As a former chef at the legendary Chez Panisse, David Tanis was an expert at choreographing sumptuous meals that built from course to course. It’s a perspective he used to great effect in his first two books, A Platter of Figs and Other Dishes and Heart of the Artichoke and Other Kitchen Journeys, the latter of which was nominated for a James Beard Award.
Since he moved to New York City and began writing the approachable City Kitchen column for The New York Times, Tanis has become less locked into a menu-driven method. He wants more people to join him in the kitchen, even if just for a few minutes, to make meals that are as simple to create as they are rewarding to consume.
“I’m at a point where I want to encourage people to cook at home,” says Tanis, who was prepping on Tuesday for a fundraising dinner event for the Edible Schoolyard Project—the signature charity of Chez Panisse founder Alice Waters. “Although Figs and Artichokes have a lot of followers, some people find books like that intimidating. It’s terrible that people feel like they can’t cook a good, simple meal. There’s got to be a better way to eat than getting a lousy pizza, right?”
His new book, One Good Dish: The Pleasures of a Simple Meal (Artisan Books), is so appealingly accessible that it’s tough to settle on which recipe to make first. My first choice was Griddled Polenta Scrapple, a deeply flavored twist on the Pennsylvania Dutch staple, and a side of Just-Wilted Arugula, the latter of which took about 45 seconds to cook. (See recipes below.)
“One aspect of the book is to make the recipes very simple, very user-friendly and doable,” says Tanis, who will launch a three-week promotional tour on Thursday with a lunch event at The Fearrington Granary. “Good, healthy food does not have to be complicated.”
While Tanis is no fan of the 30-minute-meal concept — a message heavily marketed in food shows and trendy cookbooks that advocates doctoring processed ingredients to create family-friendly dinners — he agrees that it’s not necessary to spend hours at the stove.
“Part of the experience of eating is the process of cooking, but sometimes that can be achieved in minutes,” says Tanis, who makes the act of preparing Real Garlic Toast sound positively rapturous. “There’s something about being alone in the kitchen at the end of the day that’s really nice. People should allow themselves 15 minutes, or 30 minutes, to make something they can linger over and really enjoy eating.”
Tanis also suggests that diners be willing to experiment and view ingredients in a new way. The Just-Wilted Arugula is a perfect example of using a common cold salad component to create a delicious hot side dish.
“Some of the best meals are accidental ones,” he says, describing how peak summer tomatoes inspired many satisfying dinners in recent months. “You can make a meal out of many of these dishes, or have a few together. It’s sort of like modern picnicking.”
Excerpted from ONE GOOD DISH by David Tanis (Artisan Books). Copyright 2013. Photographs by Andrea Gentl and Marty Hyers.
Scrapple, a traditional Pennsylvania Dutch favorite, is a meaty griddled breakfast dish still featured on menus throughout the mid-Atlantic states. I’m a fan, but I’ve come up with my own variation that’s a little bit Italian (not that any real Italian would ever make it). You start with well-seasoned hot fennel sausage (you can make a small batch for this recipe or buy a good-quality Italian sausage), crumbled and lightly fried, and a pot of cooked polenta. Stir them together, and pour into a pie plate to cool. You want to let the whole thing firm up, so do it a day or two in advance. Then cook thick wedges in olive oil until browned and crisp. Good for breakfast, lunch, or supper, and especially nice with a garlicky radicchio salad.
Bring the water to a boil in a large heavy saucepan. Add 2 teaspoons salt. Whisk in the polenta and stir well. After a minute or two, when the polenta has thickened a bit, reduce the heat to low and let cook gently, stirring occasionally, for about 45 minutes, until the grains have swollen and no raw cornmeal taste remains. (If the polenta gets too dry, add a little more water from time to time.)
Meanwhile, cook the sausage: Heat a wide skillet over medium-high heat. Add the sausage meat (casings removed) and let it brown, using a spatula to crumble it into rough pieces, until cooked through, about 5 minutes. Set aside at room temperature while the polenta finishes cooking.
When the polenta is done, add the sausage, along with the rosemary and Parmesan, stirring well to combine. Taste a spoonful of the mixture (let it cool first, so you don’t burn your mouth), then adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper. Spread the mixture onto a lightly oiled baking sheet or pie pan (use olive oil) to a depth of ¾ inch. Cool until a skin forms on top, then cover with plastic wrap and let firm up in the refrigerator, preferably overnight.
Heat a large cast-iron griddle or skillet over medium-high heat. Add a thin layer of olive oil. Cut the scrapple into wedges and dust lightly with flour on both sides. Put the wedges “skin” side down on the griddle. Cook gently until nicely browned and crisp, 4-5 minutes, then flip and cook on the other side.
We think of tender young arugula, with its peppery flavor, as a salad green, which of course it is. Larger-leafed bunches, however, are perfect for cooking. When it is wilted quickly, just as you would treat tender spinach, arugula’s characteristic nutty flavor comes through but its sharpness is softened. It takes seconds, not minutes. Use cooked arugula as an easy and delicious side dish, or add it to pasta dishes at the last minute.
Heat the olive oil in a wide skillet over medium-high heat. Add the garlic and let is sizzle for about 15 seconds without browning. Toss the leaves into the pan, and salt and pepper, and cook, stirring, until just wilted, 30 to 40 seconds.