Thursday, December 5, 2013

Judy Rodgers, rest in peace - you made a lot of people happy

Judy Rodgers
in a San Francisco
Chronicle photograph
from 2003.
Judy Rodgers, restaurateur and cook extraordinaire, died Monday, Dec. 2. She was 57. So am I.

She had struggled with her health for several years and last winter was finally diagnosed with a rare form of cancer.

She will be missed, for her cooking and spirit of trying new ways of cooking old favorites; if you ever had a Zuni Cafe roast chicken, you will know exactly what I'm talking about.

This was a review of "The Zuni Cafe Cookbook" that ran in The Sacramento Bee in 2002. If you ever need a recipe from it, I still have my copy and would be happy to copy it for you.

By Lori Korleski Richardson
Judy Rodgers, welcome.
Unlike many chefs who seek to dazzle readers with their oh-so-cutting-edge creativity and slavish attention to detail, Rodgers would be comfortable in an ordinary kitchen. And you should invite her into yours - well, at least virtually, which you can do by picking up "The Zuni Cafe Cookbook" (Norton, $35).
Rodgers has succeeded in bringing forth a cookbook that elevates quality ingredients to their ultimate best, without a lot of bells and whistles. Her introductory quote, from the patriarch of the French family that set her on her way to becoming a chef, says it all: "Méfie-toi du cinéma dans la cuisine" - "Do not trust food for show."
The chef-owner of San Francisco's Zuni Cafe, Rodgers learned the sensuous side of food as a teen, when she went to live in Roanne with a family of restaurateurs. There she learned that even food as simple as a ham sandwich can be turned into something special, although she sampled fresh whole truffles steamed in Sauternes as well. She took extensive notes, but did not learn to cook then. She came back to the States to go to college in Berkeley, but ended up learning the cooking trade slowly at the feet of Alice Waters, who let Rodgers prepare lunches at Chez Panisse from the dinner leftovers.
She spent time later learning American cooking from Marion Cunningham at the Union Hotel in Benicia, and spent time in Florence, Umbria and Sicily to learn the roots of great Italian cooking.
And if the travelogue of an introduction isn't enough reading, Rodgers goes on to instruct the reader how to approach planning and cooking a meal. It's a lot to ask before one even gets to the recipes (43 pages), but it's not to be missed. She also weaves in stories with the recipes. I tried to keep "Zuni" by my bedside to read before going to sleep, but it made me want to get up and try things.
And later, when I did try some of the recipes - Zuni's signature roast chicken, the spicy squid stew that simmered in its own ink with notes of citrus and roasted peppers, the salt-roasties (creamer potatoes roasted in rock salt which were succulent and hardly salty at all), the four-minute egg gribiche (the four minutes refers to the time the egg is cooked; the whisking of a cup of olive oil into the sauce took much longer), the cornmeal biscotti, the espresso granita with whipped cream - I was not disappointed. All the recipes were straightforward, easy to follow, and the aromas made me anticipate the outcomes, which were excellent. Every recipe, even the desserts, comes with wine recommendations by Gerald Asher.
This is not a book for folks with hypertension. Rodgers believes in salting food early in the cooking process for maximum flavor, and uses more sodium than many health-conscious folks would. The food, however, never tastes overly salty to the average palate.
"The Zuni Cafe Cookbook" is ambitious enough to thrill experienced cooks, but it would be a good first cookbook for anyone who appreciates fine food and wants to learn how to work it into one's life, since it focuses more on technique than following a recipe to the nth degree.
Rodgers covers the basics - what cookware to purchase, how to make various stocks, sauces, a discussion of what to look for in common ingredients such as garlic and tomatoes, and even how to hard-boil an egg. I couldn't find a recipe that required a food processor - rather a remarkable feat for a modern cookbook, but a welcome one for cooks who don't have that expensive appliance. It has 50 small black and white photographs to illustrate various techniques. But its directions are somewhat - and perhaps intentionally - sketchy. They may help a confident cook experiment and grow, but may be somewhat confusing to the novice.
The 24 color photographs by Gentl & Hyers/Edge are stunning and focus the attention on the food, not fancy designs on sauces or pretty graffiti on the edges of the plates. It may not be food for show, but it's certainly food you'll want to show your guests.

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