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BOOKSHELF REVIEW: The Zuni Cafe Cookbook

Judy Rodgers: The Zuni Cafe Cookbook: A Compendium of Recipes and Cooking Lessons from San Francisco's Beloved Restaurant Zuni Cafe has long been one of my favorite San Francisco restaurants. I love that it is equally ideal for the romantic dinner for two as for the huge ladies luncheon. And when I crave french fries, it's the pile of crispy golden shoestring potatoes from Zuni that call my name. Given this love, I had to have the Zuni cookbook.

REVIEW: Rodgers, Judy, The Zuni Cafe Cookbook: A Compendium of Recipes and Cooking Lessons from San Francisco’s Beloved Restaurant

“I was smitten on sight when I walked into Zuni in 1987.” recalls Rodgers in her opening chapter, a sentiment many of her restaurant’s patrons would be quick to second. “The crowd was eclectic – young, old, middle aged, dressed up, dressed down, in noisy groups or quiet deuces. Some there for the place, some for the drinks, some for the food, some for each other. I took in the space and imagined you could eat as simply or as grandly as you wanted in this setting, and that the food would only be a part of the seduction.”

The casual reader is thus warned, upfront that this is not merely a treasury of time-tested recipes from one of San Francisco’s most popular and enduring restaurants. Rather, it is a chronicle of a chef’s love affair with a restaurant and with the cooking and eating it has allowed within its two-story window walls.

Her “cooking lessons” impart her key theories on cooking and eating, such as the importance of salting early, and are full of colorful, practical technique. For instance, in her lesson on reducing stock for use in sauces, she directs the home chef to “simmer steadily and gently, uncovered, skimming impurities as they veil the surface of the reducing stock. The most efficient way to remove these evanescent “skins” is to rest the underside of a wide, flat serving spoon on them – the veil will cling to the spoon. Lift the veil and gently pivot the spoon, so that the skin doesn’t slide back into the reduction, then rinse the spoon clean. Repeat as needed. This way you discard only impurities, not precious reduction.”

Rodgers learned to cook with Alice Waters at Chez Panisse, and honed her skills with Marion Cunningham at Union Hotel, tenures which led to her appreciation of the artisanal, seasonal produce and ingredients the Bay Area has to offer. But it may be her stint as a foreign exchange student in high school, when she lived with a family that ran a 3-star restaurant in France, and subsequent apprenticeships in Italy and France, once she embraced her culinary vocation (all of which are mentioned in the headnotes and cooking lessons throughout) that most influenced her style.

Each of the 250 recipes has been adapted for the home cook who lacks Zuni’s signature wood-fired oven, with some recipes, such as the Zuni hamburger, providing detailed instructions for either grill, stovetop, or broiler to ensure best results for the cook who takes on the challenge of this “labor-of-love-intensive” dish. Each recipe is additionally paired with a wine suggestion (frequently for a lesser known, California wine) from Gourmet Wine Editor Gerald Asher. Rodgers includes the iconic roasted chicken and Caesar salad recipes, as well as directions for making the many house-pickled and cured pantry items that regularly show up on Zuni diners’ plates. When a recipe stars a seasonal item of produce, such as the "salami with raw favas" appetizer, Rodgers notes the time of year in which the produce is in season, thus saving a novice home cook from disappointment.

Rodgers goes out of her way to mention specific brands and resources for her less common ingredients, and includes 3-pages of resources for many of the pantry products she uses, plus a selected bibliography of food reference books. Unfortunately, neither the cheese course primer nor the resource list provides any leads for mail ordering cheese, which can be frustrating for a reader who, unlike Rodgers, doesn’t live in a city with major artisanal cheese importers. The same disappointment holds true for the wine pairings, several of which are for small production Santa Barbara County wineries with very limited distribution. These complaints, however, are minimal in light of the scope of the technique and solid recipes within Rodgers' first foray into cookbook writing.

Though many of the recipes may prove to be too time- or ingredient-intensive for a novice home cook, or someone looking for a quick way to recreate a memorable meal at Zuni, the Zuni Café Cookbook is well worth the time both as a culinary treatise on finding the best, most flavorful foods that are in season and available to you and how to prepare those culinary finds in a manner that highlights their specialness, and as a memoir of one woman’s love affair with a very special restaurant.

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