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   Cosseted Lettuces
   and Pampered Greens

   by Florence Fabricant

  Judy Rogers was probably destined for a culinary career, though she certainly did not plan one. "In this profession I've lived in a bubble," she said. "I'm spoiled."

  When she was 16 and growing up in St. Louis, she wanted to spend a year in France. Neighbors set her up with a French family. The family's name was Troisgros, and they happened to run a Michelin three-star restaurant in Roanne, near Lyon.

  "What a bizarre privilege," said Ms. Rodgers, 42, who is now the chef and an owner of Zuni Cafe in San Francisco. "I spent every afternoon after school in the kitchen. And since I promised to write down the recipes for our neighbor back home, it reinforced the learning.

  "I knew it was simple, and I knew it was the very best. Every meal was a special occasion, not just holidays and Sunday dinner. Not only that, there were my schoolmates, 16-year-olds who all knew how to make mayonnaise. I didn't know anyone in America who did that."

  On returning home, she went to Stanford University, then cooked for a year with Alice Waters at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Calif. "I knew that upon leaving Chez Panisse the world would take notice," she said. "I was a progeny of the temple."

  Several years in France and Italy taught her to follow her instincts as she shops for ingredients. On a recent visit to Bill Fujimoto's Monterey Market in Berkeley, she picked up some arugula and some small, silky heads of lettuce.

  "I buy salad greens the way I buy cut flowers, and treat them just as lovingly," she explained. "Here's some organic endive," she said, picking up a bunch. "Properly grown, it has real character. And this is real chicory. It's sturdier than frisée, but I think it has more flavor. Frisée is cute, but so what? So much of the issue is getting the produce and using it before its sensuality is deadened in the walk-in cooler."

  Back in the restaurant kitchen the other day, she assembled some salads. She went about it casually. It has become second-nature.

  "Cooking well is like trying to explain to someone how to use a stick shift driving up a hill: you have to do it," she said. "You're better off making the same recipe six times than constantly trying new ones. You'll do it differently each time, and probably make it better. It's the only way to free yourself from slavishly following recipes."

  Salad is a good place for home cooks to start, she advised.

  "You can play with the seasonings, taste the vinaigrette," she said. "When you're working on a big scale, in a restaurant, an extra splash of vinegar or oil doesn't matter. That's why we cook by feel and don't measure everything. Do you use a measuring spoon to put milk in your coffee? Can't you make a sandwich? And how does a 6-year-old sweeten lemonade? By taste."

  The focus of her summer salads is the lettuces, the leaves, the greens. She rinses them in plenty of water and dries them well, wicking the last droplets off by tossing them in a big bowl with torn pieces of paper towel. She uses her hands.

  "Hands are best, even to mix the salad once it's dressed," she said. "Utensils will tear it. And you have to use a wide bowl, one that's twice as big as the quantity of ingredients. You can't work a salad with blunt instruments in a deep bowl."

  Just as she will nibble a bit of lettuce in the market before buying it, she always tastes her dressing on a piece of the greens.

  "I like a salad that's carefully thought out and beautifully seasoned, one that's not overwhelmed with vinegar," she said. "With mâche I use Champagne vinegar sparingly. I don't want to insult the delicate mâche. My seasonings are lemon oil and coriander seeds. That combination always tastes like summer to me. I love to add some nasturtiums. The stems have more flavor than the petals — sweet, then peppery — so leave on a bit of stem. Add black pepper and some mozzarella or some other fresh tangy cheese and olives alongside and you have a lovely first course."

  Another of her salads balances the sweetness of fresh corn and halved cherry tomatoes with a bit of shallot and some red wine vinegar; it is glossed with good olive oil.

  "These corn kernels are like little pearls," she said. "This is a great summer salad to dump onto a piece of grilled salmon or next to a piece of chicken or some lamb chops. Right now I use corn over and over. That's what I do when a certain ingredient is in season: repeat it in different ways. There's nothing wrong with that.

  "You'll see lots of shell beans on my menu. But when they're in a salad, I don't use vinegar. I don't like beans and acid. I think the acid makes them taste sour. The shell bean salad is delicious with some cold roast pork or slices of prosciutto."

  She calls potato salads "a joy of summer." And she cooks potatoes with "boatloads of salt."

  "You go just shy of the sea," she said. "It's easier to season them as they cook. Your water should be about as salty as you want your potatoes to be. Then you don't have to add any more. It's the same with pasta. I put the potatoes with baby mustard greens and hard-cooked egg. Mustard greens are racy and hot. They need big, round flavors like potatoes and egg."

  She mixes the potatoes in the dressing first, and then adds the greens and egg, mixing briefly with additional dressing so that the slices of egg are kept mostly intact, then scoops portions of the salad onto plates.

  "I love the way the dressing picks up bits of the soft edges of the potatoes and takes on a creamy richness," she said. "It's something you discover happening as you mix the salad. But you have to notice it. The little things you take for granted are what make a difference."

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