Alan Hooker began to experiment with herbs and fresh vegetables as soon as he made it to Ojai in the early '50s. He is, therefore, one of the first to recognize their importance. The Ranch House developed from that first garden to a sort of vegetarian refuge for the followers of Krishna Murti and thence to its present bucolic assurance. Wines, meats, poultry and fish were eventually added to the menu.
Hooker grew up in a small town in the Middle West, played the violin and the piano, studied chemistry and traveled with an orchestra. He has spent the last 35 years in perfecting, among other things, breads worth a trip from the moon. He and his wife, Helen, are still active in the restaurant, and he is still thinking.
The following is excerpted from a recent conversation in his garden sustained by an absolutely splendid pot of coffee made from organically grown berries.
My interest in chemistry stood me in good stead. It taught me to experiment and to take notes of each step and each result. So, when I was making bread, I would vary the ingredients a little each time, going both ways from where I started--recording the results, until finally I had what I wanted.
As soon as I had some land, I went out and bought little pots of herbs, all the kinds I could get. I didn't know anything--not even that coriander seeds and cilantro leaves came from the same plant. I began to realize it was important to blend one against the other, and I began to experiment with amounts. It takes very little thyme, for instance, to overpower the sweeter herbs. Those little things intrigued me so much. What happens? How much can I put in? Should I add it first or last?
In the beginning, I used MSG, but stopped when I learned of its bad effects. The original MSG was made in China from wheat; it is a glutamate. Then the Japanese discovered they could make it from coal tar, and that's the difficulty. It lost all its significance as a living thing.
When we started making pies, I wanted to find out how they made the shortening we were going to use. I discovered that oil was heated to tremendous temperatures, then denatured hydrogen was bubbled thorough. The oil would take on a molecule of hydrogen--or more, depending on the hardness wanted. I didn't know what that molecule of hydrogen would do to people, but I didn't think it would be too good.
Butter is not as harmful as hardened shortening--which doesn't have much flavor anyhow. To me--sweet butter--there's nothing to compare with it.
Olive oil, of course. That's wonderful. That's natural. We use olive oil in our salad dressing. We use butter in our bread. Everything real.
Neither do we use dried herbs. There is an essential oil in the leaf that compensates for losing moisture to the sun, and that oil accentuates the flavor. I discovered this in the difference between the bay leaf that must survive long, dry, hot summers in the canyon, and the one from the coast with no flavor. Herbs grow best in full sun without too much fertilizer. Make them work for a living. Feeding makes them too luxuriant and delicate--like a beautiful, delicate woman--when what you want is a tough old man.
I like a heavy onion soup, without meat stock, but that many onions make it too sweet. We reduce the onions in the electric pan, set very low. It takes about two hours, then it turns a lovely brown, with a dark, heavy flavor of rich onion. You cut the richness and sweetness with fresh French sorrel, which doesn't add its own flavor. If you use lemon juice, you are lost.
One time, I was thinking about carrots. Can I do something with seeds on the outside? Maybe a little pineapple juice? Put them under the broiler? I try all these things to see what happens. So, it doesn't work. To me, that is fun. Then I think, I'll take some hot butter and throw in all kinds of seeds--poppy seeds, sesame seeds, etc.--and a little piece of red pepper, and blend it to a sauce. Turned out beautifully.
Then, I wondered what it would do to fresh salmon. So we put it on the salmon and broiled it on one side--I don't like fish dried out; I like it almost raw in the center--broiling on top is enough. The heat from the pan will set the juices underneath. It has been one of our most popular dishes ever since.
Yes, I think I have taste in my mind. If I wake in the night, I have fun by myself imagining dishes. I think it's grand.
Those are the things that make cooking interesting. Otherwise I would have been bored 35 years ago. Thirty-five years is a helluva long time. Terrible, terrible to give a chef a set menu. . . .
There are 75 known varieties of fragrant leaf geranium. One year, we were able to get 40 and made a fragrant leaf geranium dressing. Very, very interesting with lemon and mint. I get turned off by raspberry vinegar and all those different things. I suppose they all have their place, but to depend on them as the platform on which you rest your excellence--I don't see it.