Cool cookbook author has local roots


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About the time when Alice Waters was opening the doors of Chez Panisse in Berkeley in 1971, Jesse Ziff Cool, a single mom with two sons, moved to California and started one of the first all-organic restaurants in the nation. She didn't know she would one day be hailed a pioneer for organic food. Her wryly named Late for the Train restaurant was located in a cinder-block building next to the Menlo Park train station. "I wasn't trying to prove anything," she said recently in a phone interview. "I was just doing what my family always taught me. I know who I am because of where I came from."

She grew up in Greensburg in the 1950s. Her first tastes of organic food began when she was just a little girl helping her Italian and Jewish grandparents tend their gardens. The food they grew was fresh, natural and organic because, well, that's what grew up out of the soil. The only additive was rain water, and processing came from a hoe, a rake and a bent back.

Her dad, Eddie Ziff, ran King Edward's Supermarket, and her uncle owned a slaughterhouse, so the family was used to cooking and eating all parts of the animals. When young Jesse hung out in the kitchen with her grandmothers, she learned to cook the way they did, by hand and from scratch. The lessons served her well.

A much respected businesswoman, she now is a restaurant owner, chef, teacher, author and spokeswoman. She owns and runs the Flea Street Cafe and jZcool Eating and Catering Co. in Menlo Park and the Cool Cafe at the art museum at Stanford University.

Long before it was fashionable and politically correct, Ms. Cool's restaurants used as much organic food as possible. Her restaurants blazed a trail to prove that organics are both feasible and profitable while supporting local food production and farmers. "We've come from what many people used to call the lunatic fringe to trendy. Because I am, you know -- I'm trendy now!" she says with humor and a bit of pride. "Farmers are my heroes."

"Simply Organic: A Cookbook for Sustainable, Seasonal and Local Ingredients," her brand new and sixth cookbook (Chronicle, $24.95), is a showcase for what she believes and how she cooks.

Unfortunately, all chapter introductory copy is presented in small, pale-gray lettering on pastel-colored pages making it a strain to read in any light. (It's apparent that the latest crop of graphic designers are sadistic youth who have not yet earned their bifocals. I can't wait.)

The good news, however, is the cookbook is packed with appealing, fresh approaches to recipes that are clearly written and simply photographed. There are creative and contemporary recipes such as halibut fillets "crusted" with chopped herbs and edible flowers then lightly sauteed for a spectacular look and summery flavor.

Ms. Cool has some fresh takes on old standbys, too. Banana walnut quick-bread ingredients are transformed into crisp banana-walnut shortbread cookies. And in a twist on apple pie with cheddar cheese, a knockout apple pie is topped with a brown sugar streusel with asiago cheese and freshly ground pepper.

After 34 years of walking the walk, Jesse Ziff Cool still isn't as famous as Alice Waters, but she has been just as strong a force in the food movement that is in the forefront of educated shoppers and diners.

So how cool is that?

ASPARAGUS AND SCALLOPS

PG TESTED

Spring colors, spring flavors, spring is here at last. Although it might make for a roly-poly looking plate, steamed new potatoes would give a bit of heft to this light dinner.

  • 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 3 tablespoons fresh lime juice
  • 2 tablespoons sugar
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 whole canned chipotle chile pepper, pureed or minced
  • 3 tablespoons finely chopped fresh cilantro
  • 1 pound sea scallops (or figure 4 to 5 per serving depending on size)
  • 3/4 cup yellow cornmeal
  • 1 teaspoon ground coriander
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 pound asparagus, trimmed
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • Lime wedges for garnish

In a small bowl, combine the oil, lime juice, sugar, garlic, chile pepper and cilantro. Let the dressing mixture sit for at least 30 minutes.

Remove and discard the tough muscle from the scallops. In a small bowl, combine the cornmeal, coriander, salt and black pepper. Toss the scallops in the cornmeal mixture and set aside on a rack.

Pour 1/2 cup water into a heavy skillet. Bring to a boil over high heat. Add the asparagus. Reduce the heat to medium-low, cover and simmer for four minutes, or until tender-crisp. Remove to a platter and keep warm.

Wipe the skillet and add the butter. Place over medium heat to melt the butter. Add the scallops and cook for two to four minutes, turning once, until lightly browned and opaque.

Divide the asparagus evenly among 4 plates. Top with the scallops. Drizzle with the chipotle dressing and garnish with lime wedges.

Makes 4 servings.

-- "Simply Organic" by Jesse Ziff Cool

OLD-FASHIONED STOUFFER-STYLE CREAMED SPINACH

PG TESTED

When Greensburg-born Jesse Ziff Cool came to Pittsburgh with her mother to shop at Horne's, they often had lunch at the old Stouffer's Restaurant. She created this homage from memories of those trips. As a brunch variation, serve the creamed spinach over toasted English muffins topped with poached eggs instead of hard-cooked eggs.

  • 1 pound fresh spinach, or 2 packages (10 ounces each) frozen
  • 4 thick slices bacon, chopped
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1/2 large red onion, finely chopped
  • 2 tablespoons flour
  • 1 1/2 cups whole milk
  • 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
  • 2 hard-cooked large eggs, peeled and coarsely chopped

If using fresh spinach: in a covered saucepan, bring 1 inch of water to a boil. Put the spinach, in a steamer basket, into the saucepan. Cook the spinach until thoroughly wilted. Allow to cool.

Using your hands, squeeze all excess juice out of the spinach. If using frozen spinach, thaw in a colander and squeeze out the excess water. Put the spinach on a cutting board and coarsely chop. Set aside in a bowl.

In a medium saucepan over medium-low heat, cook the bacon until crispy. Drain on paper towels. Pour off the bacon fat and wipe out the pan. Return the pan to the heat and melt the butter. Add the onion and cook over medium-low heat until softened.

Stir in the flour and cook for two minutes, while the mixture bubbles. Gradually whisk in the milk. Simmer, stirring frequently, over medium-low heat for 4 to 5 minutes, or until thickened. Stir in the mustard, salt and nutmeg and remove from the heat. Allow to set for five minutes.

To serve, pour the creamy sauce over the spinach and top with the bacon and eggs.

-- "Simply Organic" by Jesse Ziff Cool


Marlene Parrish can be reached at mparrish@post-gazette.com or 412-481-1620.


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