I recently bought myself a present. I’d heard amazing things about David Tanis’s book A Platter of Figs. Cooks I respected loved it, I kept running into it at bookstores, and then I was visiting my sister in Seattle and saw it on the shelf at Delancey That’s it. I was sold. I’m not sure how to even talk about this book because it’s so unlike any other. It’s not just a cookbook. Christopher Hirsheimer takes beautiful, spare photographs that really highlight the integrity of the food. And then there’s David’s recipes. He focuses on simplicity and seasonality. In his introduction, he notes “The platter of figs is a metaphor for the food I like. Fresh ripe figs are voluptuous and generous, luxurious and fleeting. And beautiful.”
If you’re not familiar with David’s story, he grew up in Ohio, moved to California, took odd jobs in Bay Area kitchens, landed a pizza and salad gig at Chez Panisse and eventually stayed to run the upstairs cafe. The draw to open his own restaurant eventually brought him to Santa Fe. He was extremely successful there, but business became tough in a depressed economy and David moved back to CA…and to Chez Panisse. At the time, he shared the downstairs restaurant chef position with Jean-Pierre Moulle. They split up the week. Then in 2001, an opportunity arose for David to move to Paris. Initially saddened, Alice Waters came up with the perfect plan: instead of splitting up the week, they could split up the year! And that was that: David cooks for six months out of the year at Chez Panisse and during the other six months he hosts a private dining club in Paris, preparing meals in his tiny galley kitchen.
In talking about initially meeting David in the early days and asking him to cook lunch for her, Waters notes,”It was that lunch’s radical simplicity that won me over.” And that radical simplicity is exactly what drew me to A Platter of Figs. The book is split into seasonal, themed menus. For example, under Fall you’ll see “The Bean Soup Lunch” or “Dinner for a Tuscan.” David’s writing is visual and visceral: he paints lovely narratives before each menu, talking about the weather, the seasons, the light at a certain time of day. You could buy this book with little intention to cook any of the recipes and still enjoy it. I promise.
So in flipping through the book late the other night (I tend to do a lot of cookbook reading before bed), I came across this recipe for Green Chile Stew. It calls for roasting the chiles on a grill and coincidentally, it’s been almost 80 here for the past few days so I’ve been itching to break out the barbecue one last time. The recipe was inspired by David’s time in New Mexico. He describes how the stew is a staple in the Northern part of the state, with everyone making it and adhering to their own versions. It’s only time consuming in the fact that the stew must simmer for at least an hour and set for another hour, but other than that, it’s just a lot of prep and chopping. David notes that if you’d rather not use pork, feel free to use chicken, lamb, turkey, or beef. At the end of the recipe, he advises to let the stew sit for an hour or more and refrigerate overnight if desired. I’ve had it for two nights in a row and the flavors only get better. If you can, I’d make it a day ahead. I hope you’re as taken with it as I was.
Slightly adapted from Platter of Figs
Rub each side of the pork with salt and pepper. Cut into 2-inch cubes. Begin heating the oil or lard in a large Dutch oven or other heavy-bottomed pan. Add the meat in small batches, without crowding, and brown lightly. Transfer to a platter.
Add the onions to the pot and sautee until brown, 1-2 minutes. Add the garlic, cumin, tomatoes, carrots, and green chiles, then sprinkle the flour over the mixture and stir together. Add salt to taste (start with 1/8 tsp.), then return the browned meat to the pot and stir well. Cover with the water or broth and bring to a boil. Cover the pot, turn the flame to low, and simmer gently for an hour.
Taste the broth and more salt or green chile if necessary. The broth should be well seasoned and fairly spicy. Add the potatoes and continue cooking for 30 minutes or until until they’re soft and the meat is tender. Skim any fat from surface of the broth and let stew rest for an hour or more. Refrigerate overnight if desired. To serve, reheat the stew and ladle into warmed bowls. Sprinkle with chopped cilantro and accompany with warm tortillas.
Note: Fresh green chiles (New Mexico or Anaheim) must be roasted over an open flame on a barbecue grill, gas burned or under the broiler till blackened. Then rub off the skins, remove the stems and seeds, and coarsely chop the chiles. Twelve large fresh chiles will yield about 1 cup of chopped. Lacking these, a pretty fair approximation can be made with a combination of fresh poblanos and roasted jalapenos. Frozen green chiles are an acceptable substitute for fresh; use canned chiles only as a last resort.
It turns out that returning from a sunny honeymoon to a rather rainy, dark stretch of Seattle fall hasn't been the easiest transition. Sam and I have been struggling a little to find our groove with work projects and even simple routines like cooking meals for one another and getting out of the easy daily ruts that can happen to us all. When we were traveling, we made some new vows to each other -- ways we can keep the fall and winter from feeling a bit gloomy, as tends to happen at a certain point living in the Pacific Northwest (for me, at least): from weekly wine tastings at our neighborhood wine shop to going on more lake walks. And I suppose that's one of the most energizing and invigorating parts about travel, isn't it? The opposite of the daily rut: the constant newness and discovery around every corner. One of my favorite small moments in Italy took place at a cafe in Naples when I accidentally ordered the wrong pastry and, instead, was brought this funny looking cousin of a croissant. We had a wonderfully sunny little table with strong cappuccino, and, disappointed by my lack of ordering prowess, I tried the ugly pastry only to discover my new favorite treat of all time (and the only one I can't pronounce): the sfogliatelle. I couldn't stop talking about this pastry, its thick flaky layers wrapped around a light, citrus-flecked sweet ricotta filling. It was like nothing I'd ever tried -- the perfect marriage of interesting textures and flavors. I became a woman obsessed. I began to see them displayed on every street corner; I researched their origin back at the hotel room, and started to look up recipes for how to recreate them at home. And the reason for the fascination was obviously that they were delicious. But even more: I'm so immersed in the food writing world that I rarely get a chance to discover a dish or a restaurant on my own without hearing tell of it first. And while a long way away from that Italian cafe, I had a similar feeling this week as I scanned the pages of Alice Medrich's new book, Flavor Flours, and baked up a loaf of her beautiful fall pumpkin loaf: Discovery, newness, delight!
I always force myself to wait until after Halloween to start thinking much about holiday pies or, really, future holidays in general. But this year I cheated a bit, tempted heavily by the lure of a warmly-spiced sweet potato pie that I used to make back when I baked pies for a living in the Bay Area (way back when). We seem to always have sweet potatoes around as they're one of Oliver's favorite foods, and when I roast them for his lunch I've been wishing I could turn them into a silky pie instead. So the other day I reserved part of the sweet potatoes for me. For a pie that I've made hundreds of times in the past, this time reimagined with fragrant brown butter, sweetened solely with maple syrup, and baked into a flaky kamut crust. We haven't started talking about the Thanksgiving menu yet this year, but I know one thing for sure: this sweet potato pie will make an appearance.
This time last week I was up in the Skagit River Valley sitting in the early fall sun eating wood-fired bagels and chatting with farmers, millers and bakers at the Kneading Conference West. I made homemade soba noodles, learned the ins and outs of sourdough starters, and sat in on a session where we tasted crackers baked with single varietal wheats. It was like wine tasting, but with wheat and the whole time I kept pinching myself, thinking: THESE ARE MY PEOPLE! I don't get the opportunity to be a student much these days -- usually on the other side of things teaching cooking classes or educating people at the farmers markets about whole grains and natural sugars. So to just sit and listen with a fresh (red!) notebook and a new pen was surprisingly refreshing. I miss it already. Thankfully, this cookie recipe has come back as a memorable souvenir, and one that is sure to be in high rotation in our house in the coming months.
Strolling New York City streets during the height of fall when all the leaves are changing and golden light glints off the brownstone windows. This is what I envisioned when I bought tickets to attend my cousin's September wedding earlier this month: Sam and I would extend the trip for a good day or two so we could experience a little bit of fall in the city. We'd finally eat at Prune and have scones and coffee at Buvette, as we always do. Sam wanted to take me to Russ and Daughters, and we'd try to sneak in a new bakery or ice cream shop for good measure. Well, as some of you likely know, my thinking on the weather was premature. New York City fall had yet to descend and, instead, we ambled around the city in a mix of humidity and rain. When we returned home I found myself excited about the crisp evening air, and the fact that the tree across the street had turned a rusty shade of amber. It was time to do a little baking.
I am writing this on Saturday afternoon on a day when we had big plans to conquer pre-baby chore lists, but Sam's not feeling great and my energy's a little low so it hasn't been quite what we'd envisioned. My goals for the morning were to repot a house plant and make some soup and I've done neither. I will say that the sweet potato and fennel are still sitting on the counter eagerly awaiting their Big Moment -- it just hasn't come about quite yet. Sam and I were both going to attempt to install the carseat, but it started to look really daunting so we abandoned ship; it's now sitting proudly in the basement, also eagerly awaiting its Big Moment. So it's been one of those weekends -- the kind you look back on and wonder what it is you actually accomplished. At the very least, I get the chance to tell you about this hearty cranberry cornbread. I know maybe it feels premature in the season for cranberry recipes, but hang with me here: slathered with a little soft butter and runny honey, there's nothing I'd rather eat right now on the cool, crisp Seattle mornings we've been having lately.