Recalling the tastes of California

Writing a book is a lot like having a baby. There's a huge amount of effort involved before you see any results but once the birthing is over, it's all but irresistible to take it out in a stroller to show it off. And just as we want our children to live long, happy lives, we also want our books to live long and thrive, as that Kaiser Permanente commercial says.

Thus I was thrilled when Harvard Common Press reissued my 1997 book, "California Home Cooking," as part of its new America Cooks: Celebrating Regional Cooking series. Never technically out of print, the book had become difficult to find but is now available at local bookstores and online.

The book was not an easy child. It grew up too quickly; I wrote what should have been a three-year book in a year. The scope, or mission, of the book was daunting, too. It needed to be usable in the kitchen, every day, by home cooks. Yet at the same time, it needed to represent the history of my home state, the arc of its cooking, the contributions of wave after wave of immigrant and the sharp shift initiated by the gourmet revolution of the 1970s. The book needed to be about home cooking but, to present a full picture, also had to incorporate the considerable influence of contemporary chefs.

My favorite part, then and now, is the Introduction, a lengthy essay that explores the state, its agriculture and its cooking from its earliest years to the present. Alas, as the book's editor recently reminded me, most people don't read introductions.

When I traveled to promote this book - in 1997 and 1998, publishers still sponsored book tours - I learned a lot about both California and other parts of America. What lingers most from the trip is the memory of an early-morning television show, when an engineer, a tall Texan in cowboy boots, hitched up his jeans with his thumbs and walked toward me at the conclusion of my segment. Looking down at the floor, he said in a classic drawl, "Ma'am, if you don't mind, I'd love a taste of y'all's goat cheese, if ya got any left. We just love goat cheese here in Texas."

Who knew?

Nearly a decade later, when my daughter Nicolle accepted a teaching position at the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg, the chair of the department gave her a welcoming dinner. The food was somehow familiar though Nicolle couldn't quite figure out why.

Later, she spotted my book next to the stove and looked inquiringly at her hostess.

"Oh, you must get this book," her new colleague said."Everyone in the department loves it and we use it all the time."

Again, who knew? Mississippi loves California cuisine. I could never have guessed.

Nicolle pointed to the book's author, smiled and, when asked if she had any connection, replied, "She's my mama!"

Kids. Don't you love &‘em?

As I worked on "California Home Cooking," I loved finding recipes from firefighters. This one, adapted from "San Francisco Firehouse Favorites" (1965), is from Art Treganza of Airport Rescue Company No. 3. He called it "Cockles and Rice" but I changed it to clams and rice because today cockles are hard to find. Art offered great advice: "Before rinsing them in fresh water, squeeze the cockles together, two by two. If loaded with sand, a cockle will open; discard it." Lately, I've gotten a number of mud clams - clam shells filled with nothing but mud - that I did not find in time. Oops. Be sure to pick through all shellfish before cooking with it.

Firehouse Clams and Rice

Makes 4 to 6 servings

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 small white onion, minced

1shallot, minced

1 or 2 serranos, minced

3 to 4 garlic cloves, minced

? cup minced fresh Italian parsley

? cup basmati or other long-grain white rice

1 cup dry white wine

2 cups fish stock or chicken stock

2 pounds small clams or cockles, in their shells, rinsed

2 tablespoons minced cilantro leaves

? cup (2 ounces) grated dry jack or Parmigiano-Reggiano, optional

- Kosher salt

- Black pepper in a mill

Heat the olive oil in a heavy stockpot over medium heat. Add the onion and shallot and saute them until they are fragrant, about 10 minutes. Add the serranos (using 2 for more heat), garlic and parsley, and saute for 2 minutes. Add the rice and stir with a wooden spoon until all the grains are coated with oil, about 2 minutes. Add the wine, stock and 3 cups of water. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat and simmer, covered, for 12 minutes, or until the rice is barely tender. Add the clams, stir and cook over medium heat until the clams open, 10 to 15 minutes. Add more water if necessary for a soup-like, but not too thin, consistency. Stir in the cilantro and, if you like, the cheese. Remove from the heat, taste and season with salt and pepper. Ladle into warmed soup bowls and serve immediately.

A Californian by birth, I was raised on fresh artichokes. They are among my earliest food memories. In this recipe, I combine the small artichokes usually identified, incorrectly, as baby artichokes; they are actually from older parts of the plant. You can also use the hearts of 4 or 5 large artichokes. If you like, cut the tender tips of the leaves off and scatter them across the pasta before serving. The combination of clams and artichokes is deliciously earthy.

Linguine with Artichokes and Clams

Makes 4 to 6 servings

1 pound very small artichokes, trimmed of tough outer leaves and cut in half

? cup unsalted butter

2 shallots, minced

8 garlic cloves, minced

? teaspoon crushed red pepper

1 cup dry white wine

- Juice of 1 lemon

3 pounds cherrystone, manila or littleneck clams, scrubbed

1 pound dried linguine

1 lemon, cut into wedges

Place the artichokes in a medium pot, add enough water to cover them and bring the water to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat and simmer, uncovered, until the artichokes are barely tender, about 12 minutes. Drain the artichokes, rinse them and set them aside.

Melt the butter in a large pot over medium heat. When the butter is foamy, add the shallots and garlic and saute, stirring frequently, until they are soft and fragrant, about 7 minutes. Do not let them brown. Add the red pepper and wine, increase the heat and reduce the liquid by half. Add the artichokes, lemon juice and clams and simmer, covered, until all or nearly all of the clams just open, 3 to 5 minutes; use a slotted spoon to remove and discard any clams that do not open. Remove from the heat and keep warm.

Meanwhile, cook the linguine: Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Cook the linguine until it is al dente. Drain it, rinse it, drain it again and transfer it to a large shallow serving bowl.

Place the opened clams and the artichokes over the top of the pasta, then pour the cooking liquid over all. Season with pepper, garnish with lemon wedges and serve immediately.

Michele Anna Jordan hosts "Mouthful" each Sunday at 7 p.m. on KRCB 90.9 & 91.1 FM. E-mail Jordan at You'll find her blog, "Eat This Now," at

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