The Elixir of Life Cookbook: finding love and joy in the passionate pursuit of food is a gorgeous cookbook by Sedona (Arizona) Chef Lisa Dahl. The Elixir of Life is, quite simply, Tuscany on a plate. The hardcover book, available via Dahl Restaurant Group’s website for $39.95, captures Chef Dahl’s journey through Tuscany and her love affair with cucina rustica, or the rustic kitchen. There are beautiful photos by photographer Janise Witt and savory recipes by Chef Dahl.

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The Elixir of Life is so much more than a cookbook, however. I love the heartwarming tribute Chef Dahl makes to her son, who tragically died in the San Francisco area in 1994. As the mother of an only son, it ripped at my soul. But it was also a blessing to follow her journey toward peace and purpose through her travels and her food.

I love the simplicity of the recipes, which really captures the essence of cucina rustica. The section on savory spreads exemplifies this. From roasted garlic and chevre to tasty tapenade and red onion marmalade, these are such elegant yet simple recipes. There are some amazing soups and the best sauces—of course, I need Chef Dahl to make me some gnocchi so I can try that cream sauce she makes with mushrooms to go over it.

Chef Lisa Dahl is owner of four Sedona eateries: Cucina Rustica, Dahl & Di Luca Ristorante Italiano, Pisa Lisa and the newly opened Mariposa Grill. Elixir of Life Cookbook was published in 2010 and want the 2011 Gold Medal IPPY Award for Cookbook of the Year.

Here are a few of my favorites from the cookbook:

Savory spreads Chef Lisa Dahl

Savory Spreads. Photo courtesy Dahl Restaurant Group

Kalamata Tapenade

1 TBLS extra virgin olive oil
½ cup pitted kalamata olives
¼ cup Mama Lil’s Peppers with marinating liquid, or other roasted peppers
¼ cup toasted pine nuts
1 TBLS chopped Italian parsley

This tapenade is a “hook” I came up with for topping crostini and for so much ore. I fold it into pasta salad and crumble it on my favorite little Mediterranean-style pizzas.

Mama Lil’s Peppers are the pièce d’résistance that completes many flavor combinations, I simply could not cook (live) without them. I wish I could say I made them myself but I can’t. They are the secret-method specialty of a crazy chef out of Seattle who makes only these and a few other related products. You can use your own roasted sweet peppers, but Mama Lil’s are unique and amazingly good.

  • Put pitted olives into the bowl of a food processor and pulse just until chopped fine (the consistency of caviar).
  • Scrape chopped olives into a bowl.
  • Mince peppers with liquid in the processor and add to olives.
  • Stir in pine nuts, parsley, and olive oil.

Makes 1 cup

Perfect Bruschetta Lisa Dahl

Perfect Bruschetta. Photo by Dahl Restaurant Group

Method for a Perfect Bruschetta

1½ lbs Roma tomatoes
1 heaping tsp minced garlic, more according to taste
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil, best quality
½ tsp kosher salt
¼ tsp black pepper
2 tsp good balsamic vinegar
½ tsp red chile flakes
½ cup fresh basil, about 1 ounce of leaves, cut into chiffonade

Herb Compound Butter

5 TBLS extra virgin olive oil
2 cups unsalted butter, room temperature
2 TBLS chopped Italian parsley
1 TBLS fresh thyme leaves
2 tsp minced fresh garlic
1¼ tsp kosher salt
¼ tsp black pepper
¼ tsp white pepper

Here, it is all about the quality of the ingredients. Vine-ripe tomatoes with a good balance of sweetness and acid, flavorful fruity olive oil, rich, pungent balsamic vinegar—that’s the essence of this elixir. Don’t think of bruschetta topping just for bread. It is also fantastic tossed into a pasta or in the summer heaped over a piece of grilled salmon.

The Herb Compound Butter is a versatile elixir that can enhance vegetables, enrich a soup, and makes the absolute perfect garlic bread. It keeps for many days in the fridge and can be frozen in packets and pulled out as needed.

For the Herb Compound Butter:

  • Beat butter and olive oil in mixer until light and fluffy.
  • Add remaining ingredients and whip until butter forms peaks on end of whip.
  • Refrigerate for at least 2 hours before using.
  • Butter the bread with room-temperature Herb Compound Butter before toasting it.

For the Bruschetta:

  • Cut the tomatoes into quarter-inch to half-inch dice and put them into a colander or wire strainer to drain while you mince the garlic and cut the basil leaves into a chiffonade.
  • Put the diced and drained tomato into a mixing bowl (discard the juice the tomatoes released).
  • Stir in the oil, then the salt and pepper, then the garlic, in that order. Then splash in the vinegar.
  • Add the chile flakes and basil and delicately toss. Don’t overstir.
  • Heap the mixture on top of sliced and grilled ciabatta bread or crisp crostini.

Makes 3 cups (feed 4 to 6 very happy people)

Gnocchi. Photo by Dahl Restaurant Group

Gnocchi. Photo by Dahl Restaurant Group

Gnocchi con Funghi e Tartufi

2 TBLS olive oil
3-4 whole garlic cloves
10 oz crimini mushrooms
2½ cups whole cream
1/8 tsp truffle salt
1 TBLS truffle oil
¼ cup gorgonzola (optional)
fresh ground pepper and kosher salt to taste

Cream sauces like this give so much enjoyment for so little cooking. They cook in the pan in a matter of minutes, so start your pasta when you start the sauce. And, for meatlovers, a more perfect sauce for finishing a steak does not exist!

A big rich cream sauce like this will stand up beautifully with gnocchi, tortelloni, ravioli, or your favorite stuffed pasta.

  • Heat a sauté pan with the olive oil.
  • Add the garlic cloves and cook over low flame to brown, but not burn, the garlic on all sides. This will infuse their flavor into the oil.
  • Remove the garlic when caramelized and discard.
  • Add sliced mushrooms, sprinkle with salt, and again delicately brown.
  • Continue cooking insuring all surfaces are golden.
  • Add cream and cook over medium flame till the sauce reduces and thickens.
  • Finish by stirring in truffle salt, truffle oil, gorgonzola, and a few grinds of black pepper. Check for salt.
  • Now—the key to insuring a silky sauce is timing the pasta to finish as the sauce is in its final stage, bubbling and creamy. Use a colander to drag the pasta (with water clinging to it) into the pan containing the sauce.
  • Fold the sauce and pasta together quickly with tongs or spoon.
Tuscan tomato soup

Tuscan tomato soup. Photo courtesy Dahl Restaurant Group

Tuscan Tomato Pesto Zuppa

2 large carrots (about 8 ounces)
2 large fresh shallots
4 to 5 cloves garlic
½ cup extra virgin olive oil
¼ tsp crushed red pepper
1 oz fresh basil, chopped (½ cup, packed)
2 29-oz cans San Marzano imported tomatoes in juice with basil
2 TBLS pesto (optional)
8 cups chicken or vegetable broth
¼ tsp black pepper
½ to 1 cup cream (optional)

  • Peel the carrots and cut them into chunks. Place them in a food processor and mince to a medium pulp. Scoop them out and set aside in a bowl.
  • Finely mince the shallots and garlic by hand or in the same processor you have used for the carrots, and set all aside in a bowl for sautéing.
  • In a stockpot (preferably enamel or stainless steel, not aluminum) place ¼ cup of the olive oil and heat until smoking.
  • Add chopped carrots and reduce heat to medium high. Constantly stir to keep from browning too quickly or burning.
  • When carrots become golden in color, add the minced shallots and garlic.
  • Add a little more olive oil and continue cooking until all of the mirepoix is evenly coated, soft, and colored. This is an important stage because the careful caramelization sets the flavor. Overbrowning the vegetables can taint the overall character of the soup.
  • When all the vegetables are evenly cooked and the oil has reduced, add the crushed red pepper and fresh basil, stirring quickly, not to burn.
  • Next, add the tomatoes and raise the heat to sear them but not to burn the fresh basil, then bring to a boil. Continually stir the bottom of pan to keep the sediment from burning.
  • Then lower to a simmer and cook for an hour or as long as needed to bring out the robust color.
  • When tomatoes have cooked in liquid and plumped up and oil forms back on top, purée the mixture with a hand-held food processor until smooth (or scoop the solids into the bowl of a flood processor for blending).
  • Bring back to a boil and add chicken or vegetable broth. Cook till it comes to second boil.
  • Add the pesto to soup if you are using it.
  • Reduce heat and check flavor and consistency (there should not be any remaining chunks of tomato or carrot).
  • Simmer to allow the flavors to marry. You will know when it is ready because its flavor will have cured and e totally balanced.
  • Thin with additional broth to achieve desired consistency.
  • Feel free to simmer as long as time allows on low heat and add a dash more of olive oil to fully rusticate the flavor.

Makes approximately 3 quarts.

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