JUDY RODGERS has firm opinions on salt. Well, to be honest (and that's the only way she would have it), Rodgers has firm opinions on many, many things, including such disparate topics as the unthinking use of lemon as an all-purpose acidifier, why Kennebec and Winnemucca are the perfect potatoes for frying, and the tip-driven inequities between waiters' and cooks' take-home pay.
These aren't knee-jerk opinions. The chef and co-owner of San Francisco's beloved Zuni Cafe has thought through these issues quite thoroughly, breaking each down in her methodical way.
In fact, a thoughtful, painstaking approach to cooking is the very spirit that informs her restaurant. While other chefs may range far and wide, tracking down the latest new dish, ingredient or technique, Rodgers would rather just dig a little deeper.
Though roughly 60% to 70% of the dinner menu at Zuni changes every night, it is based on a relatively small number of dishes. And some, such as roast chicken, Caesar salad and house-cured anchovies, have been on the menu almost every night since she took over in 1987.
Don't mistake that as a sign of a kitchen on autopilot. Rodgers still views every one of those dishes as a work in progress, and she is constantly measuring, timing and evaluating whether there is a way each could be improved. As she puts it in her critically acclaimed "The Zuni Cafe Cookbook": "Making even a simple dish three times in two weeks can teach you more about cooking than trying three different dishes in the same period. Pay attention to the process of making it, and to the small and large differences in the results."
That could be Rodgers' mantra: Pay attention to the details of cooking and think about what is going on. "Build your database," is how she likes to put it.
Rodgers' most-discussed culinary theory regards the salting of meat. Almost every piece of beef, lamb, fish or poultry that comes into the Zuni kitchen immediately gets a light dusting of salt, and then is set aside for as long as several days to "cure."
"It is a part of the restaurant's personality," she says. "The flavor of Zuni Cafe is pre-salting, and if I can't pre-salt, I can't get the right flavor."
Rodgers says pre-salting does two things: It seasons the meat all the way through rather than just on the surface, and it changes the texture of the meat, making it moister and more tender -- in much the same way brining does.
Ask for details and you'd better be careful what you wish for. Rodgers might just invite you to San Francisco for a day of on-the-spot experiments.
The basement cook
THERE are two kitchens at Zuni Cafe: one upstairs where dishes are finished, and one in the basement where all the initial preparations take place. The first, the one the customers see, is light-filled and airy with warm wood and tile surfaces. The second is emphatically not, but it seems to be where Rodgers spends most of her time.
The two are joined by a long, steep staircase, and in the course of a day Rodgers must sprint up and down it at least a dozen times. At 49, she still has an air about her of Berkeley in the '70s. Tall and willowy, she wears her hair waist-length and straight and is given to dressing in brightly colored tights and short skirts, even when she's cooking.
But there is nothing airy-fairy about Rodgers. She believes in getting right down to business.
For this day's experiments, she has lined up four chickens (two cut up for frying: one cured, one not; two whole for roasting, the same arrangement); three beef sirloins (one uncured, one cured in salt only, one cured with salt and coarse pepper); two chuck roasts for braising (one cured, one not); and five thick pork chops (variously cured, brined and marinated). You might expect that each type of meat would take a different dose of salt, but Rodgers has calculated that about 1 tablespoon of medium-grain sea salt per 4 1/2 pounds of meat is the perfect ratio for everything. Instead, she says, it's the time spent curing that varies, from a couple of hours to several days. This depends on the type of meat -- chicken and pork are denser than beef or lamb so they take longer -- and the size of the cut.
Rodgers' salting is different from traditional koshering in that kosher chickens are salted and cured for only an hour, then rinsed with water, whereas Zuni chickens cure for anywhere from one to three days. As for the salt, Rodgers prefers a sea salt that she finds in bulk bins in the Bay Area that is somewhat coarser than fine salt, but much finer than that which is usually sold as coarse. It has the consistency of cornmeal. If you're using very finely ground salt, just use slightly less.
You might think early salting would result in drier meat because the salt would draw out moisture. But the way it seems to work is that over time, the meat reabsorbs the moisture, carrying the salt with it. Furthermore, because that moisture is loaded with amino acids and sugars, the meat browns better and forms a better crust.
Rodgers knew none of that when she started pre-salting. She was just following the instructions of Georgette Descat, a Parisian chef and one of her culinary godparents.
By her own admission, Rodgers comes from a very nongastronomic family in St. Louis. As a junior in high school in 1973, she was anxious to spend a year abroad, preferably in France, as she had studied the language. A neighbor who was a fabrics chemist at Monsanto mentioned he knew someone in Rouen, a textile city, who might be willing to host her.
That someone turned out to be Jean Troisgros, who with his brother Pierre was among the pioneers of nouvelle cuisine, at their three-star restaurant Maison Troisgros. For someone with even the most nascent interest in food, this was like landing in heaven.
Indeed, Rodgers dates the beginning of her culinary life to the very first meal she enjoyed chez Troisgros -- not a Michelin-starred extravaganza with its famous salmon and sorrel, but a very carefully made ham sandwich that Jean Troisgros fixed upon her arrival at 4 a.m.
"That was when I started paying attention to food," she says. "Before then I was someone who fueled efficiently. But there was no turning back after that ham sandwich."
Life at the Troisgros' wasn't all wine-poached truffles (though there were those too). Much more formative for Rodgers were the family's dinners prepared by their sister, Madeleine Troisgros Serraille, who served perfectly executed versions of classic French home cooking.
"Salmon and sorrel is wonderful, but nothing beats a great blanquette," Rodgers says.
AFTER the Troisgros experience, Rodgers' great teacher was Pepette Arbulo, who had a small cafe in the Landes region, a great area for ducks, but not much else.
"That was a real awakening for me," she says. "I never noticed that I was eating duck two or three times a day, because people there had explored for a hundred years every possible elaboration of what was possible to do with all of those damned ducks they had, and had eventually winnowed all of those possibilities down to a few of the best. It was a kind of communal distillation.
"It wasn't an attitude of 'Here is what we have to do because we're so isolated'; rather it was a daily exploration of what they could do with what they had."
Between the two French stays was a stint in Berkeley at Chez Panisse, working with an all-star crew including Alice Waters, Lindsey Remolif Shere, Mark Miller, Jean-Pierre Moulle, Deborah Madison and Jeremiah Tower. Rodgers learned from all of them, but the most important lesson may have come from her mother, who hardly cooked at all. She was an instructor in fashion design at Washington University, and when Rodgers was 8, she gave her her first sewing lessons.
"She taught me that there was a right way and a wrong way to lay out a pattern on a piece of fabric, and that if I laid out the pattern the wrong way, it would mess everything up. It didn't matter if it was a great pattern and great material," Rodgers says.
"It's the same thing with cooking. You can have great ingredients and a fabulous imagination, but if you screw up at any of the steps, it doesn't matter what you were working with or what you imagined."
Fried to perfection
WHICH brings us back to that kitchen full of meat. The first finished dish we taste, the fried chicken, is fabulous. It's the dish that brought her to national attention in the 1980s, when she was cooking at the little Union Hotel in Benicia, northeast of San Francisco. (Ruth Reichl, then critic for New West magazine, called it "the most perfect example of that dish I have ever encountered.")
At first it's hard to say whether that deliciousness is because of the quality of the meat -- it's cured for only two to three hours -- or the glorious crackling crust. But pull some of the meat from the center of each sample, and there is a definite difference -- the texture is fine-grained, not stringy.
Things come into clearer focus with the braised beef. Cooked in a red wine reduction until it is nearly falling apart, the regular chuck tastes like boiled beef. The pre-salted sample has a fuller flavor. The pork chops, which the grill cook has let go a little too long, are slightly dried out, except for the one that was brined. It is still tender and moist, but the sugar in the brine makes the meat noticeably sweet when compared with the others.
Rodgers doesn't like that, and though the flavor of the brine was not on the day's agenda, she vows to change the recipe.
The three beef fillets, roasted quite rare, are dramatically different. The unsalted is fine -- it's a nice piece of grass-fed beef -- but the pre-salted has much better flavor and is firmer in texture, so it slices cleanly, rather than in rags. And a hint of black pepper seems to have been carried to the center of the one that was peppered as well as pre-salted.
It is the roast chicken that is the coup de grace, though, and that is fitting. Zuni's roast chicken is so popular that the restaurant goes through 350 birds a week -- each one roasted to order in the wood-fired oven.
You can tell the difference between the birds just by looking. The pre-salted chicken is a uniform golden color, whereas the other is more mottled, with some gold, some pale and even some black charred spots.
The difference in flavor is even more pronounced. The bird that was salted just before roasting tastes like, well, chicken -- nothing special, and the texture is a little stringy.
The pre-salted chicken is a revelation: The flavor is full and deep. It's not salty at all, but has a profound chicken taste. The meat is moist and tender; the texture is downright buttery.
Sure, it's a roast chicken. But it's not just any roast chicken. "That is the taste of a Zuni chicken," Rodgers exclaims. "That is the taste of Zuni restaurant. This is what I've always wanted to do: Serve dishes that weren't just playful and amusing, but were keepers. I like keepers."
Zuni Cafe roast chicken with bread salad
Total time: 1 hour, 10 minutes, plus 1 to 3 days standing time
Servings: 2 to 4
Note: This recipe is adapted from "The Zuni Cafe Cookbook" by Judy Rodgers. From 1 to 3 days before serving, season the chicken. Begin preparing the bread salad up to several hours before serving.
1 (2 3/4 - to 3 1/2 -pound) chicken
4 tender sprigs fresh thyme, marjoram, rosemary, or sage, about 1/2 -inch long
About 2 1/4 teaspoons sea salt
About 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1. Remove and discard the lump of fat inside the chicken. Rinse the chicken and pat very dry inside and out. Be thorough -- a wet chicken will spend too much time steaming before it begins to turn golden brown.
2. Approaching from the edge of the cavity, slide a finger under the skin of each of the breasts, making 2 little pockets. Now use the tip of your finger to gently loosen a pocket of skin on the outside of the thickest section of each thigh. Using your finger, shove an herb sprig into each of the 4 pockets.
3. Season the chicken liberally all over with salt and pepper, allowing about three-fourths teaspoon of sea salt per pound of chicken. Season the thick sections a little more heavily than the skinny ankles and wings. Sprinkle a little of the salt just inside the cavity, on the backbone, but otherwise don't worry about seasoning the inside. Twist and tuck the wing tips behind the shoulders. Cover loosely and refrigerate for 1 to 3 days.
4. When ready to cook, heat the oven to 475 degrees. (Depending on the size, efficiency and accuracy of your oven and the size of your bird, you may need to adjust the heat to as high as 500 degrees or as low as 450 degrees during the course of roasting the chicken to get it to brown properly.)
4. Choose a shallow flameproof roasting pan or dish barely larger than the chicken, or use a 10-inch skillet with an all-metal handle. Heat up the pan on the stove over medium heat. Wipe the chicken dry and set it breast-side up in the pan. It should sizzle.
5. Place the chicken in the center of the oven and listen and watch for it to start sizzling and browning within 20 minutes. If it doesn't, raise the temperature progressively until it does. The skin should blister, but if the chicken begins to char, or the fat is smoky, reduce the temperature by 25 degrees. After about 30 minutes, turn the bird over (drying the bird and preheating the pan should keep the skin from sticking). Roast for another 10 to 20 minutes, depending on its size, then flip back over to re-crisp the breast skin, another 5 to 10 minutes. Total oven time will be 45 minutes to 1 hour.
6. When the chicken is done, lift it from the roasting pan and set it on a plate. Carefully pour the clear fat from the roasting pan, leaving the lean drippings behind. Add about a tablespoon of water to the hot pan and swirl it.
7. Slash the stretched skin between the thighs and breasts of the chicken, then tilt the bird and plate over the roasting pan to drain the juices into the drippings.
8. Set the chicken in a warm spot (which may be your stove top) and leave it to rest while you finish the bread salad. The meat will become more tender and uniformly succulent as it cools.
9. Set a platter in the oven to warm for a minute or two.
10. Tilt the roasting pan and skim the last of the fat. Place over medium-low heat, add any juice that has collected under the chicken and bring to a simmer. Stir and scrape to soften any hard golden drippings. Taste -- the juices should be extremely flavorful. The pan juices will be used to drizzle over the bread salad.
Bread salad and assembly
Generous 1/2 pound slightly stale open-crumbed, chewy, peasant-style bread (not sourdough)
6 to 8 tablespoons mild-tasting olive oil
1 1/2 tablespoons Champagne vinegar or white wine vinegar
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon dried currants
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar, or as needed
2 tablespoons pine nuts
2 to 3 garlic cloves, slivered
1/4 cup slivered scallions (about 4 scallions), including a little of the green part
2 tablespoons lightly salted chicken stock or lightly salted water
A few handfuls of arugula, frisee or red mustard greens, carefully washed, dried and torn
Spoonful of pan juices from the roast chicken
1. Heat the broiler. Cut the bread into a couple of large chunks. Carve off all of the bottom crust and most of the top and side crust (reserve the top and side crusts to use as croutons in salads or soups). Brush the bread all over with olive oil.
2. Broil the bread chunks very briefly to crisp and lightly color the surface. Turn the bread over and crisp the other side. Trim off any badly charred tips, then tear the chunks into a combination of irregular 2- to 3-inch wads, bite-sized bits and fat crumbs. You should get about 4 cups.
3. Combine about one-fourth cup (4 tablespoons) of the olive oil with the Champagne or white wine vinegar and salt and pepper to taste. In a wide salad bowl, toss about one-fourth cup of this tart vinaigrette with the torn bread; the bread will be unevenly dressed. Taste one of the more saturated pieces. If it is bland, add a little salt and pepper and taste again.
4. Place the currants in a small bowl and moisten with the red wine vinegar and 1 tablespoon of warm water. Set aside.
5. While the chicken is roasting, place the pine nuts in a small baking dish and place them in the hot oven for a minute or two, just to warm through. Add them to the bowl of bread.
6. Place a spoonful of the olive oil in a small skillet, add the garlic and scallions and cook over medium-low heat, stirring constantly until softened. Don't let them color. Scrape this mixture into the bread and fold to combine. Drain the plumped currants and fold in. Dribble the chicken stock or lightly salted water over the salad and fold again. Taste a few pieces of bread -- a fairly saturated one and a dryish one. If either is bland, add salt, pepper and/or a few drops of red wine vinegar, then toss well. Since the basic character of bread salad depends on the bread you use, these adjustments can be essential.
7. Pile the seasoned bread in a 1-quart baking dish and tent with foil; set the salad bowl aside. Place the bread in the oven after you flip the chicken for the final time. Remove the bread when the chicken is done.
8. Tip the bread into the salad bowl. (It will be steamy-hot, a mixture of soft, moist wads, crispy-on-the-outside-but-moist-in-the-middle wads, and a few downright crispy ones.) Drizzle and toss with a spoonful of the pan juices. Add the greens, a drizzle of vinaigrette and fold well. Taste again.
9. Cut the chicken into pieces, spread the bread salad on the warm platter and nestle the chicken in the salad.
Each of 4 servings: 831 calories; 55 grams protein; 34 grams carbohydrates; 3 grams fiber; 52 grams fat; 11 grams saturated fat; 193 mg. cholesterol; 1,399 mg. sodium.
Roasted or grilled fillet of beef with black pepper
Total time: About 25 minutes, plus 1 to 2 days standing time
Servings: 4 to 6
Note: From Zuni Cafe. Begin preparing the fillet 1 or 2 days in advance. If you can find a whole fillet of beef of 5 to 6 pounds, it will serve 10 to 12 people.
Fillet of beef, 2 pounds or more, trimmed of fat
Freshly cracked black pepper
1. Trim the meat of any thick layers of fat, leaving the thin streaks in place. These will melt as the meat cooks and be a vehicle for the pepper flavor. Leave the delicious, streaky "rope" of muscle that runs the length of the fillet attached, however tenuously, to the roast, but check for and remove large lumps of fat it might conceal.
2. Concerning the satiny "silver skin" that sheaths one face of the fillet: Where it is thin, soft and translucent, leave it intact. You won't notice this tender sinew once the meat is cooked. Where it is opaque and tough, near the fat end of the fillet, slide the tip of your knife just beneath the surface to remove a few thick strips of it. But don't bother being meticulous.
3. Season the trimmed fillet moderately overall with salt, sprinkling more heavily on the thick sections. We use a scant three-fourths teaspoon sea salt per pound of meat. Next roll the fillet in freshly, coarsely cracked black pepper. We use about 1 teaspoon per pound. To ensure even cooking, truss the fillet, one string every few inches. Cover loosely and refrigerate for 1 to 2 days.
4. About an hour before serving, heat the oven to 400 degrees or light a charcoal fire and remove the fillet from the refrigerator.
5. Sear on a hot grill or griddle, under a very hot broiler or, if somewhat awkwardly, curled in your largest skillet. For reference, take the temperature at the centers of both the thick and the thin ends of the fillet -- they should be between 60 and 70 degrees. The meat will feel soft and limp. You can hold it for up to an hour this way before cooking.
6. To cook, place the seared fillet on a heavy, rimmed sheet pan in the oven or back on the grill over medium coals. If grilling, plan to turn the meat every 10 minutes or so. Whether roasting or grilling, start checking the doneness after 15 minutes. Check both ends. For a very rare fillet, remove the fillet from the heat when the center of the thick end registers 105 degrees (it will feel only barely firmer than before). For a very rosy medium rare, remove from the heat at about 115 degrees. For "just a little pink," cook to 125 degrees. At this point the tender muscle will begin to feel "flexed" firm. Cooking time will depend on the heat source and the thickness of the meat. A skinny fillet that was over 70 degrees to begin with may be very rare in less than 20 minutes.
7. If roasting a whole fillet, remember that the skinny end will cook faster, running about 10 degrees hotter than the fat end. This is convenient, if you want to offer a range of doneness. If you want the whole roast to emerge the same doneness, loosely wrap the skinny end with foil, shiny side out, when it tests about 95 degrees.
8. In any case, loosely tented, in a warm spot, the meat will continue cooking after you remove it from direct heat. Expect the temperature to increase about 10 degrees in 10 minutes. Although tenderness is not an issue with fillet, I think it has the best flavor if allowed to rest 10 to 15 minutes.
9. Because fillet is very tender, you can carve it as thinly or thickly as you like, but respect the mostly regular grain of the muscle. Don't remove the trussing strings on any part of the fillet that you don't intend to carve right away.
Each of 6 servings: 247 calories; 31 grams protein; 1 gram carbohydrates; 0 fiber; 13 grams fat; 5 grams saturated fat; 95 mg. cholesterol; 463 mg. sodium.
Union Hotel fried chicken
Total time: 40 minutes, plus about 5 hours plus overnight standing time
Servings: 2 to 4
Note: This is the dish that first earned Judy Rodgers national attention back in the early 1980s, when she was cooking at the little Benicia Hotel northeast of San Francisco.
1 small (about 2 3/4 -pound) frying chicken
Freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon sea salt
1 2/3 cups cold milk
Flour for dredging
About 1 cup peanut oil for frying
1. Cut the chicken into 10 pieces (2 drumsticks, 2 thighs, 2 wings and 4 breast pieces). Trim any gobs of fat, especially from the edges of the breast, they tend to burn. Save the back and fat for stock.
2. In a shallow bowl, toss the chicken parts with the pepper (allow about 1 1/2 teaspoons per pound of chicken), thyme leaves (about 1 teaspoon thyme leaves per pound), and sea salt and toss well. Cover loosely and refrigerate.
3. After about 2 1/2 hours, rinse off the salt in cold running water. Try to keep as much of the pepper and thyme as you can (the pepper and thyme will tend to cling). Drain the chicken well and place in a baking dish just large enough to hold all of the chicken in a single crowded layer. Add cold milk to barely cover. Stir to coat all of the chicken and spread the pieces in a single layer.
4. Leave the chicken at room temperature for 2 hours, stirring a couple of times to encourage even de-salting.
5. Dredge the chicken in flour, lifting the chicken pieces directly from the milk so they are very wet and will hold a lot of flour. Make sure the skin is neatly stretched over the muscle in a natural position. Tap lightly to shake loose stray flour and place on a cooling rack on a baking sheet so that the pieces are barely touching. Refrigerate overnight, uncovered.
6. Before cooking, bring the chicken to room temperature to speed up cooking and encourage even browning.
7. In a cast iron pan, heat the peanut oil over medium-high heat. (As you add the chicken, the oil level will rise. If the chicken is ever more than half submerged, ladle out some of the oil.) Test for temperature by dipping the edge of the chicken into the oil -- it should sizzle modestly but immediately.
8. Add the chicken pieces, tapping off excess flour before placing them in the oil. Don't crowd or overlap the chicken pieces. If the pan is not large enough, fry the chicken in two batches. Don't worry that the coating is sticky. Start with the thighs, then the drumsticks, then wings and upper breasts, and finish with the breast tips. This is the rough order of how long it will take them to cook.
9. Adjust the heat slightly as necessary to maintain a discreet sizzle. If the oil gets too hot, reduce the flame slightly. You can also add a few tablespoons of cool oil to the pan, being sure not to pour it onto the chicken pieces. If a piece is browning unevenly -- say the tip of the drumstick is browning too fast -- or only part of a piece is pale, you can prop the piece against the side of the pan so that the done part sits above the oil, or, so long as all the pieces have set a good crust, you can prop one piece against another so that only the part you want to keep browning is submerged.
10. Use tongs to turn the chicken, not a fork, which would pierce the skin. Turn when the cooked side is pale gold, about 9 minutes. Don't assume that all pieces will brown evenly -- the pan may not transfer heat evenly throughout.
11. Brown the other side in the same way, then turn back over one or two more times to refine the browning of both sides. The curing helps the chicken retain moisture, so there is little harm in leaving the pieces in the hot oil an extra minute or two to get the tastiest, crispiest golden crust.
12. Set the chicken on paper towels to drain. Don't stack it -- you just made a perfect crust, don't let the steam destroy it. Serve immediately.
Each of 4 servings: 612 calories; 45 grams protein; 27 grams carbohydrates; 2 grams fiber; 35 grams fat; 8 grams saturated fat; 166 mg. cholesterol; 532 mg. sodium.