Annie Somerville has been with Greens Restaurant in San Francisco for 31 years, most of that time as the Executive Chef (which, if you know the restaurant industry, is an almost unheard of length of time). Since it opened in 1979 and long before it was trendy, Greens worked with local organic farms and dairies to source their ingredients, creating a vibrant, refined vegetarian menu that continues to inspire today. Annie brings these same sensibilities to her home kitchen in San Francisco, which is within walking distance of Greens and the Ferry Plaza Farmers' Market. Read on for her simple but essential things for the home cook.
Annie has also written two cookbooks, Fields of Greens (1993) and Everyday Greens (2003), both which are still in print, a true testament to her timelessness approach to cookery. The books, like Greens Restaurant, are vegetarian but are not exclusively for vegetarians. Many meat eaters I know (and myself included!) treasure them for their fresh, inspiring flavors and foolproof recipes.
Annie's 5 Essentials for the Home Cook
1. Simplicity is key. Annie has a very simple kitchen set up at home. She prefers basic tools like the microplane, one of her favorites. "I use it at Greens, at home and when I go car camping," she says. "I love to use it to make fresh citrus zest which, like fresh juice, is an important ingredient in my food." She also uses it for ginger, garlic, and hard cheeses like parmesan where it creates a very light, featherlike texture.
Speaking of citrus juice, Annie prefers to use a simple wooden reamer over an electric juicer. "One day I just didn't feel like washing all the parts from the electric juicer and so I grabbed the reamer and I've been using it steadily ever since." She also has an old aluminum version that fits over a glass which strains out any seeds. "But I'm a big fan of the pulp, too," she says. "So sometimes I just pick out the seeds."
2. And more simplicity. Annie's two most used pans are her stainless steel All-Clad Master Chef wok and a cast iron skillet. The wok is a great all-purpose pan for sautéing greens (the higher sides prevent the greens from popping out) as well as stews, ragouts, bean dishes. "It has a really great domed lid and a long handle," she says. "I use it for almost everything." Her cast iron skillet comes in handy, too. It's even replaced her toaster: she just drizzles olive oil on thin slices of Acme olive bread and toasts them on the skillet. "It's a great treat when I come home from work."
Annie also keeps her knife setup down to just a few key pieces: a Japanese-style (squared off profile) for chopping vegetables, a serrated knife for bread and topping artichokes, and her favorite Victorinox paring knives. "Victorinox pairing knives are the best," says Annie. "Their red handles help you keep track of them in a pile of compost and cuttings, although at $4-6.00, it's not a tragedy if you lose one. They're inexpensive, light-weight, and have a fantastic edge."
3. A butcher block island. Annie has a small 36" x 48" butcher block island which is the true center of her kitchen. She keeps it clutter free (the underneath storage area comes in handy) and oils it every now and then with lemon oil to keep the wood moist. "The butcher block is a lovely surface to chop on. It's seen me through two cookbooks!"
4. On shopping, gardening, and freshness. "It all begins in the garden," says Annie. Your cooking starts there. There's nothing more inspiring than harvesting your own vegetables. If you have a garden, then you have everything in place to be an inspired cook: seasonality, freshness, using up everything with no waste.
The next best thing is a farmers' market which is also a big part of Annie's life as a chef and home cook. She lives exactly half way between Greens and the Ferry Plaza Farmers' Market and frequently walks to both places. "If you can manage it, don't buy too much so your ingredients are always fresh," she says. Try to not stuff your refrigerator and just eat what's on hand. But don't be too afraid to put something into the compost if it's gone too long. And don't feel guilty if you do—it will come back to you eventually! Maximize what's in season, she advises, And do it well. "Since I'm mainly a vegetarian and don't spend a lot on animal protein, I like to invest my money in things like good olive oil," she says.
5. Prep as much ahead of time and ask for help. To the extent that you can, don't leave all your prep for just before you begin to cook. Wash and de-stem your greens in the morning, or chop up the onions and garlic. And if you are entertaining, ask people to help. "It makes the evening more fun!" she says. "You can't control everything so just let it go and enjoy sharing the kitchen with your friends. Sharing is a very good thing."
Thank you, Annie!
Website for Greens Restaurant
Look for Annie's cookbooks at your local library, independent bookstore, or Amazon:
Fields of Greens
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(Image: Molly DeCoudreaux)