The Fire That Lives Inside

When I entered second grade in 1977, I was a full reading level behind most of my classmates. I spent the next three months working at my own pace in an effort to play catchup to the rest of my peers so I wouldn’t be left behind. When at last I had completed the necessary coursework, my teacher told me something that I’ve never quite forgotten: “We can’t really teach anyone anything; we can only help them discover it within themselves.”

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I think some have lent an aura to cooking that makes it seem terribly complicated to a large percentage of society, which may help explain why it’s on a decline — within the United States, at least. For evidence, I point to the popularity of certain genres of food television programming, along with their attendant personalities, emphasis on convenience and a disdain for fresh, unprocessed ingredients that used to be a hallmark of cooking, as practiced here in this country.

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When I read articles like this one, that describe the trajectory that modern cooking is taking in America, that sinking feeling in my gut becomes a deep depression, one that threatens to overwhelm if it weren’t for the fire that lives inside all of us. This is why I remarked recently to a friend, that it’s up to each of us who has the opportunity to reach out to others and stoke or spark that fire, because if we don’t use our knowledge, then we will most certainly lose it, to the detriment of all.

Anchovy gougères, cherry tomato salad

Anchovy gougères, cherry tomato salad

The gougères recipe is adapted from Alice Waters’ The Art of Simple Food. The tomato salad is my own invention.

1/2 cup water
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into bits
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup flour
2 eggs
3 oil-packed anchovy fillets, chopped
1/4 lb. cherry tomatoes, quartered
1 shallot, peeled, trimmed and thinly sliced
juice of half a lime
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 teaspoon finely minced leafy carrot tops — optional
1/2 teaspoon julienned mint leaves
sea salt, to taste
freshly milled black pepper, to taste

For the gougères:

Combine salt, water and butter in a heavy-bottomed saucepan. Let water come to a gentle simmer on medium-low heat; do not let it come to a boil. When the butter has melted, add the flour. Stir vigorously until the mixture coheres and pulls away from the sides of the pot. Keep stirring for another minute over the heat, then transfer the contents of the pot to a mixing bowl and let cool for 1-2 minutes. Stirring will speed up the cooling process.

When the mixture has cooled slightly, beat in 2 eggs. Beat in the first egg thoroughly before adding the next. (Or you can do as I did — crack open an egg into a bowl and beat it with a fork, then add to the flour mixture. Stir the beaten egg into the dough completely before repeating the process. The dough will seem lumpy at first but it will smooth out after about a minute or so.)

Pre-heat the oven to 400 F. Add the anchovies to the dough and mix well.

Line two baking sheets with parchment paper. This step isn’t necessary, but it makes cleanup easier. Spoon the dough onto the baking sheets in spoonfuls either 1″ or 2″ in diameter and 1 1/2″ apart. Alternately, pipe out the puffs with a pastry bag with a 1/2″ plain tip.

Bake undisturbed for 10 minutes, at 400 F. Lower the temperature to 375 F and bake for 15 minutes more. The puffs should be golden brown and crisp on the outside. Serve immediately.

For the cherry tomato salad:

In a small bowl, combine the cherry tomatoes, shallots, carrot tops if using, mint, lime juice and extra-virgin olive oil. Mix well. Taste for salt and pepper, then serve at once.

Time: About 45 minutes, including prep. You can make the cherry tomato salad while the gougères are baking; alternately, the salad can be made one or two hours ahead.

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