Sunday, January 23, 2011

Snacking State-by-State: California Part 2A - the Northern Half (California Fresh!)

Last week, I reveled in recipes from the Southern half of California, which I know quite well. This week, I try to understand the foods of the Northern half of the state, a place that is strange and unfamiliar to this Southern California boy. Okay, honorary Southern California boy by way of Baltimore, my hometown and current location.

Just to reiterate the background info:

Snacking State-by-State: California

Official Name: State of California
State Nickname: The Golden State
Admission to the US:
September 9, 1850 (#31)
Capital: Sacramento (7th largest city)
Other Important Cities: Los Angeles (largest, & 2nd largest in the USA), San Diego (2nd largest), San Jose (3rd largest), San Francisco (4th largest)
Region: West, Pacific (small sections of the state can be considered Northwest or Southwest in terms of its food and culture); Pacific (US Census)
RAFT Nations: Acorn, Chile Pepper, Pinyon Nut, Salmon
Bordered by: Baja California, Mexico (south), Arizona & Nevada (east), Oregon (north), Pacific Ocean (west)
Official State Foods and Edible Things: golden trout (fish), California Valley quail (bird), grizzly bear (animal)
Some Famous & Typical Foods: Where to begin? "New California cuisine", diversity of ethnic cuisines, especially Asian, Latin American and Mediterranean (Mexican, Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, Thai, Salvadoran, Korean, Italian), citrus (especially in the south), wine (especially in the center and north), seafood, dates, and so much else

Northern and Central California are perhaps most famous for their wine. As I pointed out last week, California wines have gotten good enough that they now rival wines from France in many competitions. Most famous among the California wines are those from Napa and Sonoma (though again, they aren't the only ones). I never got the chance to take a tour through wine country, though my friends Jim & Gil, also from SoCal, have talked about it. We will, someday. As Eric, one of my much more local friends, pointed out to me over a New Year's Eve dinner (thanks, guys), California grapes played a very important role in rescuing the French wine industry. In the 19th century, vineyards in both England and on the Continent were ravaged by the Phylloxera. Unable to stop their vineyards from dying, European vintners eventually grafted cuttings from North American vines that were more resistant than the completely non-resistant European varietals.

Of course, N
orthern (and Central) Cali is more than wine. It's also the home of Berkeley-based chef Alice Waters, the executive chef of Chez Panisse and the public face of "California cuisine". California cuisine is not the same thing as "California's cuisine". It's a whole way of looking at, procuring, preparing and eating food, period. It is the use of the freshest, most locally-grown and most in-season ingredients as you can find, and often prepared as simply as you can prepare them. As Waters writes in her book Chez Panisse Vegetables, we can all live "California cuisine" without even coming close to the Golden Coast:
If at all possible, plant a garden yourself, and above all, patronize farmer's markets. Get to know your purveyors and producers and give them feedback... Always explore your garden and go to the market before you decide what to cook. Decide on your menu based on what you find there. Buy products that are fresh, local, and organic. Select produce that looks freshly harvested and at its peak. Look for vegetables that look right back at you! [Waters, p. xix]
In the spirit of Waters and California cuisine, I looked for something simple and in season to prepare. At first I thought a salad would be a great idea, but lettuce isn't exactly in season in Maryland right now. Winter squash is, and I ended up finding one from the farmers' market right on my counter.

The recipe: Oven-Roasted Squash with Garlic and Parsley

This recipe, from Waters' Chez Panisse Vegetables cookbook, is a simple and surprisingly sumptuous way to prepare pretty much any winter squash. I found it worked especially well with butternut. It was almost as easy as that date shake I wrote about last week:

* winter squash (mine was a butternut, about 1 lb, which I bought at the farmers' market for a buck)
* olive oil (had it)
* salt and pepper (had those, too)
* garlic (had a few cloves left)
* fresh parsley (had just enough in the fridge)

Peel and seed the squash and dice it into 1" pieces, then toss it with olive oil, salt and pepper. Waters' recipe didn't give exact amounts. I just added enough to my liking. Please, please don't go overboard with the salt and pepper.

Put the pieces on a baking sheet and bake for 375°F for 40 minutes, moving it around with a spatula once in a while to make sure it doesn't burn.

While baking the squash, finely chop a few cloves of garlic (I like garlic, so I chopped about 5 or 6 small cloves) and parsley (a small handful), and then toss with the squash just before serving. That's it.

It sometimes amazes me how such a simple recipe can be so tasty, but Waters' recipe was just that. The butternut just gets nice and sweet in the oven, and stands up so well against all the savory, salty ingredients thrown at it. Please do yourselves a favor and make this sometime. Eat it with a simple salad. Waters recommends a very simple dressing for many of her salads (look in the "lettuce" section of her Chez Panisse Vegetables), based on a finely chopped shallot that sits in wine vinegar and a little salt for about an hour, then mixed with some olive oil, pepper and other items of your choice. I poured a bit of this with chopped garlic over a salad of blood oranges and mixed greens.


Lee, Jennifer 8. The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food. Twelve Books: New York, 2008.

Waters, Alice, and the Cooks of Chez Panisse. Chez Panisse Vegetables. HarperCollins Publishers: New York, 1996.

Yan, Martin. Martin Yan's Chinatown Cooking: The Companion Cookbook to the Public Television Series. William Morrow: New York, 1995.

Some information also obtained from Wikipedia's "California" page and the Food Timeline State Foods webpage link to "California".