David Tanis isn’t focused on the clock when he’s making dinner. It’s the ingredients, in all their fresh and vibrant glory, that he has in his sights.
That includes the onions and garlic that are the basis of so many of his meals, but it could also mean shell beans, potatoes, carrots or cardoons, or whatever he has found during his latest market visit.
And it’s more than the produce itself. The act of preparing the ingredients has his attention — the alchemy of sights, aromas and action that involves chopping, sautéing and roasting as the fragrance permeates his kitchen. (Is there a better aroma than that of onions slowly cooking in butter? he asks. No, there is not.)
The emphasis here is on his kitchen. Tanis is an advocate of home cooking, despite his credentials that go far beyond his front door, with more than 30 years experience as a chef, including his longtime role at Chez Panisse in Berkeley.
With several notable books to his name — “A Platter of Figs,” “Heart of the Artichoke” and “One Good Dish” — and almost seven years as a weekly food columnist with the New York Times, he knows how to present a recipe that a home cook can prepare.
Tanis heads to St. Paul this week to offer his perspective with his new book, “David Tanis Market Cooking: Recipes and Revelations Ingredient by Ingredient” (Artisan, 478 pages, $40).
“I think some people like produce to arrive in a box packed by someone else. But that’s not me,” Tanis said in an interview. “Part of the joy of the cooking process is where it starts, whether that’s plucking food from the field or finding it in some market somewhere or some little store where you stop in because they have certain ingredients.”
And, yes, he enjoys shopping for groceries, even though it often means he’s headed to multiple locations to compete his purchases. It’s there at the farmers market, the little store or specialty shop that — after seeing what catches his eye because it’s at the peak of freshness — he determines what he will make for dinner.
“This is a choice you make; it’s not a judgment,” Tanis said. If you prefer a one-stop big-box store, go for it. “Most modern supermarkets have much better produce than they did 20 years ago, and much wider variety.”
But he finds a pleasure in slowing down the process, shopping every day when he can and finding surprises at every turn.
“You go to the market thinking you will make turnips and a leg of lamb for dinner, but there are no turnips. Then you get a new idea when you see a striped bass and some string beans that look good,” he said. Dinner plans get an update. “This is the most exciting part of shopping.”
The key to the final flavorful outcome is to start out with good ingredients, which doesn’t mean expensive.
“I’m not suggesting you need fancy ingredients, but fresh and organic are really good; sustainably raised is even better,” he said.
Once the ingredients are in hand, Tanis is ready with an inspired collection of ideas that serves as a teaching manual of sorts, with traditionally written recipes, ingredients and steps spelled out, and a more informal description in narrative form of how to prep a dish (see the styles represented on this page with one of his favorite ingredients, garlic).
“Without being too preachy, I want the recipes to impart information,” he said. “On the other hand, there aren’t amazing techniques on display in these recipes. There is nothing in this book that is earth-shattering new. Most of it is straightforward cooking, with emphasis on building flavor as you go, tasting as you go and taking care with seasoning.”
Maybe not new to some cooks, but Tanis has many out-of-the-ordinary dishes to offer, from Lebanese Kibbeh With Carmelized Onions to Lime and Chile Slaw, and a Tomato Salad Sandwich that will surprise traditionalists (ripe tomatoes, olive oil, garlic, capers, anchovy and basil on a split roll that stands for at least an hour to permeate the bread).
The presentation of chapters is unusual, with the first on alliums (the family of garlic, onions and shallots) because these are the workhorse of the kitchen. Another chapter encompasses many vegetables, not in alphabetical order, but from light to heavy in flavor— and not all vegetables, but his favorites, given the book is almost 500 pages long. More chapters offer approaches to seasoning, kitchen essentials (how to boil an egg or make mayo, rice or pizza dough) and a few simple desserts.
And then there are the photos that succeed at making you hungry. “I want people to open the book, look at the pictures and say, ‘Oh, looks delicious,’ and read the recipe quickly and say, ‘Oh, I can make that. It doesn’t sound hard at all’, ” he said.
As for the effort in preparing a meal? “It’s the process of getting from A to B. It’s an enjoyable process. I really don’t want to rush it, but I may not want to spend all day in the kitchen either. I’m not suggesting you need to. But 20 minutes here or 30 minutes there and you can take bread dough out of the refrigerator and bake it. There’s not a lot of labor involved,” he said.
But he’s practical, too. “I understand some people need to get a meal on the table. Thirty minutes is pushing it for enjoyability for the cook — 45 to 60 minutes is more reasonable to expect,” he said.
“If you want to soften onions in olive oil over medium heat, you can’t rush it. You can turn up the heat, but the onions won’t be the way you want them.”
His advice to cooks: Slow down and enjoy the process.