Say the name Patricia Wells to a foodie, and they’ll immediately mention her guide to Paris and her French cookbooks. Say Patricia Wells to a Midwestern foodie, and you’ll get the response, “she’s from Milwaukee.”
This week, Wells is on her home turf, visiting Chicago and Milwaukee in conjunction with her latest book, Salad As A Meal: Healthy Main Dish Salads For Every Season, just published by William Morrow.
Wells, a long-time journalist for the New York Times and International Herald Tribune as well as an author, is a perfect subject for Reinvention Recipes. Over the past decade, she’s reinvented herself and her approach to writing about and preparing food.
I bought my first Wells book, The Food Lover’s Guide to Paris, years ago, and used it to plan many trips to Paris. She followed it with books on bistro cooking, Provence, and another version of her food lover’s guide, this time for all of France. Those books were laden with rich recipes that reflected classic French cooking, even though many people did not cook that way on a regular basis.
But in the middle of the last decade, Wells made a dramatic change in her lifestyle. She lost 30 pounds by shifting away much of the butter and cream laden recipes that permeated her cookbooks, and placing more emphasis on olive oil, herbs, flavored salt and vegetables.
She began to go jogging in the Jardin du Luxembourg, the Paris park, and sought new approaches to healthier meals. When I attended her cooking school in 2007, we used butter just once in a week of lessons, but had vegetables at every meal, often drizzled with flavored oils. (But it wasn’t Spartan: we also drank a lot of wine.)
Wells’ previous book, Vegetable Harvest, was the first she wrote since adopting her new regime. Salad As A Meal is the next step her healthier approach. “It’s a continuation, without hitting people over the head about it,” Wells said at a book signing in Chicago this weekend. “I’m saying, ‘this is good food. Try it.’”
One of her goals is to change the perception of salad from a side dish to centerpiece. She also wants her readers to think of salads as an opportunity to be creative. “This is not a book about salad bars, where you just pile things on a plate,” Wells said.
Along with salads, the book has recipes for tarts, breads, and other accompaniments. But its centerpiece is the idea of salad as a main course, something many Americans have adopted anyway. “Half the time, when you go to a restaurant, that’s what you have,” Wells said.
Her timing is ideal for farmers’ market season, which is getting off to a bit of a late start this year around the region thanks to lingering snowstorms. But as soon as spring peas and asparagus arrive, recipes from the book await. “It’s spring, and people are thinking about” salads, Wells said (even if they’re also dusting off their cars and decks).
Wells’ approach also is in line with food trends in the United States, where restaurants like The Greenhouse Tavern in Cleveland work closely with local farmers. Times readers will remember a wildly popular feature story by Mark Bittman, 101 Simple Salads for the Season, that ran in 2009.
Because she’s based abroad, however, Wells may not be as famous in America as our celebrity chefs and cookbook authors, like her friend Ina Garten, aka The Barefoot Contessa. But she has a firm following, through her website, her Facebook page, and her blog, which recently featured fellow Parisienne Olivia de Havilland. She also is now on Twitter, @patriciawellsfr.
This month, Wells’ hometown paper, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, profiled her in a piece called “Living the Foodie Dream.”
A busload of her fans from Lansing, Mich., drove three and a half hours to Chicago to see her this past Sunday, and a steady stream of autograph and photo seekers thronged her at Spice Market, a shop in Chicago’s Old Town.
Wells returns the enthusiasm. Arriving in Chicago this weekend, she took a long walk up Michigan Avenue and enjoyed spotting new buildings and businesses that were not there on her last visit. “It’s so vibrant,” Wells said of the Windy City. “It looked so clean and lovely — and you have a new mayor!”
Wells will be in the States a little longer, and then it’s back to Paris to work on her next project. She’s updating The Food Lover’s Guide to Paris once more.
Here are two salad recipes from Patricia Wells, via The Today Show:
Chicken Salad with green beans
Crab Salad with lime zest
Have you tried a Patricia Wells recipe? Which of her cookbooks do you own?