Eric Gower is a San Francisco-based personal chef and cookbook author. He is also has a blog over at Yahoo! Food. Here he shares his approach to cooking, ingredients as well as shopping and dining around town.
1. How did living in Japan influence your cooking?
Japanese aesthetics, eating sequence, using chopsticks, caring about eating on great ceramics, eating seasonally …. all have been hugely influential. Each of those could get a multipage response, but if I had to break it down I’d say:
• use good plates and bowls — it’s remarkable what a difference it makes
• think about presentation, both on the plate and at the table — use great materials and keep things exceedingly simple
• lots of small courses are good! It’s fun to make meals composed of small amounts of many different things
• it’s now become common sense, but eating what’s in season makes a great deal of sense — whatever your local farmers’ market has the most of, buy in great quantity, and think of different things to do with your bounty.
2. How does your latest book The Breakaway Cook differ from your last book, The Breakaway Japanese Kitchen?
The Breakaway Japanese Kitchen focused on Japanese ingredients and my unorthodox “spins” on them. I used common Japanese ingredients like miso, green tea, umeboshi, shiitake, shiso, among others, and combined them in very simple ways with common staples like seasonal vegetables, meats and fish, pasta, and eggs. It is in no way a “Japanese” cookbook yet every recipe in it uses classic Japanese ingredients, all written with the home cook who has little experience with Japanese ingredients in mind. The recipes are vibrant and fresh, and tend to use quite a bit of fresh herbs, citrus, nuts, and fruit as key components of dishes, along with the Japanese ingredients and fresh produce.
The new book, The Breakaway Cook, uses a similar methodology–that is, common fresh produce and meats “woken up” with the judicious use of herbs, spices, citrus, fresh ginger, vinegars, and good oils–but instead of concentration only on Japanese ingredients I’ve opened it up to include key ingredients from a few other great culinary traditions, notably India, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia).
The idea is to produce easy, delicious food at home by rethinking the quintessential flavors of countries with rich culinary traditions. We do this by capturing/applying those flavors to everyday staples without necessarily doing it a traditional or “authentic” manner. We simply don’t worry that much about keeping anything authentic; the only thing we’re concerned about it is making and eating insanely great food, using whatever methods and ingredients that get us there.
3. If you could convince home cooks to add 3 ingredients to their list of staples, which would they be?
Pomegranate molasses, flavored salts, and miso.
4. What are “global flavor blasts”?
Global flavor blasts are ingredients from culinary traditions around the world that deliver intense flavors, with no work on our part except to open the jar/bottle/package and use them as is. Typically, they take a great deal of time to make from scratch. Pomegranate molasses, for example, is simply pomegranate juice that has been boiled down to a viscous, treacly syrup with intensely concentrated flavors. We could to this ourselves by buying large quantifies of pomegranate juice and simmering it all day long, but why bother? Someone has already done the work! Same goes for miso.
Tamarind concentrate, mole, adobo, umeboshi … all can add just wonderful zing and complexity to the homeliest of meals to create flavor sensations you never thought possible to create at home, virtually instantly. They are worth getting to know.
5. Do you still have 15 kinds of vinegar in your pantry?
Well I think I’m down to about 12! Let me see what I can do to rectify that.
6. What is your piece de resistance?
Hmm, I’d say matcha (powdered green tea) salt. Just combine matcha and sel gris in a coffee grinder to produce an ethereal, wildly delicious salt to sprinkle on things, especially poached eggs. As an added bonus, it is hauntingly beautiful.
7. Who would you most like to cook for?
My hero, Bill Clinton!
8. What are some of your favorite local (SF Bay Area) restaurants and places to shop for food?
For restaurants, I like Aziza, on Geary near 21st, very, very much. It’s “breakaway Moroccan” and just wonderful. Dosa on Valencia has terrific Indian food. Dragonfly on Judah has some serious breakaway Vietnamese dishes, and Burma Superstar on Clement has one of the world’s best salads, the heavenly green tea salad.
Food shopping: I buy all my spices at the wonderful San Francisco Herb Company, on 14th Street. Monterey Fish on Pier 33 has by far (and I mean by far) the best fish in the Bay Area. I buy my meats in whole-animal form from local farmers (it’s tastier, more humane, and even cheaper, believe it o not, though you do need a large freezer). Veggies and fruits come from all over, but my favorite market is the Marin farmers’ market in San Rafael. I also like Alemany, and I try to shop most Wednesdays at the Civic Center farmers’ market. Dairy, juices, and nuts come from Trader Joe’s.
Next week come back for a review of The Breakaway Cook and a recipe