Alice Waters is everywhere these days, shopping at the Union Square Greenmarket, cooking lunch for New York Times reporter Kim Severson, advocating for fresh and locally-grown food in Gourment Magazine, publishing a manifesto on the American food supply, changing the way we look at what we eat.
I must admit, I had never thought much about locally-grown produce. I'd heard the rumors, and I'd even shopped at the Union Square Greenmarket in New York City, but it was never really part of my consciousness. But, Susan at The Food Blogga is crazy for vegetables, and in the past year, she's caught my eye more than once with some of the freshest and colorful veggy creations on the planet. When Jill took me to the Ottawa Farmer's market to forage for ingredients for what she insisted be a locally-grown Canadian Feast, I could no longer deny the fact that there was something to this whole perspective. Frankly, the produce was far superior to anything I've ever come across in my local Waldbaum's grocery store.
So I was intriqued when a colleague suggested I pick up "Alice Waters and Chez Panisse: The Romantic, Impractical, Often Eccentric, Ultimately Brilliant Making of a Food Revolution." How can you pass up a title like that? It's a little like something P.T. Barnum might have dreamt up!
Author Thomas McNamee delves into Alice Waters' psyche, the origins of the world famous Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkley, Calif0rnia, and most important, Waters' philosophy about food -- that it must be fresh, locally-grown and sustainable. The book is a tasty read, indeed. McNamee explores Alice's highly developed senses, her extraordinary palate, and the sex, drugs and drama in the kitchen at Chez Panisse over more than 30 years. There is her obsession with salad, and her drive to change the diets of American school children with the incredible "Edible Schoolyard" project that teaches children to grow, prepare and eat fresh food.
I'd made the obligatory foodie pilgrimage to Chez Panisse in 2004, but what I was lacking then was context. At the time, I didn't fully understand the philosophy behind the food. It would be a very different meal for me now. Alice's ethos says that food, ingredients and community are interdependent, and ingredients properly grown and prepared can sustain the community. Still, I have been troubled by the term "revolution" that is used frequently when referring to Alice Waters. To me, a revolution suggests dramatic, and permanent change. Waters has a life-long calling and mission, indeed. But there is still a significant portion of the population who won't or can't eat locally-grown produce. Still, I can't get those dazzling purple cauliflower I saw in Ottawa, or the stunning yellow zucchini from the North Fork of Long Island out of my mind.
Maybe a revolution can happen in a quiet kind of way, not dramatically, but with crisp flavors, and beautifully brilliant flashes of color. Maybe, if we all committed to one locally-grown dish per week, behaviors might begin to evolve, habits would change, health would improve and good taste would prevail. So I dug out my copy of Chez Panisse Vegetables, and joined the revolution, using locally-grown ingredients I purchased on the North Fork of Long Island:
Zucchini and Tomato Gratin (Adapted From Chez Panisse Vegetables by Alice Waters)
1 yellow onion
Salt and pepper
1 branch fresh thyme
Fresh basil leaves
6 plum tomatoes
2 large yellow zucchini
Panko bread crumbs
Chop onion and sautee in olive oil until translucent. Season with salt and pepper, add thyme leaves and basil. Slice tomatoes and zucchini into rounds. Layer the onion mixture in a deep, buttered quiche pan. Add a layer of tomatoes in an overlapping, circular pattern. Season with salt and pepper and sprinkle with balsamic vinegar. Add a layer of zucchini and alternate with tomatoes until the dish is full. Finish with a layer of zucchini and sprinkle with Panko bread crumbs, season with salt and pepper and drizzle with olive oil. Bake in a 350 degree oven uncovered for about 30 to 45 minutes.
Meantime, I'm off to Vermont in search of autumn leaves and food artisans of New England. See you back here later in October.
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