Prologue: Taming the Fire
California Cuisine, as it came to be heralded in the national media, might never have been discovered if it weren't for a bunch of pushy French chefs.
In the spring of 1983, the ad agency for Ocean Spray was charged with placing cranberries at the forefront of American gastronomy. Their idea was a weekend headlined "Innovations in Food" at Beechwood, the Astor mansion in Newport, Rhode Island, for one hundred syndicated food journalists. The main event would be a dinner showcasing the "innovative sauceless cuisine" of Paris's Guy Savoy, with my crew from the Santa Fe Bar & Grill in Berkeley, California, preparing a little lunch to keep up the strength of the writers for the all-day workshops on culinary trends.
I didn't mind the supporting role. In the three years since Savoy had opened his own Paris restaurant, the New York food press had fallen in love with his originality and dash. I had profound respect for the French and especially for the Young Turks of nouvelle cuisine, as well as for Guy himself.
If it was obvious why Savoy had been invited, it wasn't clear why I had been. Although the two celebrated Jameses of the food world, Beard and Villas, had lavished praise on my cooking at both Chez Panisse and the Santa Fe Bar & Grill, only one restaurant (Panisse) had as yet become a national sensation. But I didn't press the agency for a reason. I was grateful for the opportunity to put the Santa Fe in front of the national food press and, since I had no formal training as a chef, eager to see a master at work.
Beyond that, I could never resist a challenge. I was sure we could do it I just wasn't sure what "it" would turn out to be. We'd fake it as we went along.
My assignment was to provide a simple California lunch using cranberries. It was an odd request for April, but I could see one of the agency's points: Demonstrate that you can cook with cranberries all year. Top it off with a famous French chef including them in three-star Michelin food, and the press would go wild. Or perhaps it was just an agency budget waiting to happen. Whatever the reason for the cranberries, I decided to use them to marinate racks of lamb, despite the obvious fact that, if you factored in the travel expenses we incurred getting to Newport, it would be the most expensive marinade in history.
The first challenge was to get the cooks and food to our first stop, New York, from California. What kept me up at night was how to get past the airport check-in with fifteen hundred pounds of food and luggage. At that time anyone at airport check-ins was familiar with the demands of first-class traveling socialites with mounded Louis Vuitton hatboxes and toy poodles, but when my crew and I arrived, the five of us pushing a long line of carts, we looked like anything but first-class passengers. Airports in 1983 were as yet innocent of chefs and their entourages. Up to that point road shows were the purview of only rock bands and circuses, both of which chefs soon came to resemble, as only a year later one could see toques on famous chefs in every major airport in the United States, blue and white ice coolers dominating the luggage carousels, and fans lining up for autographs in the passenger lounges.
The list of our "bags" was staggering: 125 individual California goat cheeses, two hundred grape leaves (in April that was like asking a winery to give up a whole vineyard), five gallons of sauce essences, and twenty-five California lamb loins. Everything was packed in four enormous coolers, one of them full of noisily scratching Bay Area Delta crayfish, another full of fresh coconut ice cream. It was for this trip that I developed an elaborate traveling system: vacuum-packed foods stacked with the blue ice in coolers and, in two huge suitcases on wheels, a massive on-site support system that held everything from cheesecloth to extension cords, food mills to pepper mills, first-aid kits to baling wire and clip-on lights.
The greatest of my nightmares was getting eight fifty-pound bags of mesquite charcoal, whose purpose in life was to spew fine black dust onto everything in its path, on a plane to New York. All that charcoal seemed a bit obsessive even to us, and we knew that the chances of finding a foodie in all those grim faces behind the ticket counters were less than slim. But mesquite was one of our "innovations," and no mere gate agent was going to stand in the way of our publicizing it. Halfway to the check-in window I saw the agents whispering. Closer I saw the face behind the window in front of us: as a bulldog at the Westminster, she would have taken best in show. Our eyes locked. "Nothing doing" was her unmistakable look. I could see she was focused on the coolers, no doubt convinced they were full of dry ice that could have blown up the plane.
As we both braced for combat, I searched for another window. The staff had seen the bulldog look and were cowering behind their carts. A whispered "Oh shit, no" was all I heard from them. I raised an arm in a full-speed-ahead gesture and then, feeling like Patton in the lead tank, swerved with the team toward the check-in with the long red carpet, crowd-control ropes, and an agent wide-eyed with shock. I remembered that my PR folder had a very complimentary James Villas Town & Country article on the Santa Fe Bar & Grill with a full-page color photograph of me. So before the customer relations agent could say a word, I whipped out the photograph and launched into a spiel about "local kids" on a mission to show those Easterners how to cook. Impressed, she unhooked the first-class rope and took us to the window. Nothing could describe the look on her face as she tried to understand the scratching of hundreds of tiny claws against the cooler walls, but minutes after my explanation, the five of us had first-class tickets and increased luggage allowances.
"Kids," I said, as the plane left the runway, "this is just the beginning."
The plane ride is a blank. I must have gone through the shopping list over and over again, wondering where in New York we would find California-quality vegetables and fruit at their peak of perfect ripeness and flavor, let alone restaurant-quality fish and shellfish.
It was not going to be easy, so to reward my staff for their work so far, and to get them in the mood for going that extra mile in the days ahead, I decided that a lunch at the great Four Seasons, my home away from home, was just the ticket. It was my idea of America's finest restaurant, created by people I adored and admired James Beard, Joe Baum, and Barbara Kafka and now the realm of two great restaurateurs, Tom Margittai and Paul Kovi, and one of the nicest chefs in America, Seppi Renggli. It didn't hurt that the restaurant was in a Mies van der Rohe building with a perfect interior by my other favorite architect, Philip Johnson.
I wanted my team to experience perfect service in a perfect room, taste one of my favorite white wines (Condrieu), and ogle the enormous silver chariot of desserts crowned with the pastry chef Albert Kumin's famous cake shaped like a half cantaloupe turned upside-down, covered in chocolate, and topped by a foot-high chocolate version of a scarf Loretta Young would have tied around her head. None of us could figure out how Albert had spun chocolate into this couture shape of silk settling in a light wind. Now, ten years after I first encountered this creation, I told Albert I had waited all that time to ask him the secret of his gossamer construction.
"I would have told you anytime," he said with a huge grin. "It's simple: I use a hand pasta machine. (Of course, the chocolate has to be the right temperature and it's only that way for a minute or two.)"
Yes, I thought, time enough for a master who knows all chocolate's intimate secrets (and for the rest of us to screw it up completely).
The next morning, full of fine memories of our magnificent lunch and the spectacle of New York seen from the bar on the 107th floor of the World Trade Center, it was time to return to earth. We picked up an enormous van from our uptown hotel and headed downtown to Balducci's, the only place where I thought we could get the quality of produce we were used to in California and wanted to show off in Newport. As it turned out we could at five times the price. We shopped for boxes of red and gold bell peppers, leeks, zucchini, red torpedo onions, ripe mangoes and passion fruit. At the meat counter I saw beautiful coils of fresh fennel sausage; they turned out to be a last-minute inspiration for a snack with drinks. The veteran Balducci's staff was as impressed by the mountain of crates on the Sixth Avenue sidewalk as I was by the proportionately small mound of cash left in my hand. Later, the ad agency told me I was crazy to buy food for one hundred at what was then New York's most expensive boutique grocery. But the quality was worth it, even if I did end up having to split the tab.
My sous-chef, Steven Vranian, was thin, wiry, and pale-skinned to the point you could see the blue veins pumping an intense energy. He had dropped us off in front of the store with the intention of circling the block. After an hour standing behind the pile of crates and boxes on the sidewalk looking anxiously for the van, we realized it really was gone. We still had to buy fish and shellfish before finding our way through the nightmare of parkways and bridges out of New York to make it to Newport on time. But with no van, no food-filled coolers, no clothes, and no money or directions, we had no way of getting to Newport. Our California boy had disappeared in the maze of alien West Village one-way streets, and since this was before cell phones, he was truly lost. He finally showed up, red-faced, sheepish, his shoulders in a shrug, giving us the both-hands-palms-up gesture. If I hadn't needed him so much I would have killed him.
I had planned to buy the fish at its source in Newport, but now the team overruled me with "Let's have it in hand." Perilously off schedule, we raced to the Fulton Fish Market for an aquarium's worth of live clams, mussels, crab, and shrimp leaving only lobsters and oysters to purchase live the next day then barreled up the New England Thruway.
We drove around Newport searching for our lodgings, expecting something grand (given the mansions we saw), but the address on the slip of paper I was clutching turned out to be a motel. Not a bad motel, but a motel nonetheless, and that meant no room service. Since chefs never eat at normal times (defined as when we're cooking for everyone else), we survive on room service. My staff knew I could put up with just about anything provided I could get a chicken club sandwich and champagne twenty-four hours a day, so two of them peeled out of the motel driveway for the makings of club sandwiches and a case of bubbly because, in the words of my all-time heroine, Madame Lilly Bollinger, who when asked "Why champagne?" replied, "I drink it when I'm happy and when I'm sad. Sometimes I drink it when I am alone. When I have company I consider it obligatory. I trifle with it if I'm not hungry and drink it when I am. Otherwise I never touch it unless I'm thirsty." I would add the wonderful words from the Pink Panther: "Champagne is a minimum of alcohol and a maximum of companionship. It takes care of all extremes." And this was going to be an extreme weekend.
I wanted my staff in tip-top shape in the early morning, so I grabbed a bed by the door to ensure that no one would slip out during the night, but the boys were too quick. Newport had been the stomping ground of Brad Barker, one of the cooks, and he decided to give Steven a tour of his old watering holes. Oxsana Czuczman, another cook from the Santa Fe, stayed behind to watch over my nerves. Staff legend has it that she sacrificed her entire stash of pot to calm her nerves while I paced our little room and fumed, waiting for the errant boys. They staggered back in the middle of the night drowned in Coors, but at least without the companions they reeked of.
The next morning was quiet, tense, and hot for April, even in those early hours. The heat made the shaky staff even shakier, and I felt worse than they did grimly low on adrenaline and nourishment. The sunlight was already far too bright, so I stopped off in town and bought a pair of large fire engine red plastic-framed Ray-Bans, very Doris Duke or Barbara Hutton, to be worn for photographers.
We pulled up in front of the Beechwood gates, then drove up an endless, impeccably tailored gravel driveway to the mansion a two-story Palladian house with Doric columns set a few feet above a lawn that stretched for a mile or so down to the water. I saw an open porch around two sides and the back of the house covered with the as yet unset tables for the lunch. It was all very impressive, and I expected a kitchen of comparable grandeur with space for two teams of cooks, mine and Guy Savoy's. It was not.
It was the size of a large closet.
Then just as we had figured out how to make it work and started to cook, the French arrived. I had heard Savoy was a decent bloke, but that day I never had a chance to find out. His crew preceded him, and they were armed with attitude. At first they ignored us, but packed into that small kitchen that wasn't easy, so they asked us to leave. Their needs took precedence, they said, because the serious meal dinner was theirs.
All was quiet for a moment. I don't know what made me keep silent, possibly my English-schooled manners, possibly my status as a guest in someone else's kitchen, but all I could think of was keeping our focus. Every moment of energy had already been spoken for, and realizing that a pissing match at that moment would get us nowhere, I stepped aside.
"All right, girls and boys," I said. "Grab everything and follow me."
I had read Sun-tzu for years, but stepping aside was my first Art of War move. By not making a scene, I let the force of the French arrogance fire up my cooks and give them a powerful sense of purpose and determination to show these guys what they could do. In an instant, they forgot their throbbing heads, and we searched for a new place to cook.
"This," I told my team, sweeping an arm over the landscape in front of all the tables, " is the place for us, right in front of the bloody press."
I dropped the red sunglasses down on my nose and got to work. We lined up four five-food grills with white, cloth-covered tables behind them just far enough from the press to keep the smoke from their eyes but close enough so they could see the color of ours. The grills were meant to have been kept out of sight; now they would be the focus of everything a great stage and the center of our entertainment. I insisted that only the most beautiful things should show, that all the mechanics be stowed away under the tables, so the food would "appear" with seeming effortlessness.
Two hours later, the press materialized. Their schedule gave them thirty minutes to wander around with glasses of wine before sitting down, so we served them a snack that I could cook and talk about simultaneously: the fresh fennel sausage from Balducci's, coiled into large rings, skewered, and grilled whole, then cut into bite-size pieces on large wooden planks. They were served still sizzling from the grill with the juice from our newest exotic ingredient, Rangpur limes, and sprinkled with a salt we flavored with ground, oven-dried peel of lime and cumin seeds. On the side were bowls of grilled tomatillo salsa.
A hundred food journalists took one look at us and one bite of sausage, raised their eyebrows with expectation, and away we went: salsa, grilling, and California were suddenly it.
We played up grilling as essential to the California style and mesquite charcoal as the only one we used because it burned very hot and added a slightly acid taste to the food. We didn't mention that it was the only kind of real charcoal we could get. It was perfect for fish, but in the cooking business every perfection has its flaw, and mesquite's was the occasional unspent .22 bullets put there by Mexican baggers as revenge against the gringos. A bullet blasting off and whizzing by inches from a cook's head was not something I needed journalists to see, so the press watched us sort through a huge black mountain of the charcoal before setting it in the grills. "Just the choice pieces," I lied, while keeping an eye out for bullets.
Luncheon on the Terrace
April 28, 1983
Grilled Fennel Sausage with Rangpur Lime & Orange-Cumin Salt
Grilled Mixed Shellfish with Grilled Garlic & Ancho Chili & Herb-Shellfish Butter Sauces
Cranberry Puree Marinated Grilled Lamb Loin
Mixed California Vegetable Salad
Cranberry Chili Relish
Grilled California Goat Cheese
With Garden Greens
Tropical Fruit Compote
With Coconut Ice Cream
The first course was shellfish, marinated and grilled, the lobsters cooked initially on a bed of fresh seaweed (to give them maximum ocean flavor), then finished off on the charcoal fire, which also pushed all the flavor of the shells into the lobster meat. Each guest was served a big white plate with two ramekins, one for the warm lobster butter sauce, made from the crushed shells and mussel stock, the other with a sauce made from my secret dried ancho chili puree and sour cream laced with mayonnaise. Warm towels scented with fresh tarragon and Meyer lemon gave them all the confidence to eat with their fingers.
We decorated the guest tables with vegetables instead of flowers huge platters of leeks, red and gold bell peppers, yellow zucchini, and red torpedo onions. The vegetables were oiled, to glisten and reflect the sunlight as well as to marinate them for the grill. As soon as the shellfish was served, the waiters removed the table decor in unison, then marched over and emptied the platters onto the grills to create the illusion of vegetables cooked to order when, of course, we had the ones we were to serve already done.
Next came the lamb loins marinated in the juice of crushed cranberries with thyme, bay leaf, and olive oil. To our astonishment, the berry juice worked beautifully, making a sweet-sour caramelized glaze that was a perfect counterpart to the richness of the lamb fat and the slightly musky flavor of the meat.
So far, so good. But we had planned, while the lamb was on the grills, to use the kitchen ovens for the Sadie Kendall California goat cheeses, which were sandwiched between two thin pounded-out slices of oven-dried tomatoes (a new product in those days), a sprig of fresh flowering wild thyme on each side, and wrapped in fresh grape leaves. Only in that way could we achieve a seamless transition between the courses and hold the lunch to ninety minutes. But one last pleading at the kitchen door was like Oliver Twist in the orphanage asking for more gruel the answer was a firm Non. The little cheeses came back to me on the rebound, so we stoked up the fires, furiously brushed off the grills, and laid out the cheeses. If we didn't have the journalists in the palms of our grillers' hands by then, the sight of all of us coolly turning (and turning) 125 individual goat cheese packages certainly did the job.
But they weren't totally floored until we grilled the dessert.
By now high on fatigue and adrenaline poisoning, I pushed the red sunglasses up on my head and commanded each cook to down a glass of champagne and pick up two huge sauté pans. On a signal from me, they filled them with mixed tropical fruits, raspberries, and passion fruit sugar syrup; then all of us in unison tossed the fruit compote up in the air like master omelet makers. That got a standing ovation. We plated the tropical fruit ragouts, scooped fresh coconut ice cream into the center of each plate, added shortbread cookies and we were done.
At the end of the lunch the cooks collapsed on the lawn, while I went from table to table. I remember a flood of journalists blaming me for nearly killing them with food, but all were smiling. I kissed the cooks mine, not the ones standing around on the sidelines stage-whispering furiously in French (which they assumed we didn't speak) about our use of a "nonculinary" herb like lemon thyme and our lack of chefs' hats and embroidered names on our jackets. I heard a hint of admiration in their voices, but the tone reversed when I helped my cooks clean up and wash the pans.
I took a bottle of champagne and went down to the water. I was numb. I knew that we had to pack and that I had to attend the dinner in four hours' time, coherent, with a smile, and acting as if everything the press had seen had been carefully rehearsed. In truth, I could never have planned that level of success. In those days we would have been declared insane if we had announced a meal cooked entirely out-of-doors on an East Coast early spring day. And to have grilled dessert? Certifiable.
The press had no preconceptions of what we would cook, but Guy Savoy was not so lucky. The journalists had been told to expect no sauces, no flour, no cream, and no butter. But this is what they saw:
Dinner at Beechwood
Potage de Homard aux Airelles
Saumon au Persil
Rillons de Ris de Veau aux Truffes
Bavarois aux Airelles
Savoy didn't use flour, but sauces, cream, and butter were everywhere. There was cream in the lobster soup with cranberries, cream in the salmon with parsley sauce, and the Bavarois with cranberries was packed with cream. The sweetbreads had a flourless veal stock and truffle sauce. To say the least, we were confused. The advance press from the agency had lauded Guy's innovative cooking in the same breath as that of the famous restaurant L'Ami Louis, over which I got a good laugh. A normal dinner there was an eighteen-ounce slab of goose liver, a whole chicken or entire leg of baby lamb served with a potato pancake cooked in butter and duck fat, and pastry crust and butter-sugar caramelized apple tarte Tatin for dessert, all of it weighing in at around seven thousand calories.
Actually none of my team cared whether the food was sauced or not it was delicious. But the press still didn't get it. The California Union explained that what was meant by sauceless cuisine was actually "sauces that are done at the last minute." Having told everyone it meant no sauces was not an especially good PR hook for Savoy unless you understood the sauce tradition against which he and the other Young Turks had rebelled.
People who rail against traditional French sauces often mean the espagnole or advanced version of the flour-thickened "brown" sauce that has been screwed up for decades by hotels, luxury resorts, and the majority of French restaurants, all of which render it a muddy, opaque brown, the color of the water a child is left with after painting for hours with watercolors. A true espagnole takes three days to make, including the initial stock, and demands a monogamous relationship: full devotion from a sauce maker who never abandons his charge. Each day there has to be a rest period so that the fat on the top and the detritus on the bottom of the jellied mass can be easily removed. Then it sits on the edge of a burner for several hours finishing, cooking at such a slow rate that it barely shimmers it merely "smiles" at the cook skimming off its last traces of fat, scum, and skin.
This accomplished, and poured over a few bones and carcasses of whatever creature it is meant to enhance, then strained and made to "smile" again, it becomes a sauce so easy on the body that four hours later you're ready for the next meal. And the flour? Transformed like the silk cocoons that become an Hermès scarf. The fat? Not a drop. The stock-becoming-sauce has never vigorously boiled, and so the fat, unincorporated and removed, can neither ruin the diners' plumbing nor mask the true flavors of what is being sauced.
Even the revolutionary Turks Paul Bocuse, the Troisgros, and the great unsung Jacques Manière knew that this great basic brown sauce could be magnificent, and a test of a truly great kitchen. But when you're starting a culinary revolution, it's easier to blame the sauce than the saucier, to guillotine the aristocrats instead of overturning the regime. It was the restaurant critics and guidebook writers Gault and Millau and then their following in the American press that lined up all the figures of classicism and beheaded them indiscriminately. Gone were the creamed crayfish-sauced quenelles of the master Fernand Point at La Pyramide in Vienne, drawn and quartered were the butter-based sauces of Henri Soulé at New York's Le Pavillon, rack-and-pinioned any flour-thickened meat essences. Fat was now labeled treason and its eaters, traitors.
All these crazy thoughts pounded through my exhausted brain as I sat at Savoy's dinner in the ballroom at Beechwood. Everything seemed to move in slow motion, the sounds coming out of the writers' mouths like a tape at half speed. I was so tired that I could not remember anyone's name, barely even what I was doing there. I knew this was Guy's night, and these journalists were professional. They wanted to give him equal time, even if they could be in no possible way as physically interested as they were before lunch. But with nine powerful journalists to my right and left, I sat just waiting to hear about my party and which way the thumbs were pointing, up or down. I knew right after lunch that we had pulled off a success, but now, at the evening table, doubts crept in. It was my first big public performance, and I wanted praise strong and constant enough to overwhelm my fears, of both failure and, oddly enough, success.
As it turned out, the French handed the event to us on a platter. Not that their event wasn't wonderful; one just couldn't feel it. The Christian Science Monitor gave France forty words and California two thousand. "Berkeley Chef's Magic Grill Dazzles Eastern Experts at Al Fresco Lunch" one headline trumpeted. Phyllis Richman in The Washington Post made our lunch one of the first full-page color cover sections, writing of a "far from down-home barbecue, with white tablecloths...and a hushed silence." Nina Simmonds quoted Ruth Reichl, then at California magazine, in The Boston Globe on July 6, 1983: "Tower's cooking is a brand of California cooking that is instantly recognizable. It is understated and depends on local ingredients, unusual flavor combinations and impeccable timing." Simmonds then quoted me, making a first stab at a characterization. I said that nothing had changed as far as the fundamentals. What was new was the marriage between "the aesthetic chasteness of nouvelle cuisine and the hearty, robust hominess of bistro food: New American Cuisine." Within weeks of the Newport event, that term was repeated widely.
The press had France on their minds when they arrived, but they left with their hearts in San Francisco or just across the bay. The love affair between the American food press and California had begun.
Another affair began, too with me. "Tower is a photographer's fantasy. He stands tall and regal, cool enough to tame the fire," wrote one reporter. I ate this up, of course. It would have taken a stronger person than I was not to see this as a way to get our message across and make money doing it.
Great success is supposed to be followed by great elation, but with me a great performance has always brought on that "little death" feeling. The greater the success, the more devastating its successor. I didn't have it as bad as my pal Rudolf Nureyev, who would vacuum down a bottle of Stoli in the wings right after the last curtain call. But almost. As W. S. Gilbert (of Sullivan) puts it in the wonderful film Topsy-Turvy, "There is something inherently disappointing in success."
My California kids felt they had "kicked French butt." The next morning, as we loaded up the van, I felt as if I had been kicked in the head. As soon as the road was a clear shot to JFK, I crawled into the rear of the van to find a sleep that never arrived. While my cooking team raved with delight and was filled with pride in the front of the van, I ended up in a fetal position in the back. I felt sorry for myself that I was going to get everything I ever wanted because I knew at that moment that some part of me didn't want it. I felt an awakening pain of the old adage of being careful what you wish for, and I was fairly certain that my life would never be the same again.
Something had been born, and I did not want to know what. And something was surely about to die the unselfconscious "anything goes" exuberance of my little band of outlaws that had made our triumph possible.
Steven Vranian wrote a note afterward describing his feelings about the event. He said that the staff felt that the sight of my moving from table to table, face still flushed from the grill, revealed something new and vaguely disturbing: "The half of him that he pretends to be, and the half that others expect him to be, merged together and created the new Jeremiah." I had chosen, Steven said, "a path that would consume and redefine" me.
Did I want to be redefined by success? In my youth I'd been defined by the lack of it first as a "Yank" in Australia, then as an "Aussie" in England, and then in the United States, where everyone assumed I was English. The truth is that I was a bit of an alien wherever I was. But at Newport I learned that my vision of a new, serious simplicity that could change the way people thought of fine dining had power.
I was learning that people who are best at keeping their huge success are somehow detached from it, able to regard it as something outside themselves. Only then can one stay focused, both when being lionized and then, inevitably, when being torn down. If the press loves first to proclaim "Long live the king," they love just as much to cry, "The king is dead."
As I slumped, fallen in my seat in the plane headed westward, Steven noticed me and leapt over the back of his seat somehow not spilling a drop of his gin and tonic. "Are you all right?" he said, a note of panic in his voice.
"All right," I said. "Quite all right."
At that moment I knew I would go for it, whatever the ultimate cost. I knew that what was coming wasn't an occasional ride on the tiger's back but a life living on it. I decided to go for the crown, in full view of the guillotine.
Grilled Garlic & Ancho Chili Sauce
2 dried ancho chili pods
1 head fresh spring first-crop garlic
2 sprigs fresh thyme
1/2 cup mild extra-virgin olive oil
1 ripe lime, zested and juiced
1/2 tablespoon fresh oregano leaves, chopped
4 ounces unsalted butter
Grill the chilies over a charcoal, wood, or low gas flame until they puff up, or about 3 minutes. Put them in a bowl with enough warm water to cover them. Weight them down with a small saucer, and soak for 2 hours. Drain, saving the water, and remove and discard the stems and seeds.
Meanwhile wrap the head of garlic loosely in foil with the thyme and a tablespoon of the olive oil. Cook over low fire or under a broiler until the garlic is tender, or about 20 minutes. Remove the stem and rough outer layers of the skin and discard. Put all the cloves in a food processor and puree the garlic with the remaining olive oil. Pass through a sieve and discard the residue.
Puree the chilies with just enough of their soaking water to make a smooth puree. Sieve. Clean out the food processor.
Put the garlic and chili purees in the processor with the lime zest and juice, oregano, butter, and a teaspoon of salt. Puree until soft and smooth. Add more salt if necessary.
Serve on top of grilled fish and shellfish.
Tropical Fruit Compote
Serve the warm compote with either custard, vanilla or coconut ice cream, mascarpone, English clotted or heavy cream, and cookies of your choice, like shortbread or warm gingersnaps 5 minutes out of the oven.
2 ripe mangoes, peeled, cut in 1/4-inch slices
1 ripe papaya, peeled, seeded, cut in 1/4-inch slices
2 ripe passion fruit, cut in half, pulp and juice saved
1/2 cup medium sugar syrup
1 basket raspberries
1 teaspoon fresh lime juice
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
Put the mango and papaya slices in a medium-size nonreactive frying pan. Whisk the passion fruit pulp with the sugar syrup for 1 minute to break up the pulp, and add to the fruit.
Warm the fruit over medium heat until just heated through about 3 minutes. Add the raspberries, lime juice, butter, and pinch of salt. Turn up the heat, and swirl the pan around until the butter is just melted.
Serve immediately in soup plates with the cream or ice cream in the center.
Copyright © 2003 by Jeremiah Tower