WELL WORTH YOUR TIME
I was so sad to hear of Judy Rodgers’ passing this December. Judy was the longtime chef and owner of Zuni Café, a restaurant that to me is so quintessentially San Francisco. Beyond never having met her, I’ve only eaten at Zuni once, none of which has stopped me from becoming a sort of ‘super-fan’. I’ve spent hours reading The Zuni Café Cookbook, a thick and heavy mound full of information. Unlike Canal House recipes that could not be more simple, it is clear that Judy spent the time figuring out her recipes and wants to convey every minutiae to the reader. There are details of just how to cut your vegetables, paragraphs on how to salt meat, just how forceful one should massage their breadcrumbs, or exactly how to select your ingredients. It can be overwhelming at times, but this woman clearly knew what she was doing, and who am I not to listen. I mean, this is the woman who elevated a simple roasted chicken to something of legend!
The best way I could think of to honor her, and the incredible influence and force she brought to “California Cuisine” was for my sister and I to make her Chard & Onion Panade as part of our Christmas Dinner. My sister had made it for me once before, and I’ve never forgotten the texture or flavor. It starts off almost like a bread pudding (minus the egg and milk) but after nearly 3 hours the bread and broth have become one, sinking into each other, and becoming the most extraordinary texture. It's soft and rich and smooth and almost otherworldly. It was the perfect complement to a winter meal, and our little ode to Judy.
The ingredients are fairly simple and easy. Chard grows easily in San Francisco backyards, and readily available at the farmer’s market. I do my best to keep homemade chicken stock in the freezer, but other store bought ones do in a pinch. I’m sure you could substitute vegetables stock here, but be sure it’s rich – this dish calls for it! Otherwise, just find a good book, or a plant to repot, or something to do as this cooks for a long while. And your house will begin to smell amazing and it will drive you crazy. Might be time for a walk just so you don’t peak under the foil!
Chard and Onion Panade
From The Zuni Café Cookbook by Judy Rodgers
Serves 4 as a main course or 8 as a side dish
- 1 1/2 pounds thinly sliced sweet yellow onions
- Up to 1/2 cup mild-tasting olive oil
- 6 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
- 1 pound Swiss chard (thick ribs removed), cut into 1-inch-wide ribbons
- 10 ounces day-old chewy peasant-style bread cut into rough 1-inch cubes
- Up to 4 cups chicken stock (the better…the better!)
- 6 ounces Gruyère (or a good swiss), coarsely grated
1. Place the onions in a deep 4-quart saucepan and drizzle and toss with oil to coat, about 1/4 cup. Set over medium-high heat and, shimmying the pan occasionally, cook until the bottom layer of onions is slightly golden around the edges, about 3 minutes. Stir and repeat.
2. Once the second layer of onions has colored, reduce the heat to low and stir in the garlic and a few pinches of salt. Stew, stirring occasionally, until the onions are a pale amber color and tender but not mushy, another 20 minutes or so. If at any point the onions look as if they may dry out, cover them to trap some of the moisture in the pan. Taste for salt. You should get about 2 1/4 cups cooked onions.
3. Preheat the oven to 325 degrees (or as low as 250 degrees, if it suits your schedule to stretch the cooking time from about 1 hour 45 minutes to 2 hours 45 minutes; the slower the bake, the more unctuous and mellow the results. I recommend the longer method if possible!)
4. Wilt the prepared chard in batches: Place a few handfuls of leaves in a 3-quart saute pan or a 10-to 12-inch skillet with a drizzle of oil, and sprinkling of water unless there is still some on there from washing your greens, and a few pinches of salt. Set the pan over medium heat until the water begins to steam, then reduce the heat and stir and fold leaves until they are just wilted, 3 to 4 minutes. Leaves should be uniformly bright green, the white veins pliable (the veins will blacken later if they are not heated through). Taste. The chard may be slightly metallic-tasting at this point, but make sure it's salted to your taste. Set aside.
5. Toss and massage the cubed bread with a few tablespoons of olive oil, a generous 1/4 cup of the stock and a few pinches of salt, to taste.
6. Choose a flameproof, 3-quart souffle dish or enameled cast-iron Dutch oven ( a simple brownie baking dish or cast iron pan seem to work as well). Assemble the panade in layers, starting with a generous smear of onions, followed by a loose mosaic of bread cubes, a second layer of onions, a layer of chard, and a handful of the cheese. Repeat, starting with bread, the onions and so on, until the dish is brimming. Aim for 2 to 3 layers of each component, then make sure the top layer displays a little of everything. Irregularity in the layers makes the final product more interesting and lovely. Drizzle with any remaining olive oil.
7. Bring the remaining 3 3/4 cups stock to a simmer and taste for salt. Add stock slowly, in doses, around the edge of the dish. For a very juicy, soft panade, best served on its own, like a soup or risotto, add stock nearly to the rim; for a firm but succulent panade, nice as a side dish, fill to about 1 inch below the rim. Wait a minute for stock to be absorbed, then add more to return to the desired depth. The panade may rise a little as the bread swells.
8. Set panade over low heat and bring to a simmer; look for bubbles around the edges. Cover the top of the panade with parchment paper, then very loosely wrap the top and sides with foil (Judy says, dull side down!). Place a separate sheet of foil under the panade or on the rack below it, to catch drips.
9. Bake until the panade is piping hot and bubbly. It will rise a little, lifting the foil with it. The top should be pale golden in the center and slightly darker on the edges. This usually takes about 1 1/2 hours (unless you are going with the longer cooking time – see step 3), but varies according to shape and material of baking dish and oven.
10. Uncover panade, raise temperature to 375 degrees, and leave until golden brown on top, 10 to 20 minutes. (If you aren't quite ready when your panade is, re-tent the surface with parchment and foil and reduce the heat to 275 degrees. You can hold it another half hour this way without it overbrowning or drying out.) Slide a knife down the side of the dish and check the consistency of the panade. Beneath the crust, it should be very satiny and it should ooze liquid as you press against it with the blade of the knife. If it seems dry, add a few tablespoons simmering chicken stock and bake for 10 minutes longer.