A three-course menu that’s endlessly riffable

No matter what ingredients you use, this bold, briny stew from David Tanis sings alongside a radicchio-fennel salad and a grapefruit granita

When I’m cooking at home, I usually don’t have a recipe at hand. Often, I’m cooking by feel, like confidently noodling on the piano without sheet music. But, of course, you do need practice before you can ad-lib.

This menu features dishes that can be prepared using that approach, although recipes are supplied. Many home cooks are already comfortable with customising recipes or using them just as a starting point. But sometimes they really aren’t necessary. Relying on memory and paying close attention to the ingredients’ attributes can get you there.

Take this fennel and radicchio salad, for instance. It’s an easy dish to riff on. Say you’ve got two fine fennel bulbs from the market and a lovely head of radicchio. Imagine the possibilities.

A simple preparation requires just seasoning the sliced fennel with salt and pepper, adding lemon juice, a little grated garlic and flavourful olive oil, then tossing with torn radicchio to coat (you could also use curly endive or speckly Castelfranco in place of radicchio). For a more complex version, you could make a zippy vinaigrette with lemon, garlic and oil, then add chopped anchovy (a little or a lot) and perhaps a dab of Dijon mustard, since the combo of sweet fennel and bitter radicchio pair well with an assertive dressing.

A typical fish stew, as served in the south of France, is another example of a dish you can take liberties with. No matter the selection of seafood available, the method remains the same: an onion is softened in olive oil, before saffron, garlic, thyme, a touch of tomato and a speck of hot pepper are tossed in. It then all blooms together to concentrate the flavours. Then fish stock or water is added to build a broth and seasoned well. It should taste bright and full-flavoured before the fish and shellfish go in. Clams and mussels, if used, give it a layer of brininess. A good quantity of sliced Yukon Gold potatoes makes the stew more substantial (and stretches it, if you are low on fish and have extra mouths to feed). The potatoes also absorb a lot of flavour: I’d venture to say you could leave out the fish some time and call it a potato stew.

For a final course and a refreshing dessert, a granita couldn’t be easier to make, using any kind of fruit juice you fancy. This one uses ruby red grapefruit juice and pulp, for a seasonally appropriate rendition, though any type of citrus could substitute. Taste the juice before adding sugar; you may only need a little. Chopping the frozen juice is fun and, served in glasses, the granita looks like an elegant snow cone. I like to finish it with a few drops of orange flower water or sometimes a splash of Champagne.

All of these dishes have recipes, but if you know where you’re going, you may not need them.

Anytime fish and shellfish stew

Serves: 4 to 6

Total time: 45 minutes

Ingredients:

3 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil

1 medium onion, diced

Salt and pepper

4 garlic cloves, minced

1 bay leaf

1 large thyme sprig

Pinch of crumbled saffron threads

Pinch of red-pepper flakes or a whole small dried red pepper

Splash of dry white wine (about 60ml)

2 medium tomatoes, chopped, canned or fresh

950ml fish stock or water

900g yellow-fleshed potatoes, such as Yukon Gold, sliced about 0.5cm thick

6 medium cherrystone clams, scrubbed

450g boneless, skinless cod or halibut, cut in 2.5cm pieces

450g mussels, cleaned

Method:

1. Heat olive oil over medium in a large, heavy-bottomed soup pot or casserole dish. Add onions and stir to coat. Season with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring, until softened and lightly coloured, about 10 minutes.

2. Stir in garlic, bay leaf, thyme, saffron and red pepper, and cook for 1 minute. Add wine and tomatoes, and simmer 1 minute. Add stock and bring to a slow boil over medium. Add potatoes and a good pinch of salt. Adjust heat to a brisk simmer. Cook with lid ajar until potatoes are just done, about 10 minutes. Taste broth – it should be well seasoned – and adjust as necessary (you can do this up to an hour ahead of time).

3. As the broth simmers, add the clams, and cook for 5 minutes, covered with the lid ajar. Add cod and mussels on top, cover and cook until the mussels are done, 4 to 5 minutes. Turn off heat, and let the stew steep for 5 to 10 minutes, until the mussels and clams open. Serve in wide soup bowls.

Fennel and radicchio salad with anchovy and egg

Serves: 4 to 6

Total time: 15 minutes

Ingredients:

3 medium fennel bulbs, topped and trimmed, fronds reserved for another use

Salt and black pepper

3 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil

2 tbsp lemon juice (from 1 small lemon)

¼ tsp grated lemon zest

1 small garlic clove, grated or smashed to a paste

1 medium head radicchio (about 340g)

3 large eggs (cooked 8 minutes), cooled in ice water and peeled

4 to 6 anchovy fillets, preferably the best quality you can find, rinsed, patted dry and halved

Method:

1. Using a sharp knife or a mandoline, slice fennel crosswise ⅓cm thick. Place slices in a wide salad bowl, and season with salt and pepper to taste. Add olive oil, lemon juice and zest, and garlic. Toss everything together, coating the fennel well. Taste for salt and adjust (this can be done up to 30 minutes ahead).

2. Remove and discard any wilted outer leaves of radicchio. Separate tender leaves, tearing large ones into smaller pieces.

3. To finish the salad, quarter the eggs. Add radicchio to the salad bowl and sprinkle very lightly with salt. Toss together radicchio and fennel, coating everything well. Garnish with quartered eggs (yolks should have a moist centre). Top eggs with the anchovy fillets.

Ruby grapefruit granita

Serves: 6

Total time: 20 minutes, plus at least 4 hours’ freezing

Ingredients:

6 medium ruby red grapefruits

100g sugar, or less to taste

Orange flower water, for finishing (optional)

Method:

1. Halve the grapefruits crosswise, and squeeze juice into a large wide bowl, allowing any pulp to fall in. Use a teaspoon to pluck out any seed or pith in the bowl.

2. Whisk in sugar until completely dissolved. Pour mixture into a low baking dish to a depth of 1.5cm (a 22-by-33cm baking dish will work). Place the dish in the freezer for at least 4 hours or overnight, until frozen solid. The frozen mixture will look like packed snow.

3. Use a fork to smash the frozen mixture into rough chunks and transfer to 6 serving glasses. Place glasses in the freezer until serving time. If desired, add ½ teaspoon orange flower water per glass.

© The New York Times

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