Another of the bargain-price cookbooks I acquired at the cookbook sale I mentioned last week is Joyce Goldstein’s Kitchen Conversations. Goldstein was the celebrity chef-owner of Square One restaurant in San Francisco, lauded in the ‘80s as “one of the most acclaimed and influential Mediterranean restaurants in the United States.” As an East-Coast person, I’d not known much about her, back then, but I thought it might be interesting now to learn about her cooking style.
The book’s subtitle promises “robust recipes and lessons in flavor,” which sounded good. I found that the lessons are all about balancing among the four basic flavors our palates can actually discern: sweet, sour, salt, and bitter. Not a bad idea, though I don’t entirely agree with her placement of certain foodstuffs in the flavor categories. For example, Goldstein considers leeks sour; I’d call them sweet. And the recipes are certainly robust, but they seem to me to have an overlay of California culinary excess, no matter how much they’re “inspired” (a favorite Goldstein word) by Italy, North Africa, Spain, Greece, and Turkey. By which I mean if a recipe originally involved six or seven principal ingredients, a Californiated version will tend to have ten or twelve strong ones that, to my palate at least, will fight each other.
But many of her preparations did sound interesting, so I picked out two to try for a dinner one evening: Greek-inspired Flank Steak with Coriander, Nutmeg, and Oregano; and Gratin of Fennel and Endive with Gorgonzola.
For the flank steak, you make a hefty seasoning paste: multiple tablespoons of ground coriander, cumin, nutmeg, salt, and cracked pepper; plus mashed garlic, oregano, and wine vinegar.
The paste gets rubbed all over the steak and left to sit for an hour at room temperature. All those different flavors, while not incompatible, nevertheless set off my alarms: I wondered whether that thick, extremely aromatic coating would overwhelm the flavor of the meat.
Happily, it didn’t. I broiled the steak to a good degree of rareness and – I must confess – scraped all the paste off the slices before eating them. I did taste a bit of the paste by itself; it wasn’t as strong as I’d expected, and it had given only a mild spiciness to the meat.
The effect was pleasant enough, but since I’d had to grind the cumin and coriander seeds in a mortar and pestle, the dish was more work than I thought it was worth. I suspect one could get more impact with fewer ingredients; possibly also less of them. This isn’t a recipe I’m likely to make again.
The vegetable recipe I’d chosen redeemed California, however – it was really good, and an easy one to make. I quartered a fennel bulb and halved two Belgian endive heads, sauteed them briefly in butter and oil, added a little broth, and braised them until tender.
That could all be done well in advance. Toward dinner time I arranged them in a gratin dish, dotted them with some creamy gorgonzola dolce, and put the dish under the broiler until the cheese melted and browned.
It was a fine combination, with just the kind of contrasting flavors that Goldstein advocates – the sweetness of fennel, the bitterness of endive, the salty pungency of gorgonzola. This is a preparation I’ll definitely make again. It would probably be good with different cheeses, too. I’m thinking caciocavallo or Tuscan pecorino. We shall see.