Foodie blogs her story of love and simplicity

"Poor Man's Feast" focuses on simplicity, quality ingredients.
"Poor Man's Feast" focuses on simplicity, quality ingredients.
Posted: March 01, 2013

'Love does strange things to people," is all Elissa Altman can say.

It made her trade Manhattan's urban chic for the "Green Acres" of Connecticut, and trout foam for backyard broccoli, and then write about her crazy adventures and in a food blog called "Poor Man's Feast" and a new memoir by the same name.

In 2012, Altman won the James Beard Foundation award for best individual food blog. Her memoir is to be released by Chronicle Books on March 5, which, coincidentally, is the first of three days that she's scheduled to emcee culinary events at the Philadelphia Flower Show.

The show runs March 2-10 at the Pennsylvania Convention Center.

The subtitle of the book - A Love Story of Comfort, Desire, and the Art of Simple Cooking - tells the tale. Altman finds unlikely love with partner-now-spouse Susan Turner, simultaneously wending her way through the land of white truffle ravioli and piment d'Espelette to a state of gastronomic simplicity.

Not that love or food is simple, especially when it involves a hotheaded New York Jew enamored of fancy excess in the kitchen (Altman) and a mindful Connecticut Catholic (Turner) who is Yankee-frugal and fond of "food that comforts and consoles."

They found each other in 2000 on an online dating site, where Altman was looking for "a relatively normal relationship with a relatively normal person who actually liked food, who wasn't threatened by it, wasn't allergic to it, and was genuinely interested in it."

Turner, a book designer who's now 59, "grew up in a house where food was plentiful, but considered fuel," writes Altman, 49, a food writer and editor, whose family had its own mealtime oddities. Although Dad loved elegant dining, everyday fare was "something to be beaten into submission, right after it was immolated."

The immolator of those chops and steaks was Altman's mother, a former fur model so weight-obsessed she monitored the sizes in her daughter's clothing.

"I adore my mother," Altman says in a phone interview. "Whatever she's done, she's done out of affection and love, even though it's gotten weird at times."

And so, Altman and Turner, with their disparate baggage and food histories and a combined collection of 800 cookbooks, came into each other's lives, only to discover that they shared "an almost preternatural instinct to feed people."

Altman describes the bond: "We both place a lot of value on communion and conviviality and stepping off the track of the crazy commuting and rushing around, and sitting down with people we care for, providing some comfort for them."

Speaking of commuting, after a year of weekend back-and-forths between Altman's city apartment and Turner's tiny house in rural Harwinton, Conn., Altman moved up north.

The two now live in Newtown, Conn., in a bigger house, on 1.2 acres. Altman cooks, Turner bakes, and their life, while still hectic and food-centric, has found a new rhythm.

The multicourse dinners of dazzling complexity have given way to a style that "just gets more and more elemental and simple. "My cooking has evolved from being vertical and tall and annoying to real," Altman says.

Now, it's about simplicity, coupled with the highest-quality ingredients - "really good olive oil and really good cheese and really good produce when I can find it" - and "doing as little to either mask or alter the ingredients as I possibly can," Altman says.

Which is why her book includes recipes for things like "Simple Sunday Roast Beef" and "Warm Tomato Sandwich."

It was with Turner that Altman, a devotee of Alice Waters and Deborah Madison, came to relish local, in-season vegetables - "in my house, they always came from a can" - and vegetable gardening, otherwise known as "a vast amount of work under constant threat of disappointment."

Broccoli was the catalyst.

"I'd never had broccoli that was cut right out of the garden for me. That was a complete game-changer," Altman says.

She looks forward to the flower show, which will present free cooking demonstrations at 11 a.m., 1 p.m., and 3 p.m. daily in Room 204C at the Convention Center. (Information: http://theflowershow.com/attractions/garden-to-table-stuio/)

Our interview ends. Dinner hour approaches, and, of course, Altman's menu is already set: sausages with grapes and thyme, a feast fit for king or queen - or "poor man."


Carmel Fish Tacos

Makes 2 servings

1 tablespoon grapeseed oil

1/2 pound fresh, flaky white fish (such as   sole)

Four 6-inch corn tortillas

Lime wedges

Hot sauce of your choice

1. In a small skillet set over medium heat, warm the oil until it shimmers. Add the fish to the pan and cook until. the fish is barely opaque, about 4 minutes per side. Remove from the heat and set aside.

2. While the fish is cooking, heat a medium cast-iron skillet or griddle until a sprinkle of water sizzles when it hits it, about 3 minutes. Toast the corn tortillas until they begin to brown in spots, and then turn.

3. Wrap a bit of fish in each tortilla, hit it with a squeeze of lime and, if desired, a drop of hot sauce. Serve immediately.

- From Poor Man's Feast by Elissa Altman (Chronicle, 2013)

Per serving: 284 calories, 29 grams protein, 21 grams carbohydrates, no sugar, 9 grams fat, 62 milligrams cholesterol, 110 milligrams sodium, 3 grams dietary fiber.


Matzo Brei Tarte Tatin

Makes 4 servings

6 unsalted matzo boards

4 eggs, beaten

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

2 large apples, peeled, cored, and thinly sliced

3 tablespoons sugar

1 teaspoon cinnamon

Maple syrup, for drizzling

1. In a large bowl, crumble the matzo boards and combine them with the beaten eggs. Set aside.

2. In a large nonstick skillet set over medium-high heat, melt the butter. When the foam subsides, add the apples to the pan, decrease the heat to medium, and cook until they begin to soften, 5 to 8 minutes. Sprinkle in the sugar and cinnamon and continue to cook until the apples begin to caramelize, turning a soft, sticky golden brown, about 10 minutes.

3. Pour the matzo-egg mixture directly over the apples, and distribute it evenly using a wooden spoon. Cook until the egg mixture begins to pull away from the sides of the pan, about 5 minutes. Cover and continue to cook for 8 to 10 minutes more.

4. Remove the cover, and give the pan a few good shakes. Carefully place a large dinner plate over the skillet, and invert it. Slide the brei back into the skillet and continue to cook for 5 minutes, uncovered, apple-side up.

5. Slice into wedges and serve with warm maple syrup.

- From Poor Man's Feast by Elissa Altman (Chronicle, 2013)

Per serving: 382 calories, 10 grams protein, 63 grams carbohydrates, 23 grams sugar, 11 grams fat, 179 milligrams cholesterol, 105 milligrams sodium, 4 grams dietary fiber.


Spicy Baby Kale on Garlic Toast

Makes 2 servings

2 tablespoons extra   virgin olive oil

1 garlic clove, halved; one half minced, the other kept whole

3 cups packed cleaned baby kale leaves

Pinch of red pepper flakes

1 tablespoon good quality red wine vinegar

4 slices country-style bread

1. In a large, straight-sided saute pan set over medium heat, warm 1 tablespoon of the olive oil until it shimmers and add the minced garlic. When the garlic begins to take on color, add the kale leaves to the pan in batches, grabbing and rolling them with each addition, using tongs. Add the red pepper flakes, toss well, and cover. Cook until the kale has completely wilted to a dark green tangle, about 8 minutes, and drizzle with the vinegar.

2. Toast the bread, and rub each slice with the garlic half, and then drizzle with the remaining olive oil. Top with the kale and serve immediately.

- From Poor Man's Feast by Elissa Altman (Chronicle, 2013)

Per serving: 222 calories, 5 grams protein, 20 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram sugar, 15 grams fat, no cholesterol, 166 milligrams sodium, 3 grams dietary fiber.


Contact Virginia A. Smith at 215-854-5720 or vsmith@phillynews.com.

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