Tuesday, December 3, 2013

judy rodgers

My favorite cookbook of all time.

Judy Rodgers passed away last night. She lost a lengthy battle with cancer. She was 57.

I found out this morning via Twitter before the news broke out across various media outlets. I’d never met Rodgers, never worked with her or for her. I don’t have a pithy story or a poignant one. I can’t write something as evocative and heartfelt as David had earlier today. What I have is a handful of memories of eating at the Zuni Cafe (the last one inspired this soup), each blowing my mind in different ways, and I have her cookbook.

It is my favorite cookbook of all time. I can’t tell you how many things I’ve cooked from it: Roasted chicken; butter lettuce with oranges, avocado, and shallot vinaigrette; shredded radicchio with anchovy vinaigrette, bread crumbs, and sieved egg; slow-scrambled eggs with bottarga (Andrew’s arch-nemesis); how to cook polenta; rough puff pastry; ricotta gnocchi; tomato summer pudding; roasted applesauce, just to name a few.

What I learned the most from Rodgers, however, was not so much as what to cook, but how to cook.

On page 31 of the book, she instructs the reader, “Track one variety of apple over the course of its season. Learn what its season is. Then expand that kind of attention to other things you like to eat. Constant variety is seductive, but the truth is you will only develop an eye or nose for a given product if you use it frequently. {The same may be said for recipes. 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 of time. Pay attention to the process of making it, and to the small and large differences in the results. Then take what you have learned about those ingredients and techniques and apply it to other dishes.}”

That right there – an invaluable lesson. Practice, repeat, taste, smell, notice. Don’t rush through the recipe – linger. Repetition, in and of itself, can be, and is, comforting. It’s a ritual. You learn to anticipate, and look forward to, various steps and smells. If you really like what you are cooking for the second (or third, or fourth) time, you will anticipate the final product as well as its taste.

The book is, very clearly, in Rodgers’ voice – no one but her could have written it. You can almost hear her guiding you through recipes. The recipes are somewhat informally written, but incredibly clear, detailed, but not chatty or verbose. There is nothing cutesy or precious about her writing; Rodgers doesn’t rhapsodize about food, nor does she put it on a pedestal. Instead she shares with you her most valuable nuggets of knowledge – the kind that took her years in the kitchen to amass.

Throughout, the book is filled with countless more helpful missives… Here are a few.

On how to dress a salad, “Wet leaves will make the brightest dressing insipid.”

On cooking pasta, “With some experience and attention, you will be able to judge doneness by the color of the noodle and its “droop factor” as you dangle it from tongs, but biting into the pasta is a reliable test for all experience levels.”

On tart doughs and such, “Don’t worry if you’ve taken the butter a little further than you intended, just add a little less water to compensate or if you leave more of the butter in larger chunks than described, expect to add extra water.”

It’s infrequent that a book has such a wide appeal from chefs to home cooks. Whenever I speak to chefs about cookbooks, this one pops up as a favorite over and over and over. And when you get a dedicated home cook talking about their cookbook collection, more often than not, The Zuni Cafe Cookbook comes up almost right away. Published over ten years ago, you can still find the book in just about every bookstore with a cookbook section – that tells you something. Our cooking world is better with this book in it. If you don’t own it, I can’t recommend it enough.

I started out this morning intending to write to you about savory cookies, but my brain has been elsewhere all day. I’m sad and I haven’t been able to focus for a good portion of the afternoon, so I threw my hands up and read Rodgers’ cookbook during lunch. The entire time, I couldn’t stop thinking, “Fuck cancer.”

Cookies can wait. I’ll be back tomorrow.

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  • 1
    Whitney said:

    I plan to roast a chicken in her honor this week. I will admit that I have had the Zuni Cafe on my shelf but haven’t yet had the chance to really dig into it (it was one of many cookbooks I had on my Amazon wedding registry that got bought up by a really great friend). That needs to change.

    I’m visiting San Fran in Feb and I think it will be time to make my first trip to Zuni.

    December 3, 2013 4:27 pm
  • 2
    olga said:

    Whitney – you really should spend some time with it before you cook from it. You’ll really love reading through it; it’s a gem of a book on so many levels. Enjoy the chicken – it really is spectacular.

    December 3, 2013 4:35 pm
  • 3

    What a lovely tribute, Olga. I hope writing this post lifted your spirits. Reading it lifted mine.

    December 3, 2013 4:41 pm
  • 4
    olga said:

    Carol – it did, some. Writing is a cathartic process. But still so sad – she was so young.

    December 3, 2013 4:46 pm
  • 5
    Margarita said:

    I have only made one thing from the Zuni Cafe and I think I got that from The Wednesday Chef’s blog… It was the first time I ever pickled anything and found it to be exceptionally good.

    My husband’s family prefer Christmas wish lists to make shopping easier and I have zero things on my list so far… But after reading this post, I know what I’m gonna ask for.

    December 3, 2013 5:55 pm
  • 6
    Margarita said:

    Forgot to mention what I made from Zuni, it is the pickled zucchini! Delicious!

    December 3, 2013 5:55 pm
  • 7

    I really love the “droop factor”(and I laughed, of course) and how you captured her way of helping cooks figure out how something should taste intuitively or telling whether its done by feel or sight. This is a legacy. I love your tribute, Olga. It’s beautiful. xo

    December 3, 2013 6:56 pm
  • 8
    Simona said:

    Wow, my husband and I were just talking the other day about the most delicious chicken we’ve ever had at Zuni cafe. Being from San Francisco we were lucky enough to dine at this place many times. Rip Judy.

    December 3, 2013 8:44 pm
  • 9
    Becki said:

    Oh, I am so sorry. I have been to Zuni Cafe only once, but the cookbook counts as one of my favorites. We have made the Roast Chicken with Bread Salad so many times (the page is bookmarked and the paper ripples from all of the splatters). Our Christmas Eve dinner since 2002 has been Sea Bass with Leeks Potatoes and Thyme. It was the NY Times review that got us to try it (look in their archives for December 8, 2002). Dwight Garner wrote–
    It sounds straightforward, and it pretty much is. My wife — a far better and more dedicated cook than I am — made this on a whim one night, and after taking one bite we simply dropped our forks and stared at each other. This was the best thing that had ever come out of our kitchen. Our highest level of approbation, on trying a new recipe, is usually, ”I’d definitely serve this at a dinner party.” Zuni’s sea bass is something we’d serve at our last meal.

    December 3, 2013 8:59 pm
  • 10
    judith said:

    57 certainly is very young to die and to have suffered for so long. i am grateful for your profile on the book and by proxy your deep appreciation for what she so generously shared with us who love the kitchen. home or otherwise.
    rest in peace,judy rodgers

    December 4, 2013 9:21 pm
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