Elemental Food—From Seed to Sumptious
Feast of Eden
I came to love my rows, my beans, though so many more than I wanted. They attached me to the earth, and so I got strength like Antæus … This was my curious labor all summer—to make this portion of the earth’s surface, which had yielded only cinquefoil, blackberries, johnswort, and the like, before, sweet wild fruits and pleasant flowers, produce instead this pulse. What shall I learn of beans or beans of me? I cherish them, I hoe them, early and late I have an eye to them; and this is my day’s work.
— Henry David Thoreau, Walden
Simple living, getting back to the land, growing one’s own food—these things are once again becoming as elemental as they were in the nineteenth century, when Thoreau took to the woods of Concord for his experiment in conscious living. A current crop of cookbooks pay homage to the timeless idea of eating purposefully, with fresh local ingredients. Thankfully, today’s cooks don’t have to toil over a hearth to prepare their meals as Thoreau did, but they may slave over their gardens in much the same way. (He wrote of tending two and a half acres of white bush beans in his sprawling bean field.)
Crescent Dragonwagon pays homage to the bean—and alludes to Thoreau’s prodigious success—in her newest cookbook, Bean by Bean (Workman Publishing Company, 978-0-7611-3241-7). The volume expands on an earlier cookbook—written when Dragonwagon was just eighteen years old—and extols the virtues of the mighty bean, pea, pulse, and legume. But it offers much more than baked beans, soups, and chilis: there are spicy dahls, Ethiopian stews, and desserts made with red beans and another tasty little legume, the peanut. A “Nacho Deconstructed” recipe is hearty and simple, as is another for socca, a golden crisp bread made from chickpea flour. The book’s strengths lie in the fact that Dragonwagon knows her way around both the kitchen and the word processor—the prodigious author and former innkeeper has penned fifty books, including six other cookbooks. Her personal vignettes about running an inn and living in a commune as a teenager entertain, while her food-related tips and tricks enlighten. A multitude of ethnic and vegetarian recipes will make this cookbook—much like its versatile namesake—a staple in the kitchen.
Just as passionate about her subject is Jennifer Trainer Thompson, whose Fresh Egg Cookbook (Storey Publishing, 978-1-60342-978-8) tells of her love affair with all things poultry. More than just a cookbook, it’s part chicken-raising primer, part love letter, and part practical guide for using up all those fresh eggs, whether from your own flock or from the supermarket (the eggs from which, Thompson notes, can sometimes be one to two months old). Thompson practices what she preaches: She has raised chickens in her Massachusetts home for the past several years and is a fierce advocate for backyard-fresh eggs, which have a darker, almost orange yolk and a richer taste than their store-bought counterparts. Thompson’s lovely, humorous writing style complements the more than one hundred recipes in the book, which include the usual suspects—hard-boiled eggs, omelets, and mayonnaise—as well as more surprising entries like prairie oysters (a supposed hangover cure), sherbet, and chiles rellenos.
While Thompson’s book can be best summed up as “from chicken to kitchen,” The Southern Italian Farmer’s Table (Lyons Press, 978-0-7627-7082-3) is a true textbook on the farm-to-table movement. In their sequel to The Italian Farmer’s Table, husband and wife team Matthew Scialabba and Melissa Pellegrino visited and cooked at thirty agriturismos—working family farms that double as restaurants and sometimes overnight inns—throughout central and southern Italy. The result is a lush, vibrant book whose images will make readers dream of making their own toothsome gnocchi and creamy buffalo mozzarella. The chapters are divided into regions of southern Italy, with 150 recipes—everything from braised pheasant to escarole pie to Nutella sandwich cookies—spread throughout. Perhaps most illuminating is how all the flavors and ingredients of the farms are utilized. At Costa della Figura in the Le Marche region, the farm’s olive trees provide summertime shelter for outdoor diners and a steady supply of olive oil for cooking, while the bounty of a large vegetable garden anchors the farm’s seasonal menu. Cured pork cuts and fresh rabbit, served with the head intact, also feature prominently in the farm’s offerings.
You won’t find head of hare or prairie oysters inside the pages of The Sexy Vegan Cookbook (New World Library, 978-1-60868-045-0), but you will find many meatless meals dished up with a side of snark. It’s penned by Brian L. Patton, a vegan chef who found an audience (and a book deal) after posting his cooking videos on YouTube. Patton’s tone might not appeal to all—his meatballs are referred to as “my balls” and readers are told repeatedly to “lube up” cookie sheets and pans with oil—eeew!—but it is hilarious, and a nice change from high-falutin cookbooks that take themselves too seriously.
There are creative salads, entrees, and breakfast recipes (including cocktails), but the emphasis might be a little too heavy on the fake meat stuffs for some vegetarians. Again, however, the humor is just so infectious, like this recipe description for the “Beany Tahini” burger: “Frickin’ chickpeas, man. They just do everything, don’t they? They’re the best. Chickpeas.” Also neat are the QR codes scattered throughout the book; just scan one with your smartphone and up pops a video of Patton describing the dish.
If it’s leafy greens you’re craving, The Book of Kale (Harbour Publishing, 978-1-55017-576-9) will more than sate your appetite. Sharon Hanna dishes up the goods on the veritable superfood, which, she points out, is full of vitamin A, C, K, and calcium. She does an excellent job telling readers about the different varieties of kale, and how to plant and care for them in the garden. (Did you know that kale will keep growing during the winter? And not only that, it gets sweeter after a freeze? Yum.) Once thought of as a mere garnish or filler for soup, the versatility of the tasty vegetable, featured in breakfasts, soups and stews, side dishes, and pasta, is showcased here. Most of the recipes are easy, with clear instructions and cooking times. Yes, you can find the ubiquitous kale chips recipe here, but Hanna is a master at suggesting creative ways to incorporate kale into recipes. Standouts include a breakfast okonomiyaki (a savory Japanese pancake), lightly massaged kale with alligator pear (avocado) salad, and kale and cranberry crisps.
Fresh, local ingredients have long been a hallmark of French cuisine, and they are celebrated in master chef Alain Ducasse’s newest book, Nature (Rizzoli, 978-0-8478-3840-0). The Michelin-star rated legend revisits his roots in this beautifully designed book, in which the vivid pictures and illustrations are pure eye candy. A luscious-looking herb tartine practically leaps off the page begging to be eaten. Some of the recipes are fussy (yes, I’m looking at you, Pigeon with Winter Vegetables in Star Anise Bouillon), but for the most part this is fine French cooking simplified and pared down to its simplest elements. Recipes feature lots of whole grains and fresh vegetables (Ducasse grew up on a farm in the southwest of France), while the desserts burst with fresh fruit. Each recipe features a tip from Ducasse and a note from Paule Neyrat, a nutritionist who helped pare down the recipes’ complexity for a general audience. The tips about garlic are especially revealing: to cut down on the bitter sting of fresh garlic, Ducasse suggests boiling it in water for a minute or two first; and to impart a taste of garlic while sautéing greens, stick a clove of garlic on a fork and stir the greens with it. Voilà! Garlicky greens without the pungent taste of burnt garlic. Gorgeous pictures of Ducasse’s immense home garden anchor the book; it’s where he’s clearly most at home, gathering up buckets of squash blossoms, basil, and Swiss chard. A chef, alone, in his garden—completely in his element.
Dana Rae Laverty