A friend of mine is a painter. Tim worked as a graphic designer/artist for many years. He is now in retirement mode and rented a studio so he can devote time for his love of painting. His paintings are abstracts. The compositions and the colors are fantastic. The paintings are mostly the same size, 12-inch squares.
He mentioned once that he would like to create work on bigger canvases, and I recently asked if he had done any yet. He hadn’t. He admitted there were some obstacles to getting started (how would he know how much paint to mix for the larger scale work?) I asked him why he wanted to paint bigger pieces and he told an interesting story.
When he was a young boy, he helped his father who was a mason, and his favorite job was applying tar. Tim was given a large brush to dip into the tar bucket, and he would swoop the tar onto the foundation walls. He loved the patterns he could make, and the freedom of those wide strokes. He was smiling as he told this story and said he hoped to translate that childhood feeling of freedom onto the canvas. I encouraged him to give those big pieces a go.
My husband was away on a fishing trip last month with a group of friends. While he was gone, his son Ryan asked if he and a friend, Laura, could cook with me one night. They also wanted to invite another couple for dinner. I love the company of younger people and we’ve had fun getting together in the past. I was looking forward to this evening.
We agreed to be guided by whatever showed up at the farmer’s market that morning. I had my eye on recipes from “State Bird Provisions,” a cookbook by chefs Stuart Brioza and Nicole Krasinski who met and worked at Tapawingo in Ellsworth, Michigan years ago. They went on to open award-winning restaurants in San Francisco. Their style riffs on classics in a very un-classic way with delicious results.
Laura and Ryan arrived three hours before the other guests; plenty of time to prepare food together. They brought lake trout from the Tribal Fisheries, tomatoes and basil from TLC, and burrata, a soft, unctuous cheese. I had greens, herbs, and rhubarb in my garden and purchased fresh mushrooms, asparagus, olives and bread. I could see the feast ahead but what surprised me was the creativity that emerged in our collaboration.
We warmed the olives in oil with fresh oregano, orange zest, coriander seed and other spices. We made a mushroom aioli, following the recipe in the cookbook, along with a recipe for rice-crusted trout; both game changers for me. The meal would start with a cocktail of rhubarb syrup and tequila, and end with a rhubarb cake and lemon verbena whipped cream.
When it came time to serve the meal after cocktail hour, we decided to plate each course, beginning with tomato, basil and burrata drizzled with fruity olive oil and sprinkled with pink sea salt. We cut the gorgeous bright yellow tomatoes crosswise into thick circles. A large beautifully green basil leaf topped each tomato slice, followed by a piece of the burrata, stark white in contrast and the plates looked pretty spectacular. Or so we thought.
Laura, who happens to be an artist, eyed the plates and asked for a hole punch. She carefully pressed small circles of the basil, and using tweezers, laid these around the rim of the white plates. There were purple chive blossoms in the garden, and we plucked a few to lay on top over the cracked pepper and sea salt. A high bar for plating was set! Other courses followed, giddily plated with attention to color and embellished with a playfulness unleashed by Laura’s inspired design.
It was a lovely night. Five of us at the table began the meal ceremoniously holding hands and expressing gratitude for being together. Laura asked if we could go around the table and share the best and worst parts of our week, following another household ritual of presenting a topic for conversation for the evening. The food was beautiful to behold and delicious, and the stories allowed us to get to know each other on another level.
Pete Peterson is the chef who opened the wonderful restaurant Tapawingo, after studying industrial design and working for years as a car designer. The space in a renovated house on a small lake was filled with art. I was lucky enough to enjoy meals at his restaurant before he sold it, even taking a weekend of cooking classes there.
Pete emphasized paying attention to the quality of ingredients when cooking and choosing seasonal food whenever possible. While his food always tasted so good, the beauty of the presentation also left a distinct impression. Did his love of art and background in design have an influence? Likely so. It was because of Pete’s classes that I think about adding something red or green or purple to a plate (the world of food is a wonderful palette!)
It is said we first eat with our eyes. I think this is true, and over the years, I pay more attention to how I put food on a plate. When I plan a menu for a dinner party, I think about how well one dish will taste with another, but also about how it will look: colors, textures, and shapes. Like my friend Tim, I do this best when I conjure up that childhood feeling of creative freedom.
When Tim spoke about how he decides his color palette, he said it was like using the spices in your cupboard. You see what you have and work from there; your recipe is your formula that you can mix up as the mood strikes you, even working outside your comfort zone every now and then.
I am grateful for the inspiration artists have given me. I like when art is beautiful but also when it is jarring, challenging, and makes me think. Cooking is my creative outlet and while taste is the strongest element I want to convey, there is great enjoyment in making food visually appealing as well. Perhaps you too, should play with your food and see if you can find your inner artist.
We often make fish we purchase from Ed and Cindy John of Treaty Fisheries and sometimes find ourselves with extra cooked fish. I’ve had good luck turning the leftovers into fish cakes. You can easily substitute other vegetables or herbs you may have on hand for those listed here.
Makes 6 fish cakes
2 C. cooked fish fillets (whitefish or lake trout)
¼ C. finely chopped yellow onion
¼ C. finely chopped celery
¼ C. finely chopped sweet red pepper
¼ C. corn kernels (fresh or frozen)
½ C. breadcrumbs or panko
½ t. dry mustard
1 large egg, plus
1/3 C. mayonnaise
3 T. chopped parsley or mixture of dill and parsley
Salt and pepper to taste
Neutral oil for frying
Flake fish into a large bowl, add remaining ingredients. If the mix does not come together when forming a patty, add another beaten egg.
Divide into six patties and refrigerate at least one hour and up to a day before frying. When ready to cook, heat a ¼ inch oil in a heavy skillet (cast iron is good.) Place in the hot oil and reduce temperature slightly. Cook about 4 minutes on one side and carefully flip to other side when golden, cooking another 4 minutes on the second side. Check the center of one to see if cooked through (vegetables should be soft.) Place cooked fish cakes on paper towels, then serve immediately. Nice on a bed of lightly dressed greens, with a wedge of lemon and tartare sauce if desired.
This aioli is a delicious addition to your repertoire of condiments! Perfect on grilled bread, topped with a lightly cooked green vegetable, or served alongside any grilled meat. I even smear some on a poached egg. Using wild mushrooms takes this to another level.
Makes 2 cups
2 T. butter
1 large shallot, chopped
1-2 garlic cloves
8 oz. fresh, preferably wild, mushrooms, or a mix of dried and fresh (reconstitute the dried before using), cleaned, torn into pieces or sliced
Salt and pepper
2 egg yolks
1 T. chopped rosemary or parsley
½ t. fresh thyme or tarragon
2 T. sherry vinegar
Few dashes Tabasco
1 C. grapeseed oil
¼ C. whole buttermilk (optional)
In a large skillet, heat butter over medium heat. Add the shallot and garlic, cook about 4 minutes, then add mushrooms, a pinch of salt and pepper, and cook 8 minutes until soft. Let cool.
In a food processor, place the cooled mushroom mixture with the egg yolks, herbs, vinegar and tabasco. Process until smooth, then slowly add the oil in a thin stream until mixture is thick. Add buttermilk if using (it will make it fluffier.) Taste and add more salt, vinegar or tabasco if needed.
Rhubarb Simple Syrup
You may still find fresh rhubarb in the market, but you could use the basic formula and substitute other fruit in season, just reduce the amount of sugar for sweeter fruit. The simple syrup is delicious in summer drinks: tequila, rhubarb syrup and a splash of soda water for an Amante or place a few tablespoons of the syrup in a glass, then top it off with Prosecco.
Makes 1 pint
2 lbs. rhubarb, fresh or frozen, cut into 2-inch pieces
2/3 C. sugar
1 C. orange juice
Place rhubarb and sugar in a heavy bottom pot. Bring to boil over medium heat, then lower heat and cook about 40 minutes until rhubarb is very soft. Add orange juice and cook another ten minutes. Strain mixture into a bowl through a fine mesh sieve, then return the juice to the pot and cook again until reduced and syrupy. Let cool and store in refrigerator until ready to use.