Heart of the Artichoke: cooking with David Tanis

My attempt at Layered Tomato and Bread Salad. Photos by Patrick O'Neill.

I used to think that the best thing about a cookbook was the pictures. Somehow, just looking at colours on a piece of paper could make my tummy grumble with hunger. At the same time, the worst thing about a cookbook was the pictures. No matter how hard I tried, my culinary concoctions would never turn out as mouth-watering as they looked on the page.

So when, I had the chance to test out recipes from David Tanis’ new book Heart of the Artichoke and Other Kitchen Journeys ($42, Nov 1st) I have to admit I was slightly intimidated. Co-chef at Chez Panisse in California, Tanis’ deliciously depicted meals are based in the use of fresh ingredients. "I usually don't decide what I want to cook until I get to the market." Tanis’ stated to VO when he was in town last week. Attempting to emulate his head chef mentality, I headed to my local grocery store to pick up the ingredients for recipes I had selected (based on the pictures of course) to tackle.

Heart of the Artichoke is organized into menus, each comprised of three recipes. I accepted the challenge of menu eight (pg 117) “The Promise of Old Bread” which was made up of Halibut Crudo with Lemon Oil, Layered Tomato and Bread Salad, and Fresh Peach Ice Cream. Although the menu was inspired by the days when bread was never wasted and people had to come up with edible ways to use their old, stale bread, now-a-days stale bread is hard to come by (unless I accidentally forget that I put a loaf in the cupboard). So I settled for a semi-hard baguette with cranberries in it, it was the best I could do. After hunting down the rest of my fresh ingredients I headed back home to my kitchen.

Warning: although purchasing ultra fresh ingredients can make or break your meal, they can be a tad on the pricey side, especially when fish or meat is involved.

Layered Tomato and Bread Salad

This dish takes a bit of forethought and a lot of chopping, but in the end the payoff is definitely worth it. Simple to make, it’s basically bruschetta in a bowl, but yummier. After giving your wrist a workout prepping the veggies and exercising my patience waiting for the flavors to saturate, the salad was a hit. It even tasted great as leftovers the next day (if you don’t mind a bit of soggy bread, that is).

Halibut Crudo with Lemon Oil

I’m not embarrassed, or at least only slightly embarrassed, to admit I had no idea “crudo” meant raw in Italian (in Spanish as well). I had unexpectedly stumbled into my first attempt as sushi. Retrospectively, I am glad I had splurged for the super fresh halibut filets at the market. The dish turned out to exceed my expectations; it was delicious. I did discover that the trick is to slice the filet as thin as humanly possible so make sure you have a sharp knife handy, as well as band-aids.

Fresh Peach Ice Cream

Unfortunately I didn’t own an ice cream freezer as the recipe called for, so my dessert turned into “fresh” peach ice cream. Despite the fact that I served ice cream from a tub and peaches from a can, the dish was still a hit. But really, who can go wrong with ice cream? Unless your lactose intolerant, but then I’m sure there’s a slightly less flavorful lactose-free ice cream.

Overall, I felt that the simplicity of the recipes and the stories behind the menus are what make this cookbook. "I do believe that the simplest food is the best food. And I'm also passionate about seasonal cooking because I think that food tastes best when in season...” said Tanis. I really felt as though I could appreciate his passion for fresh ingredients when cooking his recipes.

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