On making mole negro

Mole is a word formed by puckering the mouth, touching your tongue to your teeth and letting out a soft cry.


In the garden






summer savory

winter savory

lemon balm

lemon verbena



purple anise hyssop







St. John’s wort





Roman chamomile

flat chives

pepper cress


scented geraniums



gopher purge plants

red and green basils



volunteer wild arugula, borage and red mustard



Hawaiian tomatillos

sweet 100, black cherry, sungold, black krim, silvery fir and juliet tomatoes

English shelling peas

Jimmy Nardello peppers



meyer lemons

jalapeño and habanero peppers



26 April 2012

strawberry agua fresca

chicken with mole negro

a sauce made with chilies, charred chili seeds, nuts, sesame seeds, raisins, tortillas, plantains, bread, garlic, onion, chocolate, sweet spices and chicken stock

handmade tortillas

spring onions ala plancha

chickpeas and bitter greens with cumin and smoky paprika

cabbage salad with cilantro, white onion and jalapeno

pickled carrots, cauliflower, jalapeño and red onion

limes, queso fresco, sour cream, avocado and radishes

Wood Oven

Me with my lovely friend and multifaceted author, Andrew X. Pham. Photo by Carol Levy

Wood oven

by Niki Ford

 I first came to the wood oven cold and afraid.  On one level I knew that I was experiencing some of the very normal fears associated with undertaking an utterly foreign task, but I suspect, on a deeper level, I also sensed that some piping hot humility was waiting for me just around the corner.  In fact, even after I learned how to charm the hell out of that round belly of an oven, I still had nightmares about somehow having to live inside it and cook in it at the same time.  For me, those dreams spoke to the internal and external pressures I felt to become an instant expert.  Two days of training and, POW, I’d be the new wood oven cook in the Chez Panisse Café.

   When I was still pretty green on the oven,  Alice Waters ordered two pizzas and I was positively terrified, but I made the pizzas and sent them down to her meeting anyway.  Then I promptly exhaled, got on with the rest of my day and hoped  for the best.

Photo by Carol Levy

  Back then, it was painful, but doing my best meant that I had to serve up my “learning.” I didn’t know that my pizzas weren’t good enough.  I wasn’t the one eating them.  I only knew that I felt more fear than excitement most of the time.

  “No news really is good news when you make food for Alice,” the Café cooks would say.  Of course, a large portion of the day had gone by since I made those pizzas and I was practically skipping as I focused my sights on the home stretch of not being spoken to at all.  In the midst of that fantasy, my chef asked me sit with her and, even then, I imagined she was about to tell me that the pizzas I made for Alice were quite good.

  “Not good enough,” she said, echoing Alice’s words to me.

  “Not good enough,” I said, echoing them to myself.

  I spent the next few days leaning into my colleagues, one by one, to softly ask, “Hey, have you ever heard of anyone being re-trained on a station?”  No one had.

  Luckily, they brought in my former chef, Russ, to train me.  Not only did he very publicly credit himself for hiring me, albeit in a humorous context most of the time, he had also spent the last twenty-odd years at the restaurant and had some serious mojo when it came to cooking with fire.  Russ didn’t boggle my mind with the science or rules; he encouraged me to pay attention.

Photo by Adrienne Pao (altered with blur)

  “Niki, you were made to cook in the wood oven,” he said.  Looking back now, I can see that he knew something that I didn’t know at all then; that if I brought who I really was to that oven, there would be sparks.

  Throughout the day, we discussed the changing shades of light inside the oven as we built and stoked the fire.  “When the inside of the oven is this color, you are ready to make a good pizza,” said Russ.  In that moment, using the oven seemed a lot making a drawing.  If I stepped back to take a look, most of my day involved a lot of reflection, even if it only took place in split-seconds of knowing.  Whether I was seeking balance, contrast or intensity, it suddenly became apparent that action and response to that action would be required of me on an ongoing basis.  That occasion marked a new style of culinary practice for me, one that included a much more intact vision of my creative self.

  I began to eke out the dream where I, the clumsy artist, could flourish as a wood oven cook.    I burned myself all the time and anointed those healing burns with fresh pain each time I stuck my arms in and out of that oven for new, intense kisses of heat.  But I was willing to pay a price for some mastery.  As I spun back and forth from the counter to the oven in the months that followed, I  became a kind of flour-cloaked whirling Dervish set on my progress.

Photo by Artist in Residence, Adrienne Pao

  A year or two later I overheard that, in a managers’ meeting, Alice proclaimed, “Niki makes made the best pizzas in the Café.”

25 April 2012

Eden’s escarole and curly endive

the all-anchovy pizzas:

chard and wild nettle pizzas with feta, fresh mozzarella and anchovy

tomato sauce pizzas with ricotta, anchovy, savory, marjoram and one of Del’s eggs

good ol’ Chez classic of sorrel, anchovy and egg

end of the night pizzas to use up all the toppings

Clever artists bring their own dessert to share.


I was daydreaming about kuku sabzi.

Kuku is the name of a Persian frittata that has a delightful ratio of more stuff-to-egg. And ever since my friend Shari made me this style of frittata, I have not returned to making its eggier cousin with the same sort of admiration.

I decided to make mine with nettles and eggs from the Montalvo Garden Curator, Delmar McComb.

The nettles, picked in the Santa Cruz mountains, were some of the most stubborn I’ve ever cooked. Normally, with cultivated or young wild nettles, it’s necessary to cook them somewhat quickly so as not to loose their beautiful texture (which will quickly turn mushy if you’re not paying attention) . But these nettles needed to stew, stew, stew in order to collapse and then soften over time. Even then, they still seemed to resist me in some way, so I decided to remedy this by running my knife through them a bit and flavoring them with handfuls of chopped cilantro, cumin and garlic, and then used just enough egg to hold them together in my cast iron skillet.

While my frittata finished in the oven, I quickly made the sabzi, a name for the pile of fresh herbs to accompany it.

My friend Shari’s sabzi, which he taught me to make on a marathon day of Persian cookery, contained mint, dill, loads of parsley and purslane. On that day, we ate mounds of these fragrant herbs with every plate that we sat down to enjoy and discuss. Our exemplary breakfast of feta, warm bread, walnuts, homemade sour cherry jam and sabzi, washed down with black tea brewed with rose petals seemed, to me, to be the only way to eat breakfast for the better part of that year.

The meal I made last night was not inherently Persian — it was more a blend of things Persian, Indian and Moroccan. Even my sabzi broke the rules with the additions of radishes and vinaigrette.

I just cooked whatever I felt like making.

23 April 2012

nettle, cilantro and cumin frittata with a salad from the garden of baby red mustard, wild arugula, mint, sorrel, radishes and flat chives

spiced lentils and potatoes

basmati rice with caraway and bay

roasted asparagus, fennel and cabbage with cilantro

yogurt, limes