When Russell Moore moved to the Bay Area in 1986, he was 22, a few years past being a “half-Korean punk-rock kid working the Texaco in Southern California.” With some Italian restaurant experience under his belt, he cold-called Chez Panisse and talked his way into an interview with Chef David Tanis. At his try-out the next morning at 6 a.m., he cooked a staff breakfast for 20 in ten minutes, which then earned him seven hours of peeling garlic the next day.
He began at two days a week, and built up to more. “Each night he went home and researched all he’d encountered that day (what in the world did ‘corked’ mean?) He was around grown-ups — film talk, art talk, wine talk, plus the cracking open of goat heads. He was hooked.”
This is how Allison Hopelain introduces Moore, her husband, to readers of This is Camino, the couple’s new cookbook, written with Chris Colin and Maria Zizka, and with photographs by Yoko Takahashi (Ten Speed Press, $35).
Those humbling beginnings led to a 21-year tenure at Berkeley’s venerated locavore temple for Moore. But as good as he had it there — he managed to surf four days a week, and had six-week vacations — eventually, Moore began to wonder what was next. He brought up the idea to his wife, who had no restaurant experience other than by virtue of being married to him, about starting a place of their own.
As East Bay diners know, he managed to convince her, and that place is Camino, which opened on Grand Avenue in 2008. Specializing in rustic fare cooked over a fire, the first question many potential readers of this book will no doubt have is: “how will I recreate its food without a fire at home?” Of course our chef/authors had that very question in mind, and it’s the first thing they address.
“The essence of our cooking isn’t ultimately the fire,” writes Hopelain. “The fire’s simply a (huge, roaring) means to an end. At its heart, Camino is about an approach to food, one that can happen anywhere.”
While a good number of the book’s recipes do begin with “build a fire,” the book is as much about the couple’s philosophy about food and running a restaurant, as it is about cooking.
For example, the same strict standards they apply to sourcing their produce (strictly organic, grown on local farms, or in the yard of friendly neighbors up the street) is applied to the bar. In the book’s comprehensive chapter on cocktails, they explain how a stern talking-to from Thad Vogler, San Francisco’s foremost liquor authority (according to 7×7 magazine) determined how they would run their cocktail program. In essence, he told them: “It doesn’t make sense to buy organic vegetables from the farmers’ market, to boycott Monsanto, to reuse your plastic bags, and then to drink alcohol made with GMO corn in an industrial still owned by a multinational corporation.” This meant no Beefeater Gin. It meant no Campari. It meant not using 98% of the spirits that are out there. But, as those who frequent Camino know, their bar has hardly suffered the consequences of these rules — when you are drinking such unusual and original beverages as a tequila drink with lovage or an Amaro cocktail, you’ll be glad you did.
This is Camino is an aspirational cookbook, as many restaurant cookbooks are. Many of its dishes are quite complicated, even for the advanced home cook, with numerous steps and hard-to-find ingredients. I say aspirational especially when it comes to the pantry section. For example, Moore writes about how the downturn in the economy that coincided with the restaurant’s opening meant a lot of slow days, so the kitchen staff worked on fermentation projects. Many of us might aspire to regularly make our own vinegar, sauerkraut or pickles, but, even though these projects may not be difficult, getting that night’s dinner on the table usually takes higher priority. But, as Moore writes, making sauerkraut is easier than many think, and, even though there’s a whole page devoted to how to make it, he introduces it by saying “this barely counts as a recipe — it is really just a ratio of cabbage, salt and time.”
This is a book to consult when having a dinner party. Recipes like slow-cooked lamb shoulder with greens, yogurt, chiles, cilantro and basil, or slow-cooked duck legs with savoy cabbage, prunes, and duck cracklings can’t fail to impress.
But some of the book’s suggestions sound completely out-of-the-realm for the home cook, unless they are the type brave enough to tackle the pig’s head or trotter fritters recipes. The first ingredient for the former is a whole pig’s head. Even in this day of extreme kitchen DIY, schlepping home an entire pig’s head, not to mention cutting the tongue out and sawing the head in half with a hacksaw before quartering it, oiling and salting it, and leaving it covered in your refrigerator for two days, seems, well, a bit beyond what the home cook is often willing to put up with. (Though your friendly butcher might do that part for you.)
There are some simpler dishes too, though, like Camino’s popular brunch mainstay — egg baked in cream.
And despite the inclusion of many meat-heavy dishes, there is plenty in the book for vegetarians. Camino always has a veggie entrée on the menu, and these dishes — such as an eggplant-tomato-mint gratin with fresh black-eyed peas, fresh fenugreek and grilled artichokes— are often just as complex as the meaty mains.
One of the most interesting-looking recipes in This is Camino is for an herb jam, a take on a Paula Wolfert recipe. It is conceived as a way of using otherwise unusable parts of vegetables so as not to waste anything. It is a great vehicle to use up carrot tops and those greens that are getting close to expiration.
In the middle of the book come several pages written by Colin, a journalist who helped write the book. They show a week in the life of the restaurant, starting at 9:55 a.m. on a Wednesday with an inventory check for the week ahead, and ending at 8:12 p.m. the following Monday night with Russ and Allison sitting down to a Camino meal themselves.
I chose one of the less time-consuming dishes to try for this review — a wonderful sounding fall salad comprising kabocha squash and grilled new onion with yogurt, pomegranate and almonds (see recipe, below). Rather than building a fire, I grilled my spring onions on a grill pan on the stove. My only glitch with the recipe was that reducing the half cup of pomegranate juice down to one tablespoon, as the recipe suggests, left it so thick it hardened on contact with the bowl and I couldn’t mix the almonds and herbs into it. Since I had another half cup in the bottle to try again, I reduced it to about 2 or 3 tablespoons worth, which did the trick.
I loved this salad for its varying flavors and textures; especially the garlicky yogurt, grilled onions and pomegranate dressing. If you make this within the next few weeks, I also recommend adding a few pomegranate seeds for added texture and flavor.
KABOCHA SQUASH AND GRILLED NEW ONION SALAD WITH YOGURT, POMEGRANATE, AND ALMONDS
This is a salad with a lot of different flavors and textures. I like the combination of the earthy, nutty kabocha with the bright, tangy flavors of yogurt and pomegranate. At Camino, we put a few myrtle leaves in the water that is used to steam the kabocha. They give this subtle, piney flavor to the squash. But they can totally be omitted if you don’t have access to myrtle. (I mean, who does?) I prefer the denser gray kabocha, but green or red will work.
1 small kabocha squash (about 2 pounds)
2 spring onions
1⁄2 cup pomegranate juice
1⁄4 cup almonds
1⁄2 bunch parsley, stemmed
2 sprigs oregano, stemmed
1 clove garlic
1⁄3 cup whole milk yogurt
Preheat oven to 350ºF.
Build a fire to grill the spring onions.
Peel the kabocha with a vegetable peeler, then cut it in half and remove the seeds. Cut into 3⁄4-inch-thick wedges, sprinkle with a pinch of salt, and arrange in a single layer in a steamer. Steam until just tender, about 20 minutes, then let cool to room temperature.
Cut the spring onions in half lengthwise, leaving the roots intact to hold them together. Rake the coals under the grill for medium-hot grilling. Brush both sides with olive oil and sprinkle with salt. Place the spring onions cut side down on the grill and cook them until they are satisfyingly brown and have nice, dark grill marks, about 4 minutes. Turn them over and grill for another few minutes on the second side. Move them to a cooler part of the grill and pile them into a little tangle to steam for 3 more minutes. Remove from the grill and let cool.
Boil the pomegranate juice in a pot until it is thick and has reduced to about 1 tablespoon. While the pomegranate juice is reducing, spread the almonds on a baking sheet and toast them in the oven until they are a shade darker, about 8 minutes. Once they are cool, taste them to make sure they are crunchy. If not, pop them back in the oven for a few more minutes. Chop them coarsely and add to the reduced juice along with the parsley, oregano, a pinch of salt, and enough olive oil to cover the nuts and herbs.
Peel the garlic and pound it in a mortar until smooth. Mix with the yogurt.
Spoon the garlicky yogurt onto a plate and arrange the steamed kabocha wedges on top. Drape the grilled spring onions over the kabocha, then spoon the herby, nutty, pomegranatey mixture on top.
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