Channeling Jeremiah

by Andy Griffin

www.mariquita.com

"Yuck," said my daughter Lena upon observing the meal I had prepared. Lena is six. Her brother Graydon is eight. They prefer to eat processed white flour and sugar products flavored by colorful packaging and marketed by subsidiaries of multinational tobacco companies. Too bad for them that a life in farming has taught me to believe Alice Waters when she says good cooking means getting the best, freshest, most natural ingredients and then not ruining them.

Piled on my kitchen counter were our farm's first early girl tomatoes of the season with basils and sweet onions at the side. It was my parental duty to keep an eye on the kids and their guest, Brock, while making dinner. Coloring, pokemon, and legos were allowed; fighting was not. As for not ruining my homegrown ingredients I thought to inspire my distracted mind by looking at cookbooks. I pulled down Jeremiah Tower's New American Classics off the shelf as well as a copy of Joyce Goldstein's Sephardic Flavors which was pressed tightly to it. Here's a fun couple, I thought.

With his book in hand I had to smile at the memory of seeing Jeremiah Tower striding about his kitchen at Stars restaurant one morning in the mid-eighties dolled up in what for all the world looked like full-blown English fox-hunting drag minus only the riding crop. Mr. Tower's overweening personality translates well into print and spills from the first pages of his cookbook. The facsimile of his signature alone measures fourteen inches wide by four inches tall and occupies two whole sheets of paper.

When I'm feeling flat I enjoy reading Tower because his anecdotes are amusing in a queeny and theatric manner that borrows a lot from hyperbolic fashion journalism. A soup epiphany comes to Mr. Tower like a "bolt out of heaven." "Transcendent" sauces prompt "manias" and "addictions." "Crazed" celebrity diners "slowly roll their eyes" at his improvisations, and America's chefs tag along behind Jeremiah as he popularizes goat cheeses on salads, fruit garnishes on grilled meats and compound butters on birds. It's fun reading even if his implied claim to have invented California cuisine tastes at times like an over-ripe fig-mint relish of his imagination.

Some of Tower's "classic" recipes borrow from the fashion trends of the times, too. Just as jet-setter fashionistas of the late seventies took it upon themselves to mix chic designer creations with popular casual wear like denim jeans so Jeremiah pairs hamburgers with black truffles, melons with old Madeira, and Chateaux d'Yquem with roast beef. Other recipes simply accessorize one luxury with another as lobsters and smoked ducks mingle with raspberries and mangos.

Mr. Towers intends to teach his readers as his uncle taught him to appreciate the "immense difference between excellent and the very best possible." In other words almost none of the recipes in New American Classics are practical in a kitchen full of kids, crayons, and commotion. A fresh tomato vinaigrette recipe stood out of the purple text and above my domestic tumult, though. "This sauce can be an obsession," Jeremiah warns. I left the book open at his warning, broke up a squabble and reached for Sephardic Flavors.

 

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Where Jeremiah would have himself tower over America's contemporary kitchenscape Joyce Goldstein takes her place at the end of a long line of traditional home cooks. Her recipes are updated takes on Sephardic Jewish cookery of the past. Ms. Goldstein's cookbook starts out with a poignant and flavorful history of the Sephardic diaspora from Iberia. With children howling to be fed instantly I had no time to savor the past but just flipped through her recipes. It occurred to me that if generations of Jewish mamas could prepare these meals with kids dragging at their skirts then so could I. A lovely photo of Fidellos Tostados, fried noodles garnished with tomatoes, flashed past my darting eyes.

All of a sudden, just like Jeremiah, an idea struck me with the force of lightning. What if I pair Joyce's fried fideos with Towers' obsessive tomato vinaigrette? What explosive fusion of contrasting textures, flavors, and colors might result? I took a sip of a bubbly, flirtatious, pink wine, told the kids to quiet down again and mentally stuffed myself into red fox hunting togs. Chef André was on the loose!

Almost any kid will eat noodles so I splashed some olive oil into a pan, turned on the heat and broke a pound of capellini into the hot oil. As the noodles browned I got three cups of chicken bouillon ready. Joyce Goldstein says you can put two cups of seeded, chopped tomatoes in the stock but I decided not to. Graydon won't eat food with "ingredients" in it and I didn't know about Brock. Instead I had a notion to use Jeremiah's vinaigrette as an optional adult pasta topping.

Once the noodles were nicely browned I poured in the stock, popped on the lid, turned the burner to low and reached for the tomatoes. Following Jeremiah I concassed the tomatoes, halved them, removed the seeds, and chopped them roughly. A basket of sungold tomatoes got sliced in half, too, for their sweetness and pretty orange color. Basilico piccolo fino verde was on hand and some purple basil, too, so I plucked a handful of tiny leaves and tossed them like confetti into the tomatoes. A walla walla onion was minced instead of Jeremiah's shallot, a meyer lemon got squeezed, a pinch of kosher salt went flying and the whole bowl got stirred. With a flourish I introduced my noodly creation to the children as "Jeremiah Tower tangles with Joyce Goldstein one summer evening at Chef André's day care center."

"Sublime," I declared.

"Yuck" said Lena. I could see why Jeremiah didn't trust himself with a riding crop.

"This is really good," said Brock after his first mouthful. And Brock was right. The hot capellini released a fragrant cloud when the cool herbed salsa was heaped on top just like Jeremiah said it would. The golden noodles were a toothsome contrast to the chopped tomatoes. Red, orange, purple, and green flashed in the bowl and pleased the eye.

"This is really good," said Brock again after his second, and third, and fourth helpings. My dinner was a hit. Maybe Brock isn't a celebrity yet but he was eating like a prince and telling me so. Would this recipe become an obsession? I wondered how Joyce Goldstein would feel about knowing her cookbook had helped me to channel the Jeremiah within and create a new American Classic.

copyright 2003 Andy Griffin

 

 

 

This is a Sungold Cherry Tomato branchlet next to a wild species Cherry Tomato variety called Red Currant.