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chef
Janet Orsi

His nose knows: Chef Michael Hirschberg uses his sensitive sniffer to determine a tomato's edibility.

A Santa Rosa chef finds gourmet goods in an ordinary supermarket

By David Templeton

THE PARADOX of the common supermarket: There is so much to choose from, yet so few choices. Shelf after shelf overflows with name-brand foodstuffs, but there is a conspicuous absence of healthy alternative items. In an increasingly fast-paced world, convenience and affordability have taken hold over quality and inventiveness, and many of us, to put it bluntly, have forgotten how to assemble the family dinner without having to linger in the frozen-food and just-add-water sections.

What's a shopper to do? The Independent asked local chef and restaurateur Michael Hirschberg, owner of the sensational Mediterranean restaurant, Mistral (formerly Sienna), in Santa Rosa, to meet us at some large, mainstream market to demonstrate how a knowledgeable shopper might negotiate the slings and pitfalls of the modern market. The pitch was this: He would plan, on the spot, a classy, Mistral-quality dinner party for four, with a maximum budget of $75. He would use only the materials readily available to the common cook. We would follow his every move. "It'll be fun," he agreed.

IT'S FRIDAY, 2 P.M., and we're standing just outside a chain supermarket somewhere in Santa Rosa. "First of all, never go shopping with a list," Hirschberg advises, watching a parade of shopping carts wheel past us and into the store. "I'm absolutely serious."

He has arrived just after the restaurant's lunch rush has concluded. He's a busy man. In addition to the restaurant, he is also the owner of Mezzaluna bakery, so we can safely guess our dinner will include a loaf of fresh-baked Mezzaluna bread. "I go shopping for a dinner party the same way I plan the menu for my restaurant," he nods. "First, I find out what's best in the marketplace, and then I build my menu around that. I never write the menu and then go out to find what I need.

He pulls a cart from the rack. "Let's do it." he grins.

2:15 p.m. The Meat Department. "First, start with an open mind," Hirschberg says, standing before an array of fish and poultry. "Just browse for a few minutes." As he sidesteps slowly along the various display cases, bending over to see all that lies within, he thinks out loud. "Sausages, maybe? These look good, so that's a possibility. The salmon looks reasonably good. The tuna looks nice and fresh; it's really red, not dark brown.

Everything looks fresh, actually. "Of course," he adds, lowering his voice, "they use those ultraviolet lights to make everything look more wonderful than it is. Salmon never glows no matter how fresh it is."

He considers the crab and the swordfish, then moves along to the poultry section, where he stands perusing a moment. "I'm inclined toward chicken or tuna as the main entrée," he says, "and maybe something with crab for an appetizer. So now we'll head down to produce and see what jogs my brain."

2:23 p.m. The Produce Department. Hirschberg reaches out to take up a cluster of tomatoes, flecked with green, held together by a common vine. Lifting them to his nose, he breathes in the aroma, then returns them to the pile. "Tomatoes aren't really at their best yet," he says. "You can tell by the way they smell. They need to smell like a tomato. These don't smell like much at all. There's a kind of bell-pepper aroma to them, but that's just the vine."

He pushes our still-empty cart a few feet to his right and examines the spinach. "One wonderful thing about food," he says, "and this separates it from almost anything else you can buy, is that the things that are the cheapest are often the best. Food is cheaper when it's at its peak, and most expensive when it's the most out of season.

"I like these little things," he smiles affectionately, running his fingers over a heap of radicchios and Belgian endive. "They look really expensive, $3.99 or $6.99. But with just one little one, it doesn't cost that much and you get maybe 20 leaves, and they really dress up a salad."

Hirschberg is a sampler. Contending that serious shoppers have a legal right to sample, he tastes everything from the strawberries to the snowpeas, and even asks for a taste of the cooked crab. "If you're buying, and you don't get carried away, most markets understand that you need to sample the food," he explains.

Having explored the entire produce section, Hirschberg now pauses to compose his thoughts on the matter.

"So the way I'm thinking about this meal now, is, let's see, it's kind of warm out, so we'll have four courses, three cold plus the hot course for the entrée. Now I have to figure out how to put all the little pieces together in my head. Maybe a crab and avocado thing, with sliced lime, as an appetizer; then a mixed salad, and tuna or chicken as the entrée, maybe some roasted new potatoes, maybe some asparagus; and then a three-berry compote with ice cream for dessert."

He selects the berries first. Blueberries, raspberries, and strawberries. After almost a half an hour in the store, something has finally gone into the cart.

"Spinach is easy," he explains, choosing a bunch for its abundance of smaller, tender leaves in the center. "See this twist tie thing holding it together? Take this home, lay it down, and hack it off right above the tie. Throw away everything below and then toss the leaves into a big sink of cold water. Shake it all up, and as you do, the leaves will all float to the top and the sand will sink to the bottom. Scoop it up in a colander, then pick out the prettiest leaves."

He's working quickly now. "Oregano," he says. "Let's make a simple marinade for the chicken. Chopped oregano, chives, and orange juice, with a little olive oil. That's pretty basic. Then we'll need asparagus. Five stalks per person.

"Do you know how to trim asparagus?" He demonstrates, holding one stalk firmly at the very edge of the thick end, then pulling the spear-end down in an arch until it snaps in two. "That's the piece you want," he tells me, holding up the severed spear.

Moving to the red potatoes, he fills a bag as he describes how to cook them: Cut them in half, brown them alongside several garlic cloves in a hot iron skillet, then place the whole thing in a hot oven (400 degrees) for 15-20 minutes. "The garlic nicely flavors the potatoes, and if you like you can spread the cloves on a piece of bread."

2:37 p.m. The Meat Department. "OK. We can go two ways with this meal. I've been thinking of chicken, but you could also use tuna with this, and the more I look at it, the more I like it."

He asks for a quarter pound of crab and then chooses two thick tuna steaks, explaining that he will slice them horizontally to make four steaks. Soaked in the oregano marinade, browned in a pan, and then baked for five or six minutes, the fish will be served alongside the potatoes and asparagus.

On the way toward the checkout stand, we make our only forays into the name-brand aisles, picking up some Spectrum Naturals extra-virgin olive oil (made in Petaluma), along with some mustard, vanilla ice cream, and a loaf of Mezzaluna's seeded herb bread.

Our grand total is $53.17. Everything fits into one bag. "Whenever I go shopping," Hirschberg laughs, "I look in my cart and then I look in other people's carts. Mine looks like I've been to a farmers' market or something. We've constructed a very nice, Mediterranean-style meal here, all from materials you would find in any major supermarket.

"If you know what you're doing," he adds with a grin, "and you start with fresh stuff, cooking creative meals is easy as hell." n

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From the June 6-12, 1996 issue of the Sonoma Independent

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