Stefanie Kelly on the virtues of turmeric and food people like Craig Claiborne

Stefanie Kelly on the virtues of turmeric and food people like Craig Claiborne

Chef Stefanie Kelly's blog

End of 2014 installment of musings and recipes by Stefanie Kelly

Thanksgiving 2015

craig claiborne. turmeric.  substance as style…

ahhh LA… that bastion of sincerity/craftsmanship… in the late ’80’s, i was a waitress there. 19? 18?  this was during my child bride years, &… concurrent w/our residence @ the nudist resort.


i digress. i call this period sleeping white tigress/kundalini/qi slumber, a period of non awareness w/the spark of awareness still coiled @ the base of the spine. un-activated charcoal, if you will:  there i was, having progressed (if you’ve read earlier comments on my lack of waitressing skills in this blog: from sheer absurdity to a managed chaos, @ one of the most cutting edge restaurants to have graced LA’s bleak food landscape to (that) date:  


chef-owners Mary-Sue Milliken & Susan Feniger didn’t get to be the food mistresses they are today making tepid Ceasar salads & insipid smoothies, my friends. these bitches were going for the gusto. the first time i ever heard mention of the definitive neem leaf being used in an eclectic conscious manner – outside of a Thai restaurant?  City. Mary-Sue & Susan, having met in elite kitchens as the first guard (upon meeting @ Chicago’s Le Perroquet, as the first grrrl chefs ever to work in the legendary back of house) of the ceiling annihilating women who had announced themselves on the world (culinary) stage, they had something to prove.  & prove it they did w/offerings such as lemon ginger iced tea:
Lemon Ginger Iced Tea:

a large – approx 6 – inch to 1 foot of ginger root sliced then pulverized w/the flat of the knife
3 knobs turmeric, same treatment as ^^^above^^^
6 cloves black pepper
1 8 oz jar of honey preferably buckwheat
6 – 1 dozen whole lemons, juiced preferably meyer lemons
2 gallons water

boil the root slices together for 1 – 3  hours. mixture will be extremely spicy & reduced.
cool w/roots & pepper still in liquid
when cool, add lemon juice & honey to taste
serve iced & be well

(cited also inbelly:
& adapted here as an analgesic superfood)

Thai Melon Salad:
Serves 10 to 12 as an appetizer, 4 to 6 as a side salad
3 cloves garlic, finely minced
2 tablespoons packed light palm sugar or brown sugar
1/4 cup fish sauce
1/4 cup fresh lime juice
2 Thai or Serrano chiles, minced
1 tablespoon finely chopped kaffir lime leaf (remove the midrib)
1/3 cup dried shrimp, briefly rinsed to soften and finely chopped
1/2 cup roasted, unsalted peanuts, chopped
A volleyball-size watermelon
1. For the dressing, combine the garlic, sugar, fish sauce, and lime juice in a bowl, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Add the lime leaf, dried shrimp, and peanuts. Set aside for 15 minutes, then revisit the dressing for a taste test. Add extra lime juice, sugar, or fish sauce as needed to balance the flavors. Set aside or refrigerate for up to 3 days.

2. Halve the water melon, then cut each half into 3 long wedges. Cut each wedge crosswise into 1/2 to 3/4-inch–thick triangles. Arrange on a platter. Serve with the sauce on the side and invite guests to spoon some sauce on a watermelon wedge to eat. Set out an empty bowl for holding the leftover rind.
still, even as impressed as i was w/the food (during this period, back @ the house,  i was doing a lot of gastronomic globetrotting – & constantly antagonizing/hanging out w/& peppering the poor, poor line cooks w/arcane questions), i was too straight bitched up to seek work as an actual line cook. i was still peeking through the kitchen doors.  it would take getting sacked from a few more waitressing jobs before i finally took the plunge to light pastry & fine brunch cooking @ queen of cups.  but @ that golden moment, my wishes were too shy even to present themselves. i just stalked/harassed pro cooks/cooking without daring to know why.  

i tried it @ home.

during this period, it was all about the NYT cookbook,  edited by none other than Craig Claiborne. never had a clearer instruction been written. this was my version of my mother’s Joy of Cooking.  NYT cookbook had a respectable/official/well-researched version of the most wonderful food from all over the world.  i was collecting during this time; burying the spice-sniffing nose in all types of tasty tomes (those written by Viana Laplace/Victor Sook/Marcella Hazan/Ken Hom/Charmaine Solomon/Paula Wolfert) like they were steamy romantic novels. so his was one of many greats.  what set him apart from the rest were his excellent curating skills.  he was a compiler & would collect the recipes of great chefs as well as contribute his own. it was the most referenced, loved well-thumbed constantly off my shelf cookbook i owned.

Craig is an interesting cat – don’t let his close proximity to some of the greatest chefs ever from every corner of earth confuse you. he was that food critic nigga @ NYT for many years, in fact created the position of food critic:

once he signed on to NYT, he first created a list of the top 20 notable restaurants weekly.  it was a list that the chefs of new york would gouge one another’s eyes out to make.  once he had a following, he then created the star system:  0 stars, not recommended.  1 star, noteworthy, could make famous overnight that great little place in Brighton Beach that makes the amazing Moroccan tagine.  But not great for a metro oriented culinary palace like Union Square Cafe or La Caravelle.  those venerated chefs would only be able to look themselves in the mirror ever again once they attained 3 stars. 2 stars (Sarabeth’s Kitchen) – solid w/only brief flashes of the spectacular wouldn’t do for those houses  & 4 – well those rarified unicorns of NY’s culinary scene were few & far between (might be worth mentioning here that Craig is a Virgo…) & recognition @ that level demanded an eagle eyed attention paid… to the details.  to be sure giant machines like Lutece or Quilted Giraffe could – possibly! – get it.  but it was a meritocracy.  a tiny hidden address could absolutely shock foodies who thought they knew everything there was to know about the city’s food landscape.  this was why the star system was so exciting.  the restaurant that attained 4 stars would have to fight like a deranged animal to retain said stars.  & please believe the NYT review was always there & ready to demote upon next tasting.  only a precious few ever reach this rank – currently only 6 restaurants citywide can make this coveted claim.  Craig Claiborne was the first to mete out the rabidly pursued NYT stars.   & he rescinded  them when necessary.   he would go to anywhere in the city – a Chinese restaurant in Harlem – in the ’60’s.   some of the most sought after food critics ever followed -Ruth Reichl, Frank Bruni,  Gael Greene (@ NY magazine) etc. all followed, but he was the most prolific/powerful, & from the story his anthological works  told, the most tightly bonded w/the very chefs he critiqued so honestly:  no easy feat. & so his recipes became something like the New Wave period: a blessed time in french film when the critics decided to take the bull by the horns, stop effing complaining & make their own damn (incredible)  films, resulting in the tremendous breathless, jules & jim et al.

call him the Truffaut of turkey if you will. his offerings were…  how can i put this?  

simply:  the best.

a trusted/profoundly feared critic, a sumptuously descriptive food author, a respected peer of the kinda chicks/dudes that No. One. could get next to & have a casual cook off w/Jacques Pepin /Simone Beck/MFK Fischer  etc.  apparently they would all go to  East Hampton & cook for days, on some communal shit. can you imagine???  

@ City, we got used to seeing/serving/literally rubbing shoulders w/celebs.  having come from NY’s irreverent meritocracy based attitude toward the well known, i was mostly & casually unimpressed. City’s VIP list annoyed me. part of what was probably one of the foundational POS systems, the VIP alert was a computerized flag that marked movie/TV vixen’s tables as Not. To Be Fucked With. this was synched w/the maitre-D’s mythically large reservation book, always open @ the host stand.  it was expected that people like Lisa Bonet/Jodie Foster/Branford Marsalis/Julia Roberts/Kiefer Sutherland would appear in the book nightly. hell Roberts/Sutherland got 86’d (tossed/banned/curbside kicked) damn near nightly w/their quarrelly lover’s antics. this was pre-paparrazzi. a lot happened.  none of it was for show.

you can imagine my reaction when, prancing by the station during set up one afternoon, i noticed the name ‘craig claiborne’ in the ledger accompanied by a tiny, pencilled star. whiplash worthy head turning accompanied heart racing, eyes darting around for the dashingly handsome (all the waiters/restaurant managers in LA are dashingly handsome) snotty host  
“Kelly why are you always hysterical?”
“forget about that yo!  that’s craig claiborne from the NYT coming here.  tonight.  omg…”
a flick of the head.  real outdoorsy, “so?  who the fuck is that?”. he sputtered loftily all ‘you’re only as big as your last hit, honey’… tiny pencilled star or not, he was absolutely unfazed. “we got a lot of VIP’s tonight we’ll have to put him wherever & what do YOU care?  he’s not even in your station…”   he snapped, distractedly perusing the book as i was already on my way to get changed & trying not to cry.  i went into the kitchen to hear the specials & brought my news w/me, hoping that someone w/sense who reads might be part of kitchen personnel & want to act on granting this one wish:  that the greatest food critic that North America has ever seen get actual VIP treatment….  
he was one of the first diners.  my hospitality driven soul shed a single tear for his seat – directly across from the bathrooms, & right @ the kitchen entrance – a perfect place to be jostled & brushed by as waiters/food runners sailed by w/trays heavily laden w/food.

worst seat in the house!  perfect.  food critics, when they are working, apparently prefer the incognito.  they will go out of their way to cloak their identity.  if the restaurant peeps their identity they should not let on, & still give no special treatment. if the reviewer suspects s/he has been made, then they will go out of their way, again using whatever means they have to, from disguises to a group of people to come in & review from an any old diner perspective. they are unlikely to stick out from the crowd. less likely to complain, no worries about them as a diner. they will simply slay you in the review.  conversely if they announce their presence, the story is totally different. most likely they are off-duty, just out to eat.  gloves are tossed to the wind  & only the most obsequious need apply. in this situation the critic is the ultimate diva & the wise restaurant, while not exactly having to live in fear of a review, should now roll out the red carpet.  Mr. Claiborne’s reservation was under his own name.

& then the kitchen goddess smiled. i spotted Susan tying on her whites. it was a big deal when either Susan, a teensy/sexy/soft eyed lean/mean brunette or Mary-Sue, @ that time pregnant/embodying soft/sandy midwestern wholesome loveliness was on the line. their wildly successful cookbook had either just come out or was about to & this was the 1st generation in the US of celebrity chefs. you were more likely to see a Wolfgang Puck (Spago)or a Mark Peel/Nancy Silverton (Campanile) in the dining room, skinnin/grinnin w/their luminous patrons than in the kitchen. tonight, Susan was here to work.  both the line & the room.
she got a touch wide-eyed as i rolled up –  i am sure my wild-eyed demeanor was a touch off putting – & blessedly/thankfully/finally even wider still as i relayed my news. & it was just like that scene in invasion of the body snatchers when the chick realizes that she has found someone who will not rat her out to the soul stealing pods…  heartwarming.
“well where is he???”  she gasped, untying the apron she had just put on & hustling from behind the line to peer out @ hi
s horrible table placed so close to the kitchen that i feared he could hear us.  i pointed. she cringed. next thing i knew she was sitting across from him, clutching his hand while sobbing her admiration for him – such a no-no w/any critic whether s/he is actually reviewing or not – & delegating a seemingly unending stream of appetizers to his table.  a chef’s tasting, fit for a king.

as dessert was winding up, i finally got up the nerve to tell him stammeringly  “i really admire your work,”  as i delivered a mixed platter involving house-made date bars & hostess style cupcakes reimagined w/real cream/ganache.  “how was everything?”  i asked, knowing that it had been a disaster.   graciously, he held the hand i’d offered. & proceeded to show me the way real rock stars get down:

“why thank you, my dear. it was one of the best meals i have ever had.”  

turmeric reminds me of craig claiborne:  a low key/unassuming/under the radar powerhouse.

turmeric’s other qualities – healing, analgesic, beautifying, anticancer are incorporated into one of my favorite recipes from the seminal work which i have adapted here to include chinese mushrooms:

mushroom rice w/turmeric, from the NYT cookbook, by craig claiborne:

mushroom rice w/turmeric

crimini mushrooms, 1/2# chopped into quarters
1 tsp ground cordyceps
1# rice
3 cups chicken or mushroom stock
1/2 tsp ground turmeric powder i knob (about ½ inch) fresh turmeric, peeled/grated
2TBSP butter
1 bay leaf
2 sprigs thyme
1 lg vidalia onion, medium dice

saute the diced onion & turmeric in the butter till soft/translucent. add the mushrooms & let it rip over a med-high flame till they are nicely toasted around the edges. add the rice, & saute in oil till every grain is coated. add the stock, cover to seal, & do not, for any reason, disturb lid till done.  (it’s a no-no, you need the steam) bring to boil. covered & when boiling, turn flame down to a whisper.  let it rock for 17 min, turn the flame off, let rest for 5 min, then your rice is ready.

thank you for reading.  enjoy!

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