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.
The Thanksgiving Table
Today is a different kind of day. Usually posts on this blog come about with the narrative and I manage to squeeze in a recipe. But sometimes when you really stumble upon a winning recipe, it speaks for itself. We'll likely make these beans for Thanksgiving this year. They're one of those simple stunners that you initially think couldn't be much of a thing. And then they come out of the oven all sweet and withered and flecked with herbs. You try one and you realize they are, in fact, a pretty big thing.
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.
It has begun. Talk of who is bringing what, where we'll buy the turkey, what kind of pies I'll make, early morning texts concerning brussels sprouts. There's no getting around it: Thanksgiving is on its way. And with it comes the inevitable reflecting back and thinking about what we're thankful for. And about traditions. The funny thing about traditions is that they exist because they've been around for a long time. Year after year after year. But then, one Thanksgiving maybe there's something new at the table.
I didn't expect green beans to bring up such a great discussion on traditions, sharing of poems and how a piece of writing can linger with you. So thank you for that. Your comments pointed out how important people and place are and how food takes the back seat when it comes right down to it. Even if you feel quite warm towards Thanksgiving and are looking forward to next week, reading about recipe suggestions and meal planning online and in magazines can start to feel tiresome right about now. Why? Because I suppose when it all comes down to it, in the big picture it doesn't matter what we all serve anyway. Next year, you likely won't remember one year's vegetable side dish from another. What you'll remember are the markers that dotted the year for you: whom you sat next to at the table, a toast or grace, and the sense of gratitude you felt for something -- large or small.
I got a text from my mom the other day that read: demerara sugar? I responded back with a question mark, not sure what she was referencing. It turns out she was experimenting with a new pie recipe that called for the natural sugar and wasn't sure why she couldn't just use white sugar as that's what she's always done in the past. A few days later we talked on the phone and she mentioned she'd let me take charge of the salad for Thanksgiving this year as long as there was no kale. No kale! And I wanted to do the mashed potatoes? Would they still be made with butter and milk? In short, we're always willing to mix things up in the Gordon household. Whether it's inspiration from a food magazine, friend or coworker, either my mom or one of my sisters will often have an idea for something new to try at the holiday table. But what I've slowly learned is that it can't really be that different: there must be pumpkin pie, the can of cranberry sauce is necessary even though not many people actually eat it, the onion casserole is non-negotiable, the salad can't be too out there, and the potatoes must be made with ample butter and milk. And while I was really scheming up an epic kale salad to make this year, there's a big part of me that gets it, too: if we change things too much we won't recognize the part of the day that comes to mean so much: the pure recognition. We take comfort in traditions because we recognize them -- because they're always there, year after year. And so today I present to you (mom, are you reading?): this year's Gordon family Thanksgiving salad.