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