The Zuni Cafe Cookbook

I don’t get out to eat in “nice” restaurants that much.  It’s partly a matter of where we live, but mostly a matter of expenses.  I like to cook, though, so I think it’s fun to dine out vicariously by checking out cookbooks from renowned restaurants from the library and browsing through them for ideas.   I currently have out a cookbook called “The Zuni Cafe Cookbook – A Compendium of Recipes and Cooking Lessons from San Francisco’s Beloved Restaurant”.  I like the title.  A “beloved” restaurant’s cookbook that includes cooking lessons sounded like good reading to me.  So I started paging through it and originally was rather put off by it.  It seemed to have a lot of unfamiliar ingredients, things that I couldn’t imagine buying in Selah, Washington and things I had never eaten.  But I continued reading, and discovered I might like this cookbook after all.  As I was reading, I found this passage:  “I err when I take casual changes on unfamiliar ingredients, combinations, or methods, or foolishly, all three at once.  When I cook with what I know, I make the best food, which leads to the underlying requirement:  as you decide what to buy and then how to cook it, take stock of what you know and build on that.  Don’t shop for lots of things you’ve never bought or tasted, much less cooked.  In general, it makes sense to build meals around ingredients or dishes you know and know you love; then enjoy learning about unfamiliar ingredients and techniques at the fringes of the menu, or in the optional areas.  …. If you really like apples or lamb or olive oil or rice, then buy that product regularly, trying different varieties, cuts or vintages, until you are confident you know what you like best and, eventually, how to choose it.  For example, make simple dishes using every variety of rice you can find- or start with every brand of Carnaroli you can find, then expand to include other risotta rices, then other Italian rices, and then branch into the plump Spanish rices you might have hard about by now, since you are paying attention to Mediterranean rice….. The same can be said for recipes.  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 of time. Pay attention to the process of making it, and to the small and large differences in the results.  Then take what you have learned about those ingredients and techniques and apply them to other dishes.”  It reminds me of good advice Carrie gave me several years ago about reading.  She suggested taking an author I liked (in this case – Wallace Stegner) and reading all, or many, or his works, rather than just poking around here and there between various authors.

So I have tried to use this idea as I ventured further into this cookbook.  There were recipes for interesting pickles – something I have not made, but was interested in trying.  So I tried the red onion pickles.  I like red onions.  I like pickles.  And they really looked pretty in the photos.  The recipe originally sounded too fussy, but it really wasn’t after all, and other than ending up with the entire house reeking of vinegar, it was easy to make. I confess that while they are too sour to eat by themselves, they really do add a nice jazzy touch to a burger with all the spices used.  Here’s the recipe:

Red Onion Pickles

Cooking notes: You’ll want to prepare these in a stainless steel pot and use stainless steel tongs or a wooden spoon. Aluminum cookware can leave the onions with an off color and deny you the gorgeous hot pink hue that you want.

Ingredients for about 2 pints

1 lb firm red onions (about 2 medium onions, although you can add more and increase quantity)

for the brine:

3 cups distilled white vinegar

1 1/2 cups sugar

a cinnamon stick, broken into pieces

a few whole cloves

a few allspice berries

a small dried chili

a star anise pod (Zuni recipe says it’s optional, so I skipped it as I didn’t have any.  I’ll add it the next time I make them though, as I think it would add a great flavor!)

2 bay leaves

a few whole black peppercorns


1. Combine the vinegar, sugar, and all the spices in the stainless steel pot and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat, cover, and simmer for 3 minutes. Turn off the heat and let stand to allow the spices to infuse the brine.

2. Peel the onions, trim the ends and slice 3/8 inch thick. Separate the slices into rings, discarding any skin and tough bits.

3. Uncover the brine and bring to a boil over high heat. Immediately add about 1/3 of the onion rings and stir them under. They will turn hot pink almost instantly. As soon as the brine begins to simmer around the edges, about 20 seconds, stir them under again and slide the pot off the heat. Immediately remove the onions with a slotted spoon, skimmer, or tongs and spread on a platter or cookie sheet to cool completely. The onions will still be firm. Repeat with the remaining onions, in two batches.

4. Once the onions have cooled (you can stick them in the fridge to cool them quickly), repeat the entire process, again in three batches, two more times, always adding the onions to boiling brine, pulling them promptly as the brine begins to simmer again, and cooling them completely after each bath. After the third round of blanching, thoroughly chill the brine, then add the pickled onions. This slightly tedious process saturates the onions with the fragrant brine without really cooking them, a process that leaves them crunchy. Zuni notes that without this process you’re left with dull, regularly colored onion rings.

5. Place in jars, cover and store refrigerated.

red onion pickles on a burger (with homemade bun)

red onion pickles on a burger (with homemade bun)

OK.  A success with that one.  Plus they keep refrigerated indefinitely, which sounds good to me.  So then I moved on to the roasted chicken recipe.  I’ve roasted lots of chickens but am always open to new ideas. The main thing with this recipe is a technique pushed throughout the book of “salting early.”  The day before roasting, you wash and dry off the chicken really well, then salt it generously (and stick fresh herbs under the skin), and stick it in the refrigerator.  The next day, it gets roasted at a high temperature (475F).  Yes.  It works.   The chicken looked lovely and was juicy and good tasting.  It also filled the house with smoke, but that quickly dissapated once I set up a fan in the doorway.  I guess what both recipes had in common was the lingering effect they had on the air quality in the house.

This was served with green beans from our garden, which we enjoyed (as did our garden “pets” who have also been busy nibbling on them.  Isn’t it a nice feeling to know that we are keeping some of the small creatures of the land well nourished with home grown fare?).   So, two for two with the recipes tried,  which is probably as good as I expect from a cookbook.   I’ll still probably try some more, but pass on fixing any rabbit, quail or squab.

I did notice the author’s interesting comment in her introduction to the buttermilk mashed potatoes:  “I am almost afraid to run these mashed potatoes at Zuni, because whatever I pair them with will outsell all other main courses four to one, roast chicken included.”    Next on my list of recipes to try…..