A few weeks ago, I got a tweet from Paul at Burp! Blog asking if I wanted to participate in a blogger junket--Chef David Tanis was going to be in town to promote his new cookbook, Heart of the Artichoke and Other Kitchen Journeys. I didn't have to give it too much thought. I said yes, and received details not long after that.
We gathered Roots, a fantastic restaurant in Milwaukee's Brewers Hill neighborhood. I've been a few times before, for a drink and for dinner in their cellar. Roots strives to cook with local, in-season ingredients and does a great job doing that.
In addition to Paul and I, there were three other local (between the Milwaukee and Madison areas): Othelia, who writes A World of Flavor; Anna, who writes Tallgrass Kitchen; and Neil, who writes Stream of Consciousness. I was at least a little familiar with each blogger's work, so it was fun to finally meet them in person.
To put it simply, meeting a chef who has done amazing work and who has worked with amazing people was pretty darn cool. Chef Tanis is co-chef at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, CA. When he's not working at the restaurant (which he does for six months out of the year), he's at his Paris apartment. There, he and his partner host dinner parties for random groups of people: tourists, locals, celebrities ... you name it. In addition to his newest cookbook, Chef Tanis wrote A Platter of Figs and Other Recipes.
Over the course of the lunch hour (a long lunch hour--about 2.5 hours!) the group talked about a lot of things, mostly food related of course! We talked about Milwaukee restaurants and options, local food, simple cooking, food photography, blogging, our day jobs, about Chef Tanis' experiences and his time in Paris and more. It was a wonderful conversation--it was great to not only talk to a real chef about these things, but also to other local people like myself who enjoy doing and eating the same things I do.
I took some notes while Chef Tanis was talking, and a few statements really stood out:
-When asked about his favorite recipe in the Artichoke cookbook, he said, "How can I pick just one? They're all my children." (I can't imagine picking just one favorite recipe; nonetheless one from my own cookbook!)
-"I don't cook so much with recipes, but go on instinct."
-About the cookbook: "I wanted this to be less than a manual of how to cook, but more of an inspirational book and have people think, 'I can cook that.'"
-"Seasonal cooking is the most normal thing in the world. When someone cooks something in season, it just tastes really good."
-The five (or so) cooking items he'd take to a deserted island: salt, pepper, garlic, lime, chile, olive oil, wine and tequila.
I think what stood out most for me throughout our conversation was just how important and easy it is to make delicious food when you use local and in-season products, and cook and bake them simply. I recently noticed this while making those Brussels sprouts for the first time. There's not much to them--just the sprouts (from a local farm), olive oil and salt--but that's why they're so good. Their natural flavors come out when made simply.
Of course, in between all the talking, there was eating! And I made sure to bring my camera to capture everything--I figured the other guests wouldn't mind.
While Roots isn't normally open for lunch during the week, they put a special menu together for us. I had a hard time deciding among all the excellent-sounding choices, but I eventually settled on a salad and a grilled cheese. Only this wasn't your traditional salad and grilled cheese. The salad was made from frisse greens, and included brandied cranberries, warm cheddar and filberts.
The grilled cheese contained three cheeses (sadly, I'm not sure which cheeses), a pear pickle, arugula and mushroom pate. And it came with homemade potato chips. I ate the whole darn thing it was so good!
After our lunch, I had to go shopping to get ingredients to make a dessert for a get-together I had the next night. Earlier in the day, I was tempted to just pick up a pre-made dessert from Outpost for the event. But, with a copy of the Artichoke cookbook in hand, I knew I couldn't do that, and I was inspired to make something from scratch.
I discovered the Artichoke cookbook contains a wonderful recipe for molasses pecan squares. Again, the recipe is so easy and straightforward, and the squares turned out wonderfully. Here is the recipe:
Molasses Pecan Squares
-8 tbs. (1 stick) butter, softened, plus more for buttering dish (I used cooking spray for this ... )
-1 cup packed dark brown sugar
-2 eggs separated
-2 tbs. molasses
-1/2 teas. vanilla extract
-1/2 cup all-purpose flour
-1 teas. baking powder
-1/2 teas. salt
-1/2 cup chopped pecans, plus a handful of whole pecans for topping
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Butter and flour 9-inch square baking dish. Cream the butter and sugar in a mixing bowl. Add the egg yolks, molasses and vanilla and beat well.
Sift flour with the baking powder and salt, and add to the mixing bowl, stirring well. Stir in the chopped pecans.
In another bowl, beat the egg whites until stiff. Gently fold them into the batter.
Spread batter in the dish, and sprinkle the whole pecans over the top. Bake for 35-40 minutes. Check for doneness with a kitchen knife. Cool in pan and cut into 3-inch squares.
All in all, it was a fantastic, delicious and inspiring day!