Written for Edible Santa Barbara – Winter 2019
In David Tanis’ book, A Platter of Figs and Other Recipes he prefaces the recipes in a chapter entitled North African Comfort Food with the following passage “What a strange idea: "comfort food." Isn't every food comforting in its own way! Why are certain foods disqualified? Can't fancy food be soothing in the same way as granny food?” Must it always be about loaded memories, like Proust's madeleine? Or can it be merely quirky, like M. F. K. Fisher's tangerine ritual: she dried them on a radiator, then cooled them on her Paris windowsill … Comfort food—food that reassures—is different things to different people.”
His menu, which includes a carrot and coriander salad and chicken tagine, draws an unexpected savory parallel to the very foods I call ‘comfort food’, namely a carrot soup and roast chicken with assorted trimmings. The two sets of very similar ingredients produce two different flavor profiles, each conjuring up its own emotional response. I surmised, after reading this and conducting a little survey, that in fact all food is emotional, to a greater or lesser extent, eliciting comfort from one person but not necessarily from all.
My quick, un-scientific survey, more along the lines of an email with one question to assorted friends; “If I say ‘comfort food’, I wrote, ‘what is the first thing that comes to mind?’, produced replies that I had anticipated with something starchy, rib-sticking or sweet: soups were high on the list from Matzoh ball to chowder, mashed potatoes appeared to be the firm favorite, and stews and roast chicken were mentioned by many, but so too were porridge, French fries, toast crusts, perfectly ripe peaches, a basket of figs, cake and a cup of tea.
I decided to go for a walk to ponder this further. I often do this when I write, it helps me clarify my thoughts and pull the thread of my narrative together. It was a beautifully crisp, cool morning, one that necessitated a jacket (more on this in a moment) and light scarf. My dog jumped at the chance to romp around the bluffs as I meandered through the trees overlooking the ocean. Thin wisps of clouds drifted on the horizon, and a brave paddle boarder glided across the silken sea below us. I thought about comfort, the food related to it and what it meant to me.
A series of images came to mind, all linked, oddly, to walks and the meals that followed. As a child, growing up in London, my family had a penchant for taking long walks across Hampstead Heath, often in bitter, damp weather. After an hour or two we would adjourn to Louis’ bakery where we’d slough off our steaming coats, rubbing our chapped hands together to get circulation going and order lashings of tea, cream filled meringues and cake. On other occasions we’d play, with two large teams of friends, an elaborate game of hide and seek in Highgate Cemetery between the Victorian monuments and the graves of Karl Marx and George Eliot in freezing fog. Afterwards we would pile in the cars, scurry home, pull off layer after layer of coats, sweaters, toe-off muddy boots and all sit down to a giant nosh-up of roast chicken, spuds and vegetables. My family in France was no different when it came to walks followed by food, in clement weather or foul. We hiked up mountains so that we could eat a picnic sitting on top with a baguette, fromage, jambon in hand; we’d tromp though the snow, freeze our toes only to rush back, thaw out and truly savor my grandmother’s hachis parmentier (French Shephard’s pie). We’d walk through alpine valleys, pink cheeked, our feet crunching on frost covered lanes, only to return, peel off our winter garments, and delight in the ooey-gooey running cheese that melted in golden puddles off the raclette machine.
An obvious theme emerged as I circumnavigated the path along the bluff. For me the notion of comfort food meant walks, weather cold enough that it required a jacket, followed by nourishing food. The mild climate in Southern California has made me wistful for those crisp mornings where a trace of your breath lingers in the air. I realized that I missed frosty days and pulling on warm sweaters, curling up by a fire to read a book, thawing out after running errands outdoors with a glass of spiced, mulled wine or warm apple cider. I mentioned my winter musings to a friend in London. “Are you completely bloody mad?” she said. “You really want to be constantly damp, bone chillingly cold, surrounded by a sniffling populous?” Well, when you look at it that way, perhaps not. All of which leads me back to the notion that comfort food is more about the people you shared that dish with, and the environment that enveloped you.
The comfort we find in these familiar dishes is like watching a sepia colored home movie. We may laugh out loud, reliving the antics on the flickering screen, whilst a bystander would be bemused. Comfort food is personal, so personal it can be a little like marmite (a yeast spread from Britain). If you grew up with it, marmite on toast is pretty fantastic. If you didn’t, it can be repellent. Each of us has our own comfort foods that are uniquely satisfying. While I may not rush at a plate piled high with kidneys on toast, I know those who would. The common denominator is the visceral satisfaction and pleasure we all derive from our particular comfort food, and the ability to share it.
As acclaimed chef Heston Blumenthal said, “To me, food is as much about the moment, the occasion, the location and the company as it is about the taste.”
Carrot and Leek Soup with Zesty Shallots
My lovely mum made fresh soup almost every day when I was a little girl. We delighted in those big batches of puréed vegetable soups and moped up the last remnants in our bowls with big chunks of bread. I have been a big fan of soups ever since. One of my favorites was, and is to this day, carrot soup. This version has leeks in it which add a silky texture and deepen the sweetness of the carrots. I like to make this if the weather is chilly or perhaps it’s been gray outside for weeks. This soup brings a ray of sunshine and warmth into the kitchen, and warms your tummy.
Serves 8 people
3-4 leeks — halved lengthwise, rinsed clean and finely sliced
1 large yellow onion — peeled, halved and thinly sliced
1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves
2 ½ lbs carrots — peeled and sliced
½ teaspoon of salt
8-10 grinds fresh black pepper
8 cups vegetable stock
6 shallots — peeled and sliced
2 tablespoons chives — finely chopped
Zest and juice of 1 lemon
Heat olive oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add the leeks, onion and thyme and cook, stirring frequently, until the vegetables are soft and lightly browned. 8-10 minutes.
Add the carrots, salt and pepper and cook for 5 minutes. Stir occasionally to ensure that the vegetables do not stick.
Add the vegetable stock, reduce heat and simmer for 20 minutes or until the carrots are soft.
Remove from the heat and purée the soup in batches in a food processor or blender or with an immersion until smooth. Return the puréed soup to the saucepan and keep warm until ready to serve.
Just before serving, prepare the shallots. Warm a little olive oil in a small saucepan or skillet over medium heat. Add the shallots and sauté until golden brown. Add the chives, lemon zest and juice, and cook for 30 seconds more.
Top each bowl of soup with a spoonful of the shallot mixture.
There are few dishes that evoke comfort food like roast chicken and mashed potatoes. Is it something about the golden roast, the succulent aroma that permeates the kitchen as it sizzles in the oven? Or the cloud like, buttery, soft mounds of creamy spuds? My grandmother made mashed potatoes with obscene amounts of butter and crème fraiche. It was like diving into a decadent, edible, cozy blanket, the taste so good it enveloped you. I rarely make mashed potatoes now, when I do, and make this combination, it always puts a smile on my face and makes me think of her.
Serves 8 people
Leaves from 6 sprigs thyme – finely chopped
1 bunch chives – finely chopped
1 small bunch parsley – finely chopped
Leaves from 6 sprigs oregano — finely chopped
Zest of 2 lemons – then quarter the zested lemons and set aside
2 organic chickens (3.5-4lbs each)
2 large yellow onions — peeled and thinly sliced
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
Pour 3 tablespoons olive oil into a small bowl. Add the thyme, chives, parsley, oregano and lemon zest. Combine well to form a thick herb mixture.
Using a small spoon which you slip under the skin of the chicken from the neck end, carefully spoon a little of the herb mixture under all of the skin (between and skin and the breast meat) Do this carefully so as not to break the skin.
Pour a little olive oil into a large roasting pan and scatter the sliced onions in the pan. Place the chickens on top of the onions and rub the outside of the chickens with a little olive oil. Salt the inside and outside of the chicken. Place 4 lemon quarters in each chicken cavity. Add 7-8 grinds of fresh black pepper over the birds.
Roast in the middle of the oven for 15 minutes and then lower the temperature to 375 degrees and roast for a further 1hr 15 minutes, turning the chickens once or twice so that all sides are evenly browned. When the chickens are cooked, remove them from the roasting pan and set aside to rest before carving, loosely covered with foil.
Cut the chickens and serve on hot plates with the onions from the roasting pan, the root vegetables and mashed potatoes.
Mashed Spuds with Crème Fraîche
Serves 8 people
2 lbs Yukon golds or russets — peeled and cubed
Coarse sea salt
7 oz butter — softened
1 cup milk
4 oz crème fraîche
Place the potatoes in a large saucepan of salted, cold water. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a strong simmer. Cook the potatoes until they are fork tender. Drain the potatoes, return them to the saucepan and let them release their steam for 1-2 minutes. Transfer them to a large bowl.
Pass the potatoes through a ricer and return them to the saucepan. Add the butter, milk and crème fraiche and stir until fully incorporated and the potatoes are fluffy and creamy. Season to taste. Serve immediately.
Roasted Root Vegetables
Winter is root vegetable season. I like to think of it as the time when the earth digs deep, searching for nourishment and as a result of all that hard work produces delicious vegetables, rich in minerals and with a wonderful array of flavors.
My current favorite, parsnips, are delicious when roasted as they tend to caramelize on the outside but remain tender on the inside. They are also versatile. They add an extra dimension pureed with potatoes, added in soups they bring an extra earthiness in flavor and texture to the mixture and in a ragout of vegetables they will enhance the complexity of the dish. Serve this alongside the roasted chicken and it is a scrumptious way to showcase one of the season’s most delicious – if somewhat overlooked – vegetables.
Serves 8 people as a large side dish
3 large parsnips – peeled, quartered and then cut into 3 inch long strips
1 butternut squash – halved, peeled, seeded and cut into pieces the size of the parsnip strips
1 lb carrots – peeled, quartered and then and cut in half
2- 3 red onions – peeled and cut into eighths
10-12 shallots – peeled and cut into quarters
2 inch piece of ginger – peeled and roughly chopped
5-6 sprigs fresh thyme
1 tablespoon herbes de Provence
1 teaspoon coarse sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
Place all the prepared vegetables on a baking sheet. Pour the olive oil over the vegetables and sprinkle them with the herbes de Provence, fresh thyme, the sea salt and some black pepper. Toss all the vegetables so that they are well coated.
Roast the vegetables for one hour turning the vegetables once or twice so that they do not stick to the pan.
I cannot think about winter without thinking about apple crumble. More particularly the apple crumbles my mother taught me to make as a child in London. The recipe was handed down to her by my father’s mother, Ilse. If ever there was a dish to warm you up on a winter’s day this is it. In those days we would go for great long walks across London’s parks, returning home with chilled fingers and toes and everything else in between. A hot cup of tea and apple crumble would instantly thaw us out and we would delight in the crumbles’ spices and buttery crust. Coastal California may not be as cold or damp, but the pleasure we derive from this dessert is undiminished.
Serves 8 people
For the apples:
6-8 large apples – peeled, cored and chopped into 1-inch pieces
Zest and juice of 1 lemon
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/3 cup raisins
¼ cup sugar
1/3 cup water
For the crumble:
10 oz unbleached all-purpose flour
9 oz butter – cut into little pieces
1/3 cup sugar
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
Place all the apple ingredients in a deep baking dish (at least 1 ½ inches deep and 9-10 inches in diameter) and toss to combine them well.
To make the crumble, place the flour in a large bowl. Add 8oz of the butter and mix it with the flour, using the tips of your fingers, until it resembles coarse breadcrumbs. Don’t worry if you have little lumps of butter left – it should look like that! Add the sugar and mix to combine. Cover the apples with the crumble mixture. Sprinkle a little extra cinnamon and sugar over the crumble. Dot the surface with the remaining butter. Bake in the center of the oven for 40 minutes or until golden brown. Serve with vanilla ice cream or a dollop of crème fraiche, or both!
Written for Edible Santa Barbara - Spring 2019
Twenty years ago, not long after I moved to Santa Barbara, I toyed with, well actually seriously contemplated, wading into the turbulent waters of restaurant ownership. I blithely envisioned a chic bistro, complete with Chez Panissesque daily changing menus, yet the more I analyzed this potential venture and the enormous commitment it would take, the more I realized, sadly, that it was not to be. So, if not a restaurant, I chose to do, what was for me, the next best thing. Teaching people how to cook. Ideally, as though friends were coming over to dinner we would all cook together and the menu would change with every class. Little did I know what this would lead to! Now, after two decades, hundreds and hundreds of events and classes, and eight cookbooks later, I can see, in the catalogs of menus in my office, the evolution of my cooking, my tastes and what has become my food. What struck me the most as I leafed through the pages was the very real sense of terroir that the recipes reflected.
From the French word terre (earth), meaning ‘from the earth’ or ‘a sense of place’, terroir also imbues that which grows, and is cultivated in a particular region with distinctive characteristics. Like a wave rippling out from its epicenter, I saw that my culinary repertoire had expanded from the lush green fields of Normandie and the planes of Provence, to all the shores of the Mediterranean, lapping up the scented and earthy foods of the Maghreb and the fragrant, perfumed palettes of Levantine and Ottoman cooking, and to gastronomic forays into the spice infused foods of the Indian subcontinent, and herb filled delicacies of South East Asia. All this from seasonal explorations of farmer’s markets across Europe to those I found here in California.
Nourished by these forays, I discovered foods I had never tasted before: daikon and watermelon radishes, Thai basil and fresh Za’atar, Chinese long beans and sprouted black eyed peas, microgreens and blistered almonds, Jerusalem artichokes and Romanesco broccoli, tomatillos and jicama, Meyer lemons, pluots and apriums to name but a few; vegetables, fruit, herbs and spices that reflected the myriad communities and migrant farmers that nurtured and cultivated the land around us.
The farmers I have come to know locally come from Ojai, Los Alamos and the Central Valley and as far away as Mexico, Laos and Thailand. Collectively they farm the rich soil in fields and valleys dotted throughout this county, and plant their heritage into the ground. From their roots, I now understand, the food I cook has literally changed to encompass my new terroir. I realized, with a deep sense of gratitude, that I had put down my own roots, tapping into their extraordinary bounty. If Brillat-Savarin, now said to me ‘Tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are,’ he would find a French-Mediterranean-Californian hybrid, delighting in the cross-cultural mélange of produce that I pick up at the market every week. Over time this food has changed me and the way I cook.
The very first class I taught, in the Spring of 1999, was classic French cuisine, a combination of Provencal staples and dishes I grew up with. My French bistro ideal channeled into the food I showed people how to make. Individual onion tarts with a fresh garden herb salad, followed by stuffed filet mignons with Roquefort and rosemary, served with braised endives, and for dessert an apricot clafoutis. I felt at home in this cuisine and transplanted it to the American Riviera. In my first decade of teaching nearly every menu included beef or lamb or pork, salmon, trout or seabass, centered around regional French and Italian cooking, with the odd excursion into Spanish delicacies. In the Spring of 2009, I penned a story for the inaugural issue of Edible Santa Barbara about a different culinary journey, one taken through a spring garden, trumpeting the delights of (and providing the recipes for) asparagus, both green and white, fava beans and pastoral lamb. Re-reading this, a decade later, I can see that this was the turning point, the start of a more vegetable based cooking. I rarely taught a vegetarian class before then. Oh, how that has changed! Now, more often than not, the meals I prepare, teach and write about are often plant based, celebrating and reveling in the colorful, succulent array of produce found in our near-daily farmers markets.
Much to my chagrin I have tried and failed to grow vegetables. I can just about manage herbs. Every time I see farmers picking crops as I crisscross the countryside, I send out a silent prayer of gratitude for their skills and look forward to discovering new varieties of vegetables and fruit as I walk through their farm stands. They have nourished my imagination, and in turn my recipes. Who knew, for example, that cauliflower, tomatoes, beets, radishes and carrots come in a palette of rainbow-like colors with nuances in texture and flavor? I never saw them when I first came to California, now they are showcased in local restaurants up and down the coast, and splashed across food media. Lest I thought this was California foodie phenomenon, I was surprised, pleasantly so, when on my last trip back to Provence, to find some of the very same vegetables being grown there. Food trends it seems are quickly transcontinental. I decided to make what my French cousin referred to as ‘Californian food’ showcasing these fruits and vegetables. I had a distinct sensation that the ripple effect of my culinary migrations had come full circle, cooking Provencale-Mediterranean food, albeit with a new West Coast twist. I made them a donut peach salad with feta and lemon basil, slow roasted citrus salmon with heirloom tomatoes, and a salad of shaved asparagus with endives. The ingredients were familiar to them, the combinations new.
Some things never change though. My mantra has always been eat with the seasons and eat local. That Spring, in markets on both sides of the Atlantic, I found apricots, the one fruit that is for me the harbinger of the season. As soon as I saw them, I made, as I do every year, an apricot clafoutis. I await the first harvest this year with great anticipation, although who knows, perhaps I’ll make a cherry-apricot-pluot version, a new twist on a classic.
Arugula, Radish, Date and Pistachio Salad
I had a little radish frenzy at the market recently. I found some long, tapered radishes and was captivated by their shapes and hues. One variety was called Cincinnati Red, another, pale cream in color, was a type of Japanese radish, akin to a thin daikon. There were also some stunning watermelon radishes and I piled some of them into my basket as well. Once home, I chopped and sliced and peeled them every which way, a delightful confetti of radish curls and ‘petals’ falling on my kitchen table. The ‘roses’ came about as I played with my food! They were so pretty that I had to make a salad with them, showcasing all their peppery delights.
Serves 8 people
For the salad:
8 oz baby arugula
4-5 long radishes, sometimes known as Japanese radishes, they can be white or red, peeled lengthwise to create long thin strips
3 medium-sized watermelon radishes — peeled and then very thinly sliced, on a mandolin if possible, creating thin ‘petal-like’ slices
8 medjool dates — cut into small piece
1/3 cup pistachios
For the vinaigrette:
¼ cup basil olive oil
1 ½ tablespoons balsamic vinegar (flavored with pomegranates if possible) otherwise a good aged balsamic will work too
Pinch of coarse sea salt
4-5 grinds black pepper
1. Place the arugula in a medium-sized salad bowl.
2. Roll up half the radish strips so they resemble rose buds that are just opening and nestle them into the arugula. Roll up the remaining radish strips in the same fashion and then wrap them with overlapping slices of watermelon radish ‘petals’. Nestle each radish ‘rose’ in the arugula. (Nestling them helps them stay together.)
3. Sprinkle the date pieces and pistachios over the salad.
4. In a small bowl whisk together all the vinaigrette ingredients to form an emulsion. When ready to serve pour the vinaigrette over the salad and serve, taking care to keep the ‘roses’ whole.
Spring Pea, Fava Bean and Roasted Tomato Tart
When I re-read the recipes in my article for the Spring 2009 issue of Edible it included one for a spring pea and fava bean salad to be served alongside a rack of lamb. I am surprised to say that I cannot remember the last time I cooked lamb. Now, contemplating a spring dinner, I’d plum for a tart such as this one for the main course with its riot of spring peas that burst in your mouth.
Serves 8 people
For the tart shell:
9 oz (2 cups) unbleached all-purpose flour
5 ½ oz (11 tablespoons) butter — chilled, cut into small pieces
Zest of 1 lemon
1 large egg
Pinch of salt
For the filling:
2 teaspoons Herbes de Provence
½ pint cherry tomatoes
2 shallots — peeled, halved and thinly sliced
½ lb snap peas — cut on a bias
1 lb fava beans
½ lb shelled English peas
½ cup Greek yogurt
2 oz feta cheese – crumbled
½ cup ricotta
Pinch of salt
4-5 grinds pepper
1 tablespoon finely chopped chives
½ cup small mint leaves
1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees and butter a 12-inch tart pan with a removable bottom.
2. Place all the ingredients in the bowl of the food processor fitted with the metal blade. Pulse until the mixture resembles coarse breadcrumbs. Use longer pulses until the dough forms a ball. Wrap the dough in plastic wrap and refrigerate for 20 minutes. (You can make the dough ahead of time and remove it from the fridge approximately 20 minutes before using.) On a lightly floured board, roll out the dough to a 14-inch circle. Line the tart pan with the dough. Trim the edges with a sharp knife and then prick the dough with a fork. Cut a hole in the center by running a sharp knife around the edge of a water glass. Remove the circle of dough and reserve for another use. (Note: I love the touch of whimsy, but you can just as easily make the tart without the cut out.
3. Line the dough with parchment paper and fill with pie weights or dried beans.
4. Bake the tart shell for 15 minutes until it is a pale golden color, then carefully remove the parchment paper and weights. Return the tart to the oven and bake for 10 minutes more until golden brown. Remove the tart shell from the oven and let cool on a wire rack.
5. Place the cherry tomatoes in a small oven proof dish. Drizzle with olive oil, add a pinch of salt, a little pepper and the Herbes de Provence. Shake the pan back and forth a few times to coat the tomatoes. Place in the same oven as the tart dough. Roast for 30 minutes. Remove from the oven and leave in the pan.
6. Shell the fava beans. Slit open the pods and remove the beans. Boil them in heavily salted water for 1 minute. Drain and immediately plunge the beans into a bowl of ice water to stop the cooking and set the bright color. Tear the tough skin at the rounded end and squeeze out the bean.
7. Heat a little oil in a medium skillet. Sauté the shallots for 3-4 minutes, stirring frequently. Add the snap peas, a pinch of salt and some pepper and cook for 2-3 minutes. Finally, add the fava beans and English peas and cook 2 minutes. Remove from the heat.
8. In a small bowl, using a fork, mix together the yogurt, feta, ricotta, pinch of salt, black pepper and chives.
9. Place the cooked tart shell on a platter. Spread the yogurt-feta mixture over the tart base. Layer the pea-fava bean mixture on top. Dot with the tomatoes and tuck the mint leaves in amongst the peas. Serve warm.
Stone Fruit Clafoutis
If there is one fruit that heralds Spring for me, it’s an apricot. This is the first dish I make when I spy these beautiful golden orbs at the market. This dessert is like a rich, creamy pudding. If there’s any left it’s fantastic, served alongside a cup of coffee, for breakfast too!
Note: It’s also scrumptious made with cherries or a mix of any stone fruit.
Serves 8 people
3 cups milk
8 oz sugar (1 and 1/8 cups)
1 vanilla bean split lengthwise or 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
3 oz unbleached all-purpose flour (2/3 cup)
5 large eggs
1 lb cherries or nectarines — cherries pitted and/or nectarines quartered and pitted
1 lb apricots — quartered and pitted
Zest of 2 lemons
Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
1. In a medium sized saucepan heat the milk with the sugar and the vanilla bean or vanilla extract. Stir until the sugar has completely dissolved. Remove from the heat.
2. Place the flour in a large bowl and then vigorously whisk in one egg at a time. You should have a completely smooth batter. Slowly whisk in the warm milk mixture. The batter will be very liquid and should be free of any lumps.
3. Place the fruit in a shallow (1-inch deep) 12-inch round or oval baking dish. Place the fruit-filled dishes on a baking sheet. Pour the batter over the fruit.
4. Place in the center of the oven and bake for 40-45 minutes. The clafoutis is done when you giggle the pan and it is set. The top should appear golden brown. Serve at room temperature.