by Betsy Chou
Before organics rose into the mainstream, before farmer’s markets, before Whole Foods, there was Alice Waters.
In the 1960s, after graduating from UC Berkeley with a degree in French Cultural Studies, Waters opened up a neighborhood bistro called Chez Panisse with the idea of recreating what she ate in the outdoor markets of Paris. In her search for taste, she turned to organic producers. She pioneered the culinary philosophy of featuring seasonal, organic ingredients from a local community of farmers and ranchers. Since the establishment of Chez Panisse in 1971, the restaurant has become an American institution, inspiring prominent chefs around the world.
Waters has been heralded with titles such as “Mother of Modern American Cooking” in her efforts to create a better food economy. Outside of the kitchen, Alice Waters has taken on the role of public educator. In 1995, she founded the Edible School Project as an interdisciplinary living lab where students learn how to plant, harvest, and prepare their own food for school lunches. Waters propounds that integrating school gardens into the curriculum will nourish and awaken children to food that is truly good for them and the planet.
Critics often question Waters about the affordability of organic food, especially in comparison to cheaper supermarket produce. The heftier price tags associated with organics is encapsulated by the running quip, “Whole Foods, Whole Paycheck”, but Waters argues that low prices means that somebody is losing out, and that person is usually the farmer. Her stance: we pay more for our food to ensure that farmers are taking care of the land and the people; therefore have to reconnect our food to the stewards and caretakers of the land. As Waters says, good food should always be within reach.
Recipe: Red Kuri Squash Soup
Now that you know more about Alice Waters, check out this recipe of her Red Kuri Squash Soup, adapted from Food & Wine.
Rarely do I find that the adjectives hearty and vegetarian coexist in a soup recipe, but Waters’s recipe for squash soup is staggeringly simple and delicious. The key is to let the ingredients speak for themselves. For more recipes by Alice Waters, take a look at her cookbooks The Art of Simple Food and The Art of Simple Food II.
I took liberty with Water’s recipe, sautéing wild mushrooms to garnish and squeezing a bit of lemon to roast with the fennel wedges. If you’re not a vegetarian and would like a more robust flavor, I’d recommend crumbling half a stock cube into the water base or swapping out the water for chicken broth all together.
- 1 1/2 pounds red kuri or butternut squash, peeled and cut into 1-inch cubes (3 cups)
- 1/2 medium onion, coarsely chopped
- 1 bay leaf
- 1 medium fennel bulb, cored and cut into thin wedges
- 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
- Optional: chopped toasted pecans and small marjoram leaves, for garnish
1. Preheat the oven to 375°. In a medium sized pot, combine the butternut squash, onion, and bay leaf with three cups of water. Bring the stock to a boil on high heat, then cover the pot and reduce to low heat. Let simmer until squash is tender, about 20 minutes.
2. Toss the fennel bulb wedges with olive oil and season with a dash of salt and pepper. Roast the fennel for 25 minutes, when the fennel begins to soften and brown.
3. Fish the bay leaf out of the pot. Work in batches (3-4 times) to puree the soup in a blender. Return soup to the saucepan and warm over low heat. Stir in the butter. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Ladle soup into bowls and garnish with pecans, marjoram leaves, and drizzle of olive oil.