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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

You might think early salting would result in drier meat because the salt would draw out moisture. But the way it seems to work is that over time, the meat reabsorbs the moisture, carrying the salt with it. Furthermore, because that moisture is loaded with amino acids and sugars, the meat browns better and forms a better crust.

Rodgers knew none of that when she started pre-salting. She was just following the instructions of Georgette Descat, a Parisian chef and one of her culinary godparents.

By her own admission, Rodgers comes from a very nongastronomic family in St. Louis. As a junior in high school in 1973, she was anxious to spend a year abroad, preferably in France, as she had studied the language. A neighbor who was a fabrics chemist at Monsanto mentioned he knew someone in Rouen, a textile city, who might be willing to host her.

That someone turned out to be Jean Troisgros, who with his brother Pierre was among the pioneers of nouvelle cuisine, at their three-star restaurant Maison Troisgros. For someone with even the most nascent interest in food, this was like landing in heaven.

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.

Indeed, Rodgers dates the beginning of her culinary life to the very first meal she enjoyed chez Troisgros -- not a Michelin-starred extravaganza with its famous salmon and sorrel, but a very carefully made ham sandwich that Jean Troisgros fixed upon her arrival at 4 a.m.

"That was when I started paying attention to food," she says. "Before then I was someone who fueled efficiently. But there was no turning back after that ham sandwich."

Life at the Troisgros' wasn't all wine-poached truffles (though there were those too). Much more formative for Rodgers were the family's dinners prepared by their sister, Madeleine Troisgros Serraille, who served perfectly executed versions of classic French home cooking.

"Salmon and sorrel is wonderful, but nothing beats a great blanquette," Rodgers says.

Duck's versatility

AFTER the Troisgros experience, Rodgers' great teacher was Pepette Arbulo, who had a small cafe in the Landes region, a great area for ducks, but not much else.

"That was a real awakening for me," she says. "I never noticed that I was eating duck two or three times a day, because people there had explored for a hundred years every possible elaboration of what was possible to do with all of those damned ducks they had, and had eventually winnowed all of those possibilities down to a few of the best. It was a kind of communal distillation.

"It wasn't an attitude of 'Here is what we have to do because we're so isolated'; rather it was a daily exploration of what they could do with what they had."

Between the two French stays was a stint in Berkeley at Chez Panisse, working with an all-star crew including Alice Waters, Lindsey Remolif Shere, Mark Miller, Jean-Pierre Moulle, Deborah Madison and Jeremiah Tower. Rodgers learned from all of them, but the most important lesson may have come from her mother, who hardly cooked at all. She was an instructor in fashion design at Washington University, and when Rodgers was 8, she gave her her first sewing lessons.

"She taught me that there was a right way and a wrong way to lay out a pattern on a piece of fabric, and that if I laid out the pattern the wrong way, it would mess everything up. It didn't matter if it was a great pattern and great material," Rodgers says.

"It's the same thing with cooking. You can have great ingredients and a fabulous imagination, but if you screw up at any of the steps, it doesn't matter what you were working with or what you imagined."

Fried to perfection

WHICH brings us back to that kitchen full of meat. The first finished dish we taste, the fried chicken, is fabulous. It's the dish that brought her to national attention in the 1980s, when she was cooking at the little Union Hotel in Benicia, northeast of San Francisco. (Ruth Reichl, then critic for New West magazine, called it "the most perfect example of that dish I have ever encountered.")

At first it's hard to say whether that deliciousness is because of the quality of the meat -- it's cured for only two to three hours -- or the glorious crackling crust. But pull some of the meat from the center of each sample, and there is a definite difference -- the texture is fine-grained, not stringy.

Things come into clearer focus with the braised beef. Cooked in a red wine reduction until it is nearly falling apart, the regular chuck tastes like boiled beef. The pre-salted sample has a fuller flavor. The pork chops, which the grill cook has let go a little too long, are slightly dried out, except for the one that was brined. It is still tender and moist, but the sugar in the brine makes the meat noticeably sweet when compared with the others.

Rodgers doesn't like that, and though the flavor of the brine was not on the day's agenda, she vows to change the recipe.

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