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The essence of a California holiday

November 20, 2002|Russ Parsons | Times Staff Writer

We have so many things to be thankful for, those of us who cook and eat in California -- the richness of the state in terms of ingredients and culinary traditions is incomparable. But with this long list of blessings let's not forget to include Helen Evans Brown. After all, she's the one who first laid out what it means to be a California cook.

Brown, who lived in Pasadena from 1937 until her death in 1964, was perhaps the state's first serious cookbook author. She certainly was the foremost chronicler of cooking on the West Coast in the transitional post-World War II era, when California was awakening to its full potential, both economically and culinarily.

In all, she wrote 15 books starting in 1950, including "Complete Book of Outdoor Cookery" in partnership with her friend James Beard. (Some of her correspondence with Beard was captured in the wonderful "Love, Kisses and a Halo of Truffles," published in 1996.) She also wrote for magazines such as Sunset, House & Garden and Atlantic Monthly.

But her most important book by far was "The West Coast Cook Book." Published 50 years ago, it lays out the framework for all of those things we enjoy so much today. Here are recipes using then-exotic ingredients such as artichokes and asparagus, feijoas and figs -- all of them grown here and appreciated by good cooks even then. Beyond raw materials, Brown drew on the expertise of cooks from many cultures, not out of any obligation to seem "balanced," but because she quite honestly liked their food and found it interesting.

Most important, she took food seriously, digging deep in regional historical sources to firmly ground the food in its fullest context. This lends her work a seriousness of purpose that is missing in most cookbooks even today.

Which is not to say the books are dreary or academic. Though the recipes are not always of the current fashion, they are delicious. And uncompromising.

Consider the "Walnut-Fattened Turkey" from "The West Coast Cook Book" that she resurrected from a recipe collection called "Los Angeles Cookery" published in 1881.

The first step? "Get your turkey six weeks before you need it; put him in a coop just large enough to let him walk, or in a small yard; give him walnuts -- one the first day, and increase every day [by] one until he has nine; then go back to one and up to nine until you kill him, stuffing him twice with cornmeal dough each day in which you put a little chopped onion and celery."

As Brown points out, "the geese of Perigord hadn't much on us when it came to stuffing: this poor bird was stuffed before and after it was killed."

Although "The West Coast Cook Book" has been reprinted repeatedly, it is once again out of print, though it is pretty easy to find at used-book stores. Check Janet Jarvits Bookseller, 1388 E. Washington Blvd., in Pasadena or shop online at And though it's too late to buy your live turkey, these recipes from Brown's masterwork certainly qualify as classic -- and more practical -- California holiday dishes.


Dungeness crab bisque

Total time: 30 minutes

Servings: 4

2 cups Dungeness crab meat (about 7 ounces)

4 cups half-and-half

1 onion, peeled but not chopped

2 tablespoons butter

2 tablespoons flour


Freshly ground white pepper

Dash nutmeg


1. Chop the crab meat very fine and simmer it in the half-and-half with the onion for 20 minutes.

2. Melt the butter in a medium saucepan over low heat and add the flour all at once, stirring until blended. Cook until the mixture is just beginning to turn golden, about 5 minutes.

3. Remove the onion from the half-and-half and add the liquid to the butter and flour mixture. Cook, stirring frequently, until the soup thickens, 3 minutes. Season with salt and a little white pepper. Just before serving, add the nutmeg and a splash of Sherry to taste.

Each serving: 452 calories; 420 mg. sodium; 143 mg. cholesterol; 34 grams fat; 21 grams saturated fat; 18 grams carbohydrates; 19 grams protein; 0.90 gram fiber.


Walnut stuffing

Total time: 2 hours

Servings: 8-10

10 cups finely torn day-old bread (about 7 slices)

1 tablespoon butter

1/4 teaspoon dried sage

1/4 teaspoon dried thyme

1 cup coarsely chopped walnuts

1/2 cup chopped onion


Freshly ground pepper

2 egg yolks

1 1/2 cups boiling water

2 tablespoons butter, melted, optional

1. Mix together the bread, butter, sage, thyme, walnuts, onion, salt and pepper to taste, and the egg yolks. Stir in the boiling water to make the dressing moist and sticky. Spoon into the cavity of a turkey and bake according to instructions. Or, spread the stuffing in a buttered 13-by-9-inch baking dish. Brush the surface with the melted butter. Bake at 325 degrees until it begins to brown around the edges, 45 to 55 minutes.

Each of 10 servings: 151 calories; 137 mg. sodium; 47 mg. cholesterol; 11 grams fat; 2 grams saturated fat; 11 grams carbohydrates; 4 grams protein; 1.32 grams fiber.


Cheddar pennies

Total time: 45 minutes, plus 2 hours chilling

Servings: 96 coins

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