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Salt of the earth

Judy Rodgers knows the transformative power of a most basic ingredient.

July 05, 2006|Russ Parsons | Times Staff Writer

San Francisco — JUDY RODGERS has firm opinions on salt. Well, to be honest (and that's the only way she would have it), Rodgers has firm opinions on many, many things, including such disparate topics as the unthinking use of lemon as an all-purpose acidifier, why Kennebec and Winnemucca are the perfect potatoes for frying, and the tip-driven inequities between waiters' and cooks' take-home pay.

These aren't knee-jerk opinions. The chef and co-owner of San Francisco's beloved Zuni Cafe has thought through these issues quite thoroughly, breaking each down in her methodical way.

In fact, a thoughtful, painstaking approach to cooking is the very spirit that informs her restaurant. While other chefs may range far and wide, tracking down the latest new dish, ingredient or technique, Rodgers would rather just dig a little deeper.

Though roughly 60% to 70% of the dinner menu at Zuni changes every night, it is based on a relatively small number of dishes. And some, such as roast chicken, Caesar salad and house-cured anchovies, have been on the menu almost every night since she took over in 1987.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday July 11, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 33 words Type of Material: Correction
Salting technique: An article in Wednesday's Food section about chef Judy Rodgers' salting technique misidentified the town in which the Troisgros family lives and owns a restaurant. It is Roanne, France, not Rouen.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday July 12, 2006 Home Edition Food Part F Page 2 Features Desk 1 inches; 34 words Type of Material: Correction
Salting -- An article in last week's Food section about chef Judy Rodgers' salting technique misidentified the town in which the Troisgros family lives and owns a restaurant. It is Roanne, France, not Rouen.

Don't mistake that as a sign of a kitchen on autopilot. Rodgers still views every one of those dishes as a work in progress, and she is constantly measuring, timing and evaluating whether there is a way each could be improved. As she puts it in her critically acclaimed "The Zuni Cafe Cookbook": "Making even a simple dish three times in two weeks can teach you more about cooking than trying three different dishes in the same period. Pay attention to the process of making it, and to the small and large differences in the results."

That could be Rodgers' mantra: Pay attention to the details of cooking and think about what is going on. "Build your database," is how she likes to put it.

Rodgers' most-discussed culinary theory regards the salting of meat. Almost every piece of beef, lamb, fish or poultry that comes into the Zuni kitchen immediately gets a light dusting of salt, and then is set aside for as long as several days to "cure."

"It is a part of the restaurant's personality," she says. "The flavor of Zuni Cafe is pre-salting, and if I can't pre-salt, I can't get the right flavor."

Rodgers says pre-salting does two things: It seasons the meat all the way through rather than just on the surface, and it changes the texture of the meat, making it moister and more tender -- in much the same way brining does.

Ask for details and you'd better be careful what you wish for. Rodgers might just invite you to San Francisco for a day of on-the-spot experiments.

The basement cook

THERE are two kitchens at Zuni Cafe: one upstairs where dishes are finished, and one in the basement where all the initial preparations take place. The first, the one the customers see, is light-filled and airy with warm wood and tile surfaces. The second is emphatically not, but it seems to be where Rodgers spends most of her time.

The two are joined by a long, steep staircase, and in the course of a day Rodgers must sprint up and down it at least a dozen times. At 49, she still has an air about her of Berkeley in the '70s. Tall and willowy, she wears her hair waist-length and straight and is given to dressing in brightly colored tights and short skirts, even when she's cooking.

But there is nothing airy-fairy about Rodgers. She believes in getting right down to business.

For this day's experiments, she has lined up four chickens (two cut up for frying: one cured, one not; two whole for roasting, the same arrangement); three beef sirloins (one uncured, one cured in salt only, one cured with salt and coarse pepper); two chuck roasts for braising (one cured, one not); and five thick pork chops (variously cured, brined and marinated). You might expect that each type of meat would take a different dose of salt, but Rodgers has calculated that about 1 tablespoon of medium-grain sea salt per 4 1/2 pounds of meat is the perfect ratio for everything. Instead, she says, it's the time spent curing that varies, from a couple of hours to several days. This depends on the type of meat -- chicken and pork are denser than beef or lamb so they take longer -- and the size of the cut.

Rodgers' salting is different from traditional koshering in that kosher chickens are salted and cured for only an hour, then rinsed with water, whereas Zuni chickens cure for anywhere from one to three days. As for the salt, Rodgers prefers a sea salt that she finds in bulk bins in the Bay Area that is somewhat coarser than fine salt, but much finer than that which is usually sold as coarse. It has the consistency of cornmeal. If you're using very finely ground salt, just use slightly less.

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