Now that we’re several months into our Cookbook Club, we know well what it is to ride the waves of hope and disappointment that come with new titles. Many of the current crop of books we’ve received were written by restaurant chefs, and the recipes within generally mimic the restaurant dishes almost exactly—meaning that their baroque preparations are only manageable if you have a team of sous-chefs backing you up. Why is it that so few professionals seem to grasp that there is a difference between what they can do in a restaurant kitchen and what one can realistically pull off at home?
One chef who does have this kind of clarity is David Tanis, of Chez Panisse, in Berkeley, California, perhaps because he spends only six months of each year at the restaurant. He passes the rest of his time cooking for friends in the small galley kitchen in his apartment in Paris, making do with a few pots and pans and a marginal stove. We were delighted, then, to discover that his cookbook, A Platter of Figs and Other Recipes (Artisan; 304 pages; $35), is truly devoted to cooking and entertaining at home. His approach is so understated and thoughtful that it might be lost on someone looking for culinary fireworks.
Some recipes, such as the one for roasted wild salmon, might strike you as startlingly spare—Tanis lets the ingredients speak for themselves—but pay attention to the gestalt of the menus, organized by season, to get a sense of his gift for putting a meal together. Take his Yellow Hunger dinner: Summer-squash salad with ricotta salata is just the right blend of savory and rich to preface smoky Indian-spiced halibut with thick yogurt sauce and tangy-sweet tomatoes, and peaches macerated in wine is precisely the sort of gentleness your palate will crave afterward. And Tanis shows his chops as an expert host by explaining just how much can be made ahead of time; all you have to do as guests arrive is toss the salad, arrange it on a platter, and grill the fish. Though the recipes can easily be halved, entertaining-phobes should note that following them as they’re written, thus serving eight to ten, asks no more of you than if you were cooking for just a few people. And yet a certain osmosis occurs: You’ll absorb the author’s generosity in the kitchen, and that will serve you, and your guests, very well.