“Season: Big Flavors, Beautiful Food” by Nik Sharma (Chronicle Books)

“Season: Big Flavors, Beautiful Food” by Nik Sharma (Chronicle Books)

The beauty of this cook’s food is matched by his photography

James Beard award nominee “Season” features Nik Sharma’s cooking, food styling and photography.

Other than during an art class or a trek to the museum, “chiaroscuro” isn’t a word that features much in my vocabulary — certainly not in description of food. A prolific favorite of my collegiate art history instructors, “chiaroscuro” was so overused to the mind-numbing point that I easily forgot exactly what they were referring to — the dramatic contrast of light and shadow to illuminate an object. Chiaroscuro is all spotlight, not floodlight.

I bring this up because in Nik Sharma’s cookbook, “Season: Big Flavors, Beautiful Food” not only is he the recipe developer and cook, but also the art director and photographer. And for this photography, Sharma has been nominated for this year’s James Beard Award.

In “Season” we aren’t only wooed by big flavors and beautiful food, but also dramatic, luminous images. Sharma’s preparations emerge from a richly dark shadow into delicate light dancing over surfaces and rendering glowing plates of deliciousness.

Sharma started his food career photographing his daily dishes and sharing these on his blog, “A Brown Table.” This grew into further exploration of flavors, ingredients and the reinvention of favorite dishes. His passion for cooking and experimentation with photography led to a food column in the San Francisco Chronicle in which he shares recipes and experiences inspired by the food of California, his native India and the Southern cuisine of his husband’s family.

After reading a glowing review of “Season” and Sharma’s simple recipe of roasted fingerling potatoes with sage and garlicky kefir creme fraiche, I knew exactly where to start in the midst of all this beautiful “chiaroscuro” food.

I found a bag of multi-colored fingerlings and set to making a tray of these beauties. For all the flavor and magnificent results, this recipe is stupid-simple — and I love that! Tossed in olive oil, sea salt, red pepper flakes and fresh sage leaves, the fingerlings roast until dark, even charred. These you garnish with chives and serve hot.

But it’s the creme fraiche that blows your mind. Roasted garlic cloves are smashed into a smooth paste then married with seasoned creme fraiche. This is the most adult version of baked potatoes and sour cream I have ever had, and I’ve lost count how many times this dish has already been featured in our family meals.

All of Sharma’s recipes read this way: simple, flavor-packed and rather addictive. Roasted chicken smothered in hot green chutney partners crispy yet moist chicken with an earthy (hot!) green paste of greens, herbs, chilis and lime. Sweet potatoes — after the success of the fingerlings, I absolutely had to try a second roasted potato dish — are served with basil yogurt sauce, perfect for pairing with a hoppy beer and standing around our kitchen island eating with our fingers. Date and tamarind loaf blends tart tamarind with the dense sweetness of dates and the robust flavor of walnuts and spice.

Recipes feature easy-to-follow instructions and reasonable substitutes or optional steps. I never felt I had to follow Sharma’s recipes to a tee to yield happy results and a great meal. “Season” is indeed about big flavors, and with Sharma’s capable hand and inspiring images, food is rendered both beautiful and delicious.

Serve sweet potato fries with a basil yogurt sauce. (Nik Sharma)

Serve sweet potato fries with a basil yogurt sauce. (Nik Sharma)

Sweet potato fries with basil yogurt sauce

You can also sprinkle these with red pepper flakes to punch up the heat. Makes 2 servings.

For the basil yogurt sauce:

¼ cup plain full-fat Greek yogurt

1 cup fresh basil leaves

1 bunch scallions (white and green parts)

½ ripe avocado

1 Thai chile, seeded, if desired

1½ tablespoon fresh lime juice

4 black peppercorns

½ teaspoon fine sea salt

½ cup chilled water, plus more as needed

For the sweet potatoes:

1 pound sweet potatoes

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 teaspoon dried red chili flakes

½ teaspoon flaky sea salt

½ teaspoon freshly cracked black pepper

1 tablespoon thinly sliced scallions for garnish

To make the yogurt sauce: Combine the yogurt, basil, scallions, avocado, chile, lime juice, peppercorns, salt and water in a blender and pulse on high speed until smooth and uniform. Taste and adjust the seasoning, if necessary. You can add more water if you want the sauce a little thinner. Transfer to a serving bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate for at least 2 hours.

To make the sweet potatoes: Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Scrub the sweet potatoes under running water and pat dry. Peel and cut lengthwise into ¼-inch thick sticks. Transfer to a medium bowl, and add the olive oil, chili flakes, salt and pepper, and toss to coat evenly. Spread out the potatoes on the prepared baking sheet and bake until lightly browned outside and soft and tender inside, 25 to 30 minutes. Remove from the oven and transfer to a serving dish.

Serve the sweet potatoes hot, and pass the yogurt sauce on the side, garnished with the sliced scallions.

This roasted chicken is smothered in a hot green chutney. (Nik Sharma)

This roasted chicken is smothered in a hot green chutney. (Nik Sharma)

Hot green chutney-roasted chicken

I love that Sharma’s green chutney is the result of cleaning out the greenery from his fridge. Then stuffing it under the skin of a roast chicken? Genius. Makes 6 servings

1 (5 pounds) whole roasting chicken

1½ cups Hot Green Chutney (recipe follows)

Kosher salt

2 cups low-sodium chicken broth

Put the chicken in a large roasting pan or baking dish. Pat the chicken dry with paper towels. Slip your fingers between the skin and flesh to loosen the skin. Massage ½ cup of the chutney all over the meat, spreading to coat as evenly as possible. Rub generously with salt over the skin. Cover the pan with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 2 hours, and preferably overnight.

Position a rack in the lower third of the oven and preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Unwrap the chicken and pour the broth into the pan. Roast the chicken for at least 2 hours, basting it with the broth every 15 to 20 minutes, until the internal temperature registers 165 degrees on an instant-read thermometer and the skin turns golden brown. Remove from the oven and transfer the chicken to a serving platter. Tent loosely with foil and let sit for 10 minutes. (Collect any liquid left behind in the pan and cover and refrigerate or freeze for future use, such as soup.)

Serve the chicken warm with the remaining 1 cup green chutney on the side for a dipping sauce.

Hot green chutney (makes 2 cups)

2 cups arugula leaves

1 cup packed baby kale leaves

¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil

¼ cup water

½ cup chopped red onion

2 tablespoons fresh lime juice

4 garlic cloves

4 serrano chiles

1 teaspoon caraway seeds

1 teaspoon coriander seeds

1 teaspoon cumin seeds

1 teaspoon fine sea salt

Combine all the ingredients in a blender and pulse on medium-low speed for 1 to 2 minutes, until you get a coarse paste. You might need to stop the blender to move things around. Taste and adjust the seasoning, if necessary. Transfer the sauce to an airtight container and store for up to 2 weeks in the refrigerator or up to 1 month in the freezer.

This date and tamarind loaf is a blend of tart and sweet flavors. (Nik Sharma)

This date and tamarind loaf is a blend of tart and sweet flavors. (Nik Sharma)

Date and tamarind loaf

Sharma notes, “A high-speed blender is a marvelous tool to use for olive oil cakes because it can quickly whip air and emulsify the liquids in the batter to create a delicate cake crumb.” He prefers to use the more sour tamarind found in Asian grocery stores rather than the sweeter Mexican variety “because its stronger flavor comes through better in baking.” He also recommends pairing this with a drizzle of creme fraiche. You can find jaggery at Asian grocery stores. Makes 1 loaf.

3¼ ounces sour tamarind pulp or paste (see note)

1 cup boiling water

2 cups all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons ground ginger

½ teaspoons freshly ground black pepper

1½ teaspoons baking powder

½ teaspoons baking soda

¼ teaspoons fine sea salt

16 pitted Medjool dates, finely chopped

½ cup chopped walnuts, plus 6 walnut halves

¾ cup plus 1 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil

¾ cup packed jaggery or muscovado sugar

2 large eggs, at room temperature

1 cup confectioners’ sugar

Put the tamarind in a medium heat-proof bowl and add the boiling water, pressing down on the tamarind with a spoon so it’s covered with water. Cover with plastic wrap and let sit for at least 1 hour. Massage and squeeze the pulp to soften it, and press through a fine-mesh strainer suspended over a bowl, discarding the solids in the strainer. Measure out 1 cup pulp for this recipe. Reserve 2 tablespoons of the pulp in a small bowl to prepare the glaze.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease an 8½-by-4½-inch loaf pan with butter and line the bottom with parchment paper.

In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, ginger, pepper, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Put the dates in a small bowl. Add the walnuts and 2 tablespoons of the whisked dry ingredients and toss to coat evenly.

Combine the ¾ cup olive oil, 1 cup tamarind pulp and jaggery in a blender and pulse on high speed for a few seconds until completely emulsified. Add one egg and pulse for 3 to 4 seconds, until combined. Repeat with the remaining egg.

Make a well in the center of the dry ingredients in the bowl, and pour the egg mixture into the well. Whisk the dry ingredients into the egg mixture and continue whisking until there are no visible flecks of flour. Then fold in the dates and walnuts.

Spoon the batter into the prepared loaf pan. Arrange the walnuts halves in a straight line down the center of the loaf. Bake for 55 to 60 minutes, rotating the pan halfway through baking, until firm to the touch in the center and a skewer comes out clean. Cool in the pan on a wire rack for about 10 minutes, and run a knife around the inside of the pan to release the cake. Remove from the pan and transfer to a wire rack to cool completely.

Add the remaining 1 teaspoon of olive oil to the small bowl containing the reserved tamarind. Sift in the confectioners’ sugar and whisk until completely smooth. Pour the glaze over the cooled loaf and let it sit for 1 hour to set before serving.

— Reprinted from “Season” by Nik Sharma with permission by Chronicle Books (2018).

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