Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Quick nut oils, a la Patricia Wells

It doesn’t happen nearly as often as I’d like, but my family has grown accustomed to me returning home giddy after a close encounter with a culinary legend. Tonight it was Patricia Wells, who was in town for a reading at Quail Ridge Books to promote her new collection, Salad as a Meal.

“So charming,” I enthused, as Tim – who has given me several of her books as gifts – asked if she’s the one who wrote The Talented Mr. Ripley.

“She showed slides of her place in Provence, with its garden full of lettuces and 40 different kinds of heirloom tomatoes,” I added, still swooning from the sight of curious, colorful varietals clinging to drops of morning dew. “Plus, she wore seriously cute shoes.”

Wells, whose sister lives in Raleigh, has become something of a regular at Quail Ridge Books, where she likely will return in November to promote her 13th cookbook, “Simply Truffles.” It was clear that the room was full of regulars, including one woman who has travelled to France three times to take her weeklong cooking classes and another who impressively name-dropped having worked with MFK Fisher.

For someone who has enjoyed an extraordinary career – her first job out of college was as art critic for the Washington Post, then she worked alongside Craig Claiborne and Pierre Franey as a food writer at the New York Times before becoming très apprécié in France – she is engaging low-key about her success, making it all sound as organic and natural as the olives and grapes that thrive on her estate.

“I was always surrounded by good and healthy food,” Wells said, crediting her mother for always serving fresh and delicious meals. “She never got flustered in the kitchen, which I found inspiring.”

Wells said that “beginning with the freshest ingredients you can find” is the best way to approach any kind of cooking. The salads in her book, she said, typically blend seasonal ingredients with crunch for textural satisfaction.

“Sometimes I make polenta croutons or add a sprinkling of curried pumpkin seeds,” she said. “I love crispiness and crunch.”

Noting that her new book includes sides and soups as well as salads, Wells listed some of her personal favorites: Tomato and Mustard Tart with Artichokes, Salmon and Halibut Tartare, Frisee au Lardons, Ham and Cheese Bread (“One of my Top 10; I make it all the time”); and Provence on a Plate, an elegant stack of eggplant, tomato, tapenade and goat cheese.

Since her remarks focused on salads, I asked Wells about her favorite oils during the Q&A. She and her husband produce a small batch of oil from their own olives, she said, but she is keen on nut oils – especially pistachio oil.

“It’s actually quite easy to make your own nut oils,” she said, describing a technique recently discovered when she demonstrated a recipe at Google headquarters, whose kitchen lacked needed pistachio oil.

“The chef toasted the nuts, ground them and marinated them in warm oil for a few hours,” she said. “It worked there and I’ve since made oil with almonds at home, where I drizzled it on asparagus. I didn’t even strain it; the bits looked pretty on the spears.”

Wells said to use whatever nut you like best to make a specialty oil. Use a 1-to-1 ratio of toasted nuts to mild canola oil – not olive oil, which may be too strong. Try about 1/3 cup nuts to 1/3 cup canola. You can refrigerate any unused oil, but Wells suggests making small portions as needed.

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