Cookbook Review - A Platter of Figs by David Tanis

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

David Tanis, a chef who made his years at the famed Chez Panisse, recently came out with a new cookbook, A Platter of Figs. A cookbook which dutifully presents the idea that food should be harvested and cooked in season and should always be the best ingredients you can find.

Indeed, the book is about slow food, but isn't. Rather than wax poetry about such and such a dish, he goes on to say that you use what's seasonal and fresh simply because it is. There is no rural pontificating or drawn out melodrama of the fig but rather a straightforward discussion conveying the idea and concept of the platter of figs for his book:

The platter of figs perfectly illustrates the idea of eating with the seasons. Fresh figs are available for only a few weeks of summer. The first figs are in June, but June figs usually pale in comparison to the late-summer crop, which benefits from warm August days. As with good tomatoes, you wait all year for the best figs to arrive. The reward is heavy, juicy fruit with oozing centers - sweet figs to swoon for. Above all, the platter of figs is a metaphor for the food I like. Fresh ripe figs are voluptuous and generous, luxurious and fleeting. And beautiful. - DT (introduction)

The menu based compositional approach to his organization is innovative and, at first, jarring. Breaking away from more conventional means of organizing a cookbook (such as salads, soups, poultry, dessert, etc.) he has divided the book by seasons. The recipes are then organized into four sets of six menus, each menu consisting of 3-4 recipes (although some recipes are actually three or four based on components) and each with a theme and following the bounty of the season. For example in Summer you will find a menu called "yellow hunger" which consists of recipes for shaved summer squash and squash blossoms, grilled halibut with Indian spice and yellow tomatoes, and peaches in wine. It's intriguing to be sure, and one must approach the book with a new mindset in order to better navigate the book. It's only true pitfall I find is that one must refer to the index more often than usual than with a more conventionally ordered cookbook.

The foreword by Alice Waters sets forth a tone that envelopes and invites you into Tanis' kitchen, where he then whisks you up and explains in tranquil and familiar terms his personal history and development of his style of cooking based in simplicity of season.

A key idea behind this book is encapsulated in that term: Simplicity. Given, these are not 30 minute meals; some of these dishes will require you to spend time in the kitchen. Nor does simplicity mean that each recipes is perfectly suited to a beginner. The simplicity lies in the use of ingredients, flavors, and preparation. You will find no foams, no strange ingredients requiring a search that would beguile even Indiana Jones (although a trip to the Asian grocer or butcher may be required for squid ink and rabbits), no sous-vide or anti-griddle preparations. Some do seem a bit daunting but as with all cookbooks a certain level of trust on the part of the reader is required.

Going with the book I decided to make a go at a few of the Winter menu recipes; I mixed and matched a bit based on my budget and sloth to test some dishes and put his thesis to practice. The green chile stew is bold and spicy, and as Tanis suggests, is perfect for fighting off the cold. Its heat, easy preparation, and simple use of ingredients make it versatile. The roasted apples with cognac and sugar made good use of ancient liquor that had last seen daylight in 2004 - simple with the sugar in the apples caramelizing and bandying back and forth playfully with the cognac. The watercress, beet, and egg salad was a bit encumbered for a salad but it was a playful dish of contrasts (I did substitute watercress for arugula I found on the campus grounds, free food is better). It stood up to David's idea that salads aren't something to just be tossed together by a recent CIA grad but rather have to be carefully developed with each flavor taken into consideration like any other dish.

A Platter of Figs is by and far one of the best cookbooks available right now. Reading it, it shines as an obvious choice for the Gourmet Cookbook Club. If anything the cookbook serves as a sort of tutorial. Even if you don't prepare any of the recipes, a casual reading will instill the idea of simplicity in season which you will almost immediately apply to your own outlook and approach to food and it's preparation. To those who already adopt this mantra and wave off that this is simply preaching to the choir, well sometimes the choir needs to be reminded why they're singing.


  1. I bought his cookbook and agree with your comments.

    I enjoyed the food I made from his recipes and just his writing style.

  2. I received this book for Xmas and have enjoyed thumbing through its pages, but you've convinced me that it's time start cooking. Thanks!

  3. This book was on my wishlist, but now I think I have to go get it. And soon :)

    Great review. Thanks!

  4. I love the idea of a cookbook by season, even if all the recipes don't grab my attention. It seems more intuitive, and easier to find a good seasonal meal when you don't have to read through 500 ingredient lists trying to decide if everything is in season or not.

  5. Hi Garrett - hope you are doing well these days. I have looked through this book a couple of times now, because everyone implores me that it is so great. Flicking through it at length at my friend's house recently I was disappointed again. Try as I might to find it appealing, not one of the recipes jumped out at me and I found it strangely uninspiring. Obviously I can't vouch for how anything tastes, since I didn't get that far, I am sure the results are delicious, but this simply isn't the book for me as a cook. Maybe it is because I cook seasonally all the time anyway and cook different types of recipes to the author?


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