Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The Old Farmer's Almanac Garden-Fresh Cookbook

The Old Farmer's Almanac Garden-Fresh Cookbook
Compiler: Heidi Stonehill
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (2011)

Most of us have a few reference books that we can turn to reliably for information on happenings around us. Garden planners, cookbooks, star charts – all these are well and good, but there is no book that comprises gardening, weather, health, cooking, astrology, astronomy, fishing and just general life skills quite like The Old Farmer’s Almanac. A book many grandmothers swear by for it’s reliable, practical information, the Almanac has become a calendar, a children’s version, an e-book, a garden guide and even a jigsaw puzzle.  In The Old Farmer's Almanac Garden-Fresh Cookbook, the best pieces of gardening and culinary wisdom combine into an easy to read, reliable resource that is a welcome addition to any homeowner’s bookshelf.

Along with over 340 recipes in its full-colour, attractively illustrated pages, Garden-Fresh Cookbook is also filled with information on growing your own key ingredients. Guides on fresh herbs, edible flowers, berries and even beginning a vegetable garden have their own special sections, while a “Reference” chapter is packed with information on frost dates, hardiness zones, health and food safety, ripeness indicators, preserving, measurements and pan sizing and even ingredient substitution. For those wishing to get a jump-start on their growing season, the book includes a page of sources for mail order seeds and gardening supplies as well.
Roasted Lemon-Balm Chicken (p. 175)

The recipes in Garden-Fresh Cookbook are categorized into 14 sections: Breakfast and Brunch; Appetizers, Dips and Spreads; Soups; Salads; Vegetable Dishes; Canning and Preserving; Poultry; Meats; Fish and Seafood; Pasta and Rice; Sauces and Condiments; Breads; Desserts; and Beverages. Offerings in each range from the classics (Tabbouli Salad (p. 87) or Shepherd’s Pie (p. 201)) to new twists on old favourites (Black Bean Soup with Grapefruit (p. 45) and Roasted Lemon-Balm Chicken (p. 175)) and completely new ideas for your homegrown produce (Chicken with Avocado and Almonds (p. 174) and Sweet Onion Watermelon Salsa (p. 238)). Almost anybody’s tastes will be satisfied by the selections in Garden-Fresh Cookbook, be they vegetarian, low-calorie, carnivore or old-school comforts. Recipes with a key ingredient often have a “tip box” where information as to growing, harvesting or shopping for that produce is shared. Something I appreciated in this book was the listing of each chapter’s recipes at the beginning of their respective sections, as well as a complete cross-referenced index at the back.

Blueberry Butter (p. 166)
I thoroughly enjoyed cooking from Garden-Fresh Cookbook – the recipes are complete, easy to follow and approachable by even the most novice cooks. Crafting a meal from one or more of this book’s offerings is akin to being back in Mom’s or Grandma’s kitchen, if they had a full garden in the backyard and a pantry of wholesome foods that would become dinner every night without fail. A fresh organic bird (although a supermarket hen would suffice as well), coupled with backyard herbs and rich butter became Roasted Lemon-Balm Chicken (p. 175), only enhanced by a quartered lemon in the cavity. The resulting chicken was devoured by our family of five, including my skeptical stepbrother who always claims poultry is too dry. While some may balk at the large amount of butter called for (¼ cup per 4-lb chicken), the majority of it renders out, and if you opt to remove the skin as well it is a filling and relatively lean option for a Sunday dinner. The remaining bones – in the spirit of The Old Farmer’s Almanac philosophy – made a stock that Grandma would be proud of. 

Pear Butter (p. 166)
A simple slice of toast or bowl of oatmeal was elevated by one of the long-cooking but incredibly easy to make fruit “butters” I made from the “Canning and Preserving” chapter. Blueberry Butter (p. 166) scaled down beautifully to use the amount of ingredients I had, and the combination of allspice and nutmeg with the tart blueberries and my (accidental) use of vanilla-infused sugar instead of standard granulated was nothing short of divine. Pear Butter (p. 166) was completely sugar free, although the caramel hue, rich sweetness and “just enough” spicing would never give it away. Both of these spreads take well to canning, although they are so delicious that we finished them in about a week.

While the food in this book is not designated “light” or “diet” in any way, the ingredients are natural and whole, and  the recipes are healthful in the sense that they can be enjoyed and relished without needing gargantuan portions or extra condiments. For anybody wishing to regain the spirit of the family dinner, just learning to cook, or is the proud owner of either a new or well-established garden, this is a valuable resource to have at your disposal. Helpful, informative and in no way pretentious, The Old Farmer's Almanac Garden-Fresh Cookbook is one that I will keep on my shelf for a long time and cook from often.

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