Heidi Krahling’s Cookbook Homage to her Customers

There comes a time in every chef’s life when writing a cookbook becomes almost inevitable. Chef Heidi Krahling, whose San Anselmo restaurant Insalata’s is now a fixture of the local restaurant scene, self-published her first cookbook, Insalata’s Mediterranean Table in late 2009.

Filled to the brim with her customer’s favorite recipes, Insalata’s Mediterranean Table is Krahling’s homage to both her culinary influences and to the customers who have supported her restaurant for over 13 years.

To cook from Insalata’s is to get inside Krahling’s head. Taught first by her Italian father and later by respected Chefs like Mary Risley and Joyce Goldstein, Krahling’s cooking reflects a certainty built on years of experience that terrific ingredients produce terrific flavor. It is a chef’s role to coax what is best from each product, to work in harmony with the seasons, and not mess around too much with what nature provides. Prepare a few of these recipes and you, too, will understand the underpinnings and flavor profiles of Mediterranean cuisine.

Most cookbooks today write a recipe to within an inch of its life – there is little room for experimentation. Krahling’s recipes are more open in style. She will not tell you in the Porcini-Crusted Steak recipe, for example, to “grill a filet for 4 minutes per side.” Instead you will be encouraged to “cook, turning once, to desired degree of doneness.”

Some will find this lack of articulation maddening. If you are comfortable with the inherent uncertainty of cooking and can operate a stove, you will understand that Krahling’s recipes give you needed space to interpret according to what the ingredients and the day require.

Advanced equipment is not required to cook from Insalata’s, but a well-stocked pantry will come in handy. Various oils, vinegars, nuts and seeds, salt and spices are called for, and regional foods such as piquillo peppers (native to Northern Spain), tarama (Greek-Turkish salted carp roe), Aleppo pepper (a spice native to northern Syria), and grape leaves make special appearances.

To fully appreciate the depth and breadth of flavors of the Mediterranean kitchen, get a hold of a sturdy spice grinder, citrus zester and food processor – these kitchen tools will be in heavy rotation. It helps, too, if you have a good relationship with a green grocer or farmer’s market for fresh fruits, vegetables and herbs.

Many recipes are designed to amply serve a family of four or an intimate dinner party for eight. A sign of a well-written cookbook — most recipes are easily halved or quartered for smaller gatherings.

Ambitious cooks will enjoy the “extras” that make dining at Insalata’s so special. Mista Salad — loaded with baby lettuces, sweet herbs, and a hint of prosciutto and pine nuts — tastes fresh and appealing with the accompanying vinaigrette. Take the time to prepare the Mista Onions that garnish the restaurant version and your salad will go from appealing to the best salad you’ve had in a long time.

Porcini-Crusted Steak has a hint of spice, a gorgeous crust and an earthy, full taste. But, add the suggested Salsa Verde and that masculine steak is beautifully balanced with the nip of capers, lemon and garlic, and takes the steak to an even better place.

For the Conchiglie Rigate (Pasta Shells) with Summer Squash, you can substitute store-bought pesto, but it is the homemade version, along with fresh lemon zest and clabbered cottage cheese, that makes this summer garden dish tangy-creamy and impossible to stop eating.

Not every dish was a success when I made it – the Spicy Greens had a warm and spicy flavor, redolent of the fresh cumin and coriander within, but suffered from too high heat and too little water in the pan. Agrodolce: Sweet and Sour Chicken did not produce a luscious sauce – but the flavor was so good, all was quickly lapped up with the Creamy Polenta.

This beautiful book, with vivid drawings and vibrant still lifes by Laura Parker, includes some photos of the finished dishes. Krahling’s recipes are well-written and translate easily from restaurant to the home kitchen.

As the cook, you may take shortcuts to save time and the results will please but Insalata’s is at it’s best when cooking time is savored and friends and family can share in the joy of cooking together. This is Krahling’s message to us: seasonal foods, simply prepared, are the heart and soul of the Mediterranean kitchen. Cook from Insalata’s and revel in the flavor.