Saturday, September 29, 2012

Home-Grown Harvest

Home-Grown Harvest
Editor: Rebecca Woods
Publisher: Ryland Peters & Small (2011)

Showcasing seasonal food is one of the tastiest and most nutritious ways to eat. The flavours of peak season peaches in a crispy cobbler, a medley of late Summer vegetables in a ratatouille or the bright green pop of tender asparagus and spring peas in a creamy risotto are hard to pass up – and when the produce comes from your own backyard or local farm, the benefits are even greater. Home-Grown Harvest, edited by Rebecca Woods, is a mouthwatering collection of recipes and stunning photography that will be sure to lure even the most skeptical cook into a fresh new world.

Harvest is a unique book in that it is not authored by one particular individual. Rather, it is a compilation of recipes by several cookbook authors such as Ross Dobson, Laura Washburn and Brian Glover. The recipes are organized brilliantly into categories of plant type: Root Vegetables, Bulbs and Stems, Fruiting Vegetables, Podding Vegetables, Greens, Zucchini and Squash, Mushrooms, Tree Fruits, and Soft Fruits. Almost every inclusion in this book is accompanied by stunning, full colour photography; both of the “raw” ingredients and the finished dishes. Offerings range from the more “standard” Caesar Salad (p. 108) to the unique Tenderstem Broccoli, Shiitake & Tofu Omelet (p. 97). All courses are represented in one way or another, from starters such as the classic Tomato, Mozzarella and Basil Salad (p. 73) to decadent desserts like the Frosted Pear, Zucchini & Carrot Cake (p. 146).

Readers of Harvest will be quick to discover that many of the contributing authors are not American in origin. While the measures are given in Imperial units, the phrasing and titles of recipes, as well as their preambles, hint at European heritage. Certain ingredients, too, will be more unfamiliar to American eyes and palates. Tenderstem broccoli, for example, is commonly marketed as broccolini and occasionally (though erroneously) broccoli rabe. Items such as golden syrup and crème fraîche are less popular in US and Canadian markets (though they can be found if you look hard enough), and so many would-be cooks may find themselves researching a substitute.

Leek & Potato Soup (p. 41)
Thankfully, the language style in Harvest does not detract from it’s recipes. Instructions for meals like Triple Tomato & Basil Risotto (p. 69) are clear and concise enough for the most casual home cook to attempt their creation. Conversely, the wording is in no way “dumbed down” or trivializing, and is sophisticated enough that more skilled individuals won’t feel out of place.

Given that my hemisphere is transitioning into Autumn, my family is moving towards heartier, more warming fare like soups and stews made with root vegetables. I opted to use up the last of our local new potatoes in the Leek & Potato Soup (p. 41) by Tonia George, which is one of my mom’s favourite varieties. I made two modifications based on what I had on hand – I added a diced parsnip to the buttery steam-sauté of leeks, onions and potatoes, and for the “milk” (the recipe doesn’t state a specific fat level) I used a 370 mL can of evaporated 2%. The finished soup got a hint of rosemary and chives stirred in, and tasted creamy, smooth and rich without being cloying. It made a fantastic starter for the meal we served to company, and my mom took leftovers for lunch the next few days.

Potato & Coconut Soup with Thai Pesto (p. 16)
I also made a second soup from Harvest, the more exotic Sweet Potato & Coconut Soup with Thai Pesto (p. 16) by Ross Dobson. Since I knew it would likely only be packed for my mom’s lunches during the week, I stirred the modified pesto (I had no fish sauce or basil, so used tamari, chives and mint as well as a hint of shredded coconut) into the puree instead of dolloping it on top. Even without having the Thai curry paste (I used a pinch-hitter of Sriracha, garlic and ginger), this recipe was the epitome of all the things Thai food is known for – a perfect marriage of flavour, texture and heat. While the puree itself, made with local sweet potatoes, red onion and coconut milk, is mild and sweet, akin to a typical Asian pumpkin soup, the pesto utilizes green chile peppers and if eaten alone (especially without prior warning) is a painfully nuclear concoction, albeit delicious pain. Together, though, the sweet and spicy aspects of the recipe, paired with a delicate sourness from the pesto’s lime, meld into a stick-to-your-ribs whole that is neither too sugary not mind-blowingly hot. The benefit of keeping the pesto separate when cooking this for the family is that everyone can then adjust the spice level to their own preference. Most children will leave their bowls unadorned, but those with a passion for heat will be adding tablespoons. I did have to add another can’s worth of water to get the soup to a spoonable consistency and used half and half toasted sesame and coconut oil for the initial sauté. It’s not a recipe for those with a limited pantry or grocery availability, and if you aren’t sure you like Thai (or generally Asian) food, chances are you’ll pass on this one. However, for the fans of the Orient, it’s a delicious way to bring a taste of Asia to the table.

Probably the biggest hit of the book with my taste testers were the Mini Chocolate, Beet & Cherry Cakes (p. 33) by Sarah Randell. I’ve long been a fan of beets and chocolate together, and by adding home-dried sour cherries to the mix I was sure the flavours would be stellar. Even after veganizing it with a slurry of ground flaxseed and hot coffee in place of the eggs, using whole wheat pastry flour and a combination of pureed raspberries and beets for half the oil, the giant muffins I made (in lieu of buying mini loaf pans) were moist, decadent and were snatched up in minutes. None of the tasters believed that there was anything healthy about them, much less that the star ingredient was beets! The bittersweet chocolate in the recipe, along with the cocoa powder, add a touch of “grown up” flair to a dessert commonly associated with the younger crowd, and I’d be hard pressed to find a child who would pass up a taste!

Mini Chocolate, Beet & Cherry Cakes (p. 33)

If you’re passionate about tasting the best of the backyard, or trying something new at the farmer’s market, Home-Grown Harvest is worth taking a look at. No matter what your palate, your season or your family dynamics, something is sure to catch your eye and deliver on it’s promise of full bodied wholesome flavour. It is gorgeous enough to share space on the coffee table, useful enough for the kitchen library, and a wealth of inspiration for entire years to come. 

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Tomato: A Fresh-from-the-Vine Cookbook

Tomato: A Fresh-from-the-Vine Cookbook
Publisher: Storey Publishing (2010)

When it comes to produce at it's prime, Summer means one thing and one thing only: tomatoes. It's hard to argue that anything tastes better than a fresh, sun-kissed beefsteak or handful of cherry tomatoes sliced onto toast, tossed with a simple salad or simply fresh off the vine. However, if you have ever grown tomato plants yourself, you know the inevitable glut that comes near the middle of August when you just can't think of another way to use them. Meeting this need for late-season (or any time) inspiration is Lawrence Davis-Hollander, founder of the Eastern Native Seed Conservancy and Director of Horticulture at the Berkshire Botanical Gardens, with his latest book Tomato: A Fresh-from-the-Vine Cookbook.

Tomato is packed with 150 recipes from all over the globe, including those from famous chefs like Massimo Capra (of Toronto's Mistura), Daniel Boulud and Rick Bayless. Every course is incorporated into the pages - sauces & salsas, starters, soups, salads, pizzas & sandwiches, vegetable mains, meat and fish mains, sides and even desserts like the strangely appetizing Candied-Tomato Tart with Five-Spiced Hazelnut Crust (p. 220). Davis-Hollander even includes a critical chapter of preserves (p. 227), with information on freezing, drying, juicing, pickling, canning and even confiting your harvest for the long winter ahead. Ideas for using your preserved (or storebought canned) tomatoes are also entwined with the book's recipe collection, from a Sun-Dried Tomato and Olive Bread (p. 132) (which coincidentally goes wonderfully with the Green Tomatoes on Toast on the next page) to canned diced tomatoes in Tomato, Lentil and Almond Soup (p. 86) and the juice (of course) in the Bloody Bull (p. 65) and Spicy Tomato Cocktail (p. 66). A guide to saving tomato seeds to plant next year is also included on page 259.
Confit Tomatoes (p. 251)

Mouthwatering photography in this book is provided by Sabra Krock - I just wish there was more of it, and incorporated into the flow of the book itself. As a reader I look for photos accompanying the recipes, and while I appreciate the inclusion of photos at all, searching for an example of a stellar-sounding dish in only 8 pages is often a letdown.

The recipes in Tomato themselves are generally nothing short of spectacular - I have made the Confit Tomatoes (p. 251) three times this season, and packed some home-dried cherry tomatoes in olive oil (p. 250) for holiday gift giving. The beginning and end of the season (when the tomatoes in our backyard were not quite at their peak ripeness) saw impromptu half- and quarter-batches of the Roasted Heirloom Tomato Sauce (p. 20), which capitalized on the available sugars in the fruit but was too sweet for our palates. Luckily, modifying the acidity and salt is a simple technique for any cook, and when the basic recipe is as foolproof as this Market Kitchen offering I even ventured to roast the onions and garlic as well. This modification proved to be a great boon to the outcome, adding a slightly bitter edge to the candy-sweet tomatoes, and a kiss of lemon juice with a dash of salt rounded out the flavours.

Roasted Heirloom Tomato Sauce (p. 20)
For those less inclined to fire up the oven or stove who enjoy absorbing a wealth of food knowledge, Tomato is also filled with information on the crop's heirloom varieties (p. 253, as well as throughout), growing in containers (p. 7), choosing the best variety for the recipe (p. 9) and even the economics of the food and it's associated products. I loved reading the article "America's Love Affair with Tomatoes" (p. 69), where I learned that almost 22 pounds of fresh (and 72 pounds of processed) tomatoes are consumed per capita in the USA, but that China, not a western country, is the largest producer of them! For the truly tomato-crazy, Davis-Hollander shares some of the festivals around the USA, and for those interested in the chefs behind some of Tomato's recipes, biographies are included near their offerings.  "Top 10" lists of various foodie's favourite varieties also lace the book, which is a great resource when selecting a cultivar to plant or buy.

While the season in the northern hemisphere may be drawing to a close, the treats and information in Lawrence Davis-Hollander's book are timeless. Whether you are looking for a use-up for an over-productive garden, trying to jazz up a can from the store or searching for ideas as to what next year's crop will be, you'll find something of use. For tomato lovers (and those who cook for them) Tomato: A Fresh-from-the-Vine Cookbook is an easy to savour addition to the culinary library.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

The Locavore Way: Discover And Enjoy The Pleasures Of Locally Grown Food

The Locavore Way: Discover And Enjoy The Pleasures Of Locally Grown Food
Author: Amy Cotler
Publisher: Storey Publishing (2009)
Eating local is all the rage these days. From tiny roadside stands with Bristol-board signage proclaiming backyard strawberries to five star restaurants building entire tasting menus from local suppliers and reality television challenges, it's the latest trend in food culture for good reason. Local food is picked riper and shipped less, allowing the best nutrition and (most importantly) the truest flavours of the fruit or vegetable to shine. While you would figure that the task of eating what is produced around you is an easy one, it's not always the case. Labelling is hit and miss, some farmers markets are actually selling imported goods and occasionally the prices are higher thanks to the lack of corporate mass-farming operations keeping costs to a minimum. Amy Cotler attempts to ease the transition to a more locally based diet in her book The Locavore Way: Discover And Enjoy The Pleasures Of Locally Grown Food.

Locavore Way is if nothing else a valiant attempt to humanize the still somewhat elitist world of farm-to-table living. With a personable writing style and many helpful lists and subsections including stories from producers who follow the "local food first" philosophy, Cotler addresses many key concerns such as sourcing local food, finding farmers markets and restaurants who provide truly auto-produced or regional fare, how to shop and prepare what you buy or grow for the best results and most importantly - doing all of this on a budget. While similar books become akin to sermons or lectures on how conventional eating is the root of all evil, and usually promote a strict vegetarian way of life, Locavore Way is less so. A certain amount of preaching is present however, especially where the chapter Connect and Engage (p. 180) and the appendix section Key Events in Local Food History (p. 216) are concerned, but in general the message Cotler brings is full of passion and backed with experience, whether her own or her interviewees.

Unfortunately, due to the fact that anything to do with local eating is by nature only applicable to the immediate surroundings, some of this book specific points and examples lack relevance for anyone outside of Cotler's location of northeastern America. Many of the points mentioned in Locavore Way are, while important in their own right, also dependent on living in cities within the United States with easy access to services like Community Supported Agriculture (p. 47), bulk Buying Clubs (p. 67) and well stocked supermarkets and specialty grocers, not to mention longer growing seasons and better climates than those in Canada or the United Kingdom can hope to have. This book also struggles with a lack of fresh, revealing content for it's target audience. In essence, the messages shared in anyone outside of Cotler's location of northeastern America. Many of the points mentioned in Locavore Way are intuitive, and the majority of consumers already understand the basics of why and how to eat locally that make up this book's skeleton. A lot of the information in this book is identical across chapters and sections, simply re-stating the same facts in different language, occasionally sounding like the author simply turned to a Thesaurus and re-wrote what came up. A section that would have been appreciated is a section of tips for finding a "better option" when, as in the case of us up north, local options are out of season or too expensive. A portion of the book I looked forward to, "The Seasonal Eater" (p. 18), is unfortunately impractical for the majority of readers, since today people tend to thrive on variety, not to mention an array of foods in the diet is important for overall health. Even her well-intended section "10 Reasons to Eat Locally Produced Food" (p. 10) is written from an idealistic perspective - for instance, point #3 (For the health and safety of your family and yourself) is not necessarily the case - just because a vegetable or loaf of bread came from next door doesn't mean it isn't laden with chemicals, pesticides and preservatives, less processed or more sound nutritionally than a similar item. Number 6 (For an open, working landscape) would be wonderful if it was as common as Cotler may have you believe, but the truth remains that local production does not equal historical or pristine landscapes and environments.

I appreciated the fact that Cotler took the time to connect with like minded farmers and document their stories, particularly those of Breezy Hill Orchard and Stone Ridge Orchard (p. 35) which were a great eye opener as to the challenges of biodynamic farming. Her section on "Local vs. Organic" (p. 13) was refreshing to read as well, as it reiterated what many shoppers are unaware of in terms of the costs of certification preventing many local farms from applying the label regardless of their identical practices. Her farmer's market planning guide (p. 23) is fantastic, especially for those who have never ventured to one. "15 Ways to Become a Locavore" (p. 4), while imperfect in it's ability to be applied carte-blanche across livelihoods and locales, is a good start for complete local neophytes and worth a read even if you've eaten local for years. While the section dedicated to seasonal eating was more flash and less substance, readers can find lists of what to look for (at least in the northeastern US) by season in the sections titled "The Seasonal Market" (p. 33) and a sample CSA "share" listing from Sproutwood Farms (p. 64). As a foodie, the chapter Play with your Produce (p. 146) was a wonderful resource for preparation and serving ideas (whether using local or supermarket fruits and vegetables), and as it covers some of the less familiar items like celeriac, jicama, fennel, kohlrabi, Jerusalem artichokes and tomatillos the information may entice even the wariest cook to look at it in a different way. For budding gardeners, Locavore Way also has a fairly basic starter guide to growing your own, but I would suggest true beginners consult a gardening manual before jumping in head first.

For those just discovering the local way of eating, The Locavore Way: Discover And Enjoy The Pleasures Of Locally Grown Food is a good first read to test the waters with. Amy Cotler takes care to inform, inspire and impassion even the most skeptical consumer, and provides enough solid, basic material that readers can move on and apply specific principles to their lives in the way that suits their lifestyles best. A perfectly 100-mile existence is out of reach for many, but regional and in-season eating is attainable at least some of the year. When it's as close as your backyard, there's no reason not to try a taste of local living.

Available on Amazon

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Sinfully Easy Delicious Desserts: Quicker Smarter Recipes

Sinfully Easy Delicious Desserts: Quicker Smarter Recipes
Author: Alice Medrich
Publisher: Artisan Publishing (2012)

Now that the school year is in full swing once more, many PTAs and fundraising groups are going to be pushing bake sale participation onto parents and children alike. Unfortunately, the story of the child who comes home from school claiming they "need something for the bakesale... tomorrow" is all too real and parents are hesitant to use a packaged mix or swing by the bakery the next morning can find themselves up till 2AM mixing and decorating something sellable. Even if bake sales are not an issue, impromptu dinner guests and holiday parties tax the already busy individual looking to impress, and sometimes simply having a sweet treat after a Saturday night dinner is desired! Dessert guru Alice Medrich has compiled a book of recipes that are just what the doctor ordered for the harried sweet tooth. From packable, individual cookies and cupcakes to standout pies and bread puddings, Sinfully Easy Delicious Desserts: Quicker Smarter Recipes has something to savour.

Medrich follows the philosophy of keeping things simple in the sweet kitchen, and like her previous Chewy Gooey Crispy Crunchy Melt-in-Your-Mouth Cookies the square book is easy to read, clear and concise, with full colour photos of many recipes. Beginning with an incredibly useful listing of "basic dessert pantry" items and helpful kitchen tools (p. 9-13), novice bakers are given a perfect go-to guide for their first shopping trip, including a list of treats in the book that can be made with bare-bones essentials. An extra glossary of both ingredients (p. 270) and equipment (p. 274) prefaces the American resource listing (p. 277) and a well-organized complete index. The recipes in Sinfully Easy are also interspersed with "un-recipes" for basics like meringue (both crunchy and crisp-chewy, my personal favourite) (p. 160), yogurt cheese (p. 114), crostini (p. 16), vanilla sugar (p. 53) and toasted nuts (p. 256). Medrich ups the approachability factor of this book by including "generalized" tutorials as well. Whether the occasion calls for cake (p. 170), chocolate and cocoa (p. 97), cookies (p. 236) or nuts (p. 256), help is offered in a simple to understand and apply format that doesn't preach to nor bore the reader.

True to it's title, offerings in Sinfully Easy are fairly quick and uncomplicated which makes it a boon for parents with fledgling cooks in the kitchen. While I question the need for actual recipes like Cinnamon Toast (p. 28), Lightly Sweetened Whipped Cream (p. 130), Chocolate Shards (p. 232), Grilled Chocolate Sandwiches (p. 254) and Chocolate-Dipped Fruit (p. 264) rather than simply including them as "ideas" in one of the many other sections, most are gems that are simple without being inane. Go-to items like the The Best One-Bowl Chocolate Cake (p. 174) and Bill's Food Processor Chocolate Mousse (p. 90) can be prepared by older children or used as measurement and preparation teaching opportunities for parents, and with the options for many frostings, compotes, and other garnish recipes Medrich includes even the most basic of items can be made into a showstopping dessert. For those with a posher palate, items such as Carrot Almond Torte (p. 206) and custards (including a decadent Bittersweet Cocoa Souffle (p. 126) and French Chocolate Mousse (p. 93)) are more complex alternatives to the Classic Carrot Cake (p. 209) and Chocolate Pudding (p. 88).

I had the pleasure of making several of the items in Sinfully Easy over the Summer, and not a single one disappointed in the flavour department. While the cupcakes I made using the One-Bowl Vanilla Cake (p. 222) recipe sunk horribly in the middle (despite being cooked through), I used it as an opportunity to fill them with thick, rich Mocha Fudge Frosting (p. 180) and cap things off with the lighter but still indulgent Extra-Good Vanilla Bean Frosting (p. 181, sidebar). The result was incredibly well received by those I served them to and no one ever suspected the cake portion had a problem at all. For my bread-pudding (and banana) loving dad, I made a variation of the Salted Caramel Banana Bread Puddings (p. 118) in coffee mugs (as I did not have, nor could I find, any 6-ounce ramekins) using Medrich's Butterscotch Toffee Sauce (p. 25). A word to the wise regarding the toffee sauce: ensure the cream (or coconut milk in my case) is warm before stirring into the sugar, or it will separate and curdle. I found that this step allowed me to use even a lower-fat dairy product (whole milk) than the heavy cream called for without separation problems.

Probably the two most valuable portions of Sinfully Easy are Medrich's "[T]hings to do with..." sections and her wealth of variations for a set basic recipe. Not only does the book include the chapters Starting with Ice Cream (p. 15) and Starting with Fruit (p. 47), but ideas for using vanilla ice cream, ripe strawberries, yogurt, gingerbread, and chocolate bars are included as well - allowing even the most rushed person to enjoy a sweet treat. Almost every recipe includes variations for flavour, texture or application, from 10 Ways to Flavour Whipped Cream (p. 131) to turning the dense mousse of the Chocolate Marquise (p. 95) into a pie. These variations raise the economic value of this book immensely while keeping the reader interested by providing several recipes in one, and in times where budgets are tight it can be an excuse to justify an otherwise frivolous sounding dessert cookbook.

Whether you are baking for your family, a special occasion or those sudden fundraisers, Sinfully Easy Delicious Desserts: Quicker Smarter Recipes can fit the bill. It is a good first "sweet kitchen" book for teenagers and adult baking neophytes alike and is so rich in variety that it is virtually impossible to make the same thing twice in a year. Even if you normally take a pass on the sweet table, this book by Alice Medrich will convert you at first taste.