Waking up at 3:30 am was not what I had in mind for the start of our vacation, but if we wanted to make our reservation for lunch at Chez Panisse, we had to.

Chez Panisse is a restaurant in Berkeley, CA. It was founded by Alice Waters in 1971. It is said to be the birthplace of the farm to table,-organic-sustainable-California cuisine movement that has now swept the country. But back then it was a small house turned into an improvised restaurant, run by a couple of college graduates with hardly any experience in the industry.

The reason why Chez Panisse is so important and why we wanted to visit, is the fact that it has played such an important role in making American cuisine what it is today and forged a path in establishing a relationship with the farmers that grow our food.

At Chez Panisse the menu changes daily with the seasons and the ingredients are local and organic. We are fortunate enough that spring is in full bloom right now, so the menu included tender peas, buttery fava beans, and baby artichokes. The food was simple, unpretentious, and well executed, oh, and did I mention delicious. The ambiance and the decor was not what I expected. I though we were going to literally walk into an old house filled with a couple of tables, but instead we walked into a rustic house decorated with elegant and modern touches.

I didn’t take any pictures of the food because I find it to be an interruption to the dining experience as a whole, so sorry if you were expecting a detailed description of our lunch. The next stop on our vacation is Napa, Yountville, St. Helena, and a lot more wine drinking. Thankfully, after lunch at Chez Panisse waking up so early doesn’t seem like it was a hardship at all.

Lunch at Chez Panisse, the food was simple, unpretentious, and well executed, oh, and did I mention delicious.

Lunch at Chez Panisse, the food was simple, unpretentious, and well executed, oh, and did I mention delicious.

I’ve been back in Cali for a couple of days now, we’re back on our old schedule and getting on with our everyday lives. Yet, something happens every time I come back from a trip home,(Ciudad Acuña) my heart starts to ache. It aches for my family, for myself, for how life without them can be isolating and lonely. This is why I want to do one more post about Mexico before the fleeting images disappear into my memory. Wow! I didn’t mean to start this post so depressingly.

Why don’t we start over again. I just got back from spending 3 weeks with my family in Mexico, and it seemed like I could stay forever. However, I do have a husband, so we’re back in good old Orange County. Besides the inevitable sadness that results from returning from a long trip home, I also came back with an extra 3 pounds. That would be because I spent the last week touring my town a la Anthony Bourdain. We visited all our favorite food spots, ate, and took pictures. A lot of the vendors asked me quite excitedly if I was going to put the pictures up on “el facebuk“.

My parents live in a small town-city on the border with Texas. This is where I grew up. Below is a picture of the Rio Grande and the bridge that acts as a connection between Mexico and the US. As you can see, that part of the river is not very wide, but I don’t really know how difficult it would be to cross. One of the unique advantages of living in a border town is the possibility of getting a border crossing card, which allows Mexicans to visit the “other side” for recreational purposes. This means that you can go to the movies, grocery shop, eat out, or just do what you want. It’s the best of both worlds in one place.

We are missing Ciudad Acuña so much now that we are back in OC, Here is a list of places you have to visit if you happen to be there.

We are missing Ciudad Acuña so much now that we are back in OC, Here is a list of places you have to visit if you happen to be there.

We are missing Ciudad Acuña so much now that we are back in OC, Here is a list of places you have to visit if you happen to be there.

We are missing Ciudad Acuña so much now that we are back in OC, Here is a list of places you have to visit if you happen to be there.

The super nacho is from my dad’s restaurant, but it is very typical of the area. Allegedly the nacho was invented in Piedras Negras, Coahuila, which is an hour away from Acuña. As you can see they have nothing to do with the big gloppy mess most people call nachos. The chips are fried at the restaurant and each one is smeared with refried beans and topped with cheddar cheese. They’re place under the broiler in order to melt the cheese, and afterwards they’re topped with guacamole. In the center is grilled skirt steak.

We are missing Ciudad Acuña so much now that we are back in OC, Here is a list of places you have to visit if you happen to be there.

Aguas con Chabelo sells refreshing fruit drinks, usually made with water, sugar, and your fruit of choice. That particular day they had lime, melon, and pineapple available.

We are missing Ciudad Acuña so much now that we are back in OC, Here is a list of places you have to visit if you happen to be there.

Lake Amistad is known as one of the best bass fishing destinations in the US. The lake extends across the border, so there is an American and Mexican side. We spent the day on the Mexican side.

We are missing Ciudad Acuña so much now that we are back in OC, Here is a list of places you have to visit if you happen to be there.

We had lunch at the Plaza Tlaloc restaurant, where we chose our own fish from the catch of the day. There was only bass and catfish left, so we ordered both. They only serve it one way, fried. It is seasoned with a spice mix, served on a bed of lettuce, and topped with french fries.

Just so you know, Anthony Bourdain did happen to visit my town on Season 2 of No Reservations, episode 4. Sadly he only visits the Corona Club, where the movie El Mariachi and Desperado were filmed. He doesn’t even go to the lake or eat anywhere for that matter. Anyway, I know it may not seem like it, but I am glad to back.

I think all us have that one friend who’s cooking is so good, they know it, you know it, and they just make it look so easy, but when you ask them  for the recipe they reply, almost smirkingly, “Oh I don’t use recipes, good cooks don’t need recipes.” Now you feel awful, you live off recipes, you spend hours looking at recipes, planning your meals and orchestrating your next project. Well, I disagree. While good cooks may not be held hostage by recipes, they certainly do need them.

A good cook doesn’t let a recipe hold them back, and they’re not afraid to improvise, but how do you think cooks learn from each other? It is impossible to be an expert in every kind of cuisine. It is impossible, even after years of experience to have infinite knowledge of all things food. It is a craft that continuously changes, yet stays true to the basic techniques taught by the French masters of the late 19th and early 20th century.

Chefs rely on recipes to establish consistency in their restaurants. Otherwise, the flavor and appearance of the dishes would vary according to the cook. Recipes are essential to transmitting the chef’s vision from raw ingredients to the finished dish served to the guest. The only way the ego-driven line cooks will ever cook something the same way twice is with a recipe. Recipes are also essential to determining food cost of each particular menu item.

All the chefs I know have a massive cookbook collections. Why? They learn new techniques, look to them for inspiration, and of course admiration. What about the home cook? The problem with home cooks is that they sometimes can’t tell a good recipe from a bad one. Most home cooks look online to find their recipes, it’s easy and convenient, and some sites even make a shopping list for you and print the recipes to various sizes. There are a lot of good recipe sites and blogs out there, but there are also a lot of bad ones.

To be a good cook, is cooking without recipes necessary? Do chefs use recipes? How can I learn to cook without them.

Cooking Without Recipes: The Nitty Gritty

I have an OK cookbook collection. Now, I rely mostly on the public library to check out the books I can’t afford to buy. The one I use the most is The Flavor Bible, which ironically is not a cookbook in the traditional sense. It has no recipes; it is merely a list of ingredients. Below each ingredient is a list of the foods that best complement it, when the ingredient is in season, the cooking techniques that best work for that particular ingredient, and examples of flavor combinations used by renowned chefs. The book gives you the resources necessary to use your knowledge of cooking to develop your own style and creativity, without using somebody else’s recipe. A book you must have is Michael Ruhlman’s book Ratio. In it you will learn all the basic formulas or ratios and techniques that will allow you to start cooking without recipes.

If you’re looking for recipes online try: Epicurious for recipes from Gourmet and Bon Appetit, Simply Recipes for detailed recipes with pictures for almost every step, Steamy Kitchen for creative recipes with an Asian touch and great photos, for Mexican recipes visit Pati’s Mexican Table, and finally for dessert try David Lebovitz.

If you are going to use somebody else’s recipe, please give them credit for it, nobody will think less of you because of it.