As the local food movement expands and the numbers of small farms, CSA programs, and farmers markets increase, so grows the crop of cookbooks aimed at helping people make the best use of that seasonal bounty. Following in the path of Deborah Madison’s excellent overview of America’s farmers markets, Local Flavors, two new cookbooks share the joys of regional harvests throughout the year.
The first, Cooking Close to Home: A Year of Seasonal Recipes, bases its recipes in the old and new traditions of New England agriculture. This collaboration between dietitian Diane Imrie and chef Richard Jarmusz combines a healthy approach to eating with simple preparations that enhance the fresh flavors of local fruits, vegetables, herbs, and meats. While many recipes take old favorites and spruce them up for locavore palates, others offer intriguing pairings, such as Lamb and Pumpkin Quesadilla with Cilantro Sour Cream, or Kale and Fennel Salad with Apples and Cinnamon.
The book is arranged by course and then by season. Recipes are very well-organized and clearly written, and most require fairly simple preparation. “Harvest Hints” following many recipes provide information on basic handling of unfamiliar produce, nutritional information, variations on the recipe, or preparation tips. Though not every recipe has a corresponding photo, those that do appear add a rich, sometimes glamorous but often home-spun flavor to the book.
One bonus to the book is the final chapter, “Filling the Pantry.” Beyond the usual recipes for immediate consumption, these recipes offer a handful of suggestions for keeping some of the seasonal bounty for later use (such as Maple Blackberry Barbecue Sauce). Freezing and canning are represented, and a handy chart at the end of the section indicates which preservation method works well for different kinds of produce.
Overall, Cooking Close to Home is a lovely book with many recipe ideas that I hope to try this year. But for me, it’s lacking a little something. The added information throughout the book is useful, though much is geared toward readers who are new to the reasons and joys of local foods, but I can’t help but miss a more individualized touch. A quote found toward the beginning of the book – “Good food is a story, best told at the dinner table” – highlights that loss for me. The recipes sound wonderful, but I miss the stories behind them.
Perhaps that’s why I’m more drawn to the second book, Cooking in the Moment: A Year of Seasonal Recipes. Written by chef Andrea Reusing of the restaurant Lantern in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, this book captures that sense of history behind the foods and the recipes that I so crave. Arranged by season, Reusing’s work rambles through the year, interspersing recipes and gorgeous photos with long passages about the origins of those recipes, from farm and woods to kitchen.
Every year in early April, I start hoping for rain and checking my voice mail until I finally get the word from Graham Broadwell that his asparagus are up. It can happen at any moment – in perfect conditions, asparagus spears can grow nearly a foot a day.
Most recipes are straightforwardly organized, but occasionally you’ll find a recipe so basic, it’s written in prose with room for improvisation. For example, the recipe for Charcoal-Grilled Asparagus simply describes the process, with no measurements save for the suggestion of “8 to 10 asparagus per person.” Commentary, where found, provides a clear and vivid glimpse of the recipe and process: “When you put just-picked asparagus on a hot grill, they are so juicy they actually jump as they start to cook.” Other recipes display more complexity, with additional recipes required to explain special ingredients (such as the Salt-Cured Chiles added to the Roast Moulard Duck with Kumquats and Salt-Cured Chiles).
These recipes reflect some of the Asian influence Reusing incorporates into the Lantern menu, such as Pea Greens with Ume Plum Vinaigrette and Chive Blossoms, but they also reveal the traditions and even whimsy of her home cooking (like the Campfire Bacon and Eggs in a Bag she shares with her children). Recipes for different courses jostle each other amid the storytelling passages, and tips about seasonal produce tend to be woven into the tales about local farmers, family wanderings, and special meals. The aforementioned section on asparagus is followed by the story of Fickle Creek Farm and their chickens, which itself is followed by a recipe for Hen and Dumplings, with specific information about cooking old laying hens when you may be used to the younger birds found at supermarkets.
This lack of traditional organization may frustrate some home cooks, but if you really need to find salads or soups, you can do so through the detailed index. I find it difficult to object to this unusual approach when my meanderings through the book reveal quirky little gems like this: “Corn belongs on the cob, and if you run into it somewhere else, there had better be a good reason.” Comments like this highlight the true difference between local, seasonal food and average supermarket food: fresh food straight from the garden or the farm, superior in flavor and nutrition, requires a more intimate approach in cooking.
The secret to eating great tomatoes all summer long lies not in which variety you plant or what stand you buy from, but in watching them – making space for them to lie flat someplace cool near the kitchen, checking them daily, eating the ones that need eating, and continuously making plans for the ones that are getting there. Even tomatoes that are picked ripe need a little time out at room temperature to reach their peak flavor.
A true comparison between the two books is as difficult as deciding whether I prefer a warm rhubarb-ginger crunch or an unadorned juicy peach: the different approaches and regions represented have their own individual strengths. And being very attached to my northern roots, as much as I loved curling up with “Cooking in the Moment” and savoring the stories (and drooling over the photos!), I am more inclined to cook from “Cooking Close to Home,” given the similarities to the offerings from my local markets. Both books share that joy that so many of us find in shopping for fresh, seasonal foods, and I can only hope that these books help more people to appreciate their own local treasures.
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