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.
Winter Soups and Stews
If your house is anything like ours, last week wasn't our most inspired in terms of cooking. We're all suffering from the post-election blues -- the sole upside being Oliver's decision to sleep-in until 7 am for the first time in many, many months; I think he's trying to tell us that pulling the covers over our heads and hibernating for awhile is ok. It's half-convincing. For much of the week, instead of cooking, there'd been takeout pizza and canned soup before, at week's end, I decided it was time to pour a glass of wine and get back into the kitchen. I was craving something hearty and comforting that we could eat for a few days. Something that wouldn't remind me too much of Thanksgiving because, frankly, I can't quite gather the steam to start planning for that yet. It was time for a big bowl of chili.
Last weekend it was so windy – apocalyptically stormy, you could say – that our tent at the farmers market was uprooted by gusts of wind that were not messing around. I wasn't there, but apparently despite being heavily weighted down and with four customers holding onto each corner, it quite literally blew down the block. Sam, from across town, was reporting trees falling on every block and traffic lights out across the city. The next morning on a walk with Oliver around Green Lake, we were met with that same biting wind and ended up retreating for a hot chocolate instead. 'Tis the season in Seattle: we all get a little giddy and ahead of ourselves when we spot the cherry blossoms and daffodils, and I always trick myself into thinking that with the start of daylight savings time, summer must be right around the corner. In truth, before we had Oliver, we'd often travel somewhere sunny for a little mood boost around this time of year. When I moved from California, many friends – other (empathetic) 'expats' now living in the Pacific Northwest – recommended this: if you know what's good for you, they'd all say, go find the sun in February or March, and we would follow that advice faaaaaithfully. But with a baby, this just isn't where our priorities are this year, and I've found myself relying on other antics like buying out of season strawberries, drinking white wine with dinner, buying a new pair of sandals that likely will not see the light of day for the next two months, and making big, colorful pots of feel good, springy soup. Let's not kid ourselves: Cherry blossoms or not, Seattle's no Palm Springs when it gets down to bathing in the sunlight. But if you step outside onto your little porch, smell the honeysuckle blooming, take notice of the longer, lighter days and think about how you simply can't wait to see your baby crawling around on the sand when it's warm enough to stroll down to the beach, it starts looking better in its own light.
We returned home from San Francisco on New Years Eve just in time for dinner, and craving greens -- or anything other than baked goods and pizza (ohhhh San Francisco, how I love your bakeries. And citrus. And winter sunshine). Instead of driving straight home, we stopped at our co-op where I ran in for some arugula, an avocado, a bottle of Prosecco, and for the checkout guys to not-so-subtly mock the outlook of our New Years Eve: rousing party, eh? They looked to be in their mid-twenties and I figured I probably looked ancient to them, sad even. But really, there wasn't much sad (or rousing, to be fair) about our evening: putting Oliver to bed, opening up holiday cards and hanging them in the kitchen, and toasting the New Year with arugula, half a quesadilla and sparkling wine. It wasn't lavish. But it's what we both needed. (Or at least what we had to work with.) Since then, I've been more inspired to cook lots of "real" food versus all of the treats and appetizers and snacks the holidays always bring on. I made Julia Turshen's curried red lentils for the millionth time, a wintry whole grain salad with tuna and fennel, roasted potatoes, and this simple green minestrone that I've taken for lunch this week. Determined to fit as many seasonal vegetables into a bowl as humanly possible, I spooned a colorful pesto on top, as much for the reminder of warmer days to come as for the accent in the soup (and for the enjoyment later of slathering the leftover pesto on crusty bread).
One of the things I wanted to accomplish before really returning to work in earnest was to print some of our honeymoon photos and get them into an album. This project has taken far longer than expected as I find myself daydreaming about the craggy streets of Naples and meeting up with our friends Mataio and Jessica for a late night slice of pizza which we ate sitting on the sidewalk before embarking on an aimless but wonderful stroll of the city. There are photos of our balcony by the sea, most with tanned limbs, sandy sandals and a Campari and soda gracing the periphery of the frame. There was the little grocery store up the hill from our apartment on the Amalfi Coast that had the sweetest, tiniest strawberries and the best yogurt in little glass jars. Tomatoes drying in the sun, Aperol spritzes and salty peanuts before dinner at the bar across from the church square where all the neighborhood kids played kickball. As I sit here typing this now, photos remain scattered on my desk and it's likely they may not make it into the proper slots in the album anytime soon. Of course, they have me dreaming of sunshine and long days with little agenda, but they also have me thinking about the simplicity of our meals in Italy and how truly easy it was to eat well. Coincidentally, a few days ago Rachel Roddy's lusty new cookbook (can we call it lusty?!), My Kitchen in Rome, arrived at our doorstep. Clearly it was time to set the photos aside and get into the kitchen.
And suddenly, it's fall. I find that realization always comes not so much with the dates on the calendar as it does the leaves on the ground, the first crank of the heat in the morning, the dusky light on the way home from an evening run. Because we were gone on the train for nearly a week, I feel like fall happened here in Seattle during that very time. I left town eating tomatoes and corn and returned to find squashes and pumpkins in the market. It was that quick. And so, it only seemed fitting that I make this soup, one that has graced the fall table of each and every apartment (and now house) I've ever lived. In fact, I'm surprised that I hadn't yet made it for you here, and delighted to share it with you today.