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Taste Greg Atkinson

Something About Soufflé

With the right stuff, and touch, satisfaction happens

"Sharon could do anything she pleased in the food world," said Marion Cunningham once. We were having lunch at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, and over a bowl of pasta with wild mushrooms, Cunningham was singing the praises of our mutual friend and fellow cookbook author, Sharon Kramis. "She is one of those people who can make anything taste good."

The comment is worth contemplating. Once, not so long ago, cooking skills were at least as important as ingredients. Of course, ingredients were always important. Both Cunningham and Kramis were acolytes of the late, great James Beard, the father of American gastronomy, and one of his mantras was, "Good food cannot be made of inferior ingredients masked with high flavor."

In 1949, when Beard published that remark in "The Fireside Cookbook," someone had to say it. Inferior ingredients were endemic to the American food scene. Advances in chemical fertilizers and pesticides, coupled with mechanized planting, harvesting and shipping techniques refined in the fires of World War II had practically robbed the American food supply of its soul. Ingredients were not distinguished by where or how they had grown, or who had planted and harvested them. Foodstuffs were reduced to generic commodities, and it was up to the home cook or industrial food processor to reintroduce flavor with additives and packaged flavor enhancers.

Julia Child, a friend of Beard and a proponent of both cooking skills and good ingredients, had to make any number of concessions when she adapted classic French cooking techniques to inferior ingredients found in America. But her enthusiasm and optimism for both countries and the denizens of their kitchens made the challenge seem not a problem, really, just a matter of making clever adjustments — even if it meant draining canned mushrooms and patting them dry with paper towels to approximate fresh ones before sautéing them in butter.

In those days, a cook really needed the skills to make things taste good. But thanks in large part to a movement that started with Beard and Child, and the cabal of food aficionados they attracted, better ingredients became more and more widely available.

By the end of the century, however, some were worrying that the emphasis might have been shifting too far in the direction of quality ingredients, and away from basic cooking skills. Sampling the ingredient-driven and luminary cooking of Alice Waters at Chez Panisse, Child once remarked, "It's not cooking; it's shopping."

From a recent biography entitled "Alice Waters and Chez Panisse" by Thomas McNamee, the "back and forth" between Waters and Child is dissected to some degree, and a reader gets the impression that Child was a little testy with Waters' insistence on local and organic ingredients. Waters, in turn, seems disappointed that Child failed to push the organic movement forward. By the time Cunningham and I shared that lunch at Waters' restaurant, the whole subject was already academic.

Waters, said Cunningham, "found a way to get the ingredients she wanted, and what she started here has had a significant influence on how everyone cooks."

All this was going through my head recently as I was assembling something I call "Patty's Breakfast Soufflé," a dish that my mother-in-law, the Patty in question, and legions of other American homemakers have been making since the middle years of the 20th century. It's one of those uniquely American dishes that owes allegiance to several cuisines and pays it to none. Not a true soufflé at all, it's essentially a strata, an Italian dish made of bread, eggs and cheese and sometimes sausage.

The first time I had the dish it was made with white sandwich bread, undistinguished breakfast sausage and generic yellow cheese. It was OK, but not great. Now, I make it with cubes of chewy, organic artisanal bread from Essential Baking Company, the best sausage and cheese I can get, and eggs collected, whenever possible, from the neighbor's free-ranging chickens, and the dish is sublime.

Cunningham may be right, a good cook like Kramis can make anything taste good. But her mentor was right, too. With great ingredients, the game gets a lot easier and the results get a whole lot better.

Greg Atkinson is author of "West Coast Cooking." He can be reached at greg@northwestessentials.com. Barry Wong is a Seattle-based freelance photographer. He can be reached at studio@barrywongphoto.com.

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Recipe: Patty's Breakfast Soufflé

Serves 8

Juggling family and career duties in the 1950s and beyond, my mother-in-law always had an eye out for cooking techniques that might make life easier. One recipe that made the rounds among the women in her set was a "breakfast soufflé," a savory bread pudding that allowed the cook to assemble breakfast the night before and bake it in the morning.

8 cups artisanal French or Italian style bread, cut into 1-inch cubes

1 pound breakfast sausage links, preferably organic, browned

12 ounces aged cheddar cheese, such as Beecher's Flagship, grated

6 free-range eggs

1 teaspoon kosher salt

½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 cup organic milk

1. Butter a 3-quart casserole dish and pile in the bread cubes. Cut the cooked sausages into 1-inch lengths and distribute them evenly among the bread cubes. Scatter the grated cheese over the bread and sausage.

2. Beat the eggs in a medium mixing bowl with the salt and pepper, whisk in the milk, and pour the mixture over the bread cubes, sausage and cheese. Cover the dish and let it rest, refrigerated overnight.

3. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Uncover the casserole dish and bake until the soufflé is well-browned on the top and puffed in the center, about 30 minutes.

Greg Atkinson, 2007

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