"What exactly is California cuisine?" some friends from England asked me the other day. Rather than try to explain one of the most elusive of recent culinary trends, I cooked the following dinner for them.
The new pizzas with toppings ranging from smoked fish to wild mushrooms and lamb sausages are far removed from Neapolitan ancestors. In England, pizza is confined to fast-food joints, so my friends were intrigued by my new-style version with its generous topping of sweet red pepper, eggplant and four cheeses: Parmesan for piquancy, mozzarella and Fontina for richness and, most importantly, goat cheese for taste.
Simple Main Course
The main course was deceptively simple: salmon in a tarragon and mustard cream sauce. The fish was thinly sliced as escalopes to make an expensive ingredient go a long way. Typical of new-style cooking, components are prepared in advance, then cooked rapidly at the last minute and served with a little sauce of reduced pan juices. The pink salmon, topped with a julienne of carrot and leek, looks ravishing on the plate.
"Ah, something familiar at last," said my friends when they glimpsed dessert, served in little porcelain mousse pots. Traditionally the pots are filled with baked egg custard flavored with chocolate, coffee and vanilla. Guests' eyebrows lifted in surprise at dinner, however, when the pastel gold and yellow custard shades proved to be orange, lemon and lime. It is such small but crucial changes that mark the inventive brilliance of California cuisine.
CALIFORNIA DINNER FOR 6
Four-Cheese Pizza With Eggplant, Red Peppers and Sage
Salmon Escalopes With Mustard and Tarragon
California Pots de Creme
Suggested wine: rich California Chardonnay
This menu's schedule divides work evenly between advance and last-minute preparation.
Up to two days ahead, bake pots de creme , then refrigerate.
Up to four hours before serving, make pizza dough. Leave to rise, then prepare filling. Prepare salmon escalopes. Cook carrots and leeks, then refrigerate. Set table. Chill wine.
Up to one hour before serving, complete pizzas, cover and refrigerate. Let pots de creme come to room temperature.
About 30 minutes before serving, heat water for fettuccine.
About 10 minutes before serving, bake pizzas. Simmer fettuccine, drain and rinse. Keep in warm water until serving.
After serving pizzas, cook salmon and make sauce. FOUR-CHEESE PIZZA WITH EGGPLANT, RED PEPPERS, SAGE
1 (1/4-ounce) package dry yeast
3/4 cup warm water
3 cups flour
1 tablespoon honey
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 (8-ounce) eggplants, thinly sliced
7 to 8 tablespoons olive oil
2 onions, peeled and sliced
3 sweet red peppers, cored, seeded and thinly sliced
2 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
1/2 cup sage leaves, coarsely chopped
1/2 teaspoon ground red chile pepper
4 ounces goat cheese, crumbled
4 ounces Fontina cheese, coarsely grated
8 ounces mozzarella cheese, thinly sliced
2 ounces Parmesan cheese, grated
Sprinkle yeast over 3 to 4 tablespoons water. Let stand until dissolved, about 5 minutes. Sift flour with 1 teaspoon salt onto board.
Make well in center. Add dissolved yeast, honey, vegetable oil and remaining water. Mix with fingertips to form soft crumbs, gradually drawing in flour with pastry scraper. If crumbs are dry, add more water. Press dough together into ball. It should be soft and slightly stickly.
On floured board, knead dough until smooth and elastic, about 5 minutes. Form into ball. Placed in greased bowl and turn so top is greased also. Cover bowl with wet cloth. Leave in warm place until doubled, 1 to 1 1/2 hours.
Meanwhile, to make topping, brush eggplant slices with small amount olive oil. Place on greased baking sheet. Bake at 350 degrees until browned, 10 to 15 minutes.
Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in skillet. Saute onions until tender, but not brown. Add sweet red peppers, garlic and season to taste with salt and pepper. Saute until peppers are tender. Remove from heat. Stir in sage. Taste to adjust for seasonings. Mix ground chile pepper with remaining olive oil.
Knead dough lightly. Divide into 6 balls. Roll balls to flatten slightly, then pull and place on floured board to stretch to 6-inch rounds. Place on floured pizza paddles or baking sheets.
Brush dough with chile-olive oil mixture. Spread with sweet red pepper mixture. Sprinkle with goat and Fontina cheeses. Top with eggplant and mozzarella slices. Sprinkle with Parmesan cheese. Let stand 15 minutes so dough rises. Pizzas can be prepared up to 1 hour ahead and stored, covered, in refrigerator or can be frozen.
To complete, place heavy baking sheets or pizza stones in oven. Gently slide pizzas from paddle or baking sheet onto hot surface. Bake at 500 degrees until crust is brown and cheese bubbles, 10 to 12 minutes. Makes 6 servings.
Note: Honey in dough helps tenderize it. Lacking pizza stone to ensure crisp crust, slide unbaked pizza onto preheated baking sheet. SALMON ESCALOPES WITH MUSTARD AND TARRAGON