“More and more I gravitate towards food that makes me feel something. If I’m going to bother cooking, however much time I have, I want it to be great. I want it to feel good,” says chef and cookbook author Danielle Alvarez. The dishes in her Recipes for a Lifetime of Beautiful Cooking are testament to this idea, in many guises - whether that be a labour of love or a quick weeknight meal. Here are three dishes that illustrate the point perfectly.
Crisp leaves with peas and buttermilk herb dressing
A good, creamy herb dressing paired with crisp, cold, crunchy salad leaves is one of my favourite combinations – an American steakhouse staple typically known as a “wedge” salad, using a wedge of iceberg lettuce with a dressing of either ranch or blue cheese. I like to think mine is a little lighter: heavy on the fresh herbs and omitting the blue cheese for something that complements the delicate spring vegetables better. The mixture of sour cream and mayonnaise ensures you have something that feels light on the tongue but rich enough to coat the leaves.
½ cup fresh peas (or frozen works fine)
3 heads little gem lettuce (or other crisp lettuce such as cos or iceberg), leaves separated
1 small head fennel, thinly sliced on a mandoline (or with a very sharp knife)
Buttermilk herb dressing
Scant ½ cup sour cream
Scant ½ cup buttermilk
2 Tbsp mayonnaise
Juice of half a lemon, about 2 Tbsp
3 Tbsp chopped chives
1 Tbsp chopped dill
1 clove garlic, grated on a microplane
1 small French shallot, finely diced
Fine sea salt
Freshly cracked black pepper
1. Bring a pot of salted water to a boil and blanch your fresh peas for about 3 minutes. Strain and shock them in an ice bath as soon as they come out. If using frozen peas, simply thaw them before using (see note).
2. Wash your lettuce and dry it well, either using a salad spinner or laying the washed leaves out on clean tea towels and carefully wrapping them.
3. To make the dressing, add all the ingredients (except for salt and pepper) to a small bowl and whisk to combine. Taste and adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper.
4. To serve, arrange the lettuce leaves on a large platter and top with the peas and sliced fennel. Finish by drizzling as much of the dressing as you like over the salad. Keep any excess dressing in the fridge for other uses (see serving suggestion).
Note: Frozen peas are flash steamed before freezing, consequently they don’t need to be cooked, just warmed quickly, to ensure they retain their colour and pop. Simply place the frozen peas in a strainer and hold them under warm running water.
Serving suggestions: This salad dressing recipe makes more than the salad requires but it holds well in the fridge for several days. It’s excellent to dip pizza into, or pizza crusts at least, as well as crudités. It can be difficult to find buttermilk in small amounts, but any leftover buttermilk makes an excellent marinade for chicken or can be frozen to use another time.
Chicken paillard with sage, garlic and brown butter
An instant classic. Paillard is a lovely French word that simply means “flattened”. It’s a great technique for chicken breast, which can be difficult to cook properly; the (gentle) bashing will tenderise the meat, while the uniform thickness ensures the meat cooks evenly, removing one of the great chagrins of this cut. For this small effort you’ll be rewarded with a succulent, golden chicken breast … add crisp fried capers and sage leaves, brown butter and lemon juice and this becomes a recipe for pure happiness.
2 x 200g chicken breasts, boneless and skinless
½ cup plain flour
2 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
50g unsalted butter
8 garlic cloves, unpeeled and smashed
2 Tbsp capers in brine, rinsed
Half a bunch of sage, leaves picked (about 20–30 leaves)
Zest and juice of half a lemon
100ml chicken stock
Fine sea salt
Freshly cracked black pepper
1. Butterfly the chicken breast (see note) and place it in between two sheets of baking paper. Use a rolling pin to bash the chicken until it’s 3-4 mm thick. Remove the paper and season the chicken with salt and pepper on both sides. Tip the flour onto a plate or tray and dredge the chicken in the flour.
2. Set a wide, flat frying pan over a high heat and add the olive oil. When the pan is hot, add the chicken and cook for 1–2 minutes per side, until slightly golden. Remove the chicken from the pan and reduce the heat to medium.
3. Add in the butter and garlic cloves. When the butter has browned, add in the capers and sage and fry for 30 seconds. Next, add in the lemon zest and juice, along with the chicken stock. Simmer the pan sauce until it has reduced by half, then add the chicken back in, coating it in the sauce and cooking for a further minute just to heat it through. Serve immediately.
Note: To butterfly a chicken breast, lay it in on a chopping board with the thicker end pointing away from you. Press down on to the chicken with the palm of your hand while you use your other hand to cut through the length of the chicken breast using a chef‘s knife, aiming to get as close to the centre as possible. Do this slowly and carefully. As you cut, use the hand that’s pressing down on the breast to lift the top piece of breast away from the bottom. Cut all the way through to the other end, leaving you with two thin slices of chicken breast.
Strawberry, ricotta and spelt loaf
Makes 1 loaf
This butter cake is so heavenly that when I first tested it, my partner and I devoured the entire thing in one day! Butter-based cakes can be tricky to master, but they are oh-so-good when you do, and a foundational kitchen skill to boot. It’s crucial your ingredients are at room temperature; you are bringing together disparate items – flour, eggs, butter and sugar – that don’t necessarily want to be friends. Your best chance for a successful emulsion is to give them as much in common as possible – in this case, their temperature. As with mayonnaise, if some of your ingredients are too cold or too warm, the mixture will split (not the end of the world, but the cake will be a little denser and oilier, rather than light and fluffy).
225g spelt flour (see note)
1½ tsp baking powder
½ tsp fine sea salt
60ml whole milk
3 eggs, at room temperature
1 tsp vanilla extract
250g strawberries (1 punnet)
1 Tbsp lemon zest (about 1 lemon)
175g unsalted butter, at room temperature or slightly warmer (but not melted)
250g white sugar
1 Tbsp raw sugar
1. Before you begin: Leave your butter and eggs out on the bench overnight to come to room temperature. Alternatively, carefully place your eggs (in the shell) into a glass of lukewarm water, where they will come to temperature in about 10 minutes. To speed up the butter softening, warm a ceramic bowl in a low oven, then place it upside down over the butter and leave for 10 minutes.
2. Preheat the oven to 160C fan-forced. Line your loaf tin with baking paper, allowing the sides of the paper to extend past the edges of the tin.
3. Combine the flour, baking powder and salt in a bowl. In a separate bowl, combine the milk and ricotta. Set both bowls aside.
4. Crack the eggs into a small bowl (do not whisk) and add the vanilla extract. Set aside.
5. Hull and chop half of the strawberries and mix them with the lemon zest in another bowl. Hull and cut the remaining strawberries into rounds. Set both lots of strawberries aside, keeping them separate.
6. Add the butter and white sugar to the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment and beat on a high speed until the mixture is light, fluffy and almost white in colour. This will take about 5-7 minutes. Stop the machine and scrape down the sides as needed. With the machine running, add the eggs, letting one slide in at a time, and waiting until each egg is fully incorporated before adding in the next.
7. Stop the machine, add in half the flour mixture and turn the machine on to low speed to just combine. Add in the milk-ricotta mixture and mix until combined. Finally, stop the machine again and add in the remaining flour mixture, along with the chopped strawberries and lemon zest. Return the machine to a low speed and mix until it all just comes together.
8. Pour the batter into the tin and top with the rounds of strawberries. Sprinkle the raw sugar over the strawberries and bake for 70-80 minutes, until a skewer inserted into the centre of the cake comes out clean. Let the loaf cool in the tin before tipping it out. Slice and serve.
Note: Spelt flour is worth seeking out – I love the nuttiness it gives to cakes – but if you can’t find it, swap it for wholemeal or plain (all-purpose) flour.
Edited extract from Recipes for a Lifetime of Beautiful Cooking by Danielle Alvarez with Libby Travers. Photography by Alan Benson. Published by Murdoch Books. RRP $55.