Steinbeck's California home renovated as a restaurant

Novelist John Steinbeck's Victorian birthplace dominates the corner of Central and Church Streets in Salinas, Calif. In the 1970s a group of local women who loved to cook acquired the house, which was built in 1897, and renovated it as a restaurant. Today, the basement houses a gift shop called The Best Cellar, whose profits maintain the author's home and benefit local charities.

Some 200 members of the Valley Guild take their turn preparing and serving a gourmet lunch twice each day, five days a week. The setting is reminiscent of the house Steinbeck described in his book "East of Eden."

Two of his early books: "The Red Pony" and "Tortilla Flat" were written in his room on the second floor of this house.

Another worthwhile stop on West San Luis Street in Salinas is the Steinbeck Library. Here one room is dedicated to the author, and contains, among many other memorabilia, an original manuscript of his acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Salinas is the country seat of Monterey county. It is located inland not far from the oceanside towns of Monterey and Carmel, a 2 1/2-hour drive from the San Francisco Bay Area.

Often called "The Salad Bowl of the Nation," the leading crops of this area are lettuce, artichokes, celery, beans, chili peppers, garlic, strawberries, and several other vegetables. Newer additions to this list include bulbs and cut flowers.

Locally grown produce is regularly featured on the menu at the Steinbeck House Restaurant.

On the day of our visit, we enjoyed a delicious Creamy Lettuce Soup, spicy chicken crepes with tender-crisp broccoli, and a mouth-watering Mocha Nut Torte.

Reservations are recommended for lunch and the cost is about $7 a person, which includes a tour of the house. Creamy Lettuce Soup 2 tablespoons butter or margarine 1/2 cup union, chopped 2 tabelspoons flour 1/2 teaspoon salt 1/8 teaspoon pepper, preferably white 2 beef bouillon cubes 2 cups boiling water 2 cups half and half 2 cups iceberg lettuce, shredded in 1 inch pieces

Heat butter or margarine in a two-quart pan. Add onion and saute until soft. Stir in flour, salt, and pepper; blend until bubbling. Dissolve bouillon cubes in boiling water and gradually add to the onion mixture. Add half and half. Reheat slowly to just below the boiling point. Add the shredded lettuce to the hot soup, heat for one minute, then serve immediately. Top each serving with grated nutmeg or chopped parsley.

When making ahead, add cream and lettuce just before serving time. Lettuce must retain its fresh, crisp flavor, so do not cook -- just heat. Serves 5. Mocha Nut Torte Topping: 1/2 cup sugar 2 tablespoons cornstarch 1 cup strong, cold decaffeinated coffee 1 ounce chocolate chips 1 tablespoon butter or margarine 2 teaspoons vanilla 1 cup whipping cream, whipped

In saucepan mix sugar and cornstarch. Gradually stir in decaffeinated coffee and chocolate chips; cook, stirrinf constantly until mixture thickens and boils. Boil 1 minute. Blend in butter and vanilla. Cool thoroughly. Fold in whipped cream. Frost torte when baked and cooled. Torte: 6 eggs yolks 3/4 cup sugar 6 egg whites 1/4 cup sugar 1 cup finely ground walnuts 1/2 cup fine, dry bread crumbs

Line two 9-inch, square pans wax paper, bottom only. Do not grease. Beat egg yolks until thick; slowly add 3/4 cup sugar until mixtures is thick and pale yellow in color. Beat egg whites until foamy, add 1/4 cup sugar and beat until soft peaks form.

Mix walnuts and bread crumbs together. Fold egg whites alternately into yolks with nut mixture. Spoon into prepared pans. Bake 30 minutes at 350 degrees F., until slight imprint remains when testing. Cool in pans for 10 minutes. Invert onto rack, loosen; peel off paper. Fill a nd frost when cool. Refrigerate until ready to serve.

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