Being a chef who grew up in Santa Fe, N.M., but cooks in Los Angeles, I have sometimes found it difficult to find ingredients I ate as a boy and still like to cook. I used to import all my own New Mexican chile pods and powders, other seasonings, blue corn tortillas, and various kinds of corn and beans, such as chicos (green corn) and Estancia pinto beans, the world’s best.
And now at Rivera, my cooking includes all the cocinas of Mexico, South America, Central America and Spain. So my need for hard-to-find ingredients has only increased.
What I’ve come to realize is that sometimes I just need to grow my own.
As a result, over the last few years I’ve experienced a crash course in the concept of terroir. That’s an oenological, agricultural and culinary term that refers to the particular influence the land or setting has on fruits, vegetables or other edible products grown on it. By extension, the word expresses the unique sense of place that you sometimes get while eating or drinking food made from a thoughtfully tended, sustainably produced ingredient.
In the process, I’ve learned two distinct growing disciplines, one ancient, one modern.
Six years ago, I leased property in Arandas, Jalisco, Mexico, a property in the highlands not far from Tequila. There I planted my own agave field and hired the area’s best agaveros to maintain the plants and the property. Drawing on my experience and visits to the area, I specifically chose a particular plot of land for its sticky red soil, rich in copper, iron and minerals from nearby volcanoes: an ideal terroir to yield the elemental flavors I especially value.
I also considered water, sun, rain, insects, spiders and rodents, each factor playing a role in the life cycle of the agave. Of course, the hardworking people themselves who tend the soil and the agave plants play a crucial part.
Nothing contributes more to understanding the layered flavors of agave-based tequila than standing there with your feet in the musty red soil, the hot sun in your face, your nostrils stimulated by the dry air and insects buzzing all around you while agaveros load agave hearts that they’ve harvested with machetes into trucks that will take them off to be roasted.
My modern experience has been dramatically different. You’ll find no volcanoes and not even any soil at Cielo Verde, the rooftop garden I created above Beverly Boulevard in midtown Los Angeles. But nevertheless, I believe terroir plays an important role in the flavors we derive from this modern farming system.
Here, the lettuces, herbs and vegetables are grown in 6-foot-tall polycarbonate towers and are nourished solely by “nutriated” water — purified water that has been packed with a trademarked nutrient solution — along with fresh breezes from the Pacific and our own particularly intense, fractured L.A. sunlight.
We had to become as knowledgeable about our conditions as the agaveros in Jalisco are. Here on a rooftop in sight of the Hollywood Hills, we know our latitude, longitude, altitude, average mean temperatures, precipitation, humidity and winds. All are factors in Cielo Verde’s own terroir. Paying attention to every detail, we also carefully select and train the crew that maintains the garden.
All these efforts have a positive impact on the fresh flavors and textures of the foods and beverages in which Cielo Verde’s harvest appear. Chiles, for example, were abundant this year. We had spectacular squashes. You wouldn’t believe the beautiful organic nasturtium flowers that we used to garnish salads and decorate our house-made tortillas florales. Our own big, heart-shaped hoja santa leaves scented all kinds of savory dishes.
If you don’t have a backyard garden yet, or even a windowsill herb garden, I suggest you hightail it to the nearest farmers market (I frequent the one on Sundays in Hollywood) to buy your own locally grown fresh herbs, lettuces, greens, vegetables and fruits for the week. The Ivar market is also a good place to pick up live edible plants, if you have some place sunny to nurture them.
It’s time to lay claim to your own terroir!
Heat the oven 375 degrees.
Remove the inner ribs and stems of the kale leaves. Tear each leaf by hand into bite-size pieces. Separate a half pound and place in a bowl with one-fourth cup olive oil and one-fourth teaspoon salt and one-eighth teaspoon pepper, or to taste. Stir until the leaves are coated, then spread the leaves evenly onto a sheet pan. Place the sheet pan in the center of the oven and cook, flipping the leaves occasionally, until they are crisp and some of the ends are darkened, about 10 minutes. Remove from the oven and cool.
In a small bowl, combine the yogurt, the lemon zest and the ground cumin seed to taste. Season with one-fourth teaspoon salt and one-eighth teaspoon pepper, or to taste. Refrigerate, covered, until ready to use.
In a large pot, add the garlic and serrano chiles to the remaining olive oil. Cook over medium heat until the garlic is cooked but not brown, then add the remaining kale and chicken broth. Cook the kale until wilted, stirring occasionally, about 15 minutes. Drain and keep warm.
Spoon equal dollops of the yogurt into 6 large bowls. With a slotted spoon, divide the cooked kale into each bowl centered on top of the yogurt. Carefully crown the cooked kale with the crispy kale leaves from the oven. Drizzle extra-virgin olive oil around the kale, and very finely grate the cheese over the crisp kale leaves, working fast so the cheese “snow” does not melt. Serve immediately.
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