If you’re interested in culinary history, you will devour Provence, 1970: M.F.K. Fisher, Julia Child, James Beard, and the Reinvention of American Taste. The memoir, written by M.F.K. Fisher’s nephew, Luke Barr, was inspired by letters he discovered after the great food writer’s death. Barr pieced together an account of a singular trip to the South of France when Fisher joined culinary icons Beard, Child, Richard Olney, Simone Beck and Child’s editor Judith Jones for a whole lot of cooking and talking. The aftermath was a reshaping of America’s food culture and, ironically, a turning away from traditional French cuisine, the prevalent trend of the time.
It’s a fascinating story, but the best part of the book, to me, is Barr’s description of childhood visits to his aunt’s cottage in Napa Valley. Never, ever, did Fisher fuss over a meal while guests were there. Simple dishes had been prepared ahead and were ready to be served, chilled or at room temperature, any time they felt like eating. Mary Frances (as her nearest and dearest called her) could then relax and enjoy her visitors.
Visions of Mary Frances’s casual hospitality danced in my head as I invited a few friends for supper. Since my husband Drake was away, I couldn’t depend on him to grill the main course, which he often does as I chat away with our company. This was my big chance to serve salmon (a fish Drake despises) as well as quinoa, one of those “weird grains” he’s not crazy about.
I chose a third dish for beauty and ease of cooking: simple red and yellow bell peppers, sliced into strips, tossed with olive oil and salt, and roasted in the oven (no need to burn and peel the peppers).
Just as Mary Frances did, I let the dishes sit on the kitchen island as I joined my guests for a leisurely cocktail. We dined when we were good and ready.
This is now my new favorite menu for company when Drake is out of town. Both of these dishes travel well, making them great choices for tailgates or potlucks.
- 2-3 lb. filet of salmon (you need 4-6 oz. per serving)
- Olive oil
- Lemon peel, grated
- Salt and pepper
- Fresh thyme sprigs, optional
- One lemon, sliced into rounds, optional
Preheat oven to 250 degrees. (Trust me, something truly amazing happens to salmon when you cook it this slowly.)
Place the salmon, skin side down, on an oiled baking dish. Baste it liberally with olive oil, then sprinkle with salt, pepper and lemon peel, to taste. Top with thyme sprigs and thin lemon slices, if you like, or substitute fresh dill and sliced sweet onions. Cover with aluminum foil.
Bake for 25-30 minutes, depending on the thickness of the filet, until salmon is opaque. Serve warm or at room temperature. There’s no hurry! Chill the leftovers. It’s delicious cold, too. Serves 6-8.
Mediterranean Quinoa-Style Salad
- 1 cup uncooked quinoa, preferably red
- 1/2 tsp. salt
- 1/3 cup chopped red or sweet onion
- 1 small clove garlic, chopped finely
- 1 cup chopped seeded cucumber
- 1 1/2 cups chopped tomato
- 2 Tbsp. or more chopped fresh basil or mint
- 1/4 cup roughly chopped kalamata olives
- 1/3 cup crumbled feta cheese
- 1 Tbsp. red wine vinegar
- 2 Tbsp. olive oil
- Salt and black pepper, to taste
Cook quinoa with salt and water, according to package directions. Pour into a large bowl and let cool to room temperature. Red quinoa is prettier, but no different in flavor.
Stir in all remaining ingredients. Adjust seasonings, adding more herbs or oil and vinegar if you think it needs it. Refrigerate until company comes or serve immediately. Serves 6-8.