Finding flavor in food

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

About 20 years ago, Alice Waters, proprietor of California's Chez Panisse, was flying back from the Chino Ranch with a flat of its marvelously fragrant strawberries that she planned to feature for dessert at her restaurant that night. But, Gourmet editor Ruth Reichl remembers, as the perfume of those berries wafted through the plane, passengers began approaching Waters and asking for one.

History does not record what was served for dessert that night at Chez Panisse, but it wasn't strawberries, for they all quickly disappeared. And it was at that moment, Reichl recalls, that Alice Waters knew she was on to something. "We need to bring this flavor back to America," she said.

She has. Indeed, she inspired a culinary revolution and changed the way Americans eat and, for that matter, feel about food. Were it not for her, dubbed the mesclun maven by one writer, you might still be unable to buy more than iceberg lettuce at the supermarket. Before she came on the scene, the term "free-range" just denoted promotions to give away new stoves. No wonder The New York Times calls her the "Mother of American Cooking."

It all started when the ex-Montessori schoolteacher opened an unpretentious restaurant in a former plumbing supply store on Shattuck Avenue in Berkley, Calif., in 1971. Having experienced a sort of culinary epiphany while traipsing through the markets of France as a student, Waters' goal was to spur the evolution of American cuisine by emphasizing cooking that is sophisticated but not daunting, inventive but not fussy, passionately reliant on the best of seasonal ingredients, and eclectic in style. Christened "New American Cuisine," its hallmarks are freshness, simplicity and creativity, and it has now spread to the rest of the country.

Terre Chriss, a disciple of Waters whose own culinary epiphany occurred at the tender age of 8, would like to see it take further hold in Cape Girardeau. So she has returned to town after 20 years in California to open, with her husband, Christo, Gatherings Cafe in the Marquette Towers. The stylish coffee bar cum cafe cum bakery will offer breakfast, lunch and dinner while its kitchen will prepare Sunday brunches and high teas for the former hotel's lobby. The imaginative menu, which promises to elevate even the humble grilled cheese to new heights, will change with the seasons to take advantage of the finest locally made products. Dedicated to the role of food as the centerpiece of community, it's the sort of place that would make Waters -- were she to fly in for a visit (berries in hand) -- feel right at home.

Roasted Chicken and Vegetable Salad

This exquisitely simple and beautiful salad from the Gatherings Cafe menu is a good example of New American Cuisine.

3/4 cup dry sherry, divided

1 1/4 cups olive oil, divided

1/2 cup water

2 teaspoons seasoned salt

1 teaspoon minced garlic

2 teaspoons coarsely ground pepper, divided

2 tablespoons fresh chopped Italian parsley, divided

4 chicken breasts

2 heads garlic

1 red bell pepper

1 green bell pepper

1 orange bell pepper

8 to 10 cipollini or pearl onions

8 to 10 Roma tomatoes

1 eggplant

1 tablespoon Italian seasoning

1 teaspoon fresh thyme

1 teaspoon coarse salt

1 sprig fresh rosemary

6 cups Boston lettuce

Combine 1/2 cup sherry, 1/2 cup olive oil, water, seasoned salt, minced garlic, 1 teaspoon pepper and 1 tablespoon parsley. Pour over chicken and marinate overnight. Remove chicken from marinade, place on greased foil-lined pan and let sit 30 minutes. Wrap garlic heads in foil. Roast chicken and garlic at 425 degrees until chicken is crisp and golden (40 to 50 minutes) and garlic is soft (about 1 hour). Wash and dry vegetables. Cut peppers into strips, halve onions horizontally and tomatoes vertically.

Cut eggplant into large cubes. Toss with 1/4 cup olive oil, Italian seasoning, thyme, remaining tablespoon parsley, 1 teaspoon salt and remaining teaspoon pepper. Roast in greased foil-lined pan until tender and medium brown. Meanwhile cut tops off roasted garlic and squeeze out pulp. Whisk with remaining 1/4 cup sherry and remaining 1/2 cup olive oil. Add rosemary, season to taste with salt and pepper and warm over medium-low heat. Skin and bone chicken and tear into large pieces. Toss lettuce with 1/4 of the warm dressing. Combine chicken and vegetables and toss with remaining dressing and place atop lettuce. Serves 4 to 6.

Listen to A Harte Appetite at 8:49 a.m. on Fridays on KRCU, 90.9 FM. Write A Harte Appetite, c/o the Southeast Missourian, P.O. Box 699, Cape Girardeau, Mo., 63702-0699 or e-mail tharte@semissourian.com.

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