For her 18th book, Joanne Weir's Kitchen Gypsy is a personal deep dive. One part scrap book, one part treasured recipes. It's like swapping tales with girlfriends over a glass of wine. Recipes like the Cafe Cake trigger memories of interviewing with Alice Waters for a job at Chez Panisse. A margarita making challenge that ultimately leads to opening her first restaurant--years after she'd already been an accomplished author with a long-running television series, and led countless culinary tours abroad.
And now, my own memories are inextricably linked to this book.
I received a note from my friend Renee. Come to dinner. Invite a few friends.
Joanne was in town touring with her new book. She had author events and interviews scheduled for several days. On her final day in Seattle, we gathered on a rain soaked evening at Renee's house. Longtime friends, for years I'd heard stories about Joanne's wedding (her cake had peaches), and their travels together in Morocco and beyond. And of course, I watched Joanne's show for years.
Chance of a lifetime? I'm in!
We decided to do a potluck based on Joanne's new book, Kitchen Gypsy. I arrived a bit early, and when Joanne came into the room, she was just like she is on TV, warm and engaging. Without thinking, I went to hug her hello.
The weather was awful (we've had record-breaking rainfall), and the rest of the guests arrived over the next hour. Looking back, it was intended to be a bunch of bloggers, but it turned out to be pros who happened to have food blogs. In addition to their dish, they all brought something special that was a reflection of them and their work.
Joanne made a couple dishes from her book. It has a heavy storytelling component and she elaborated on the stories. For the paella, she pointed to a photo of a handwritten index card in the book. Tattered and splattered, she said, "I've carried around that recipe for years!"
Cynthia Nims has authored 15 books and brought a copy of her latest, which isn't released yet. (Oysters: Bringing Home a Taste of the Sea. Amazon says it will be out mid-January.)
Kathleen Flynn, author of the best selling book, The Sharper Your Knife, The Less You Cry, interviewed Joanne for a podcast earlier that day (also not released yet.) As a gift, she brought a copy of her latest book, Burnt Toast Makes You Sing Good. Kat's also a strong advocate for changing the food system and is currently working on a documentary with director Michael Moore.
Jason Price is a journalist who writes about food and has a pet passion for charcuterie. Last year, he spent two weeks working at The Fatted Calf and has been interviewing and writing about some of the best chefs in the business. He brought home cured culatello and tonnato de maile.
Nancy Croisier is a marketing and events manager from Efeste winery, and brought a range of bottles to pair with dinner.
Sara Sanford used to run the charitable foundation for a major league baseball player and now runs a women in finance initiative for a major financial institution and their West Coast giving program. She's a terrific home cook and one of my dearest friends (hello, moral support!)
Our host, Renee Behnke, is the former owner of Sur La Table (she sold a couple years ago) and as you can imagine, she's got entertaining down to an art form. Her home is open and spacious, and designed with entertaining in mind. Her husband, Carl, poured stiff drinks and got the conversation rolling. For a moment, I was distracted by their fabulous art collection--blown glass, lots of modern art, and over-sized original oil paintings that took up most of the wall space. Most homes can't accommodate art that large, and yet every room had something big and bold.
More than once I thought, "How did I get here?" Then Joanne would launch into a story about working with Alice Waters, or she and Renee would share a story from their travels abroad....It was surreal.
I remember growing up in Peoria, Illinois, which felt like the middle of nowhere, surrounded by corn fields. My mom would pour over the Sur La Table catalog. It was her lifeline into a world she could only dream about, and yet, somehow, I ended up at this dinner party.
I called my mom the next morning (after my hangover subsided).
I took photos most of the night, but as always, I wish I took more. Here's a few of the evening's highlights:
My friend Nancy is a huge Joanne Weir fan and it was a thrill to see them finally meet. Joanne is one of the few TV chefs who includes wine pairings. That, along with simply prepared but incredibly delicious recipes makes Nancy a lifelong fan. In fact, she had Joanne's book days after it was released.
A small sample of the wines paired with dinner.
Of course you'd expect the former owner of Sur La Table to have a drool-worthy kitchen! Check it out. Two marble-topped islands with open shelving underneath. Behind me is one walk-in pantry, and behind the Kat and Cynthia on the right, is another walk-in pantry. Off the kitchen is a large deck for entertaining, and there's a window cut into the wall for passing dishes through. Genius, no? A consummate entertainer, her house if filled with details like that.
The built in china cabinet and one of the refrigerators. Everyday china is stored here.
Wonderland, pantry-style. This pantry houses fine china, polished silver, stemware, and a few serving pieces. Notice the clean lines and terrific order? Looks like Sur La Table, no? Her mark is evident in every store.
This is a detail of a larger piece that hangs in the entry way. For scale, the face is taller than me.
I called earlier in the day and the table was already set. Entertaining pro tip: do everything you can well in advance. Instead of a runner, these glass horses lined the center of the table. Candle light flickered and illuminated the horses. Stunning, no?
Back in the kitchen, Joanne put the finishing touches on one of her dishes. This is a classic lesson in the beauty of simplicity and a few well chosen ingredients. I originally passed over this recipe, and it ended up being my favorite dish of the night!
Simply delicious. Toasted almonds and fennel seed, tossed in a food processor with anchovies (think: umami), fresh mint, orange zest, orange juice, and olive oil. Served on a toasted crostini, I'll be making this dish again and again. Easy, different, and delicious. A hallmark of Joanne's signature style.
Getting the oil just right. First it was too cool, then it was too hot. Renee is taking the temperature with a lazer reader, a la Alton Brown. Notice the built in bookcase behind Renee and Joanne? A cookbook library in the kitchen. Genius!
I saw Joanne cook this dish on her show, and decided it would be my contribution. It's a dish created for her Sausalito-based restaurant, Copita. For her version of papas bravas, starchy potatoes are baked until tender, then cut into large chunks. Deep fried along side flour-dusted rings of jalapeno, it's another winning appetizer from Kitchen Gypsy. Hot out of the oil, the potato and jalapeno are dusted with a spice mix of chile, cumin, lime zest, and salt. Served with a cooling dip of avocado and sour cream, it's a terrific bite. (Photo credit: Thomas J. Story)
Lessons learned: I brought the potatoes roasted, and both the spice mix and crema already finished. I was really glad Joanne was there and I got a chance to see her unflappable instructor skills in action. My spice mix was too spicy, so we added ground cumin and salt. The crema called for 'salt to taste' and she added more salt to make it pop. Slicing the chunks of potato, Joanne guided me, encouraging bigger pieces. Once the potatoes were out of the oil, it was clear why the bigger pieces were better. In this twice cooked method (baked, then fried), the bigger pieces were crispy on the outside, tender and fluffy inside. Smaller corner pieces were crispy all the way through.
Jason made the carrot soup with anise. This recipe is from the Chez Panisse chapter and it illustrates how a simple tweak--anise seed and anise liquor can turn a simple soup into a showstopper.
With a group of friends, there's nothing better than noshing in the kitchen before dinner. Here, Jason's homemade tonno de maile is being warmed in a shallow pan.
This is the outcome of a passion project gone wild. Jason's culatelo--the king of proscuitto. A hind leg of pork is deboned, stuffed into a beef bladder, salted, and hung in a curing chamber for 8-14 months. You know, no big deal. I didn't ask, but I'm guessing he also has a slicer for those consistent, transparently thin slices. If you want to see how it's made, step by step directions are on Jason's blog.
Renee likes to do a bit of moving around during dinner and I love her style. First we had drinks and nosh in the kitchen, then we sat at the table where she served a salad of figs, grapes, pomegranate, persimmon, and a vinaigrette made with a late harvest riesling. Dinner was served back in the kitchen, buffet-style. Front to back: Whole roasted cauliflower with almond anchiode. Beef kefta with blood oranges on a bed of greens and a dressing of blood orange, champagne vinegar, white balsamic vinegar, and harissa. In the cast iron pot is Joanne's arroz con pollo.
By the time dessert rolled around, I forgot to take pictures. The Genoa cake with pistachio creme anglaise is another dish that will be on my regular rotation.
I love gatherings like this. With everyone contributing a dish from a cookbook, it provides a wonderful opportunity to put a focus on dinner, share the fun of cooking, and inevitably, someone makes a dish I would have never tried on my own. Having the author there to field questions and swap stories? Priceless!
My friend Renee is a passionate gardener. I missed seeing her garden this summer, but walking through her garden together is an experience I'll never forget. The entire front yard is edible. In the back, one section is a vegetable garden with multiple varieties of tomatoes, garlic, etc. Whenever possible, she brings seeds back from her travels, so nearly every plant has a story.
Over the coarse of this year, I met Aileen Bordman, who works with the Monet estate in France. Her mother helped restore the gardens at Giverny and has been in residence there since 1980. In addition to Monet's now famous water lilies, he was also a passionate gardener and cook. Aileen's documentary, Monet's Palate, traces the journey and her friend Meryl Streep does the narration. This year, she released a companion cookbook (pictured above). Aileen sent me poppy seeds from Monet's garden at Giverny and books for both of us. I finally got a chance to give Renee hers at dinner.
Speaking of gardens, Renee grabbed her iPad and shared a photo of her rose garden from this summer. Stunning, no? If only Monet could have seen this!