A friend of mine is a painter. Tim has worked as a graphic designer/artist for many years. He is now in retirement mode and has rented a studio so he can devote time to his love of painting. His paintings are abstract. The compositions and colors are fantastic. The paintings are mostly the same size, 12 inch squares.
He once mentioned that he would like to create works on larger canvases, and I recently asked if he had done any before. He hadn’t. He admitted there were a few hurdles to get started (how would he know how much paint to mix for the larger scale work?) I asked him why he wanted to paint larger pieces and he told an interesting story .
When he was a young boy he helped his father who was a bricklayer, and his favorite job was applying tar. Tim got a big brush to dip into the tar bucket, and he dumped the tar on the foundation walls. He loved the patterns he could create and the freedom of those broad strokes. He smiled as he told the story and said he hoped to translate that sense of childhood freedom onto canvas. I encouraged him to try these big chunks.
My husband went on a fishing trip last month with a group of friends. While he was away, his son Ryan asked if he and a friend, Laura, could cook with me one evening. They also wanted to invite another couple to dinner. I love the company of young people and we had a great time meeting up in the past. I was looking forward to tonight.
We agreed to be guided by whatever came up at the farmer’s market that morning. I had my eye on the recipes for “State Bird Provisions,” a cookbook by chefs Stuart Brioza and Nicole Krasinski who met and worked at Tapawingo in Ellsworth, Michigan years ago. They then opened award-winning restaurants in San Francisco. Their style draws on the classics in a very unconventional 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 Tribal Fisheries, tomatoes and basil from TLC, and burrata, a soft, creamy cheese. I had green vegetables, herbs and rhubarb in my garden and bought fresh mushrooms, asparagus, olives and bread. I could see the feast in front of me but what surprised me was the creativity that came out of our collaboration.
We warmed the olives in oil with fresh oregano, orange zest, coriander seeds and other spices. We made a mushroom aioli, following the recipe from the cookbook, as well as a rice-crusted trout recipe; both game changers for me. The meal would begin with a cocktail of rhubarb syrup and tequila, and end with rhubarb cake and lemon verbena whipped cream.
When it came time to serve the meal after happy hour, we decided to dress each dish, starting 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 slice of tomato, followed by a piece of burrata, crisp white in contrast and the plates looked quite spectacular. Or so we thought.
Laura, who happens to be an artist, looked at the plates and asked for a hole punch. She carefully squeezed out small circles of basil and, using tweezers, arranged them around the edge of the white plates. There were purple chive blossoms in the garden, and we picked a few to lay on the cracked peppercorns and sea salt. A high bar for plating has been set! More courses followed, playfully plated with attention to color and spiced up with unleashed playfulness by Laura-inspired design.
It was a beautiful night. Five of us at the table began the meal ceremoniously by holding hands and expressing our gratitude for being together. Laura asked if we could go around the table and share the best and worst moments of our week, following another household ritual of presenting a topic of conversation for the evening. The food was beautiful to see and delicious, and the stories brought us to know each other on another level.
Pete Peterson is the chef who opened the wonderful Tapawingo restaurant, after studying industrial design and working for years as an automotive designer. The space of a renovated house by a small lake was filled with art. I was lucky enough to have meals at his restaurant before he sold it, even taking a weekend cooking class there.
Pete insisted on paying attention to the quality of ingredients when cooking and choosing seasonal foods whenever possible. Although her food has always been so good, the beauty of the presentation also left a distinct impression. Did his love of art and his training in design have an influence? Most likely. It was because of Pete’s classes that I thought of adding something red or green or purple to a plate (the world of food is a wonderful palette!)
They say we eat with our eyes first. I think that’s true, and over the years I’ve become more careful about how I put food on a plate. When I plan a menu for a dinner party, I think about how good one dish will look with another, but also what it will look like: colors, textures and shapes. Like my friend Tim, I do it best when I evoke that childhood sense of creative freedom.
When Tim explained how he decides on his color palette, he said it’s like using spices from your cupboard. You see what you have and work from there; your recipe is your formula that you can mix to suit your mood, even working outside of your comfort zone once in a while.
I am grateful for the inspiration the artists have given me. I like when art is beautiful but also when it is discordant, stimulating and makes me think. Cooking is my creative outlet and although taste is the strongest element I want to convey, it’s also great to make food visually appealing. Maybe you too should play with your food and see if you can find your inner artist.
We often cook fish that we buy from Ed and Cindy John of Treaty Fisheries and sometimes end up with extra cooked fish. I had good luck turning the leftovers into fishcakes. You can easily substitute other vegetables or herbs you might have on hand for those listed here.
Makes 6 fish cakes
2 tbsp. cooked fish fillets (whitefish or lake trout)
¼ C. finely chopped yellow onion
¼ C. finely chopped celery
¼ C. finely chopped red bell pepper
¼ C. corn kernels (fresh or frozen)
½ C. breadcrumbs or panko
½ t. dry mustard
1 large egg, plus
1/3 tsp mayonnaise
3 T. chopped parsley or mixture of dill and parsley
Pinch of cayenne
Salt and pepper to taste
Neutral frying oil
Crumble the fish into a large bowl, add the rest of the ingredients. If the mixture does not come together when forming a patty, add another beaten egg.
Divide into six patties and refrigerate for at least an hour and up to a day before frying. When ready to cook, heat a ¼ inch oil in a heavy skillet (cast iron is fine). Place it in the hot oil and reduce the temperature slightly. Cook about 4 minutes on one side and carefully flip to the other side when golden, cook another 4 minutes on the other side. Check the center of one of them to see if it is cooked through (vegetables should be soft). Place the cooked fish cakes on paper towels, then serve immediately. Delicious on a bed of lightly seasoned greens, with a wedge of lemon and tartar sauce if desired.
This aioli is a delicious addition to your condiment repertoire! Perfect on toast, garnished with a lightly cooked green vegetable, or served with any grilled meat. I even spread it on a poached egg. Using wild mushrooms takes this to another level.
Makes 2 cups
2 tablespoons of butter
1 large shallot, chopped
1-2 garlic cloves
8 oz. fresh mushrooms, preferably wild, or a mixture of dried and fresh mushrooms (reconstitute the dried before use), cleaned, torn into pieces or sliced
Salt and pepper
2 egg yolks
1 tablespoon chopped rosemary or parsley
½ t. fresh thyme or tarragon
2 tablespoons sherry vinegar
A few Tabasco dashes
1 tbsp grapeseed oil
¼ C. whole buttermilk (optional)
In a large skillet, heat the butter over medium heat. Add the shallot and garlic, cook for about 4 minutes, then add the mushrooms, a pinch of salt and pepper, and cook for 8 minutes until tender. Let cool.
In a food processor, place the cooled mushroom mixture with the egg yolks, herbs, vinegar and Tabasco. Blend until smooth, then slowly add the oil in a thin stream until the mixture is thick. Add buttermilk if using (this will make it fluffier.) Taste and add more salt, vinegar or Tabasco if needed.
Simple rhubarb syrup
You can still find fresh rhubarb on the market, but you can use the basic formula and substitute other seasonal fruits, just reduce the amount of sugar for sweeter fruits. Simple syrup is delicious in summer drinks: tequila, rhubarb syrup and a splash of sparkling water for an Amante or put a few tablespoons of syrup in a glass, then top it off with Prosecco.
Makes 1 pint
2 pounds. rhubarb, fresh or frozen, cut into 2-inch pieces
2/3 C. of sugar
1 C. orange juice
Put the rhubarb and sugar in a heavy bottomed saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium heat, then lower the heat and cook for about 40 minutes until the rhubarb is very tender. Add the orange juice and cook for another ten minutes. Strain the mixture into a bowl through a fine-mesh sieve, then return the juices to the pan and cook again until reduced and syrupy. Allow to cool and store in the refrigerator until use.