The Escoffier Questionnaire: Michele Anna Jordan
Michele Anna Jordan
Chef, author and local culinary superstar Michele Anna Jordan is at the top of the list of people I would credit with creating the vibrant Sonoma County food scene we all enjoy today. You simply can’t parse the history of the earthy, ingredient-obsessed culinary world of Northern California without her.
“Mouthful,” her KRCB radio show, has been a home for “food nerds” for 22 years. She is certainly our doyenne of food writing, with over 20 cookbooks and as many years of print work under her by line. Fittingly of her inclusion in this spring issue of Edible Marin & Wine Country, her first published article, in the Sebastopol News & Times, was “Lamb for Easter”—at the time an unconventional choice. Of her journalistic beginnings, Michele says that the editor of that paper knew her as a chef, but had a gut feeling that she could write, pestering her until her nerves were weaker than her excitement.
Of her childhood eating habits, Michele says, “My mother thought I was picky, because I wouldn’t eat anything I didn’t like. I was born with the palate I have.” The little girl who would hunt down the perfect watermelon and beg for clams is still rapaciously hungry for the ultimate farmers’ market finds, as well as burger joints.
Today you can find Michele at MicheleAnnaJordan.com, which she considers a “great big love letter to Sonoma County.” The site offers features, essays, recipes and beverage pairings. The focus is on the home cook. “Cuisine is based on what mothers cook for their families.”
Places need champions or they lose their spirit. Sonoma County is blessed to have a defiantly honest, fiercely devoted, Ramones-loving redhead named Michele Anna Jordan as ours.
EMWC: What was your favorite food as a kid?
MAJ: Can’t pick just one, though if forced I guess I’d say watermelon. But I was equally fond of Dungeness crab, artichokes, tomatoes, rare prime rib and green plums.
What food do you wish you loved?
Peanut butter, so everyone would quit bugging me about hating it.
What food do you love unreasonably much?
Skordalia (a purée of potatoes, garlic, egg yolks, olive oil and salt).
And Sunshine, a variety of yellow watermelon that is irresistible and very hard to find.
What is the most difficult cooking technique to do well?
What are you exploring in your kitchen now?
Butter (different producers, different milks).
What non-culinary influence inspires you?
I’m such a sponge, which means so many things influence me, deeply. Lately, I’ve been inspired by people working to give abandoned dogs and cats a good life, like Sherri Franklin, founder of Muttville Senior Dog Rescue. And my hula teacher, Kumu Hula Shawna Alapa’i of San Rafael, who loves animals as much as anyone I’ve ever known.
What is your idea of a very healthy meal?
A salad of microgreens (including leek grass and cilantro shoots) from Earthworker Farm (located in West Sebastopol), topped with an egg poached (for about 45 seconds) in olive oil and a simple lemon vinaigrette.
What was the first meal you made that you were proud of ?
A “surprise” (she knew) birthday dinner party for my mother: roast beef, scalloped potatoes, spinach, salad and a birthday cake. I was 9.
What three adjectives describe your cuisine?
Elemental, feminine, bold.
What book most influences your food, cookbook or otherwise?
I’m not sure any book influences my food. I’m very inspired by Sonoma County, by our farms, farmers and ranchers, our natural fecundity. When I need new inspiration, I head to a farmers’ market or explore the county.
The Gastronomical Me by M.F.K. Fisher has been a huge influence; I love her narrative style and this book shows her at the absolute peak of her powers.
What chef do you most admire?
Stephanie Rastetter of Water Street Bistro; Karen Martin of K & L Bistro, and Jacques Pepin. And the late Judy Rodgers.
What is your favorite ingredient?
Salt. Without it, you can’t cook well. With it, you can cook almost anything perfectly.
What music do you like to hear when you cook?
It varies, but tends toward garage/punk/grunge. These days I listen to KALX FM (UC Berkeley) a lot. (Thank you, Steve Jobs!) Each of my earlier books had its own soundtrack. I wrote my first book to Elvis Costello. The next couple of books were mostly The Ramones. And when I wrote Polenta, I alternated between Hole and Puccini arias for sopranos.
What is your favorite hangover meal?
If I have it, cold spaghetti marinara with lots of Tabasco sauce and salt. If I don’t have it, congee (aka jook, rice porridge) with lots of homemade sriracha.
What is your favorite midnight snack?
A traditional taco lengua or cabeza, cinnamon toast (with lots of butter and a lot of cinnamon sugar) or a grilled cheese sandwich.
What restaurant in the world are you most dying to try?
Whatever the best restaurant in Reykjavik, Iceland, is, because it is at the top of my list of places I want to visit next.
What kitchen utensil is most indispensable to you?
A sharp knife that is comfortable in my hand, a good wooden cutting board and my new spatula.
Whom do you most like to cook for?
My grandson Lucas, who has an eager and nuanced palate. And my two dachshunds, Lark and Joey; I make their meals myself and they are very happy pups.
If you could do one other job, what would it be?
What do you most value in a sous chef ?
Neatness, cleanliness, speed and a positive attitude.
What food trend would you most like to erase from the annals of history?
Foam. (And balsamic vinegar in everything: Enough already!)
What one food would you take with you on a desert island?
Creamy polenta with several toppings so that I wouldn’t get bored. (Is this cheating?)
What is your favorite guilty pleasure treat?
Dulce de leche.
What most satisfies your sweet tooth?
Arctic Gem white peaches from Healdsburg’s Dry Creek Peach & Produce.
What would you eat at your last meal, if you could plan such a thing?
Crab Louis followed by a rare rack of Williams Ranch lamb with Italian salsa verde; potato purée using David Little’s potatoes; grilled asparagus; butter lettuce, red onion and avocado salad; Serra da Estrela cheese; Copeland Creek Pinot Noir.
Cheeseburger or foie gras?
Foie gras, perfectly seared, with apple cider—black pepper glaze.
What’s your favorite place to go (and what is your favorite thing to order) for …
… a splurge meal?
San Francisco’s Zuni Cafe (oysters and either a burger or their famous chicken); La Toque in Napa (whatever Ken Frank wants to feed me) or, in the morning before tourists arrive, Swan Oyster Depot in SF (Olympia oyster cocktail, chilled cracked crab and Sauvignon Blanc).
The WOW Café, run by the Worth Our Weight Culinary Apprentice Program in Santa Rosa (open on weekends only), for their lamb hash with poached eggs.
Or K & L Bistro in Sebastopol for their Huevos Rancheros, which are like no other anywhere (chile verde, quesadilla, poached eggs, guacamole). Also weekend only.
There is a little restaurant in Ragusa Ilba, Sicily, that makes the most extraordinary cannoli you can imagine. Stunning. But I don’t get there very often. I was just there once, actually. But I often think of it.
… a late night/after work meal?
My favorite taco truck on Sebastopol Road.
… a cup of coffee?
Hawaii Moku for iced Kona coffee. Here, I think the Sebastopol Cookie Company has the best coffee and I drink it iced. I’m more of a tea drinker than a coffee drinker and I prefer puer tea from Pure Puer.
… a greasy spoon meal?
My favorite ones have all closed. I guess it would be D’s Diner now.
Farmers’ markets and Oliver’s Market on Stony Point Road in Santa Rosa.
… kitchen equipment?
Cultivate Home in downtown Sebastopol.
… ice cream? Screamin’ Mimi’s, also in downtown Sebastopol.
Recherche du Plaisir in Santa Rosa.
And lastly but not leastly… what is your favorite local wine or beer for the season?
Coppola Votre Santé Pinot Noir; Iron Horse Brut Rosé; and Woodenhead French Colombard (one of the best oyster wines EVER). I also love unhopped sour beers.