Tasteful words

A local chef shares his herb-infused secrets.

THERE ARE ALMOST as many kinds of cookbooks as there are kinds of books: coffee-table cookbooks, travelogue cookbooks, feel-good cookbooks, celebrity cookbooks, special- interest cookbooks, cookbooks that, for all intents and purposes, are works of fiction masquerading as fact. The rarest kind of all, as kitchen veterans know to their cost, is the useful cookbook—one that inspires, teaches, and delights, delivering recipe after reliable recipe year after year, every page accumulating grease spots and food flecks as evidence of faithful service. The Herbfarm Cookbook

by Jerry Traunfeld (Scribner, $40) Despite its glossy look—lots of white space in the margins, gorgeous color photographs and drawings—Jerry Traunfeld's The Herbfarm Cookbook (published in May by Scribner) is one of the most useful cookbooks to come along in years. There are no wasted words, no obligatory filler; every recipe is a little marvel of concision and clarity, with no unnecessary ingredients or preparatory froufrou. There's no single culinary style among its offerings, only a concentration on how intelligent and imaginative use of fresh herbs can turn an ordinary dish (roast chicken, for example) into something extraordinary, and an extraordinary one (steamed mussels in garlic-scented sabayon sauce) into a dinner-table milestone. The Herbfarm Cookbook would probably be on a lot more Northwest kitchen shelves already if the Herbfarm Restaurant, where Traunfeld rules the kitchen, were a little more approachable to the average diner-out. But a $125-per-person-plus-compulsory-gratuity prix fixe is not everyone's idea of a relaxed eating experience, particularly when it entails booking up to two months in advance, driving to deepest Issaquah, and sitting elbow to elbow with other food-compulsives at refectory-style tables in a dark banquet room. Given the temple-of-the-gustatory-muses tone of the restaurant, the most startling thing about Traunfeld's recipes is how utterly easygoing they are. A substantial part of their impact is the contrast between simplicity of means and elegance of effect. Take his first-course preparation of mussels in an herb-and-garlic-scented sabayon: The dish takes all of 10 minutes to assemble, but the very look of it—dark mussels gleaming in a robe of creamy lemon yellow—would add a touch of class to the fanciest meal. Or the roast chicken mentioned above: The sight of the whole bird prior to carving, whole bay leaves shining dimly beneath the crisp skin like the pattern of a faded tapestry, gives a kind of visual foretaste of the sumptuous flavor in store. Traunfeld is utterly serious about the importance of fresh herbs in fine cooking—a hundred pages of his book are devoted to their care, feeding, and use—but he's not a monomaniac. Herbs are just one aspect of the key to his cooking, which employs fresh seasonal ingredients, in general, the kind that make culinary lily-gilding unnecessary. Traunfeld attended the California Culinary Academy and served his professional apprenticeship in the Bay Area when the gospel of freshness according to Alice Waters was at its purest, but he'd been cooking since childhood, which probably saved him from the kind of ideological rigidity and fussiness that often afflicts gifted young chefs. His first job was at the quintessentially glorified steak house Ernie's, but he had no difficulty adapting to a different m鴩er when he moved as pastry chef to Jeremiah Tower's legendary Stars. The frequent changes of direction he experienced while working at Seattle's Alexis Hotel tested his adaptability even further. Founder Ron Zimmerman had established the Herbfarm style by the time Traunfeld took over as executive chef there in 1990, but once again, he embraced an existing policy and made it his own. He makes no claims to originality in his cooking, but there's a Traunfeld spin on nearly every dish in The Herbfarm Cookbook. Yes, traditional French soup chefs have made a thousand variations on the pureed leek-and-something-green formula, but I'm willing to bet you've never tasted anything quite like Traunfeld's version, made with romaine lettuce and a handful of fresh tarragon. The recipe allows an optional dash of cream to finish the dish. The amazing thing is you'd swear there's already cream there, so smooth and luscious is the mixture. Even more amazing is Traunfeld's signature dish of seared scallops in a piquant sauce of fiery red-orange hue. Your guests would have to be mind readers to divine that the stuff is nothing but ordinary carrot juice, reduced, blended with butter, and infused with plenty of marjoram. Even more astonishing is his summer salad of arugula and watercress topped with charcoal-grilled peaches—peaches marinated in ginger, basil, lime juice, and chopped jalape� You can see all the ingredients right there on the plate in front of you. But how did Traunfeld ever come up with a combination so odd, unlikely, and heavenly tasting? Traunfeld has plenty of suggestions for bakers (and would-be bakers), as well: a marvelous quick-fix focaccia loaded with fragrant herbs, crispy shortbread cookies with a hint of lavender fragrance, and a transfiguration of that autumnal dessert standby, pumpkin pie. And if you're frightened by the very word "souffl鬢 you'll get over it after trying his utterly simple and virtually foolproof recipe featuring fresh crab and flavored with lemon thyme. Thankfully, Traunfeld isn't perfect: His fondness for the powerful, piney flavor of rosemary leads him to suggest its lavish use in dishes such as linguini in clam sauce, in which it overpowers every other flavor, and a suggested marinade of chopped cilantro, parsley, and mint overwhelms the mild whitefish, for which it's recommended. However, Traunfeld rarely puts a foot wrong. If your gift list includes utterly serious, no-nonsense cooks, make sure to get them The Herbfarm Cookbook. They'll appreciate it. So will you when they invite you over for dinner. Coming in our December 7 Winter Books Quarterly: COOKBOOKS GALORE! Pumpkin-Bay Tart 8 servings Pumpkin desserts are so often flavored with cinnamon, allspice, and nutmeg that we've come to equate this sweet spice combination with the flavor of pumpkin itself. Less aggressive flavorings, on the other hand, allow pumpkin to reveal its own special subtlety. In this tart, I infuse the cream for the pumpkin custard with fresh bay laurel, vanilla, and a touch of fresh ginger. If you use fresh pumpkin puree, the custard will be especially light and delicate, but canned pumpkin also works well. The flavor of fresh bay flatters the flavors of pumpkin or squash in both sweet and savory dishes, and this ethereal tart proves the point well. 1 cup heavy cream, plus an additional tablespoon if needed 8 large fresh bay laurel leaves, cracked vanilla bean, split and scraped, or 1 teaspoon vanilla extract 5 -inch-thick slices fresh ginger cup (packed) dark brown sugar 1/3 cup light corn syrup 2 large eggs teaspoon salt 1 cup pumpkin puree, homemade (see Note) or canned, or butternut or acorn squash puree 1 9-inch tart or pie crust (pre-baked) 1. Infuse the cream. Pour the cream into a small (1-quart) saucepan and bring it to a boil over medium-high heat. Add the bay leaves, vanilla bean if using, and ginger; push them under the surface of the liquid with a spoon; and immediately remove the pan from the heat. Cover the pan and steep for 30 minutes. Strain the cream through a fine sieve into a large liquid measuring cup, pressing down firmly on the flavorings to extract all the liquid from the leaves. Add fresh cream if needed to measure 1 cup. 2. Pumpkin custard. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Whisk together the brown sugar and corn syrup in a medium mixing bowl until smooth. Add the eggs one at a time and whisk until smooth after each addition. Whisk in the salt and pumpkin puree, then whisk in the infused cream. Transfer the mixture to a pitcher or liquid measuring cup. 3. Filling and baking. Put the pre-baked tart shell on a cookie sheet, place it on the center oven rack, and pour in the custard until it reaches the top of the shell. Do not let the filling spill over the edge of the crust; if there is a little too much, bake the extra separately in a ramekin. Bake the tart until it is set in the center, 25 to 30 minutes. Let the tart cool completely before slicing. If you bake the tart more than four hours in advance, store it covered in the refrigerator and bring it to room temperature before serving. Note: To make pumpkin puree, cut a sugar pumpkin in half and scrape out the seeds. Place it cut-side down in a baking dish and pour in about inch hot water. Bake in a 400-degree oven until the flesh is tender, 40 to 50 minutes. Turn the pumpkin halves cut-side up to cool. Scoop the pumpkin flesh from the skin and puree it in a food processor until smooth. Transfer the puree to a large sieve lined with a double layer of cheesecloth and let it drain for 2-3 hours until it is firm enough to hold its shape on a spoon. (from The Herbfarm Cookbook)

 
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