The counters are spilling over with ripe figs, bright red and amber tomatoes, delicate haricots verts, deep purple eggplant, and piles of fresh herbs. “October in Southern California is like summer everywhere else,” says Suzanne Goin.
Goin, winner of two James Beard awards—for best cookbook and best California chef—happily cooks on her days off. “It’s actually cathartic,” she says, tying on a slate gray apron, with the pitter-patter of children’s feet in the background. “I get to enjoy the ‘hanging out’ part of cooking—people in the kitchen, talking and sipping wine around me.”
With her business partner, she has four thriving restaurants in L.A.: Lucques, Tavern, the Larder at Maple Drive, and A.O.C., and she’s channeling the latter restaurant as she makes this menu. “It’s California cooking with a Mediterranean influence, and it’s all about communal eating, with shared plates, which is, to me, the best way to eat.”
Her food is fresh and sophisticated, yet doable for us home cooks. She follows simple tenets: “Produce that’s at its peak should be the heart of the meal,” she says. “And I always have an anchor dish that inspires the rest of the menu.”
Each of Goin’s recipes is like a little cooking class, full of interesting techniques that bring out the best in the beautiful ingredients she has chosen. Follow her lead and you’ll enjoy an afternoon of seeing into the mind of a great chef—how she combines flavors, thinks about textures, and creates the look of a dish. By the time you sit down to this wonderful dinner, you’ll be a better cook.
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Fresh Goat Cheese and Radicchio Salad with Figs
Goin says, “I am less fussy about the variety (and even color) of the figs, as long as they are super-juicy and full flavored. Green figs are my favorite: Day-Glo green on the outside and luscious, intense, and deeply red inside. In Southern California, they’re usually at their best in late September and into October.”
This French sauce is similar to Italian pesto, but since it has no cheese or nuts, the bright, spicy flavor of the herbs really bursts through. Although using a mortar is traditional, you can also make it in a food processor (whirl all ingredients until almost smooth).
Using a mortar and pestle, pound 1/2 small clove chopped garlic with 1/4 tsp. kosher salt. Pack a 1/2-cup measuring cup tightly with fresh basil leaves, then add half of it to mortar and pound to a coarse paste. Add remaining basil with 1 tbsp. chopped flat-leaf parsley and pound in. Stir in 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil and season to taste with pepper and more salt.
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Merguez with Chickpea Puree and Eggplant Jam
Merguez, an aromatic North African sausage usually made from lamb, takes practically no time to grill. Spicy and smooth, the accompanying chickpea purée can stand in for hummus any old time. To make the eggplant jam especially silky, Goin peels and seeds the tomatoes. You could use skin-on seeded tomatoes in a pinch, or even good-quality canned.
Vanilla Pots de Crème with Dark Chocolate and Roasted Almonds
Although any good dark chocolate will work in this recipe, Goin especially likes Caro chocolate, from Spain. “The flavor is intense—deep and earthy, with notes of cinnamon, clove, and vanilla, which match well with the vanilla in the custard and the almonds on top.”
Goin's business partner Caroline Styne, also the wine director for A.O.C., chooses Riesling for the salads: “The goat cheese and tomatoes work with wines that show a bit of sweetness as well as racy acidity.” For the sausages, Syrah. “Its dark fruit and intense savoriness reflect the gamy yet sweet flavors in the meat.”
Domaine Ostertag 2010 Riesling “Vignoble d’E” (Alsace, France; $30). “The aroma is of peach and honeysuckle; when you sip, you get apricot and unripe stone fruit, along with pumpkin-pie spice and a long, rich finish.”
Tatomer 2009 Riesling, Kick-on Ranch (Santa Barbara County; $30). “This young winemaker learned from the masters of Riesling in Austria. With classic Riesling aromas of diesel (a good thing), jasmine, and honeysuckle, the wine itself has richness, yet also bright acidity and intense minerality.”
Copain 2009 Syrah, James Berry Vineyard (Paso Robles; $60). “This winemaker, Wells Guthrie, is a genius. Full-bodied, with dark berry fruits and a hint of black olive and tar.”