Cookbook author Amelia Saltsman's Rustic Canyon kitchen
On a recent Wednesday afternoon just about the time the Santa Monica Farmers Market is closing, Amelia Saltsman shows off the bounty from her weekly trip. She talks about food shopping the way Imelda Marcos might have discussed buying shoes. “I get pretty crazy,” she says. “It's a lot of impulse buying.”
She bought a case of Costoluto Genovese tomatoes for canning. Shell beans spill out of a cloth bag onto her big kitchen island, topped with butcher block and a green stone from England. Nearby are squash and Buddha's Hand citron. Half a dozen pears sit in an oval clay dish.
In the center of the island are the most dramatic items of her haul. She bought three large speckled swan gourds from McGrath Family Farm. Next to them is a kabocha squash with her name etched into the skin, a gift from farmer Jerry Rutiz.
When Saltsman, cooking teacher and the author of “The Santa Monica Farmers' Market Cookbook,” says that “serious work goes on here,” she's not talking only about her professional life, but also about her kitchen as the heart of her family and social life. “I cook because I love family. I love my family,” she says. “Food is not frivolous.”
Her kitchen renovation was designed to encompass both, in tiny details such as multiple sets of measuring spoons that save steps mid-recipe, and in broad strokes such as the fireplace with a hearth that's raised off the floor, so it's visible from anywhere in the room and can accommodate wood stored underneath.
Two paintings, one of persimmon and eggplant, the other of pears and other fruit, hang on a nearby yellow wall and are by son Adam, who is working toward a doctorate specializing in forced migration. Daughter Jessica has a café near Austin, Texas, and Rebecca is the volunteer resources director of the Sustainable Food Center of Austin.
Saltsman's own parents came to the United States from Israel by boat on the Queen Mary, while her mother was pregnant with her. Amelia met her husband, Ralph, now a lawyer, when they worked as day camp counselors in Hollywood.
Saltsman, 60, and her husband live just a few minutes off the Pacific Coast Highway, in the wilderness of Rustic Canyon. Their 1922 house was part of the Uplifters enclave established early last century by Harry Marston Haldeman, grandfather of H.R. “Bob” Haldeman of Watergate infamy. The club included the rich and famous and offered a sanctuary, including from Prohibition.
By luck, the Saltsmans' kitchen renovation occurred in 1994, so their possessions were boxed up when the Northridge earthquake hit. One result is that the cupboards are all secured with window latches.
The smell of roasting vegetables reaches the front door of the brown wood-shingled house: eggplant, onions and zucchini all in a huge All-Clad roasting pan. “I just adore roasting,” Saltsman says as she stirs the vegetables. “These have been in for 45 minutes untouched.
“People are busy,” she adds. She's always looking for ways to get even busy people cooking fresh food. “People are hungry to know simple ways to make it work.”
The food will feed her family and become part of her work toward a series of Santa Monica Farmers Market e-books on entertaining to come out next year. Saltsman also is a member of the state Department of Food and Agriculture's Certified Farmers Market Advisory Committee and its Direct Marketing Ad Hoc Task Force. (She also has written for The Times.)
Before the renovation, the kitchen was a sort of winding galley, “really poorly laid out,” says Saltsman, drinking water from a quart Ball jar. “I took far more steps than I take now.”
The space was opened to create a great room with the big island, a cooking alcove and room for a table and sitting area with fireplace. The island has a prep sink, and even with all the vegetables plus a digital food scale and some jars holding bay leaves and tools, it doesn't feel crowded. It has drawers instead of cupboards, including one that holds a metal strip for knives. Under one end, a copper roasting pan holds five rolling pins. At the other end, three black stools fit underneath.
In an alcove with a hood running its length, an imposing Wolf Gourmet range has two ovens and six big burners, one holding an iron nabe pot with a wood top. There's also a big grill. A shelf above holds a luxurious collection of copper and All-Clad pots and pans, collected over time.
On the stove there's kosher salt, gray salt, white and black pepper, three olive oils, avocado oil that Saltsman uses instead of butter for vegan dishes. A little plastic chicken-shaped timer stands sentry on a ledge.
Her pastry cutter -- a little roughed up, with a green wood handle -- belonged to a friend's grandmother, who used it to bake “amazing farmhouse rolls,” Saltsman says. For her birthday a decade ago, the friend gave it to her. It's an object, Saltsman says, “that gives me a sense of continuity through the generations.”
Professional and sentimental blend all over the room: The big copper pot that sits on the stove she bought in Paris in 1990 and “made my husband carry it back on the plane.” The most recent acquisition: a large jam pot, chosen by her French daughter-in-law in a Normandy village known for copper pots. There's a white KitchenAid mixer and a professional-size box of plastic wrap, a square platter from a visit to Vietnam, an old enameled metal bowl that was photographed for the cover of her book. On top of a cupboard is a row of brown Wispride cheese crocks that once belonged to the grandmother of her good friend, the author Lisa See.
It's not a perfect room: The three windows over the sink are surrounded by wood that comes to meet the counter.
“Backsplash? Hello?” Saltsman jokes, adding that she's had to refinish the wood because of water damage.
The bookcase has a shelf of community cookbooks, many of them focused on California, including a Women Strike for Peace cookbook from the 1960s, a Los Angeles Times 1911 cookbook, and her
seventh-grade “foods class” notebook. They suit her approach: “What really excites me is the humble, basic foods,” she says. “I want to empower people. You're worried? Let me show you.”
-- Mary MacVean
This article is part of "Mission: Kitchen," a series of chef's kitchen profiles, consumers guides and product reviews running through the holidays. Suggestions for future story subjects: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photos: Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times