Tuesday, July 13, 2010

A Dinner for Isabelle--Cook The Books: "The School of Essential Ingredients"

Our current selection for Cook The Books, (the virtual foodie book club co-hosted by Rachel, The Crispy Cook, Johanna from Food Junkie Not Junk Food and yours truly), is "The School of Essential Ingredients"--the first novel by Erica Bauermeister. I had actually read and enjoyed this book a few months before Rachel, our host for this round selected it and I was happy to do a little re-reading to help me decide what to make from the endless possibilities.

"The School of Essential Ingredients" is the story of Lillian, a chef and restaurateur who holds a monthly cooking class on Monday evenings. The book gives us a peek into the lives of the eight students, and Lillian herself as they are brought together by food, friendship and love. It is a charming, well written book, and one that I was sorry to see end, as I grew to care about each of the characters and wanted to know more about them and their lives. Although at Lillian's restaurant to take a cooking class, each of the students learns not just how to create delicious food, but learns something about themselves in the process.

For my Cook The Books entry, I was drawn to the meal Lillian serves Isabelle, an older woman losing her short-term memories, who shows up on the wrong night, thinking it is time for cooking class. Not only did the simple yet elegant dinner of a glass of sparkling white wine, a salad of mixed lettuces, dried cranberries, pear and almonds, salmon on cannellini beans with fried sage and a lemon tart for dessert sound delicious, I was touched by the grace, love and care that Lillian gave Isabelle. Delicious, nourishing food, served from the heart--which is where the best meals come from. The meal involves all of Isabelle's senses and takes her back through her past. I decided to recreate my interpretation of the dinner, just putting things together either in the way I imagine they might be, or the way I wanted them--but all inspired by the book.

"The taste was the first day of spring, with the sharp bite of the cranberries, quickly following the firm crunch of nuts, the softness of pear flesh. Each taste here, defined, gone, mellowed only slightly by the touch of champagne vinegar in the dressing."

Champagne Vinaigrette
by Deb, Kahakai Kitchen
(Makes about 1/2 cup)

1 shallot, peeled and very finely minced
1/4 cup champagne vinegar
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
3/4 teaspoon salt
Freshly ground pepper to taste

Combine all ingredients together and whisk until thoroughly blended.

Serve with salad of mixed baby lettuces, dried cranberries, toasted, thin sliced almonds, and thinly sliced pear.

"Isabelle looked down--the empty salad plate was gone without her noticing, replaced by a dinner plate of white cannellini beans, atop of which sat a perfect piece of salmon, garnished with strips of fried green leaves. Isabelle picked up one of them experimentally and brought it to her nose. Dusty green, the smell of life made out of sun and little water, the driest of perfumes. Sage."

For my salmon and beans, I decided to simply roast a piece of salmon (in this case a piece of Wild Alaskan King Salmon), in the oven with a little olive oil, salt and pepper. For the beans, I soaked dried cannellini beans, then cooked them in water with sauteed onions, garlic, and a couple of sage sprigs. I took some liberties and added some crisped prosciutto because the only thing better than creamy beans with sage, is creamy beans with sage and crisp prosciutto! ;-) Then I quick-fried some sage leaves for the garnish.

Simple Roasted Salmon
by Deb, Kahakai Kitchen
(Serves 2)

2 (5 to 6 oz) pieces salmon fillet with skin
2 teaspoon extra-virgin olive oil plus additional for drizzling
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Preheat oven to 425 degrees F. Drizzle salmon all over with olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Roast (skin side down), on a foil-lined baking sheet until fish is just cooked through, about 12-14 minutes. Carefully lift flesh from skin with a metal spatula and transfer salmon to a serving plate.

Creamy Cannellini Beans with Prosciutto & Fried Sage
by Deb, Kahakai Kitchen
(Makes about 4 cups)

2 cups dried cannellini (white kidney beans)
water--enough to cover beans
1 tablespoons olive oil
2-3 slices prosciutto, chopped coarsely
1 medium onion, finely chopped
3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
2 small sprigs fresh sage
sea salt & black pepper to taste

Place dried beans in large bowl, cover with cold water and let soak overnight. Drain.

Heat olive oil in a large saucepan or pot over medium heat, add prosciutto and cook until crisp--about 5 minutes. Remove from pan, drain on paper towels and set aside. Add onions to same pan and cook about 5 minutes until softened. Add garlic and cook another 2 minutes. Add
drained beans to onions and garlic and add enough water to cover beans by about 1 inch or so. Add sage sprigs and bring to a simmer over medium-high heat. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer beans uncovered about 1 1/2 hours or longer, stirring occasionally until beans are tender, adding more water if needed to keep beans just covered. Remove sage sprigs, season beans to taste with salt and pepper, add prosciutto and warm through. Serve with fried sage leaves.

Fried Sage Leaves

about 10-12 fresh sage leaves
olive or canola oil
sea salt (optional)

Rinse sage leaves and lay flat on a double layer of paper towels, then cover with more towels and press gently to dry and flatten out leaves. Pour oil into a small pan to a depth of about 1/4 inch, and heat over medium-high heat. When hot, lower heat to medium and gently add sage, a few leaves at a time. Fry just until oil stops bubbling around leaves--about 10 to 12 seconds (do not let sage brown), then remove carefully with tongs or a slotted spoon and drain on more paper towels. If desired, sprinkle with sea salt to taste. Serve warm.

Notes/Results: Excellent dinner! The salad was a great combination of flavor and texture. I also think it would be nice with a little goat cheese added but it was quite delicious as it was. The salmon ended up cooked perfectly, tender and "like buttah" (Why roasting salmon is my favorite way to prepare good quality, wild salmon.) The beans were creamy and delicious with lots of flavor from the onion, garlic, sage and prosciutto. I found myself going back to snag bites of them from the fridge later--they were so good. The crunchy fried sage leaves added great texture and more good flavor and with the salmon it was pretty perfect. I would make it all again, happily! ;-)

"They ate in an easy silence, reveling in the creamy lemon tart in front of them. After a while, Isabelle spoke again. "You know," she said, holding up a forkful, "I am starting to think that maybe memories are like this dessert. I eat it, and it becomes a part of me, whether I remember it later or not."

For dessert, I could pretend I made a lemon tart, but I didn't for a number of reasons:
  1. Remember, I am NOT A BAKER!
  2. The weather has been humid and not conducive to baking
  3. I don't need a whole lemon tart!
When buying my salmon and things at Whole Foods, I happened to glance at the pastry case and saw the cutest little one-bite lemon and lemon raspberry tarts. Automatic portion control! So I bought a couple of the tarts to serve with the meal. I am sure Lillian's tart would have been amazing but these were pretty tasty and much more figure-friendly than a whole tart would have been. ;-)

So there it is...a delicious dinner for Isabelle and for me. Simply prepared, real food made from quality ingredients, and the epitome of comfort--like a big hug for the belly and the soul. (Much like "The School of Essential Ingredients" itself.) Thanks to Rachel for picking another wonderful book that provided great inspiration. If you want to join us for this round of CTB, you have until July 30th to read the book and submit a dish inspired by it. Rachel will be rounding up all of the entries at the end of the month and a winner selected by our author, Erica Bauermeister herself. Hope you join us!

I am also linking this post and particularly the salmon and cannellini bean dish to Two for Tuesdays at the blog of my friend girlichef, who co-hosts this event celebrating real food, wholesome and natural with 5 other fabulous bloggers each week. With Lillian's love of good, soulful food, it seems only fitting. ;-)


  1. This meal of Isabelle's was one of my favorite parts of the book! I'm so glad you commemorated it with this meal. That salmon does look perfectly cooked!

  2. This looks lovely! It was such a sweet book. I need to get organised and make my entry!

    I did salmon with beans the other night and I had completely forgotten that it was in the book!

  3. Looks gorgeous, Deb! I loved Isabelle's story, and this meal was such a great part of her story!

    Guess I need to get my dish picked out to work on, huh?

  4. What a good idea! I'm definitely going to check out the next round of Cook the Books. And I wholeheartedly am on your side with the mini-tarts-- little (and not fussed about by you) is sometimes certainly better. I'm soaking beans already!

  5. "I am starting to think that maybe memories are like this dessert. I eat it, and it becomes a part of me, whether I remember it later or not." - I love that quote!!

    This book sounds like a great read. Everything looks delicious. Love all the textures in the salad and the salmon looks amazing. We've been cooking salmon in little pouches on the grill, but I definitely want to try it roasted next time. It looks like it would melt in your mouth.

  6. Wow Deb! You opened up a whole new world for me! I had no clue there were foodie novels! Will have to check this out, but your recipes look to die for as are your photos! Now I have to go eat something because you made me so hungry! Thanks for sharing the real food love on the two for tuesday recipe blog hop! :) alex@amoderatelife

  7. This is beautiful, Deb!! It is exactly how I pictured it as I read that part...it looks so delicious and definitely memory-invoking. Gorgeous =) Thanks so much for sharing it with Two for Tuesdays this week!

  8. Wow, that really captured that moment in the book. Way to go Deb!

    I must make that salmon dish soon as I think my crew would snap it right down.

  9. The book sounds like something I would love! I wish there were more hours in the day to get involved in these great events. I would love to eat this wonderfully delicious meal and read the book at the same time!

  10. Mmm, this makes me so glad that salmon is coming into season. I love fried sage leaves - how they can go from being so pungent when raw to crispy and soulful when fried. Thanks for sharing with the blog hop.

  11. That was truely a lovely post and I enjoyed the tribute to Isabelle. My heart went out to her. Wonderful dishes you have prepared her Deb. Would love to pull up a chair at your table any time!

  12. Your whole meal is just beautiful. A treat for the eys. I could eat salmon every night of the week.

  13. Wow... what a lovely posting. And I have to admit I LOVE Erica's book. I was inspired to try making corn tortillas after reading it.

    And like you, I hated to see the story end. So I read it again, only the second round I read it aloud to my hubby, who was equally enchanted.

    My first time visit.... I'm sharing your link with my sister who enjoys cooking too.

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  15. I read recipe books like novels, I didn't know there were novels that inspire recipes. Thanks so much for sharing this at Two for Tuesdays.

  16. On your recommendation, I put the book on reserve at our library. The meal certainly is lovely and your photos of it are wonderful. I hope you are having a great day. Blessings...Mary

  17. Oh, Deb, you can't imagine how much I love this post and the whole "cook the book" idea! I'm am a voracious reader and a long time (11+ years) member of a book club ... and I can't believe we never thought to do this!

    I'm going to have to remedy that, though it may be a tough sell as many in my group don't really cook. :(

    In any case, what a beautiful meal! I love every bit of it and I'm marking down this book as a must-read. Thanks for the recommendation!

  18. what a beautiful story, and what a wonderful meal!
    thanks so much for sharing this with us!

  19. I loved this part of the story, also. Your meal looks wonderful. I only wish my family would eat salmon! I still have to figure out what I'm going to make for Cook the Books. I think it will have to be the white on white cake. I am much better at baking than cooking. We will see....

  20. Beautiful! That champagne vinaigrette really has my attention. I'm always on the lookout for salad dressings. I had fried sage on a dish during our travels and it added so much flavor. I need to try it at home!

  21. Oh WOW. I'm speechless! What a gorgeous spread Deb!! I'm in awe!! Beautifully selected and presented! I've got to try your recipe for cannellini beans!
    Simply awesome my dear!

  22. I am totally with you regarding roasting salmon (and by salmon I mean wild king salmon): the fish is so full of flavor that a simple roasting is all it needs. You prepared a very nice dinner. I also like pears in my salad.

  23. Your dinner for Isabelle is truly memorable. Kelly

  24. Deb, what an elegant dinner; everything looks so delicious. And, a great review of the book.

  25. What an elegant yet hearty dinner. That champagne vinaigrette sounds amazing. I have just started reading "Climbing the Mango Trees" and I think it is going to be a very tasty round of CTB. Great pick!


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