Your Vegetable Comfort Zone
Although Spring seems to be taking its sweet time this year here in Montana, I’ve harvested my first batch of greens from under the hoop house outside, my seed orders have arrived, and I because I am trying to be a person who lives in hope, I’m looking at a batch of veggie cookbooks this month. It has to stop snowing sometime, right?
It’s also the time of year when thoughts turn to CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) boxes, and Farmer’s Markets, both of which have a tendency to force us out of our vegetable comfort zones, and demand that unless we’re going to waste all that lovely produce we bought, we’re going to have to learn to cook it.
I ran into this issue the first couple of years I had my vegetable garden. I hadn’t grown up eating cooked greens, but since chard and kale and arugula and spinach are among the things that grow really well here, I had to learn what to do with them. Your selection will vary depending on where you are around the country, but I can almost guarantee that if you start shopping for produce outside the supermarket, whether you venture forth to the ethnic markets in your area, the farmer’s markets, or if you’re getting a CSA box every week, you’ll learn to be a better cook for taking on the surprise.
Tender: A Cook and His Vegetable Patch, by Nigel Slater is probably one of the most gorgeous cookbooks I’ve ever seen. Jonathan Lovekin’s photos of veggies are so remarkable they’re enough to inspire even the pickiest eater (well, probably not -- my veg-e-phobe Beloved was not moved). This book is not only gorgeous but encyclopedic -- 691 pages, organized by vegetable. Nigel Slater writes cookbooks and a food column for the English newspaper The Observer, and apparently also does some television. Mostly though he’s my favorite kind of cook -- unfussy, somewhat improvisational, and often most interested in fairly plain food. The kinds of things you’d cook not for a dinner party, but for good friends who were coming by, or for a family dinner. The introductions to each vegetable contain info about how he grows them, why he loves them, and how he most prefers to cook them. He’s also not shy about telling you which veggies haven’t worked for him. Regarding Bok Choi he notes “These spoon-shaped annuals have not been easy for me to grow and I regard them as one of my failures. Mine come in a bag from Chinatown…” Apparently, English snails are very fond of Bok Choi (one advantage to living in the high desert West, no snails or slugs). Regardless of whether he can grow them or not, he gives four terrific recipes for what to do with Chinese greens, each recipe printed on one page, with one of Lovekin’s beautiful photos on the verso.
There is a photograph of nearly every recipe in this book, so if you’re the kind of person who really wants to see what the recipe looks like, you’re in luck here. Each section focusses on a different vegetable, with an introduction by Slater describing what he loves about it, then a section about growing that vegetable, with planting and growing tips. If applicable, this is followed by a “diary” section describing performance across the season, and a short section describing varieties by name (this was really useful a few weeks ago when I was up to my ears in seed catalogs). The bulk of each chapter is then given up to a description of the vegetable in the kitchen, describing how he uses it in daily life, then a section on Seasoning, noting which herbs, spices and other foods pair well. Then come the recipes. It’s a lovely format, lending itself equally well to browsing through and dreaming about some distant summertime, when one might have tomatoes and eggplants and basil as well as to using as a reference when one’s CSA box delivers a kohlrabi, or bundle of chard, or lovely bunch of beets. There is also a terrific narrative of how Slater designed and built his London garden, much more of which is applicable to than one might think. Even without much money, it is more than possible to design a beautiful vegetable garden, and for many of us, that’s a sizeable proportion of the pleasure. If you have a cooking or gardening mother in your life, this would be a lovely and thoughtful Mother’s Day present -- that is, if you can bear to part with it.
Another good resource for those CSA mysteries is Sur La Table’s Eating Local: The Cookbook Inspired by America’s Farmers by Janet Fletcher. Interspersed with profiles of CSA farmers from all across the country, the book contains a great selection of recipes for not only vegetables, but also fruit, poultry, meat and eggs. The final section is a brief primer about where to find a CSA in your part of the country and how to start your own urban homestead. There are recipes for both familiar and unfamiliar vegetables including old-fashioned dilly beans, what to do with those forgotten veggies the rutabaga, the kohlrabi and the turnip, and a recipe for homemade ketchup (which might be just the thing for those bags of last year’s homegrown tomatoes in the downstairs freezer). The fruit section is particularly appealing, with recipes for galettes and shortcakes and upside-down cakes using the berries and stone fruits that make CSAs and Farmer’s Markets so appealing after a lifetime of tasteless commercial fruit grown to ship rather than for flavor. The final section has a nice introduction to the concept of pastured meat and eggs, although the recipes are a little thin. In the same way that buying a CSA share teaches one how to cook imaginatively with vegetables one might not have thought about before, so buying meat by the “share” -- by the whole or half animal -- requires one to learn to cook all those odd cuts that require a little imagination. Shanks and stew meat and tougher cuts are the rutabagas and kohlrabi of the meat shares, and it would have been useful if the book had included recipes to turn those into meals. This is a lovely book, and the profiles of the farmers are really touching (and bring out the farming envy in some of us). It would be a great resource for someone who has just signed up for a CSA, or even who is looking to extend his or her comfort zone at the farmer’s market.
Another great resource for those who find themselves stumped by their CSA boxes is vegetarian cookbooks. Even if you don’t intend to stop eating meat, the vegetarian cookbooks provide a great resource for someone looking to do something other than just steam that bunch of kale. Heidi Swanson had a justified hit last year with her first cookbook Super Natural Cooking and she’s followed it up with Super Natural Every Day. As she notes in the introduction, for this book she “resisted the urge to include over-the-top, special occasion productions. I left out recipes requiring all day Saturday and on into Sunday to prepare, and skipped the ones with six different components.” What she did instead was keep a running notebook of the things she cooked for herself at home most often, recipes that are, by nature of the way she lives, rooted in fresh ingredients and whole foods. The book is organized by meal: breakfast, lunch, snacks, dinner, drinks, treats, accompaniments, and it is illustrated with Swanson’s own photographs. The extensive introduction is one of the most useful parts of the whole book, explaining what she means by natural and whole foods, how she shops, and how she organizes so that everyday cooking becomes a pleasure rather than a chaotic and rushed chore. The lunch section in particular appealed to me, since like Swanson, I work at home and lunch can so easily degenerate into a pattern: in my case, one involving leftovers which tend to morph into an endlessly-evolving soup. The unusual but easy salads in here are going to perk up my midday meal enormously, especially now that my garden is finally producing some greens. Swanson is particularly good with whole grains, which I have to admit, I neglect in favor of the simplicity of my rice cooker and that huge bag of Chinese rice, but since my partner actually likes a lot of interesting grains, Swanson’s book has me all inspired to start fooling around with farro and wheat berries and rices of other colors. The drinks section is particularly appealing, as is the final section of accompaniments, which contains both sauces like the quince paste dipping sauce, as well as instructions for basic items like poached eggs and properly cooked brown rice. All in all, this is the sort of book I turn to when I know I’ve got plenty in my pantry, but I’m feeling uninspired and I can’t bear to go to the store.
For anyone looking to increase their cooking skills, expand their repertoire of foods, and to support your local farmers I’d heartily recommend joining a CSA. I have one girlfriend who joined this year, and she’s enjoying not putting in a vegetable garden this spring and using the time she’s saved to get out with her kids more. If a CSA share seems like too much for you, then check out the farmer’s markets -- while they have a reputation for being pricey, if you shop well (or seek out Farmer’s Markets in ethnic neighborhoods) you can usually come home with clean delicious produce for what you would have spent on tasteless commercial vegetables at the store. If you can, and you have the freezer space, seek out a meat share -- when you average out the price per pound it’s usually a good deal, and you’ll really stretch your cooking skills (especially when, as inevitably happens, you wind up with an unlabeled package of frozen meat). Whatever you decide, I’d urge you to take a look at one of these gorgeous cookbooks for inspiration, and at the very least, to add some unfamiliar vegetables to your diet this spring.