Ah, the mind of a chef. A cluttered mess of rapid-fire thoughts hovering between the immediate future (table six needs three salmons - now!) and distant dreams (taking six months off to write a cookbook). Well, unless you happen to be David Tanis, author of the just-released The Heart of the Artichoke, And Other Kitchen Journeys and Chez Panisse's executive co-chef since the 1980s. His life is neatly segregated between kitchen chaos and home cooking: six months at the Berkeley restaurant, six months at his second home in Paris. Did we mention the every year part?
One could presume he had plenty of time to write his latest cookbook. Probably the very reason why the book is so thoughtfully arranged, with recipes that are actually useful and inspiring without the harried feel of so many chef cookbooks. Organized by seasons, the book is part diary, part cookbook, part photo-logue. Less formal cookbook, really, and more of a supper inspiration manual. Turn the page for more on the book, plus Tanis' red wine poached pear recipe.
The first chapter, "Kitchen Rituals," is fat with vignettes about Tanis' quirks when he's playing the home cook (he gets a kick out of peeling apples so the skin lands on the counter in one long spiral; he always travels with fresh jalapenos, a tube of harissa, and a pepper mill, among other items). And he likes Ziploc bags. Tanis uses the bags for "freezer canning," basically freezing fresh tomatoes for winter with the added bonus that when they thaw, the skins slip off and you have an impromptu canned tomatoes.
He introduces the seasonal menus in the book in that same casual conversational style: "Chefs nowadays want to dazzle. I suppose they always have. Not to denigrate modern cooking -- I don't mean to squelch the creative urge -- but one has to wonder sometimes about what restaurant food has become.... traditional cooks are now seen as backward, and modern diners want excitement -- two bites and they're bored."
So begins a spring menu of roasted lamb with rosemary, asparagus scrambled eggs with mint and basil, fork-mashed potatoes (with olive oil, butter and cream), dandelion greens salad and strawberries with sugar and homemade crème fraîche. The now ubiquitous Chez Panisse mantra of the ingredients, not the chef, are the star of the plate. (The recipe for those strawberries lists them as "2 to 3 pints of perfect organic strawberries.")
That's not to say the book is devoid of useful cooking tips. A fish fry with piquant tarragon mayonnaise recipe in the "How to Fry Fish" summer chapter begins with a mini lecture on why fried foods have a bad reputation ("People are convinced anything fried is really bad for you, and they think frying is an impossible chore."). Not so, says Tanis, who is a proponent of "shallow fried fish," meaning using a cast iron skillet filled halfway with oil rather than a deep frying.
In "The Trouble With Ham" chapter, he laments the evolution of hand-cured ham into Spam, then provides a recipe for petit salé (home-brined pork belly and shanks). The "Cooking For Tomorrow Today" chapter includes a recipe for pork and duck liver terrine, "duck confit in the oven," celery-radish-watercress salad and a loaf of homemade whole wheat-semolina bread. Recipes with character, but also very practical recipes. So practical, Tanis could be in your kitchen, tossing together that "Dead-of-Winter Dinner from the Supermarket" of pan fried steak, romaine heart salad, potato gratin and pineapple with flamed rum. Wouldn't that be nice.
Spiced Pears in Red Wine
From: The Heart of The Artichoke by David Tanis. "When this dessert is over-spiced, it tastes like bad mulled wine. I prefer it on the subtle side."
8 slightly under ripe small Comice or Anjou pears
1 (750-ml) bottle medium-bodied red wine, such as Côtes du Rhone
1 1/2 cups sugar
1 bay leaf
1 teaspoon fennel seeds
2 whole cloves
A wide strip each of lemon and orange peel
1. Peel the pears top to bottom with a sharp vegetable peeler, leaving them whole, with stems attached and the core intact.
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2. Put the pears in a large wide nonreactive pot (enameled or stainless steel) in one layer. Stir the wine and sugar together in a bowl to dissolve the sugar, pour over the pears, and add the aromatics. Cover and bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to a gentle simmer. Poach the pears for about 30 minutes, or until a skewer inserted encounters no resistance. Remove from the heat and let cool, in the poaching liquid, overnight.
3. The next day, with a slotted spoon, transfer the pears to a platter. Heat the poaching liquid over high and boil down until it is reduced by half. Strain this syrup into a bowl and let cool.
4. Use a paring knife to cut a small slice off the bottom of each pear, allowing them to stand up straight. Stand the pears in a deep rectangular glass or plastic container large enough to contain them in one layer.
5. Pour the cooled syrup over the pears. Refrigerate for up to several days. Serve chilled, putting each pear in a soup plate and spooning over a little syrup.