushi, and other Asian dishes have long sat comfortably next to nachos, spaghetti, and bouillabaisse. But what makes California cuisine special is the way it breaks the rules. Why not add mango to grilled salmon, or sweet corn to risotto? To a California cook, if it tastes good, is fresh and readily available, why not use it? In fact, if it's very, very fresh, all the more reason to find a way to throw it into the pot or the pan. Thus, the birth of California cuisine has grown as much from the richness of the land and climate as it has from the ingenuity of the chef.
Pushing the envelope is pretty much a California cultural pastime anyway, and since about 1960, the culinary envelope continues to be pushed by such chefs as Wolfgang Puck, Alice Waters, and the relatively new kid on the block, Thomas Keller. Restaurants commonly get their herbs and produce literally from their own backyards, as well as from organic and local farms. Cheese, fish, wine or poultry need not be imported from Europe or even other parts of the U.S. In fact, I think one of the only truly American items that California doesn't produce is maple syrup—and I'm not too sure about that.
Summer in California is the best—not just for recreation, but for eating. For this is the time when the farmers' markets burst with sweet, tender produce. I always end up buying much more than I could possibly use, just because it's all so tempting. I've collected a few California-style recipes for you to try this summer, keeping in mind that what makes these dishes "California" in style is their attention to freshness, being grown locally, and the rich mix of multicultural influences. If a particular ingredient in your own locale isn't of the best quality, then don't use an inferior product just for the sake of the recipe— be like a Californian and find something else fresh and tender to substitute. By doing so, you'll put your own personal stamp on regional cuisine.
Your California cook,
The Tra Vigne Cookbook
By Michael Chiarello
The French Laundry Cookbook
By Thomas Keller
Kate's Global Kitchen for July, 2000:
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This page created July 2000
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