Chat with California Cook columnist Russ Parsons

Times Staff Writer

2007-08-02 13:05:05.0 Administrator2: Welcome, Russ! What's new this week?

2007-08-02 13:07:10.0 Russ Parsons: The main thing I'm thinking about right now are all of the wonderful fruits and vegetables in the farmers markets. Tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, peaches, plums,melons. The melons seem to be especially good this year.

2007-08-02 13:07:45.0 Russ Parsons: What are the rest of you seeing?

2007-08-02 13:07:51.0 Administrator2: Excellent! Do you have a favorite farmers' market?

2007-08-02 13:08:39.0 Russ Parsons: I've got lots of them. The Santa Monica Wednesday market and Sunday Hollywood,of course, but there are really good markets on Saturday in Torrance and in Pasadena as well that somehow don't seem to get nearly the attention.

2007-08-02 13:08:45.0 Mammothus: Hello Mr. Parsons. I really enjoy you're writings, especially about less common fruit varieties. I have one specific question and a more general one. First, how can one tell the Adriatic fig you mentioned in this Wednesday's article from the similar Kadota? Second, what are your best sources for information about fruit varieties in general? Thanks.

2007-08-02 13:10:26.0 Russ Parsons: That is a tough one. Both are green figs. The surest way to tell is that the Kadota has a thicker peel (that's what makes it so good for drying). The Adriatic is more delicate. And, of course, you can always ask the farmer. As for sources on fruit varieties ... I've got a whole shelf of them that I gathered while I was working on my book. There's a surprising amount of really good information on the Web, too, especially on University-sponsored sites.

2007-08-02 13:11:12.0 Administrator2: You mentioned this year's melon crop...what kind of interesting dishes can you make using melon?

2007-08-02 13:12:12.0 Russ Parsons: One of my favorite melon desserts is really simple: just slice the melons and dress them with a simple syrup (1 cup water, 1/2 cup sugar, boil until clear) that you've flavored with lime zest and mint. That's terrific, especially after a big meal.

2007-08-02 13:12:47.0 Administrator2: That sounds great!

2007-08-02 13:14:05.0 Russ Parsons: You can also make a cold melon soup very easily--puree the melon in a blender and add just enough water to make it slightly liquid. Squeeze of lemon juice, maybe a shot of tequila. Serve this in small cold glasses. it's the kind of thing to serve at the start of a meal to wake everybody up.

2007-08-02 13:14:25.0 Jen: Hi Mr. Parsons. I enjoy your writings very much over the years. I've noticed a new type of cantelope Tuscan variety available in the supermarkets. Is this a new hybrid?

2007-08-02 13:16:33.0 Russ Parsons: Thanks Jen, I've noticed that melon, too. melons are extremely promiscuous--they cross pollinate all over the place and there are all kinds of varieties that pop up. These "Tuscan" melons are relatives of French Charentais--you can tell because they have deep ridges as well as a rough surface. Ironically, these melons are the true cantaloupes, and the word cantaloupe comes from the name of one of the Pope's summer houses outside of Rome (so I guess they should be called Roman melons, not Tuscan).

2007-08-02 13:16:56.0 Mammothus: I'm really excited about fig varieties coming in (they're one one my passions), and I'm happy to see some grapes coming to market as well. Some of my favorites are Muscat and Red Flame. Any you particularily enjoy Russ?

2007-08-02 13:18:16.0 Russ Parsons: Well, my favorite grape of all time is a good Muscat. There's nothing better than that. They usually come late in summer, like September. They have seeds, but you have to taste them tobelieve them. I also really like Kyoho grapes, which are a Japanese variety that was developed out of the old favorite Concord--you'll taste that "grape jam" flavor.

2007-08-02 13:19:11.0 Russ Parsons: And I should also point out that a good Thompson Seedless is a great grape. Choose the ones that are really ripe--they'll be almost amber in color rather than green. Green they don't have much flavor at all. But ripe they are quite flowery and sweet.

2007-08-02 13:19:18.0 Administrator2: Russ, here's a reader-email question (chatters, these can be submitted in advance to, by the way): I recently went to the SM farmers market and bought some beautiful baby potatoes for a simple potato salad. We usually buy russet potatoes forthis peasant dish, but because I wanted to be eco-friendly I wentw/farmers market spuds. I ended up spending $7 more than I normallywould have. How can I continually justify that? (And, honestly, theflavor was no different. The texture maybe, but not flavor.)

2007-08-02 13:21:04.0 Russ Parsons: Well, that's a personal call you'll have to make. For me, I find the flavor of a lot of these potatoes to be really terrific. Of course, these days you can also buy them at places like Trader Joe's. So that's a tough call. I do prefer waxy potatoes for potato salads because they hold together better. Russets are much starchier and they tend to fall apart and smash when you stir them.

2007-08-02 13:21:12.0 Jen: Back to the grape question, are there many farmer's market vendors who sell Italian Muscats? They're my favorite over the other muscat of alexandria. Although both are very hard to find.

2007-08-02 13:22:10.0 Russ Parsons: Both are very hard to find and I'm afraid over the last several years they seem to be getting even harder. Most people just won't buy grapes with seeds in them. But to answer your question, I don't know anyone specific farmer who grows Italian Muscats.

2007-08-02 13:22:42.0 Administrator2: Here's another reader-email question, Russ: You mentioned in an earlier chat that you like the Wednesday Chef blog.She currently has a dish called a 'Torchi.' What is that?

2007-08-02 13:24:17.0 Russ Parsons: I saw that and I was just as mystified as you. Sometimes chefs come up with fanciful names. That's the only thing I can figure out. I've never heard of it before. it could also be a regional or dialectical name for a pasta shape. Those looked to me like penne, though.

2007-08-02 13:24:28.0 Joy: Something I have always wondered about. Cooking on top of the stove for a long period of time. For instance, you hear of spaghetti sauces that are cooked for days. Is there really a difference between one that has just been cooked and one cooked forever. How do you establish a cut off point.. Also can't you compensate by using a pressure cooker?

2007-08-02 13:27:12.0 Russ Parsons: That's a really interesting question. Long cooking results in something that's almost akin to an harmonic in music--two ingredients that end up tasting like a third. it's quite mysterious and quite wonderful. I don't know what the cut-off point would be. It would be an interesting experiment to keep a pot going on a very low simmer and come back and taste it. I do know that in making a tomato sauce and especially a ragu, after about 3 or 4 hours there is a quite definite change in flavor. But where the endpoint is I can't say. And time does seem to be critical. I've never had one successfully made in a pressure cooker or microwave.

2007-08-02 13:28:34.0 Administrator2: Another email question: I find the flavors of smoked paprika and mace to be very, very powerful and distracting, even when I use only the tiniest amount. Any suggestions for substitions?

2007-08-02 13:30:08.0 Russ Parsons: Hmm, not really. There are ingredients that need to be used very very gently. And smoked paprika is definitely one of them. A pinch gives you a flavor; a teaspoon would be completely overpowering. Cloves are another one like that. You can taste a single clove in a pot of soup.

2007-08-02 13:30:19.0 Jen: You've mentioned that you're a great admirer of chef Michel Richard and i've just finished browsing thru his Happy in the Kitchen, and i was wondering as a home cook, do you regularly go through all these intricate & time-consuming steps in making weekday meals for your family? Or just for special occassions with guests?

2007-08-02 13:31:33.0 Russ Parsons: I am a great admirer of Michel's and I think the book is quite wonderful. But no, of course I don't cook like that for weekday meals. I might do one dish for a dinner party. There are all kinds of cookbooks for all kinds of purposes.

2007-08-02 13:31:40.0 Joy: Do you maintain a stockpot/or save all your veggie bits in the freezer to make stock when you need it?

2007-08-02 13:33:13.0 Russ Parsons: If I were a better person i would. When I started to cook, for the first couple of years I did that. But it's interesting ... I don't make that many things that call for lots of stock any more.

2007-08-02 13:33:17.0 Joy: Who is your favorite TV chef?

2007-08-02 13:34:27.0 Russ Parsons: To be honest, I don't really watch that much food on television. I do like Top Chef on Bravo and I really like Gordon Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares on BBCAmerica (though I can't bear to watch Hell's Kitchen). I've always liked Mario's shows. I always learn something from him. Which ones do you guys like and why?

2007-08-02 13:36:18.0 Joy: I like Ming. I like the whole format: a master recipe interpreted in several ways. At the end he always brings in a guest chef and that adds to it. He blends east and west in a very interesting way.

2007-08-02 13:37:02.0 Russ Parsons: That does sound like a really interesting approach. I'm fascinated by the way cooks thing: when they see a certain set of ingredients, how they envision putting them together.

2007-08-02 13:37:08.0 Jen: Regarding farmer's markets vendors, do you think that many farmers don't want to become certified organic because of their reliance on chemical non-organic fertilizers? I know many say they're "no spray" and they bring up the cost of certification, but maybe that could be a cop-out?

2007-08-02 13:39:07.0 Russ Parsons: Well, this is going to be controversial, but I don't put much stock in organics. The organic movement has done a lot of good, but it's also done harm by dividing the world into "clean" organic farmers and everyone else, who are presumed to be dirty. In the real world, there is a wide range of approaches to using chemical pesticides and fertilizers and most good farmers use them very sparingly. personally, I follow the farmer and the flavor. You can't cheat flavor.

2007-08-02 13:40:23.0 Administrator2: What about free-range-- eggs, milk and such? Is there a real taste difference with this stuff?

2007-08-02 13:41:37.0 Russ Parsons: I don't see a consistent difference in flavor with free-range eggs, and there is even quite a bit of controversy about just how "free" those free-range chickens are. I do think that some brands of free-range chickens are quite good (rocky, specifically).

2007-08-02 13:41:47.0 Joy: Shop can't beat it. Next Thursday my community is getting a farmers market--Bixby Knolls.

2007-08-02 13:42:04.0 Russ Parsons: So, how often do you eat at Bake 'n' Broil?

2007-08-02 13:44:01.0 Joy: Not as much as I would like to.

2007-08-02 13:44:46.0 Russ Parsons: I'm really looking forward to the opening of that market, too (I live in Long Beach, too, if you hadn't guessed). The Sunday market at the marina is very good, too. The Friday downtown seems to be languishing, though.

2007-08-02 13:45:05.0 Jen: Do you think that farmer's markets have expanded too fast across the state? too numerous? Do you think that it won't be sustainable for the newer vendors just getting established?

2007-08-02 13:45:42.0 oakmonster: L-B-C! (Well, I'm in Los Alamitos...close enough.)

2007-08-02 13:47:00.0 Russ Parsons: I think that's a real problem. I think there are too many markets and too few good farmers. As markets proliferate, they often find they have to look the other way for some things and allow farmers they might not otherwise. One of the things I'm really interested in is where markets will be in five years. I think we'll see a lot more Community Sponsored Agriculture in Southern California and I wouldn't be surprised to see the opening of some specialty produce stores that handle great small farmers (like Berkeley Bowl and Monterey Market in the Bay Area).

2007-08-02 13:47:46.0 Russ Parsons: LBC indeed! I've lived there for 15 years.

2007-08-02 13:47:56.0 Administrator2: Russ, this is a longshot, but have you ever found really good, authentic-tasting gumbo outside New Orleans? Is there anyplace closer than that where a gumbo fan can get a fix?

2007-08-02 13:49:09.0 Russ Parsons: I wish I could give you a happier answer, but not really. I know Stevie's on the Strip has a good reputation, but I haven't eaten their gumbo. Orleans used to have pretty good gumbo, in that Prudhomme kind of way. But I'm afraid gumbo and barbecue are the two places Los Angeles kind of falls short.

2007-08-02 13:49:28.0 Administrator2: Oh, man!

2007-08-02 13:49:33.0 Joy: In the summer I go to the Bellflower farmers market just to get Tennerelli's peaches.

2007-08-02 13:50:06.0 Russ Parsons: Yes, he's a really good farmer. IIRC he's also at the Torrance Saturday market.

2007-08-02 13:50:11.0 oakmonster: This discussion came up around the lunch room in the office yesterday. Russ, perhaps you could help settle. Saffron: worth the money or one can go without?

2007-08-02 13:51:26.0 Russ Parsons: Depends on how much you like it. To me, there is nothing that even comes close to replicating the flavor of saffron. it's completely itself. and so if you love saffron, you end up having to go for the real thing. but i find it pretty easy to avoid. I do like a pinch of it in a fish soup and in paella!

2007-08-02 13:51:37.0 Jen: On the subject of Q, why don't more BBQ joints smoke their ribs? Most seemed baked or grilled. is their an airquality ordinance preventing restaurantsfrom operating a proper smoker?

2007-08-02 13:52:35.0 Russ Parsons: The thing I really find objectionable is when they boil the ribs and then finish them on the smoker. It does pick up a little smoke flavor, but teh texture is just weird--falling apart tender. a good rib is tender but has a bit of snap to it.

2007-08-02 13:52:46.0 Joy: Penzey's carries a lot of interesting blends. For instance, I buy the rogan Josh one for cooking lamb. Are there any that you have discovered and could tip us off to?

2007-08-02 13:54:17.0 Russ Parsons: Hmm, I have to admit that I don't use many spice blends. I tend to put my own together to fit the dish that I'm making. And since I tend to cook French/Italian/Californian, that tends to be along the lines of black pepper/fennel/clove, etc. I keep one of those small whirly coffee grinders just for grinding spices. works great, and they cost about $10.

2007-08-02 13:54:31.0 Administrator2: More from the (e-)mailbag: When you have a dinner party, do you put out an appetizer? If so, what? I ask because sometimes I feel my guests fill up on bread and cheese before they make it to the dinner table.

2007-08-02 13:56:11.0 Russ Parsons: yes, I do make appetizers. I like dinner parties to stretch out, though. So when people come in, I'll usually have champagne or some light white wine and I'll serve some almonds and a little salame or something like that. Then we'll usually have a first course and then a main course. One thing I like to do for first courses is fix 3 or 4 different vegetable dishes and serve them at room-temperature, like salads.

2007-08-02 13:57:31.0 Russ Parsons: I should explain that the main reason for the almonds/salame/champagne thing instead of going straight to appetizers is that in Southern California, you never know when people are going to show up. For a 7 o'clock dinner, they may be anywhere from 7:05 to 7:30. And so that gives us something to nibble on while we're waiting for everybody else.

2007-08-02 13:57:40.0 Jen: on the subject of grinding your own spices, how do clean out a coffe grinder if you've ground aromatics like Indian or mideastern spices? it seems to permeate for a long time.

2007-08-02 13:57:59.0 Joy: Guests get their 5-a-day!

2007-08-02 13:58:44.0 Russ Parsons: I wipe it out with a damp paper towel. there may be traces left, but i prefer to think that they just add a hint of complexity to the next blend I'm making (this may be delusional). And I should point out that I definitely DO NOT use this grinder for coffee!

2007-08-02 13:58:57.0 Mammothus: Do you ever serve much deep fried foods at dinner parties? I've had success with a fried main course (like Sichuan duck), but it always seemed a pain to do it for appetizers.

2007-08-02 13:59:59.0 Russ Parsons: I only do fried foods if there are only four of us. I hate dinner parties where I'm stuck in the kitchen away from the guests and frying really needs to be done at the last minute. If there are only four of us, we can all fit in the kitchen.

2007-08-02 14:00:08.0 joeinla: Hi, Russ- Any idea when real Atlantic Cod (as opposed to "true" cod ) will return to markets? Thanks

2007-08-02 14:00:09.0 joeinla: also, aren't the Chiean bass, or toothfish going to be the to vanish/

2007-08-02 14:01:20.0 Russ Parsons: I've seen Atlantic cod from time to time, but definitely not the way it used to be. And there is a new "approved" fishery for chilean sea bass, though it is wildly expensive--I saw some that was a lot more than Copper River salmon. To me, that's completely nuts.

2007-08-02 14:01:26.0 Joy: ribs are supposed to be the perfect dinner party food, along with artichokes as they take a long time to eat.

2007-08-02 14:02:10.0 Russ Parsons: I also like to serve food that people have to eat with their fingers. breaks down any barriers right away!

2007-08-02 14:02:19.0 oakmonster: Los Angeles Magazine recently published their best of LA list. What would be your personal choices for 1) fish and chips, 2) pastrami sandwich and 3) sweet potato fries?

2007-08-02 14:03:49.0 Russ Parsons: Hmmm, I can't help you with 2 of those 3, because I haven't had a fish and chips here that I found outstanding and because I don't pay much attention to sweet potato fries. But pastrami is open-and-shut with me. Langer's is so much better than anything else I've ever tasted (you do need to ask them to hand-slice it, though, the texture's part of the deal).

2007-08-02 14:04:06.0 Jen: speaking of fish, are there any farm-raised salmon that come close to the texture & flavor of wild salmon like Copper river?

2007-08-02 14:04:59.0 Russ Parsons: Farm-raised salmon is almost a different fish. Especially at the price, it's not bad. But wild salmon has a different texture and a much more complex flavor.

2007-08-02 14:05:01.0 joeinla: hands-down, it's Langers. Try H.Salt in Hollywood for the fish.

2007-08-02 14:05:15.0 Russ Parsons: I'll do that!

2007-08-02 14:05:16.0 Mammothus: On the subject of Chilean sea bass, have you every tried escolar? It's very similiar fish, in that it's white fleshed and quite rich, but much less expensive. I don't think there is a population problem either.

2007-08-02 14:05:48.0 Russ Parsons: Escolar, isn't that the one with teh funny digestive side-effects?

2007-08-02 14:06:19.0 Mike: I've heard that about Escolar too Russ!

2007-08-02 14:06:32.0 Mammothus: That's the one. I've never noticed anything out of the ordinary though.

2007-08-02 14:06:49.0 joeinla: I think it'slso known as oil-fish

2007-08-02 14:07:21.0 Russ Parsons: I do tend to favor West Coast fish -- sardines, mackerel, swordfish, shark, salmon, white sea bass, halibut, and of course my beloved sanddabs.

2007-08-02 14:07:22.0 Jen: Do you pay attention to the mercury level of the fish you consume? or does it not cross your mind at all? There was lots of controversy a few months ago.

2007-08-02 14:08:09.0 Mammothus: Escolar has some fat like molecules that the body has trouble processing, and it goes through the digestive system (if I remember correctly).

2007-08-02 14:08:50.0 Russ Parsons: to be honest, I never worry about it. If I was in a situation where I was having to eat a diet that was very high in some of those fish--tuna, sword--then it would be a concern. But I eat swordfish maybe 3 or 4 times a year. and the same for tuna. Remember the old rule: it's the dose that makes the poison.

2007-08-02 14:09:26.0 Russ Parsons: Yes Mammothus, that's what I was referring to. Those molecules tend to go through the digestive system extremely quickly. if you get my drift.

2007-08-02 14:09:44.0 Administrator2: Do you ever make tapenade? Any tips?

2007-08-02 14:10:41.0 Russ Parsons: I love tapenade, especially in the summer. It's completely easy to do, too. Just grind pitted olives in the blender or food processor (or mortar and pestle). Add soem garlic, a little olive oil to hold it together. Delicious on toast. You can also make a nice one with green olives and almonds.

2007-08-02 14:11:13.0 joeinla: For a very thily sliced mariated tender beef, what cut do you prefer?

2007-08-02 14:12:13.0 Russ Parsons: I like skirt steak or flank steak for that. And the stuff they sell in mexican markets as "carne asada" meat. cook it over a really hot fire so it crusts up a little and stays medium-rare.

2007-08-02 14:12:23.0 joeinla: sorry, the N sticks

2007-08-02 14:12:25.0 Jen: You said you're a fan of Cal-Med/italian food, do you eat& serve a lot more crudo (fish carpaccio) now that it's become very popular in Italy & elsewhere?

2007-08-02 14:13:22.0 Russ Parsons: I like to eat crudo (and sushi/sashimi), but i don't serve it very often. to me, it's one of those restaurant treats.

2007-08-02 14:13:32.0 Administrator2: One more reader-email question: Do you have an all-time favorite chocolate chip cookie recipe?

2007-08-02 14:14:20.0 Russ Parsons: This is funny, but the one on the back of the Toll-House chips bag. Years ago someone had written in asking for the Spago chocolate chip recipe and Wolfgang Puck sent it in. Only after we ran it did we realize that that was the recipe.

2007-08-02 14:14:58.0 Administrator2: What's the best thing you've cooked in the past week?

2007-08-02 14:16:33.0 Russ Parsons: I'm testing recipes for my next story and I made a pretty amazing (if i do say so myself) soupe au pistou. actually i've made it 3 times so far because i like it so much: chopped carrots, tomatoes, green beans, potatoes, onions, garlic in a pot. Cover with water. Bring to a simmer, cook until tender. Add a handful of macaroni and cook until it's done. Serve it really hot and stir in a big spoonful of pesto. The basil flavor is just amazing with all of those vegetables.

2007-08-02 14:16:52.0 joeinla: Do you shop at Gelson's, Bristol Farms, Whole Foods, or somewhere else?

2007-08-02 14:17:25.0 Russ Parsons: I probably do about 60% of my grocery shopping at TJ. I do about 20% at Bristol and about 20% at farmers markets.

2007-08-02 14:18:10.0 Russ Parsons: It's that time again! we've got time for one more question. Who's up?

2007-08-02 14:18:16.0 Jen: Are any aromatics (onions, carrots, leeks) for the soup sauteed before adding water? Any chicken stock at all?

2007-08-02 14:19:02.0 Russ Parsons: Nope. It's completely easy. But the flavor is amazing. I think it has to do with the lightness of the flavors. you really taste the complexity of the vegetable broth.

2007-08-02 14:19:09.0 joeinla: Thank you

2007-08-02 14:19:18.0 Jen: Thanks!

2007-08-02 14:19:52.0 Russ Parsons: Thanks everybody! See you next week, same time, same channel!

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