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Barbara Kafka: Always ahead of the culinary curve
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Barbara Kafka: Always ahead of the culinary curve

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For more than 30 years, Barbara Kafka has been telling people — in no uncertain terms — how to cook in the moment.

In every book, in every appearance, she urged American home cooks to be bold, fearless and confident. Even more, she championed trends. Not the ones that made food fashionable. The ones that made it healthier, better tasting and easier.

"She helped create, but also translate trends in food for everyone at home," said James Beard Foundation's executive vice president Mitchell Davis, referencing "Microwave Gourmet," Kafka's 1987 book that got Americans cooking everything from risotto to pudding in their microwaves. "She managed to speak to a lot of people about how to make really good food, how to make it simple, but without compromising in any way."

Along the way, Kafka wrote six cookbooks, all award winners or best-sellers In 2007, she won the James Beard Foundation's Lifetime Achievement award. She taught cooking with Beard, collaborated with Jacques Pepin, won the respect of Julia Child.

Now Kafka's seventh book, "The Intolerant Gourmet," makes her a pioneer again, propelling the 78-year-old into gluten- and lactose-free territory.

It was a world she entered out of necessity. After years of dormancy, childhood food sensitivities to dairy and gluten (a wheat protein) resurfaced and forced her to rethink the way she ate.

While many books in this genre take the substitution approach — "Here's what I want to eat; how can I make it?" — Kafka did the opposite: She set out to make delicious foods that just happen to live within new parameters.

The result? Dishes such as mussels with hen-of-the-woods mushrooms, West Indian curried hash, and tandoori chicken, foods that few would consider a hardship.

Kafka was an unlikely cook. Born into a wealthy New York family, her father was in the perfume business, her mother was a well-known New Deal lawyer who had been among the first women to graduate from New York University's law school. Kafka's mother did not cook. Ever.

Kafka trained her palate in places such as Le Pavillon and Louis Diat's Ritz-Carlton, the legendary New York dining rooms her father would whisk her to when her mother was working. But she learned to handle a stove on her own, watching the family cook.

Cooking was not her life's ambition. She wanted to be a poet. "It was more something that people would hire me to do," she said. "I wanted to be a writer. So I did it."

Kafka says the era of high-tech presentations, celebrity chefs and cooking as reality TV has disenfranchised the people who should be cooking: home cooks.

"They think they're inadequate," she said, "which isn't true. It's really very simple. One just has to relax and do it."

The "intolerant" Kafka concedes that she's "a difficult person in some ways." Even the famously genial Pepin — who adores her, remembering the way she brought Champagne to his hospital room during a long convalescence — acknowledges that working with Kafka can be "challenging."

"She's always full of ideas and always wants to push the envelope a little bit," Pepin said. "But certainly she was very good at what she was doing."

But that brashness and bravado have served her well. A woman when there were no women in the kitchen, Kafka consulted at some of New York's top restaurants. Just 5 feet tall and a mere 100 pounds, she went toe-to-toe with profanity-slinging chefs, and told off anyone who tried to carry a pot for her. And what is sometimes interpreted as crankiness, Davis said, actually is something much more valuable: honesty.

Kafka even famously took on Beard — a hulking giant of a man — the first time they met. The food world newcomer argued so vigorously with Beard about the merits of kidney fat that he stormed out of the room. Eventually, he came back. And a long, professional relationship was born.

"She often enjoys getting her hackles up, but that's just the beginning of the collaboration," said Corby Kummer, a senior editor at The Atlantic magazine. "It's just the intensity of the engagement that interests her. It doesn't matter who's coming from where."

 

* * * * *

 

During the many decades of her career, Kafka has worked hard to bring to home cooks recipes that are delicious, approachable and ahead of the culinary curve.

This time she has tackled gluten- and lactose-free cooking, drawing on a wide vocabulary of ingredients and techniques to create richly flavored dishes that seem lacking in nothing.

This fragrant tandoori chicken hits the mark in authenticity and dietary restrictions. Make an extra portion of the sauce to use on salmon, which takes to it especially well.

 

Tandoori Chicken Breasts

Start to finish: 1 hour, 10 minutes (15 minutes active)

Makes 4 servings

1½ tablespoons safflower oil, divided

1 medium yellow onion, cut into ¼-inch dice (1½ cups)

3 cloves garlic, thinly sliced

½ teaspoon ground cardamom

½ teaspoon cayenne pepper

1/3 teaspoon turmeric

¼ teaspoon ground cumin

¼ teaspoon ground mace

1/8 teaspoon dry mustard

1/8 teaspoon cinnamon

1/8 teaspoon nutmeg

1/8 teaspoon ground black pepper

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1½ teaspoons lime juice

1½ tablespoons coconut milk

4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts (9 to 10 ounces each)

In a large sauté pan over medium, heat 1 tablespoon of the oil. When the oil shimmers, reduce the heat to low and add the onion, garlic, cardamom, cayenne, turmeric, cumin, mace, mustard, cinnamon, nutmeg, pepper and salt. Cook until the onions begin to turn translucent, about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Transfer the contents of the pan, scraping with a silicon spatula, to a blender. Add the lime juice and coconut milk. Blend well, about 1 minute.

Coat both sides of each chicken breast with the spice mixture. Place the chicken breasts flat on a plate, cover with plastic wrap, then refrigerate for 30 minutes.

Heat the broiler with a rack set in the middle of the oven.

Use the remaining ½ tablespoon of oil to lightly coat a 10-by-8-inch baking or roasting pan. Place the chicken breasts in an even layer in the pan. Broil for 10 minutes, then turn the chicken pieces over. Broil for 8 to 10 minutes longer. Remove from the oven and serve immediately.

Nutrients per serving (values are rounded to the nearest whole number): 360 calories, 90 calories from fat (26 percent of total calories), 10 grams fat (3 grams saturated; no trans fats), 150 milligrams cholesterol, 4 grams carbohydrate, 60 grams protein, 1 gram fiber, 650 milligrams sodium.

From Barbara Kafka's "The Intolerant Gourmet" (Artisan, 2011)

 

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