Monday, November 23, 2009


When I worked in restaurants I often cornered chefs and asked them endless questions. I was young and very new to restaurant cooking. I was a bit of a pest. I wanted hard and fast cooking rules. Their responses were often more poetic than practical.

Me: "How much salt should you put in the water when shocking vegetables?"
Chef: "Put enough salt in the water that it tastes like the ocean."

Me: "When is the lamb done?"
Chef: "When it just starts to feel like a woman's breasts. A bit springy."

Maybe a 25-year old's breasts.

Now that I'm starting to write my own recipes I'm realizing how hard it is to translate cooking into words. There are always exceptions and variations. Heat sources vary. It's hard to remember exactly what I did. What details should be included? History? Failed attempts? Seasonal obstacles? How the hell do you teach someone to cook without bogging them down with too much information?

The cookbook author Richard Olney (Simple French Food and The French Menu Cookbook) managed to beautifully, whimsically, and meticulously extract recipes out of home cook Lulu Peyraud's brain and hands. Their collaboration is a book called Lulu's Provençal Table. Lulu Peyraud was French. Her family made great wine (still does) in Bandol, France and year after year she cooked really good food for her family. We are fortunate to get a glimpse into her world because Olney happened to live near her family's winery, Domaine Tempier. They had many meals together. Olney spent two years collaborating with Peyraud on this cookbook. She cooked and talked. He wrote and asked questions. He took her culinary intuition, insight and experience and put it on the page. Olney was a culinary translator.

"To peel tomatoes, Lulu first strokes the skins with a small knife blade."

"Lulu figures that guinea fowl is about the only flesh she knows that is flattered by the aggressive presence of smoked bacon." 
There are four ingredients in the recipe for asparagus vinaigrette, but the recipe details take up two full pages. Turns out French asparagus is usually cut below the surface of the ground while American asparagus is often cut above the ground. To be tender enough, the stalks of French asparagus should be peeled quite a bit more. Did you know that large quantities of asparagus should be tied in bundles before being boiled "both for correct cooking and for an acceptable presentation"? Olney even describes how to tilt a plate in order to correctly dip the asparagus tip into the vinaigrette. (Dipping is allowed?) 

When Olney accused Peyraud of giving him different instructions from day-to-day for the same recipe she said, "Well sometimes I do it one way and sometimes another—both are good." Richard Olney was so good at expressing the fluidity and flexibility of Lulu Peyraud's cooking. His style of culinary translation has me thinking about recipes in a very different way.

While writing my next recipe maybe I'll start with the specific ingredients and then tell a story. And I've always liked the idea of encouraging cooks to stray from the recipe. I might start using more imagery—just as those chefs did with me when I was pestering them for information. A sponge cake is done when it springs back like a baby's belly. When sugar starts to caramelize it reminds me every time of cotton candy. Wait for that nutty smell when butter starts to brown.

Less about timing and precision. More about touch, smell, taste, and play. It's a good thing I'm cooking so much with kids these days because this is very much how two-year olds relate to food. They don't care how much flour goes in the bowl or how much time you need to bake the cookies. Tart dough is edible playdough. Clementines are like building blocks. It's always a combination of inspiration and frustration for all of us.

Dash's friend Lola came over last Saturday. Dash and Lola are both two. And both are a little more interested in Mr. Talking Cash Register than the tarts that I'm SO EXCITED to make. The plan is to cook a goat cheese tart for lunch and a sweet squash tart for dessert, both inspired by Lulu Peyraud's style of cooking.

First a lengthy snack of melon. They melon-ball it directly into their mouths, skipping the bowl entirely.
Then Dash and Lola play guns, swords, and guitars with rolling pins.

Dash shakes all the tart pans and finds his favorite. Lola grabs a very small toy knife and holds onto it until we're done cooking. It's her security knife.
I roll out the dough and they help press it into the pans. But I can see I'm losing them. Dash wants to go play trains. Lola just wants out. After a snack of some scraps and a little shadow puppetry on the tart dough, we release them.
Dandy, Lola's mom, skateboards off to get goat cheese. Yes, skateboards. She owns the skate shop 510 Skateboarding. Super cool mom.

While Dandy zips around the neighborhood, I bake the tart shell for 10 minutes. I don't know what Dash and Lola are doing in the other room. Classical music is blaring. All the toys are out. I usually watch Dash like a hawk because he tends to climb up onto windowsills, run with scissors, and collect sharpies from Bella's room. I blindly trust that everything will be fine. I'm hoping that Lola's calm demeanor will rub off on him.

Skateboarding momma returns and we throw the goat cheese, egg, and cream into the mixer.

We are all very hungry. This is when I decide I was crazy to think we could cook two tarts. So we combine the two tarts into one. We're now making a tart with goat cheese, squash, and winter greens.

I saute the onions, garlic, and squash. Lola removes the tender greens from the fibrous stalks and adds them to the squash mixture.
After painting the bottom of the tart shell with the goat cheese mixture, we spread on the warm squash and greens. Tons of parmesan over the top and into the oven. At this point I have no idea how it's going to turn out.

I make a quick fennel, orange and greens salad. Dandy doesn't like fennel. I sneak it in anyway, just sliced really thinly.
We sit down and have one delicious and very chaotic lunch. Dandy wonders what the yummy thin white vegetable is in the salad. I admit that it's fennel.

You know at the end of a cooking show when the host takes a bite of the finished dish and a little cheese drips down her chin, she pauses, looks at the camera and says, "Yum. Delicious. I wish YOU could taste this tart." The problem is I never believe her. It never sounds sincere.

I call Dandy a few days later to see what she thought of the tart. Without pausing she says,  "Delicious." You don't know Dandy but you should trust her. The tart kicked butt.

With cooking you move forward and then back. You change course. Just like writing. Every time I go to write down an ingredient I always want to give options and alternate paths. The trick is to cook like Lulu Peyraud and to write like Richard Olney. I'm not there yet, but I'm happy to say the tart we made the other day was born out of experience, intuition, chaos, spontaneity and a great CSA (community supported agriculture) box from Full Belly Farm.

P.S. Since we only made one tart with Lola, we have an extra tart shell. We freeze it. A few days later Dash and I make goat cheese and caramelized onion tart with olives and anchovies (my mom and I have been doing this combination for years). We use the same goat cheese filling that's in the squash and winter greens tart. Dash loves putting on all of the olives and "anchopeas."

printable recipe
Inspired by Lulu's Provençal Table.
Feeds 4.

tart dough:
1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
pinch of salt
8 tablespoon (one stick) unsalted butter, very cold
3-4 tablespoons ice water

squash/greens topping:
olive oil
1 small winter squash (butternut, kabocha, or pumpkin work great), peeled and cored and chopped   into dime-sized chunks
1 small onion, diced
1 clove garlic
1 bunch of winter greens (chard, kale or collards), tender leaves only–use stalks for something else
grated parmesan

cheese filling:
1 cup goat cheese, fresh not aged
1 egg
big pinch of salt
2 tablespoons cream or half and half

Make the tart dough at least an hour, preferably several hours before you need it. You can do it by hand or in a food processor. Mix together flour and salt. Cut in butter (with fingers, pastry cutter, two knives, or food processor). Stop when the butter pieces are about the size of peas. Add half of the water (leaving ice cubes behind) and pulse two times with the food processor. If you're doing it by hand just mix a bit with a fork. It should start to look a bit stringy in places with some dry patches. Add a bit more water if it looks more dry than stringy. Pulse or mix again. Dump loose dough onto a big piece of plastic wrap. Don't touch it anymore with your hands. Press the dough together into a disc with the plastic wrap.  Don't overmix. Put it in the fridge for at least an hour. If I'm in a hurry I'll put it in the freezer for 45 minutes.

Roll the dough out and press into any shape tart pan (I used a 9-inch round).  Chill for another 20 minutes.  Preheat oven to 350°F. Cook tart shell until you start to smell it and it looks less moist, about 10 minutes. Keep oven on.

Drizzle a tablespoon or so of olive oil into a saute pan and add diced onion after about a minute. Saute until translucent. Turn down to low. Grate (or thinly slice or press) in the garlic. Stir until you smell nutty garlic smell (less than a minute). Stir in the squash. Put a lid on and cook until squash is just tender. Check it every 5 minutes or so. It cooks very fast. Toss in the winter greens, season with salt and pepper, and put the lid back on. Turn off the heat. Leave for a few minutes to wilt. Stir and taste. Add more salt and pepper if necessary.

By hand or with any kind of mixer, cream together the goat cheese, egg, cream, salt, and pepper until light and smooth (3 minutes or so).

Evenly spread goat cheese mixture over the bottom of the tart shell (when the tart shell is a little warm it's even easier to spread because it melts a little bit). Place squash mixture on top of the goat cheese (it's ok if it's still warm). Spread it carefully and evenly to prevent the top and bottom layers from mixing. Grate tons of parmesan on top. Cooking time will vary anywhere from about 30-50 minutes. Check it often and take it out when the goat cheese is set and parmesan is golden brown. Careful not to overcook it. It will continue to set once it's out of the oven.

Variations: Except for the tart dough, there is a lot of flexibility with the ingredients.
  • Mix two different kinds of cheese (blue and goat OR ricotta and quark).
  • Use potatoes instead of squash. 
  • Do 8 mini tarts instead of 1 big one. 
  • Top the cheese filling with caramelized onions, anchovies and niçoise olives (my mom and I have been doing this combination for years). It's like a very rich pissaladière. I will do an entire post on caramelized onions sometime soon. If you want some good tips right away buy Lulu's Provençal Table and check out her pissaladière recipe.


  1. interesting read. I would love to follow you on twitter. By the way, did anyone hear that some chinese hacker had busted twitter yesterday again.

  2. Phyllis, thank you for loaning me the Lulu cookbook. I had to go back an read this post on your Lulu-inspired tart. Man that looks good. And I love the shots of the kiddos.
    Funny small world....I know Dandy too!


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