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Early last week, the food community throughout the Bay Area and beyond awoke to heart-wrenching news. Judy Rodgers, beloved chef and co-owner of Zuni Cafe, had died of a rare and painful cancer diagnosed just over a year ago. Our thoughts turned to Judy's warm smile and easy laugh, her meticulous and inspired cooking, leisurely late-night dinners at Zuni and our countless home kitchens where we all tried to duplicate the extraordinary roasted chicken and bread salad for which the restaurant is known around the country and beyond.

As I read the news, I could nearly taste a dish I enjoyed more than two decades ago, mussels with chorizo, tomato and garlic, and thought of a late night nearly as long ago with a dear friend over a platter of oysters on the half shell and what may have been the best hamburger I've ever had.

In 2003, I was enough lucky to be in the audience at the James Beard Awards in New York City when "The Zuni Cafe Cookbook" (2002, Chronicle Books) was voted Cookbook of the Year. Zuni Cafe took the Outstanding Restaurant Award that year, too. It was a happy night, when the world seemed right and the awards well-deserved.

Not all cookbooks by chefs are actually written by those chefs. There is often a ghost writer, a team of assistants and a crew of sous-chefs creating and testing recipes in a huge professional kitchen. These books can be disappointing because, at their core, there is no voice, no genuine point of view, no personality. But Judy Rodgers wrote every word of the 500-plus page tome herself, with what many reviewers have called "a nearly obsessive attention to detail."

The recipe for the roast chicken and bread salad, for example, runs nearly five pages, but not because it is complicated or difficult. The roast chicken has just four ingredients, the salad not quite a dozen, counting water. The length comes from Rodgers' specific instructions and explanations. She guides you intelligently through every action, including how to approach the chicken — from the edge of the cavity — and slide a finger under the skin to make pockets into which you will insert little sprigs of herbs. She leaves nothing out and, before long, you feel her in the kitchen with you.

And that is where she will remain, in our kitchens and in our hearts and in the restaurant that she turned into a San Francisco icon.

Judy Rodgers, may you rest in delicious peace.

For more information about Zuni Cafe, visit <a href="http://zunicafe.com" target="_blank">zunicafe.com</a>, where you may also purchase copies of the cookbook.


When the staff at Zuni Cafe celebrated its 20th anniversary, they layered the cheese with slivers of fresh black truffle, which Judy Rodgers describes, in the introduction to this simple but luscious appetizer, as exquisite. Even without the truffle, these little nibbles are a favorite appetizer on a cool winter night.

<strong>Sage Grilled Cheese</strong>

<em> Makes 4 sandwiches or 20 bites</em>

— About a dozen fresh sage leaves

2 tablespoons mild-tasting olive oil

1/2 teaspoon freshly cracked black pepper

6 ounces chewy, peasant-style bread, sliced ?-inch thick (8 slices from a batard — a fat French baguette — will do perfectly)

4 ounces Fontina or Swiss Gruyere cheese, all rind removed and sliced 1/16-inch thick or coarsely grated

Chop the sage. You should get about 1 tablespoon. Place in your smallest saucepan, add the olive oil and cracked pepper, set over low heat and warm to the touch. Turn off the heat and leave to infuse while you assemble the sandwiches.

Blanket half of the slices of bread evenly with the cheese, taking care to bring the cheese all the way to the crust. Top each with a second slice of bread and press flat. Lay a heavy or weighted cutting board on top of the sandwiches for 10 to 20 minutes.

Use a pastry brush to spread the sage oil lightly on both faces of the sandwiches. Make sure you go all the way to the edges and try to distribute the sage and pepper evenly over the bread.

Preheat a griddle or warm a seasoned cast-iron pan over low heat. Sprinkle a few drops of olive oil, then rub it over the whole cooking surface with a paper towel. Add the sandwiches and cook until golden, about 2 to 3 minutes per side. Keep the heat low so you don't burn the sage or pepper.

Eat quickly, while the cheese is still soft.


Zuni Cafe's Caesar Salad is probably its second most famous dish, right behind the legendary roast chicken and bread salad. In her introduction to the recipe, Judy Rodgers writes about the importance of using the best possible ingredients and preparing the dressing and grating the cheese at the last possible moment. By the time you read the full introduction, you have already had an outstanding lesson in cooking that applies to much more than just this simple salad.

<strong>Zuni Caesar Salad</strong>

<em> Makes 4 to 6 servings</em>

<em><strong>For the croutons:</strong></em>

4 to 5 ounce chunk or slice of day-old lemain or sourdough bread or other chewy, peasant-style bread

2 to 3 tablespoons mild-tasting olive oil

— Salt

<em><strong> To finish the salad:</strong></em>

2 to 3 heads romaine lettuce (to yield about 1? pounds usable leaves)

1 tablespoon red wine vinegar

2/3 cup mild-tasting olive oil

— About 1? tablespoons chopped salt-packed anchovy fillets (6 to 9 fillets)

— About 2 teaspoons chopped garlic

— Salt

2 large cold eggs

— About 3 ounces Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, grated

— Freshly cracked black pepper

— About 1 1/2 lemons (to yield about 3 tablespoons juice)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Cut the bread into 1/2- to 3/4-inch cubes, toss with oil to coat evenly, salt lightly, toss again and spread on a sheet pan. Roast, rotating the pan as needed, until golden all over, about 8 to 12 minutes. Taste a crouton; it should be well seasoned and slightly tender in the center. Let to cool on the sheet pan.

Discard the leathery outer leaves of the romaine, then cut off the base of each head and wash and dry the leaves. Go through the leaves, trimming them of discolored, leathery, bruised or wilted parts, but leave them whole. You need about 1 1/2 pounds of prepared leaves. Layer the leaves with towels if necessary to wick off every drop of water — wet lettuce will make an insipid salad. Refrigerate until just before dressing the salad.

Whisk together the vinegar, oil, anchovies and garlic in a small mixing bowl. Add the eggs, a few sprinkles of the cheese and lots of black pepper. Whisk to emulsify. Add the lemon juice, squeezing it through a strainer to catch the seeds. Whisk again, just to emulsify. Taste the dressing, first by itself and then on a leaf of lettuce, and adjust any of the seasonings to taste. If the romaine is very sweet, the dressing may already taste balanced and excellent — if it is minerally, extra lemon or garlic may improve the flavor. If you like more anchovy, add it. (You should have about 1 1/2 cups of dressing.)

Place the romaine in a wide salad bowl. Add most of the dressing and fold and toss very thoroughly, taking care to separate the leaves and coat each surface with dressing, adding more as needed. Dust with most of the remaining cheese, add the croutons and toss again. Taste and adjust as before. In general, the tastier the romaine, the less you will need to emphasize other flavors.

Pick out first the large, then the medium-sized and then the smallest leaves and arrange on cold plates. Add a last drizzle of dressing to the bowl to moisten the croutons if they are at all dry and stir them around in the bowl to capture dressing on each of their faces and in their hollows. Distribute the croutons among the salads and finish each serving with a final dusting of cheese and more pepper.

<em>Michele Anna Jordan hosts "Mouthful" each Sunday at 7 p.m. on KRCB 90.9 & 91.1 FM. E-mail Jordan at michele@micheleannajordan.com. You'll find her blog, "Eat This Now," at pantry.blogs.pressdemocrat.com.</em>

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