Los Angeles, Calif.
Cooking With Tea: Techniques and Recipes for Appetizers, Entrees,
Desserts, and More
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The Vivid Flavors Cookbook : International Recipes from Hot & Spicy to Smoky & Sweet
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Gourmet-To-Go: A Guide to Opening and Operating a Specialty Food Store
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Farmers Markets Inspire Fusion Cooking
August 1997 — One of Robert Wemischner’s favorite finds at farmers markets is impeccable Asian greens — baby bok choy, tatsoi, chrysanthemum greens, pea shoots or whatever else he can find from the Asian growers whose stands he visits regularly at the Santa Monica and Culver City markets. Wemischner, a cookbook author and culinary arts teacher in Los Angeles, uses the greens to pursue a career-long interest in what is now called fusion cooking.
That name hadn’t been coined back in the 1970s when Wemischner first started experimenting with using cooking techniques from one culture to prepare ingredients from another. Asian greens are perfect subjects for fusion cooking because “they’re very versatile,” Wemischner says. “They take on the character of whatever you cook them in.”
Take baby bok choy, for example. Wemischner usually prepares it in the conventional Asian manner, quickly stir-frying the vegetable in ginger, garlic, sesame oil and sometimes soy sauce. But for a change of taste, the greens can take on Mediterranean flavors if they are cooked with olive oil, garlic, and the summer herbs commonly available at farmers market. Or Wemischner sometimes uses bok choy in Indian vegetarian cooking, flavoring with Indian spices, adding them to legumes and serving the concoction over rice.
Wemischner has so many other favorites in the summertime farmers markets that he hesitates to single out any particular item. “I’m guided by what looks good and what I learn about in conversation with farmers. I like to be inspired by what’s there,” he says, adding that he always pays special attention to “short-season items, the things that flit in and out of the markets quickly, the things you have to take advantage of while they’re there.”
At the height of summer, the constantly changing varieties of stone fruit match that description — and also complement his teaching specialty: baking. He is always looking for fruit to use in cakes mousses, tartes and tortes. He also likes to make summer chutneys and relishes with peaches when they are at their peak, using the condiments to accompany grilled dishes. And he always has an eye out for the right kind of peaches to poach.
Freestone peaches, in contrast with clings, are best for that purpose since they hold their shape once the pit is removed, he says. “You want them to keep their shape. You don’t want to overcook them and you don’t want them totally mushy,” says Wemischner. “That’s the nice thing about farmers markets. You get fruits that are picked at their peak of flavor but are not over the hill and therefore they will hold their shape — certain varieties more so than other. You have to be careful about that. You can get that information from the growers, and you have to look at the peaches, too. If they’re very aromatic, you know they’re going to be great.”
To poach peaches, put them in boiling water to blanch them. The skin of certain varieties will come off easily after that, he says. “Then I make a syrup with sugar and whatever aromatics I want to use — ginger, vanilla, lemon, star anise or any of those highly flavored ingredients. Then I cook them at a very low simmer until they’re barely tender, then let them sit in that poaching liquid to cool down.”
Wemischner tries to instill in his students in the culinary arts/professional baking program at Los Angeles Trade Tech College the value of shopping at farmers markets whenever possible. “What makes a vegetable good? It’s important to realize that the care in growing it influences how it turns out. Supermarket vegetables are in many cases a pale shadow of what an organic or smaller farm-produced vegetable can be,” he says.
“I’m very much keyed into vegetables because I’m vegetarian,” Wemischner adds. “If that’s what you’re going to eat, you want something that has flavor and is true to its essential characteristics.
“As chef-educators, we are also talking about the support of regional differences in food and we are thinking about how we can differentiate one part of the country from another. Certainly farmers markets, because of the local emphasis of what they’re selling, are a way of pointing up the special foods that a particular part of the country has to offer. Restaurant menus should be driven by that. More and more in restaurants, that’s happening all over the country. That’s certainly one of the positive developments occasioned by the proliferation of farmers markets around the country,” Wemischner says.
Going on 30 years ago, Wemischner was a culinary pioneer. He started his first catering business during his student days at the University of Pennsylvania in the 1970s. Later, in California, he started a combination catering company, bakery and retail store in Beverly Hills called Le Grand Buffet, which he ran for nine years before moving to the East Coast to start a similar business. He returned to California six years ago.
Besides teaching, he has written cookbooks. His first, The Vivid Flavors Cookbook : International Recipes from Hot & Spicy to Smoky & Sweet, was a distillation of his years of experimentation with fusion cooking — or “cross cultural cooking, if you will.” The book is organized by flavor categories with chapters on smoky, tart, sweet, sour and others, each chapter including a discussion of ingredients that produce the particular flavor profile and recipes that illustrate the points.
His latest book, Gourmet-To-Go : A Guide for Food Professionals and Retailer’s, sums up his years of experience as a culinary entrepreneur. The book covers all of the issues that a specialty retailer would be facing — from the formation of the concept to the layout of stores and the selection of product lines and employees. The book also delves into an increasingly prevalent trend: cross-over establishments formed when restaurants open up food annexes, caterers open retail outlets, and food stores branch into selling prepared food, Wemischner says.
In researching the book, he was encouraged to find that purchasing produce from local sources is a trend that is catching on. He sent questionnaires to thousands of specialty retailers. “A lot of them said their sources of produce are becoming more local. They are having farmers grow specialty items for them so they can have a point of difference, a distinguishing characteristic: ‘This is what we sell. Its grown by so and so, its exclusive to us or at least different than what you’ll find in a normal deli. It’s a way to add cachet. It’s a wave of the future certainly.”