judy rodgers . . .

by mulberryshoots


This morning, inside the back of the second section of the New York Times was an obituary for Peter Graf, the tennis father (read ogre) of Steffi Graf who escaped her tyrannical father by marrying Andre Agassi.

Then, I glanced at the opposite side and gasped (literally) to see that Judy Rodgers had died. It’s not as though I ever met her, you see. But I have her beautiful cookery book called “The Zuni Cafe Cookbook” which won the James Beard Award when it was published in 2002. In the article, her cooking was described as “refined simplicity.” Her famous recipe for roast chicken with bread salad has circulated far and wide and was even published at the bottom of the page of her obituary today.

Still stunned, I went to the bookcase looking for her book and found her large, thick volume with the beautiful cover photo of nuts, nectarines and ham. THIS, dear reader, is why it is so gratifying to have a large library of books that I love, ever flowing throughout the house, in stacks on the floor, in old baskets, on the credenza waiting to be put away. To me, these books are like old friends who awaken to have a conversation once again.

Although my family eschews red meat for the most part, most of the time, somehow, I”ve had it stuck in my mind that we should have something beefy, English or some type of roast in order to feel “Christmas-y.” Last year, I roasted a filet of beef which was delicious although it’s not my favorite cut of meat. It also fed my granddaughter and her boyfriend the next day too. To be honest, I thought the homemade beef gravy was what made the meal so tasty. The depth of flavor entailed hours making homemade beef stock, offsetting the supposed benefit of being able to roast the filet in a short amount of time.

But this morning, struck by Judy Rodger’s untimely death (she was only fifty-seven,) I read more about her life and about her work. At the age of sixteen, living in St. Louis, she somehow ended up on a student exchange to France and was assigned to live at the home of the best chef in France: Jean Troisgros, “who happened to run one of the greatest restaurants in the world, Les Freres Troisgros, in Roanne.” As though Fate and Destiny had anything to do with her life’s calling?

Then, I turned my attention to looking through her cookbook, marvelling at the gorgeous photos of dishes. Paging through the book to the roast chicken and bread salad recipe,  I resolved, or settled my mind at least, to make it for our Christmas dinner this year. Although it may seem like a sentimental gesture (it is) and although I didn’t even know her, nor especially cooked from her book prior to this (I didn’t) my strong feeling today is to honor her memory by creating a very different kind of menu for this year’s Christmas Eve repast. I can’t wait to go looking for small, organic chickens under three pounds that are a requisite for this recipe. Brining them a day ahead with salt is an essential step. I think I will roast three birds in my beautiful old French copper roasting pan. And I will serve them placed on top of the bread salad with the vinaigrette recipe she suggests.

As a starter, her recipe for “Prosciutto and White Rose Nectarines with Blanched Almonds” sounds like a lovely beginning to the evening. Kale, prepared with garlic, onion and red pepper might be a robust side vegetable to have alongside the roasted chickens and bread salad. A modest cheese plate, according to Judy, and then a dessert such as “espresso granita with whipped cream,” (who cares if we can’t fall asleep, there are still plenty of presents to wrap, right?) Or, a toasted almond panna cotta with saba (whatever that is!) or a fresh peach crostata, served warm from the oven?

Perhaps I am reacting over-emotionally to the surprise of reading about her death, and I am kind of surprised at the intensity of my reaction to it all. I feel strongly that a menu of her recipes is just the kind of food that I would like to serve as a celebration of Christmas this year.

Godspeed, Judy Rodgers. And thank you!

Note: for a follow-up photo essay and description of how the roast chicken with bread salad turned out, please click here.