I went to Cape May with a good appetite. Judging by the non-clothing items I packed, I would say I brought with me an appetite for inspiration. I stuffed totes with magazines, non-fiction and fiction books, camera, sketchbook and colored pencils.
I wanted to be ready for Cape May to seep into my mind.
Into my book bag I tucked In The Kitchen With A Good Appetite, which had been my pool reading. Enjoying it so much I didn't want to leave it behind for two weeks, it became my vacation bedtime book. I devoured it, finishing before our trip's end.
I knew I wanted to start cooking some of Melissa's recipe's as soon as we were settled back home. The stories preceding each recipe, however, were what pleased me most. She is at once serious and amusing, and deeply confident in seeking her vision of a dish.
It made me laugh, how she repeatedly admitted how she can never leave someone else's recipe alone, she can't help herself from tweaking it to meet her own tastes and desires.
Perhaps what surprised me most lies in the types of foods she excludes. Pasta, grains, muffins, scones, soup, these clearly never played a role in her growth as a cook. Her preferences shaped by her upbringing and early professional experiences, she holds fast to what she likes.
Her confidence and focus inspire me to pay more attention to flavors and textures I hope to replicate. Sometimes I think I need to nudge myself beyond my starting points, which tend toward focus on the most perishable items in my kitchen, and be more like Melissa--in-tune with my appetite, deciding what I want to eat and going after it.
Given then, how Melissa cooks according to her own tastes, I shouldn't have been so surprised when I wanted to slightly alter many of the recipes I tried. I truly expected each to stand perfectly.
It taught me to trust in my own tastes and create a personal vision, using her version as inspiration.
So, I don't toss off the granola recipe I found too sweet and sticky or the fennel frond pesto that caused me to say too salty, instead I have tried again with the season's last fennel bulb in my garden and plan to return to the granola when we have emptied the jar. The kale salad cried out to me for hazelnuts, but alas, I experimented with the last of my Tuscan Kale until the Fall. The chicken fingers said meatballs, and I plan to give that a try this coming week. I don't think Melissa would be offended, I expect she would consider my deviations perfectly in order.
The chocolate ice cream, however, churned beautifully before our eyes and turned out to be one of the best ice creams I have yet to make. Olivia and I made it together, and then sat on the couch savoring our puddles of richness on a hot Summer family movie night.
I have a bag full of fennel fronds, and may be making fennel frond pesto for some time to come, no doubt finding different ways to use it. The lovely bed of caramelized fennel bulb and onion will hopefully reappear in Autumn.
Fish Fillets with Fennel Frond Pesto
adapted from In the Kitchen with A Good Appetite
1 fennel bulb with fronds attached
5 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oilSalt and freshly ground pepper to taste
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 tablespoons pine nuts or slivered almonds
1 small onion, halved and thinly sliced
2 fish fillets, such as Tilapia or Arctic Char
1. Chop off the fennel fronds and coarsely chop enough to measure 1 cup (discard or save the rest for another batch of pesto). Put the chopped fronds in a food processor. Add the garlic, nuts, 1/8 teaspoon salt, and a generous pinch of pepper, and process until finely chopped. Add 4 tablespoons of the oil and continue to process until the mixture looks like pesto. Adjust salt to taste. Set pesto aside.
2. Halve the fennel bulb and pull off any browned outer layers. Using a small knife, cut the core out of the bulb, then slice the bulb as thinly as you can.
3. In a medium skillet, heat 1 tablespoon of the oil over medium heat. Add the fennel slices, onion, and a large pinch of salt and pepper. Saute the vegetables until caramelized and softened, about 20 minutes. (After 15 minutes, you may need to add a tablespoon at a time of water to keep the mixture from drying out while it finishes cooking).
4. Cook 2 fish fillets simply, according to your preferences. We have both baked and grilled Tilapia and Artic Char with olive oil, salt and pepper. Spread the fennel-onion mixture onto two plates, and place the fish fillets on top. Top with dabs of pesto or serve at the table.