When first encountering David Tanis's new cookbook, A Platter of Figs and Other Recipes, skeptics might roll their eyes: why do I need a full-color, hard-cover book from a chef who splits his life between the Chez Panisse kitchen in Berkeley and a dinner club in Paris to tell me how to put some figs on a platter? Stop.
Between David Tanis's two decades as chef at Chez Panisse and the six months/year he lives in Paris hosting a dinner club for twelve people, he knows how to cook simply and beautifully. From the narrative vignettes he lays out before many of the menus, to the recipes themselves, this is a book that will get you to cook well without beating you over the head with pleas to cook seasonally, buy locally... save the world.
A Platter of Figs is visually drop-dead. It has an ample number of matte photographs, but not so many to knock you on your back and intimidate you (or pump the book's price up in the $40 zone). It's a manageable 280 something pages, so you aren't faced with a biblical volume of recipes you assume you'll never try.
The recipes are short, yet full of feeling. Where he skimps is lengthy instruction, and he can because everything is so simple. As much as I love the long narrative style of chefs like Judy Rodgers in her Zuni Café Cookbook, recipes that take up more than a page or so can feel tedious to most home cooks. The recipe for Fish Soup below is about as long as it gets. Following this recipe wasn't a chore, it was a pleasure.
Tanis organizes his recipes around 24 seasonally-based menus, six for each season. They are all intended to be served family-style. Most menus have an appetizer, a main course with side, and a dessert. Something we can all tackle. Each menu is this-could-be-the-best-meal-I've-ever-had precious, and yet none seem out of reach. For fall, I tried Menu Fourteen: a simple Tomato Bread with a touching story about attending the ballet in Barcelona, the Fish Soup with Mussels and Chorizo (see below), and for dessert Goat Cheese With Honey.
A Platter of Figs just landed itself a place on my short list of cookbooks that are inspiring, approachable and have as much of a place on the night stand as the kitchen counter. I have an ever-growing list of friends and family who ache for gifts like this and chefs like David Tanis make it easy for me to satisfy that ache. This one is a keeper.
We're giving away five copies of A Platter of Figs and Other Recipes starting today (Thursday) at 2:30pm. Look for our Thursday Giveaway post and sign up.
Fish Soup with Mussels and Chorizo
Excerpted from A PLATTER OF FIGS by David Tanis (Artisan Books)
This soup is as close as my memory can take me to a table in the sand at one of those fish shacks along the beach at Barceloneta, a little strip of beach on the harbor. Those shacks may no longer exist, but the soup prevails.
Fish soup can be a chore, even for experienced cooks. This easy full-flavored version gets a kick from chorizo and extra richness from a Catalan-style roasted pepper sauce stirred in at the end. You want the fish to flake apart and become part of the broth rather than remain in separate chunks. Any fresh white-fleshed fish will do, but I have also used well-soaked salt cod (see page 232) with great success for this recipe.
4 pounds mussels
4 pounds monkfish, in 1-inch cubes
Salt and pepper
1/2 teaspoon crumbled saffron
4 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 tablespoon chopped thyme
3 medium onions, finely diced
(about 3 cups)
1/2 pound Spanish chorizo, casings removed and finely diced
2 bay leaves
1 cup dry white wine
6 cups Fish Stock (recipe follows) or Light Chicken Stock (page 73)
Roasted Pepper Sauce (recipe follows)
1 small bunch parsley, leaves roughly chopped
Clean and debeard the mussels and put them in a bowl. Cover with a damp towel and refrigerate. Season the fish with salt and pepper. Sprinkle over the saffron, garlic, and thyme. Drizzle with 3 tablespoons olive oil and massage in the seasoning. Cover and refrigerate for up to several hours.
In a large heavy-bottomed soup pot, stew the onions in a little olive oil over medium heat until soft. Add the chorizo and bay leaves and cook for a few minutes more.
Add the fish and white wine and simmer for 1 minute. Add the mussels and stock and turn the heat to high. Cover and cook for about 8 minutes, stirring once or twice, until all the mussels have opened.
Stir in the roasted pepper sauce and cook for a minute more. Taste the broth and adjust the seasoning. Sprinkle over the chopped parsley and serve.
Simple Fish Stock
Fish stock is quick and easy to make. It tastes best the day it's made.
Rinse 1 pound meaty halibut (or sole or cod) bones under cold water and put them in a large pot. Add a small leek and an onion, sliced, a bay leaf, and a few peppercorns. Cover with 12 cups water and heat to just under a boil, then turn the flame to low. Skim off any rising foam and cook at a bare simmer for 20 minutes. Strain the stock and keep at room temperature.
Roasted Pepper Sauce
Char 1 large sweet pepper over an open flame or under the broiler until the skin is blistered and black all over. When it is cool enough to handle, scrape the skin from the flesh and remove the core and seeds. In a blender or food processor, puree the roasted pepper with 1 large tomato, roughly chopped, 1 garlic clove, coarsely chopped, a teaspoon salt, a good pinch of cayenne, and a cup olive oil. Scrape the sauce into a small bowl. The sauce can be made several hours, or even a day, in advance.
• Buy A Platter of Figs and Other Recipes (Amazon, $23.10)
(images: Copyright 2008. Christopher Hirsheimer photographer.)