My wife used to be Somebody in the New York fine dining world. As for me, one of the only two jobs that's required my daily presence was as a French chef. But going out to dinner has pretty much disappeared from our lives.
Our 8.5-year-old is the major reason. She has homework now, and reading, and piano pieces to practice, and although she is the-best-girl-in-the-world, we feel the need to sit with her in the early evening, whip in hand, while she gets it all done. Then there's the bedtime ritual --- my wife delivers a nightly lecture called "Bore Me to Sleep." By then, it's nine o'clock. Two hours until Jon Stewart. Haul in a sitter, rush to a restaurant? I think not.
What's that? At a child-friendly hour, we could take the kid out with us? No, no, no and no. The Princess is in year four or five of a lycopene addiction so severe that her culinary parameters start at pasta and end at pizza --- no way is she going to sit in a real restaurant. And we tire of Sal's Pizza.
So we cook at home. Sometimes for others. Mostly for ourselves.
Few cookbooks are of much use to us. They're too fancy, too formal. They're too basic, too simple. They're too regional, too specialized.
David Tanis, in "Heart of the Artichoke," gets it just right. No shocker there: He's the half-time chef at Chez Panisse --- he lives in Paris the other six months --- and he's a great representative for Alice Waters. That is, his thing is first-class ingredients, served with one twist --- a spice you wouldn't have thought of, a vegetable others would ignore. The result is familiar and novel, which is très cool. To quote Ms. Waters: "David will give me a menu, and I'll imagine what it will taste like, and then it's nothing like what I imagined. That's the thrill to me."
Tanis is well-traveled, and his influences range wide: Mexico, South America, France, Vietnam, Sicily. Indeed, he's such a citizen of the world that our own cuisine is an acquired taste:
"When I cook American food, it's a little like when I conjure up my inner Italian or inner Spaniard --- it's a bit of a masquerade. If I crave American food, I have to go into my pretend-citizen mode. It's as if I'm doomed to travel the world in search of my real culture. It's not that I'm not American, it's that I grew up in Ohio, where there's no discernible regional cuisine --- unless you count funnel cakes. Owing to that particular geographical spot and era, I gained my knowledge of American cooking through other people's reminiscences. And the occasional foray into James Beard. There's something odd about having nostalgia for something I never really knew. It wasn't until I got out into the world that I learned about corn bread and gumbo, Indian pudding, chicken and dumplings, sweet pickles, and fried green tomatoes."
Appreciate the irony: His "American" dishes are more satisfying than those of many American cooks because our cuisine is a midlife enthusiasm. He's sifted and chosen well --- the recipes we like best are native-born, if not exactly unvarnished Americana.
And Tanis has sensible values that our can-do pragmatists would admire: "I'm a restaurant chef who has always preferred to cook at home." What is a home-cooked meal? Sometimes it's "a plate of potato salad and a beer," sometimes it's "much more than that." In this book, you get the range. First, it's divided into seasons. And then there are the secondary categories. "Cooking small" (meals when it's just you). "Medium" (menus for four to six people). And "large" (feasts for crowds).
Tanis has preferences, which he shares in a charming opening section. After a meal, he likes fruit. Cookies? Yes, "but not giant cookies, and not chocolate chip, and not oatmeal." He travels with key provisions, starting --- smartly --- with harissa. He craves a ham sandwich, with butter, on a baguette, in a French bar. (He also likes tripe and makes his own chorizo, which is where we part company.)
Some of his delightfully twisted recipes: fennel soup, zucchini pancakes, pork --- not veal --- scaloppini, fried fish with tarragon mayonnaise, broiled pineapple with rum. Many are shown with photographs you'd happily cut out and eat. (No wonder --- the photographer is Christopher Hirsheimer, half of the Canal House team.)