Thursday, August 9, 2012

The Romantic Prairie Cookbook

The Romantic Prairie Cookbook
Author: Fifi O’Neill
CICO Books (2012)

There's something special about the "old prairie" lifestyle. Things are simpler, purer, and while not always easier, the days always seem to end with the sense that it was lived completely. The style of prairie homes is charming and whimsical, and it is no mistake that Fifi O'Neill has made this life the subject of many projects since 2007. Between her blog (Chez Fifi), a book titled Romantic Prairie Style and editing a magazine with the same name, she has made her name on the quaint way of living in the country. It seems only natural that a progression to the joys of simple prairie cooking would follow, and finally it has in a gorgeous volume: The Romantic Prairie Cookbook.

Romantic Prairie is divided into the fairly standard recipe categories of Starters and Snacks, Main Courses, Side Dishes, Desserts and Baking, and Drinks and Preserving, along with the separate "mini-book" section Celebrations and a brief but elegant introduction. Every recipe is accompanied by a stunning photograph of the dish, and the whole book is a full-colour work of art thanks to Mark Lohman's photography. In fact, the photos may even demur the meeker cooks from trying a recipe out of worry their version will not look identical - though more likely it will entice an attempt anyway.

Dark Chocolate Chip Raspberry Cookies (p. 113)
This book is a wealth of recipes that we've all stashed in the back of our minds but have forgotten in the pursuit of faster, more convenient fare. Items are not heavily sauced, spiced or gussied up, which is a welcome experience when many other books (though wonderful in their own right) feature just the opposite. Dinners like the three-ingredient Tri-Tip Roast (p. 57) and a simplified Cassoulet (p. 60) are perfectly at home in this work, as are slightly more complex options like Vegetable Bread Pudding (p. 42) and Zucchini-Goat Cheese Tart (p. 50). None of the dishes in Romantic Prairie are overly difficult to manage by someone with basic cooking skills, and while beginner foodies may feel more comfortable with a lunch of Rustic Turkey Sandwich with Broccoli-Peanut Salad (p.15), the truly ambitious will certainly find their niche with a Venison Stroganoff (p. 65) or special-occasion Tourtiere (p. 179). Those with a sweet tooth will enjoy items like and Mom's Dutch Apple Pie (p. 106). Our family and friends fell in love with the Dark Chocolate Chip Raspberry Cookies (p. 113) shared with O'Neill by Raspberry Fields Farm's Sara Higgins - a perfect option for a bake sale that is just slightly away from "the norm". I made the filling of Maria Carr's Lemon Sour Cream Pie (p. 124) three times on its own - it was simple to do and, while too sweet and lacking in lemon flavour for my family's palate on the first go round, achieved perfection with a slight sugar reduction and addition of lemon zest. It was so enjoyed by my mom that she asked me to make the recipe for a dinner guest, and even with my huge adaptations to the original it never lost its comforting nature. Because the food is so simple, it is perfect fodder for adaptations large and small - be it for reasons of health, taste or ingredient availability.

Lemon Sour Cream Pie (p. 124)
This book is not one for the overly weight-conscious, as it does rely a fair amount on full-fat, heavier items and meat. However, it is a wholesome one - in Romantic Prairie, the most processed item readers will find is store-bought pastry crust and candies used in O'Neill's Celebrations chapter. Whole foods like fresh produce, cream, butter, eggs and quality meat are stressed, always with a mind towards embracing the pure flavour of the ingredients, and the portions a diner would require to be satisfied are more than reasonable - yet another nod to a simpler time before the "super size" option. Where most readers will find fault in this book is not that the recipes are difficult, but that creating the romantic, old world foods takes time - and more than is commonly allotted to the cooking experience. Savouring the creations in Romantic Prairie is also a time investment - it's hard to wolf down an open-faced Grilled Tartine with Eggs and Peppers (p. 35) - but you shouldn't want to. Certain ingredients can be a challenge to find as well, depending on your market's variety (in my suburban shops, venison, buffalo and gooseberries are rare, or very expensive). Luckily, those items are possible to substitute (a quick web search can provide alternates) or are not so central to the dish that leaving them out is a great disservice to the flavour.

While we can't all afford to live in the prairies, create long-cooked meals from scratch daily or even sit down as a family together for dinner every night, we can dream. Fifi O'Neill does a wonderful job of furthering this romantic notion with simple, classic recipes, honest ingredients, charming dialogue and enticing photography in The Romantic Prairie Cookbook. If nothing else, it is a delicious taste of where we came from and an example of what we should never forget - simple is best, occasionally indulge, and above all, savour each moment.

Available on Amazon

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