Cook with Books: Zuni Cafe Cookbook

15 May

[Note: Cook with Books will be an ongoing, cookbook-reviewing, musing, hands-on, pots-hot section of this blog–hopefully weekly, possibly less or more, depending on what in heaven’s name is going on in a given 7-ways-to-Sunday period.]

Judy had me at chicken.

It was just about 10 years ago when my husband, Dan, and I went to dinner at Judy Rodgers’s Zuni Café. I’d never been to San Fran and was already pretty excited about the food scene. Add to that the notion that we were there for a book project I’d just co-written on wine and food pairing, and I was feeling pretty fa-lee-da dazzled. And I hadn’t even had the chicken yet.

I’d read about the famous Rodgers chicken with bread salad, and ordered it before our waiter even got to the specials. It was all it had been built up to be — crispy, a little salty, dribbly juicy with this crunchy/soft tuft of torn peasant bread, at once tangy, sweet, nutty, savory, bitter, and bright. It stayed in my sense memory long after licking the last crumb of the salad from an index finger.

Rodgers’s Zuni Café Cookbook was published that same year, and when I got back to NY I bought it, and still faithfully roast my bird the Rodgers’s way: fast and hot. But this book is no one-fowl flash in the pan. It’s deceivingly packed with great recipes. I say deceivingly because of the way it’s written–at once rambling and practical. Sort of the way my sisters and I talk to each other when phoning up to ask for or explain a recipe. Which is another thing I love about it; how personal it seems. Instead of playing to the masses, Rodgers’s classic (I’m hauling out the C word, I am!) is kind of intimate. After years of splattering it with myriad juices and dribbles and bits and bubble-overs, I feel like I could walk into her kitchen and know exactly what I’d find in it.

And I learned a week or so ago, with no real surprise, that I’m not alone in my Zuni swoon. I was at a wine dinner with a group of other writers, and somehow Zuni came up. Two seats away from me, the eyes of writer Andrew Dornenburg (whose own recent tome, The Food Lover’s Guide to Wine, written with wife Karen Page just got a Beard nod) lit up. “Oh, I love that book!” And within seconds our end of the table were confessing undying love for this 10-year-old compilation of recipes. Written by a woman who, to my general knowledge, isn’t slinging hash on TV, or selling chicken stock with her face on a Tetra-pack box, or opening up Zuni chains in airports. But this is a semi-snarky digression and getting away from the point.

Being it’s not just the bread salad — it’s pretty much everything in its beautiful, quirky pages. There hasn’t been a single recipe that disappoints. And even though it’s hard to pull yourself away from favorites (those short ribs!), it’s inevitably rewarding when you do. Which brings us to tonight’s asparagus and rice soup with pancetta and black pepper.

This time of year, it’s impossible not to get a little asparagus-happy, and it so happened I had a bunch in my fridge that I bought at my local greenmarket this past weekend. I wanted to use them tonight but not as a side; I was craving something a little more communal. Like soup. After flipping glumly through a few other books packed with empty promises, I turned to tried-and-true Judy, and there it was. It lets the asparagus be asparagus, chopped instead of pureed, to really get their texture along with the bright green color and spring flavor. Add to that a genius bit of Arborio rice, bits of pancetta, sweet onions, and black pepper and you have that trademark Rodgers savory quality that will keep you coming back for seconds and thirds — simple yet surprising.

Asparagus and Rice Soup with Pancetta and Black Pepper
– makes about 4 cups –
(adapted from the Zuni Cafe Cookbook, W.W. Norton and Co. )

6 TBSP extra virgin olive oil
2 cups yellow onions (about 1 large)
Pinch of kosher or sea salt
1/4 cup dry white rice (Arborio if you’ve got it–otherwise, use what you’ve got)
3 1/2 cups chicken stock, give or take (next time, I’ll use a little more, and maybe some more rice, too)
1/2 cup water
8 or so oz. asparagus, woody ends cut off, stalks sliced diagonally about an 1/8-inch thick (don’t worry about being perfect; really–it’s just soup and it’ll still taste great)
3 to 4 oz. pancetta, finely chopped (I like mine a little bit chunkier than that, and got (2) 1/4-inch slices and diced them about a 1/4 inch)
Fresh black pepper

Heat 3/4 of the olive oil in a 4-quart saucepan or soup pot over medium-low heat. Add the onions and a pinch of salt, stirring while cooking until they start to sweat. Add the rice, stock, and water and simmer. Cover and cook about 15 to 20 minutes until rice is tender. Turn off the heat.

While the rice cooks, heat the rest of the olive oil in a skillet over medium heat. Toss in pancetta and asparagus, stir to coat and then allow to cook for a few minutes, turn; repeat until pancetta starts to brown and everything gets tender.

Transfer to broth-rice mixture, bring to a boil for a minute. Add pepper. Serve right away with a nice hunk o’ bread.

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