Thursday, May 07, 2009

Platter of Figs: Going back into the bat cave

I'm a sucker for cookbook recommendations, and this list would be more tempting and problematic but for the appearance of Platter of Figs, which makes me inclined to dismiss all of her other tips.

A few months ago, I cooked every dish in the "winter" section of Platter of Figs except the persimmon pudding. Expectations were high for this elegant, much-praised book. Results: stunningly mediocre. Only two dishes (celery root remoulade, octopus salad) would I go out of my way to make again, and the food that didn't work out was not just meh, it was, in some cases, curiously hateful.
One of my darker theories is that David Tanis feels contempt for his bourgeois American audience and this book is his passive-aggressive way of delivering the message. Exhibit A: The menu featuring pig's ear salad and chilled prunes, which was even more revolting than it sounds.

On the other hand, it's both foolish and wrong to assume evil motives without powerful evidence, which I don't have. You can't cook at Chez Panisse for 20+ years without being a brilliant chef. Tanis may be a lovely man and culinary genius who simply wrote a lame cookbook. 
Also, to be fair, maybe winter isn't Tanis' season. I'm forcing myself to execute two spring menus before I can finish with this book. But which ones? These menus are punishingly expensive, strangely untempting, or both. I could mix and match dishes, but the whole volume is built around purportedly "harmonious" menus. As Alice Waters puts it, "each a little masterpiece."


Can't afford the lobster risotto. Ditto the veal with morels. I could do the "five spice duck with buttered turnips and fried ginger" except the starter calls for two pounds of fresh crab. Even one pound is too spendy. A side of wild salmon is out of the question. (I agree with Tanis that there are compelling environmental reasons not to buy farmed salmon, but then he makes one of those statements that drive me beserk: "Farmed salmon are as bland and flavorless as factory chicken." This, alas, is not true. The farmed salmon from Safeway is repellent, but I find the Atlantic farmed salmon from Whole Foods delicious, neither "bland" nor "flavorless," words that, incidentally, mean exactly the same thing. Food that is bad for the world does not always taste bad, though it would be convenient if it did; there should be a name for this fallacy.)
Anyway, this leaves me with the following two menus:

How to Cook a Rabbit
-spinach cake with herb salad
-mustard rabbit in the oven
-parsnips Epiphany-style
-apple tart

Can't get revved up for parsnips, unsure about spinach cake. But I'm okay with bunny; I'll just tell the kids it's chicken. No, no more fibbing. I'll tell them the truth, just won't expect them to eat it.

Supper of the Lamb
-warm asparagus vinaigrette
-shoulder of spring lamb with flageolet beans and olive relish
-rum baba with cardamom

This actually sounds amazing.

If these menus turn out beautifully, maybe I'll try one of the splurge menus. If they are innocuous or worse, I'm officially done with Platter of Figs.

I'm still not done with Wizenberg. I love A Homemade Life, especially after the funny dinner we cooked last night, which gets its own post. I got up too late to make the Dutch baby pancakes and I also want to make her custard-filled cornbread. 

After that: back to Tanis, however briefly.


  1. Ah! If only I had found this blog sooner, I never would have bought this book for my mother.

    My theory about "fresh, seasonal" recipes from "fresh seasonal" restaurants is that because they rely so heavily on the quality of the ingredients, they're really difficult to reproduce at home. The quality of the crab I can get at my local grocery store (even in DC, which supposedly has good seafood) is eons away from the types of seafood available to restaurants.

    Ditto with produce. There's no way I can spend the money on locally grown and harvested organic wild strawberries that appear on the menu at a place like Chez Panisse.

    This is actually why I usually don't use recipes when I'm cooking, and opt instead for working with what I have on hand.

  2. I ALWAYS assume evil motives, supporting data be damned. I feel it saves time.

    Custard filled cornbread? [ears prick up in interest]

  3. The lamb menu really does sound amazing. If it goes well, I would splurge on the lobster risotto. But that's just me. Or you could send me the recipe and I'll save you the trouble. I came to your blog on the Platter of Figs days so I'll look forward to the return.

  4. i think this whole platter of figs thing is just some kind of guilt trip spawned by wandering off into the land of chickens and bees.
    i say give it a quick shot, go with your initial instincts and move on to something you really want to cook and eat.
    alice waters runs a nice restaurant, is an established media goddess, but there's no reason to follow her errant disciples down misguided paths to dyspepsia and unwarranted expense.
    be true to thine own self, tipsy! that's why we're all here.

  5. I just found your blog and have been reading old posts about cookbooks I've investigated.

    Having checked "Platter of Figs" out of the Larkspur library, I made the salmon and accompanying cucumber salad a couple of weeks ago and loved the cucumber salad in particular. Did test two types of wild salmon against each other -- from W Foods and definitely preferred the more expensive (sadly). The shoulder of lamb and beans sounded delicious but the book was due before I could try it. I'll be curious to hear what you think.

    Another fun (and light) read for the burgeoning adventures with bees and chickens is "Made from Scratch" which made me want to start raising both in my too small yard!

  6. I think you need to add rabbits to your home zoo of bees and chickens. And then kill them in David Tanis' name and serve them for supper...

  7. It's interesting to see just how pervasive digital memory has become in our every day lives. It's like everytime I turn my head, I see something with a card slot or USB port, haha. I guess it makes sense though, considering how much more afforable memory has become as of late...

    Ahhh, who am I to complain. I can't get by a day without my R4 / R4i!

    (Submitted by Nintendo DS running [url=]R4i[/url] NextPost)

  8. I own both of Tanis' books and everything I made from it was at least ok. Never cooked whole menus, though. Always isolated dishes. What I like about those books (the second one has a recipe for braised cabbage that is my favorite) is that it reminds me that it's ok to serve just some fresh fruit for dessert. The roasted apples were a revelation for a person who's used to complicate things.