Thursday, April 14, 2011

An Evening with Patricia Wells: Salad as a Meal

By far one of the best decisions I've made since moving to Manhattan was becoming a member of FIAF (French Institute : Alliance Française) this past Bastille Day. Tonight found me at another great event in Le Skyroom with my good friend Kyle (also a FIAF member). 

Kyle waiting for the talk to begin
FIAF welcomed Patricia Wells for the American launch of her brand new cookbook Salad as a Meal. Tonight's event was the first in a series of 3 talks and a city-wide tour titled Gardens for Gourmets. Each talk will have a notable guest to guide the conversation and tonight we were happy to welcome the well-known Ina Garten who is a long-time friend of Wells. 

Garten introduced Wells as the second most influential person in bringing French cuisine to America, of course, after Julia Child. Salad as a Meal is Wells' 12th book. One of her best-known works is The Food Lover's Guide to Paris (which I believe Wells said would be coming out in a newly revised and updated version soon). Garten remarked that Salad as a Meal is a combination of what Wells loves - fresh, simple market ingredients and easy, beautiful cooking. Garten recollects that when she and Wells go to fresh markets, Wells is always asking the growers what they do with their bounty; 'well what do you do with those raspberries?' Finding out what the people who are bringing the food to the table do with it in their own homes is a way to come up with new ways of using ingredients. 

Wells and her husband, Walter Wells, split their time between Paris and Provence. The couple moved to Paris in 1980 when Wells' husband was offered a job as an editor for the  International Herald Tribune (and he has a piece in the recently released, excellent collection of works about Paris, Paris Was Ours). They stayed on in Paris for Wells' job as a restaurant critic for the International Herald Tribune. Before becoming the cookbook author and Paris/Provence home cooking school teacher she is today, Wells worked extensively as a journalist and restaurant critic. When speaking about what it is like living in France she mentioned how a foreigner is always an outsider looking in, never fully part of the "club." As a journalist she found this exteriority to be a helpful perspective, aiding in giving a view  on a subject at arm's length.

As the first of a series of "Gardens for Gourmets" talks, Wells spoke to her own growing philosophy. In Provence she has a beautiful garden (there are some stunning photographs in the book), Wells encouraged audience members to grow something (same advice Marion Nestle gave at a talk I attended in June 2010). Rosemary was her best suggestion for a good, hearty herb to grow on an urban windowsill (if only I had windows!). Boasting an impressive garden, last year she had 40 varieties of tomatoes and even has her own vineyard producing a Côtes du Rhône. (You can find her wine at Eli Zabar's W.I.N.E next to TASTE on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.)

There was a lot of discussion about Wells' 'Perfect Day.' To start, she would wake-up, go for a run (for her 60th birthday she ran the NYC Marathon!), have a breakfast of Sicilian tomato and cottage cheese, go to the market and then "cook cook cook all day long." Wells also shared a very charming anecdote about a regular exchange between her and her husband; on an average day she will come in and tell him: "I've just had one of the best days of my life!" To which he will reply: "You say that five days a week!" Garten knows Wells' high spirits and zest for life well, adding that Wells' husband often remarks to her: "When you're down, that's about as up as most people get." 

Wells is very inspiring, especially to a budding cook like myself. She draws much of her inspiration from seeing ingredients at the market and eating in restaurants. At the market she may see two ingredients side by side and then wonder how they would be together. And new ingredients are cause for exploration and perhaps incorporation into recipes already in her repertoire as a new twist. (Wells says yuzu is the hot thing right now in Paris and it is showing up everywhere! I wrote about yuzu in my write-up of NIOS restaurant, it was used in my calamari's aioli.) About half of Wells' ideas for recipes come from dining in restaurants. She says a lot of the time chefs are willing to share their recipes-- sometimes they even come to her by way of a Word document!
After the discussion, Wells took a few questions from the audience. As you may remember from The Locavore's Dilemma event and Kelsey Nixon's Essentials, I am a fan of audience Q & A. 

The first question was:
'What are your 3 favorite recipes from Salad as a Meal?'
--Lobster salad with Green Beans, Apple, and Avocado (page 131)
--Ham and Cheese Bread (page 266) [cue audience: "mmmmm!"]
--Zucchini Carpaccio with Avocado, Pistachios and Pistachio oil (page 114) (one of the recipes Wells demonstrated at the event)
and a 4th favorite is the recipe her students choose over and over as their favorite recipe after a week of cooking with her: Poached Turkey Breast salad with Lemon, Capers, Cornichons and Mint (page 207)

Another favorite: 
'Name 4-5 essential/favorite tools/equipment for Salad as a Meal recipes'
2) Food processor, Wells: "I use my food processor a heck of a lot."
4) "My husband" 

After the discussion we were treated to cooking demo of two of the salads in Salad as a Meal:

Zucchini Carpaccio with Avocado, Pistachios and Pistachio oil (page 114)
To slice the zucchini, Wells used a mandolin. Her way to ensure she doesn't accidentally slice part of her hand? Say aloud, while slicing: "I'm slicing, I'm slicing, I'm slicing..." Very smart way to never hurt yourself on a mandolin! 


Chicken Salad with Green Beans, Tahini-Lemon-Yogurt Dressing, and Cilantro (page 187)
This smelled wonderful! My favorite thing about this chicken salad is the absence of mayonnaise! She made sure to toss this salad 33 times, the recommended amount for perfectly dressing any salad, be it greens or something like this chicken salad.

In all, Patricia Wells gave a fun, inspiring discussion. I cannot wait to dive into Salad as a Meal and re-imagine some of my own meals. I think these recipes will help with my constant lunchtime dilemma of what to eat without heat (no microwave at work). And admittedly seeing Ina Garten, the Barefoot Contessa herself, in real-life was a thrill for both Kyle and I! 
Wells was kind enough to take time to personally sign books for everyone who had one and also allowed us to take photos with her. The talk and demo were invigorating and I can't imagine better timing for this event than at the onset of spring's epicurean bounty! 


ParisBreakfasts said...

I was hoping to go but Jetlag got in the way.
Great review of the event and the book sounds enticing.

The Culinary Librarian said...

Thanks Carol! Wish you could've been there. Maybe we Francophile/macaron-lovers can get together someday. Love your blog and especially your beautiful watercolors!

Jill Colonna said...

Thanks for sharing the evening with us. Sounded super! Wish I'd had Patricia's advice sooner about the mandoline: recently served up a carpaccio of pineapple and thumb which wasn't funny. Enjoyed you review.

bibliochef said...

Just included this as a link in my review of Salad as a Meal on Cooking with Ideas.

The Culinary Librarian said...

Thanks Biblio chef! Glad you liked my write-up and hope you are enjoying Wells' book! Its a beauty.