Interlude: Talking with Chef David Tanis, a last-minute gift idea, and a quick, nourishing dinner

We are almost half-way through the holiday treats, so let’s take a moment to address a last minute gift, and a simple, delicious dinner.

As I write, I intermittently gaze out the window at the newly fallen snow. A cluster of bright birds are grazing at the birdfeeder. I’m drinking my favorite tea. My baby is sleeping late. And my toddler is sitting on the pretty white reclaimed church pew in the kitchen–screaming his head off.

The bench is where time outs happen. During the two minute time out, he continually hops off, and I put him back on. Again, and again, and again. When the timer dings, he steadfastly plants his bottom, refuses to get off the bench, and screams, and screams, and screams. So goes life with a two and a half year old.

Way back in October, I had the opportunity to sit down with Chef David Tanis and a few other Wisconsin food bloggers. The topic was Chef Tanis’ latest cookbook, Heart of the Artichoke and Other Kitchen Journeys.

My sincerest apologies that it took me so long to tell you about this, but my hope was to accompany this post with photos and details of one of David’s beautiful menus from the book. I haven’t (yet) gotten around to cooking a full menu, but I have spent plenty of time perusing the book and cooking some small dishes.

David was an absolute pleasure to chat with. It was my first big time celebrity chef encounter, and he was nothing like I imagined. Funny, down-to-earth, curious, and conversational–I guess I expected more of a diva. Not in the least! He asked what we fed our kids, what we did when we didn’t feel like cooking, and what were the current food trends in Madison and Milwaukee? I can honestly say, if Chef Tanis was ever in the Madison area and needed a place to eat dinner, I wouldn’t be intimidated to cook for him. He is the type of guy that can find the brightest spots in any meal.

That’s saying a lot for the man who cooks for Chez Panisse six months out of the year, and spends the rest of his time cooking in his tiny kitchen in Paris for friends and family.

He is a lover of the simple, the traditional, the seasonal, and the delicious. He even carries a ‘to go’ kit of little luxuries to help him make the best of any meal put down in front of him.Everyone should travel with fresh chiles, harrisa, garlic, good mustard, limes, sea salt, red pepper flakes, a pepper mill, some cheese, a paring knife, and a corkscrew.

If you’re looking for a last minute gift for a foodie friend with a passion for cookbooks, this is the one. In addition to being on my top ten list of 2010, it made the New York Times list as well.

It begins with ‘Kitchen Rituals”, an ode to cooks everywhere spending time in their kitchen doing what they love best. Making voluptous fruit jam, enjoying the perfect ham sandwich, or creating something more ambitious, like your own chorizo.

The book continues with a section on seasonal menus. These menus are gorgeous, some simple, some elegant, all perfect (as you would expect from the chef at Chez Panisse.)

It concludes with ‘feasts’–suckling pig, goat, deconstructed turkey, and a New Year’s meal that sounds spot on wonderful: renditions on the grapefruit cocktail, The Salty Dog, a relish plate (perfect for Wisconsin), quick bread and butter pickles, crab-stuffed deviled eggs, black-eyed peas with ham hocks and bacon, corn sticks, and lemon curd shortbread with candied kumquat. Wow, and yum.

This is the type of cookbook that you sit down to read with a cup of tea, and some time. The stories that introduce each meal are lovely and rambling–from ‘A Batch of Spanish Chorizo’: “My recipe comes from a Gypsy named Anzonini who used to live in Berkeley. He gave it to Kenny, a flamenco guitar player, who gave it to me.” I love it!

This is not a cookbook for someone who wants to know how to make a particular dish, and wants to be able to find ingredients, meals, or dishes neatly organized in a table of contents. This book is a story that you sit down and enjoy, discovering delightful things you’d like to cook along the way.

The recipe I’m going to share is an adaptation of a dish described in the introduction to the summer menu ‘Dinner on the Italian Side’. It’s not even a featured recipe, but that’s why this book works. It encourages and inspires you to take your time in the kitchen, and create something worthwhile.

I didn’t have anchovies, but I did have cooked white beans, so that’s how this dish came to be. It is simple, comforting, flavorful, and nourishing. We’ve made it several times, and my toddler loves to crush the fennel seed with the mortar and pestle. The measurements here are just an approximation and a suggestion – follow your instinct, I promise it will be good.

Luciano’s Basic, Never Starve Pasta, adapted from Heart of the Artichoke by David Tanis

1 lb whole wheat pasta, cooked al dente (reserve some cooking water)
1/4 cup or so good olive oil
a few cloves of garlic, smashed and chopped
about a teaspoon whole fennel seed, crushed
2 tsp or so dried oregano
crushed red pepper, to taste
a few cups of cooked white beans, reserve some cooking liquid
salt, to taste

Warm the olive oil in a skillet. Add the garlic, fennel seed, oregano, and crushed red pepper. Cook over low heat until fragrant and your mouth is watering. Add in the beans, and stir until warmed through. Add in 1/2 cup or so of the bean broth. If you don’t have any bean broth, add in some cooking water from your pasta. Gently smash the beans with a potato masher or spoon. Leave some whole, just mash things around to give the dish some body. Toss with warm pasta. Add more liquid if things seem dry, salt to taste. Enjoy with good bread, and maybe a simple green salad.

Here is a list of the other WI food bloggers in attendance:

A World of Flavors
Burp: Where Food Happens (Paul kindly arranged the event)
On My Table
Stream of Consciousness

We enjoyed a delicious lunch at farmer-owned Roots restaurant in Milwaukee. I had a fresh green salad with a breaded soft boiled egg, and a grilled cheese sandwich with three cheeses, arugula, a pickled pear, and mushroom pate. Delightful!

Chef Tanis is in the gray shirt with the groovy sunglasses (right next to me, in the pink T-shirt.)


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  1. From Jalapeno Lime Butter | Tallgrass Kitchen on 07 Mar 2012 at 3:13 am

    […] on to something a little spicier. Jalapeno Lime Butter, adapted from one of my favorite chefs, David Tanis. This butter is a dressing for a summer salad in his beautiful cookbook, A Platter of Figs and […]