“Simple food is the best food,” says David Tanis. Making the dough for an onion and bacon tart, he stirs dry yeast into water with chopsticks. Why not use a wooden spoon? It’ll be less sticky without the broad surface–a simple but useful tip. As the mixture thickens, he scoops his hands into the bowl. “I like to touch it,” he says, working his thick fingers into the dough. Tanis could have any fancy kitchen equipment he might want, and yet he prefers simple methods and tools. He dislikes the distraction of machines whirring. That’s music to my ears since I’m still holding out from buying a stand-up mixer.
Minutes after rolling out the dough, the onion and bacon tart is served. “The magic of television,” he jokes, as students in the culinary arts program at Boston University distribute wedges. The crust is crisp and chewy, while the toppings are tangy and salty. In short, a savory tart that’s remarkably flavorful and easy to make.
I met Tanis during the tour for his new book, David Tanis Market Cooking: Recipes and Revelations Ingredient by Ingredient.
His column in the New York Times food section is a regular part of my weekly diet of reading. Tanis worked for years as a chef with Alice Waters at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California, and at Café Escalera in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He also operated a supper club when he lived in Paris.
“Delicious food doesn’t have to be complicated,” Tanis says. The recipes reflect his penchant for simplicity. They have a manageable number of ingredients and generally require only basic kitchen tools. Color photographs by Evan Sung enhance the book’s appeal and power to instruct.
David Tanis Market Cooking takes an unconventional approach. The first chapter pays homage to alliums (garlics, onions, leeks, shallots, scallions). “These workhorses of the kitchen, so often taken for granted, can and should be appreciated in their own right,” he writes. Recipes follow for Spanish garlic toast, roasted chicken legs with 40 cloves of garlic, and garlicky soups. His fondness for garlic reminds me of Provence where it’s featured prominently at the markets and in many traditional dishes (sometimes referred to as “the poor man’s truffle”).
Another factor that sets this cookbook apart is that there’s only one dessert recipe: an open-faced apple tart. It’s tucked into the final chapter, “Lingering at the Table.” While that’s an unusual choice as most cookbooks go, I’m not disappointed because a rustic fruit tart is really all you need to top off any meal. Tanis demonstrates how to fan out the apple slices and create a caramelized glaze. He recommends saving the peelings and adding them to the sauce to deepen the apple tart’s color and flavor. Another simple but useful pointer.
The main section of the book features vegetables. There are a few meat and seafood dishes thrown in, such as flank steak with salsa verde, and Mediterranean-style shrimp with tomatoes and feta. But Tanis clearly prefers vegetables. “I was a strange kid,” he admits. “I always asked my mother to make creamed spinach.” Lucky for us, that childhood strangeness, because he has made it his vocation to share recipes that let the deliciousness of vegetables shine forth.
His recipe notes often include ways to switch-up ingredients to create variations in flavor and cultural references. Take the onion tart, for example. Make it with chunks of bacon for an Alsatian-style flammeküche or tarte flambée as the French call it. Substitute goat cheese, add thyme and olives, and suddenly you’ve got a Provençal version.
In addition to the book’s emphasis on simplicity, I appreciate that Tanis celebrates market cooking. He defines it as “go to the market, see what looks best, and then decide what will go on the menu.” In other words, let fresh ingredients provide the inspiration.
I asked him which markets in Paris were his favorites when he lived there. He rattled off Bastille, Maubert, Aligre, and Place Monge. More recently he’s had good experiences at Le Marché Président Wilson. “I make a quick pass through the market before deciding what to buy. I don’t get distracted by the first display of beautiful strawberries.” Another delicious morsel of advice.