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IN THE KITCHEN

La Cuisine du Pool

August 08, 1996|RUSS PARSONS | TIMES DEPUTY FOOD EDITOR

Forget Disneyland, Universal Studios, Mann's Chinese and Rodeo Drive. If you want to convince a visitor of the true magic of Southern California, arrange Sunday dinner by the pool.

There's something about spending the last of a summer weekend in the sun that can't be replicated anywhere else. You bake and swim and cook and then, just as the breeze begins to pick up and the sun begins to go down, you eat.

The heat is off. People don sweaters or wrap themselves in towels. The harsh brightness of the afternoon gives way to the cooling gray of twilight. Pour the wine, clink glasses and dig in, smug in the knowledge that there's no other place on Earth sweeter than where you are right now.

The only problem is, I don't have a pool. In fact, I've never had a pool. Instead, I've had to rely on the pools of others. And, like a lesser character in a Wodehouse novel, I've learned that if you're going to live that way, you'd better either be terribly charming or bring food. I usually cook up a trunkful.

The absolute best pool dinners I've been to were at the house of some friends in the Hollywood Hills. It had a big pool, there were always big crowds and dinner normally started with a giant platter of tomato salad. We sliced a dozen or so big old beefsteaks, dressed them with coarse salt and freshly ground pepper, good olive oil and some herbal vinegar and spread them on the plate. We scattered rings of thinly sliced red onions over the top, then a big bunch of basil.

The main course was almost always the same thing too: chicken slathered in a tomatoey barbecue sauce and grilled. Of course, the barbecue sauce, which contains a lot of sugar, usually charred, but that was the way the host liked it and so that's how we fixed it. That's swimming pool cooking.

Accompaniments should fit the same style. I love to grill an assortment of vegetables--eggplant, peppers, zucchini and onions (either quartered white onions or, if you can find them, the faintly bulbed true spring onions). Just brush them with garlicky olive oil and layer them with herbs when they're done. The best part is that with some good bread, the leftovers make terrific sandwiches and crostini for dinner later in the week.

I go through cycles with desserts. For a while it'll be nothing but crisps and cobblers. Then it'll be ice creams and sorbets. And when the fruit is really special, I simply serve it as is, rinsed and (if I'm showing off) nested on a bed of ice.

One constant for swimming pool desserts is cookies, which, as far as I'm concerned, go with everything. They add a nice crisp contrast to ice creams and sorbets; they add a spicy complexity to fresh fruit; and you can munch on them all day whenever the mood strikes.

As you can see, swimming pool cooking is heavily dependent on that other Southern California landmark, great produce. It's fun to prowl the market--whether it's the local farmers market or your favorite grocery store--and mix and match fruits and vegetables into a menu as you go along.

Some friends and I did that last weekend. Some tiny, fingernail-sized potatoes from one stand, pea sprouts from another, spring onions here, baby corn there, white sea bass, tomatoes, herbs, passion fruit, long-stemmed radicchio di Treviso . . . somehow it all wound up as dinner. The cookies were snickerdoodles, and they were served with passion fruit sorbet--a perfect, if accidental, marriage.

Indeed, the essence of swimming pool cooking is a kind of ostentatious indifference. Dinner should seem like something you just threw together and, well, of course it's delicious. How odd to think it could be otherwise.

That's the kind of stuff that works best poolside. Too much perfection smacks of premeditation, and that's hardly the casual Southern California style, is it?

SNICKERDOODLES

This is one of my mom's recipes and it is the bane of my existence. No matter what I serve of my own for dinner, these always get the most praise. To make cinnamon sugar, mix 1 tablespoon ground cinnamon with a quarter cup of granulated sugar. Taste and add a little more cinnamon if you like.

1 cup shortening

1 1/2 cups sugar

2 eggs

2 3/4 cups flour

2 teaspoons cream of tartar

1 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon salt

Cinnamon sugar

Cream shortening and sugar until light and fluffy. Add eggs, 1 at time, beating thoroughly between each addition.

Sift together flour, cream of tartar, baking soda and salt. Add to shortening mixture, beating well. Gather dough in ball, wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate until firm, about 30 minutes.

Tear off pieces of dough about size of walnut. Roll into ball, dust with cinnamon sugar and place on ungreased baking sheet about 2 inches apart. Bake at 350 degrees until light brown and firm on top, 10 to 15 minutes. Top will be deeply cracked and center will still be somewhat soft.

Cool on baking sheet 5 minutes, then transfer to cooling rack to finish. Store in airtight container.

Makes about 4 dozen cookies.

Each cookie contains about:

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