Thursday, June 30, 2011

Superfoods from the Garden

Superfoods from the Garden
Author: Michael van Straten
Publisher: Cico Books (2011)

Gardening is big these days. It’s for good reason – the sluggish economy, the ever-stronger locavore movement, vegetarian and vegan diets becoming the new “perfect” way of eating and the universal desire for everyone to simply feel healthy all play right into the greening of thumbs worldwide. While the desire to “grow your own” may be as strong as the zucchini crops every summer, there is always the dilemma of what to grow, what will grow, and what will you do with all those tomatoes and zucchini once they explode in August? Michael van Straten addresses these, and much more, in his gardening and cooking manual Superfoods from the Garden.

Superfoods is an eye catcher right from the get go – a bright, colourful cover opens to pages of full-colour temptations. Nine chapters are devoted to everything from roots to leaves, squash, fruit and herbs, and each item van Straten includes is carefully researched, well worded and a delight to read. There are no pretentious selections or complicated instructions for growing your own: the focus is on helping the everyday person grow good, delicious and nutritious produce in a way that’s as simple as the food itself. One of my favourite parts about the “gardening” portion of this book is the little harvesting, nutrition and cooking notes that van Straten incorporates in separate sidebars. For the gardener or foodie that just wants to quickly check when is best to pull beets or can’t stand another salad to deal with their lettuce crop, this is an invaluable resource. Not only will that gardener see that orange-sized beets are ideal and that the crowns will give you an idea of when that is, but that steaming or baking them is the best way to cook them unless you enjoy them raw in salads first (p. 74). The cook will find that not only can lettuce become soup or even be braised with peas (van Straten includes his recipe on page 101), but that it’s also full of B vitamins, folic acid and manganese (p. 92). Each vegetable, fruit or herb page is accompanied by stunning photography, and the few things that do need a bit more explanation to grow well (like scarlet runner beans, p. 56 or potatoes, p. 70) have photo-by-photo instructions that would convince even the most cynical home grower to try it out.

And then there are the recipes. Van Straten’s book is a gardening manual, first and foremost, but at the end of each chapter a few relevant recipes are included, many with gorgeous photos of the prepared dish. While not every recipe has an accompanying photo and most are without much detailed in
structions (unfortunate, since the rest of the book is so rich with these), those that do will make you hungry for more. Some elements for the recipes, too, are not overly common additions to the American or Canadian menu – crème fraiche and rabbit, for example – which take some exploration (and would occasionally require online purchases in less urban areas). A couple assumptions are also made that readers of this book know offhand how to make components like béchamel, bread-like ginger cake and phyllo pastry crusts with their eyes closed. That said, the skilled or determined cook will take delight in treats like Honey and Apricot Pizza (p. 166) and Garlic, Onion and Tomato Chutney in a “Mille-feuille” of Sliced Tomato (p. 47). The photo of the latter is enough to make the average gardener yearn for their tomatoes to balloon to flavourful baseballs overnight. Seafood, beef, chicken, pork, duck, quail, pheasant, lamb and even blood sausage make appearances throughout the book, though there are many vegetarian (bean-or egg-based) and vegan inclusions as well. Vegans would need to supplement the recipes in this book with protein based sides for dinner, but a lunch of van Straten’s Timbale of Beets (p. 80) or Barbecued Summer Squash Salad (p. 144) would win anybody’s vote. This book is also friendly to those needing to keep gluten-free, who will find most of the recipes either inherently so or easily modified.

The tail end of Superfoods is likely the greatest appeal to the nutritionist in everyone – while it is understandably devoid of photos, van Straten makes up for it by listing two pages of “vital vitamins and essential minerals” (p. 187), a section of “useful addresses” for recipes and seed supplies and even a dedicated half-page of information regarding what he terms ORACs, or Oxygen Radical Absorption Capacity units (p. 189). These ORACs are antioxidants that exist only as synergistic compounds in whole foods whose effects are destroyed by segregating the individual compounds into refined supplements or processed foods. A score of 10/10 was awarded by van Straten to the notorious prunes, which provide 5770 per 100 grams, and the author includes many other of the “buzzworthy” superfoods on the list as well. Where the recommendation for the highest protection against heart disease, most cancers, artery damage and even aging put forth by the Human Nutrition Research Centre on Aging at Boston’s Tufts University is 5000, taking a look at this new measurement of food’s “goodness” is not only interesting but health-promoting too.

There is a reason that Michael van Straten chose to title his latest work Superfoods from the Garden. Like any good garden, this book takes the healthy seeds of desire and love for good food and lets them grow. The passion, knowledge and drive that van Straten brings to his craft creates “super foods” from even the most mundane vegetables and fruit, and his decadent way of preparing your harvest turns these individual foods into medleys of flavour. While some of them may be unfamiliar, odd-looking or even scary to grow, and some of the recipes may be for things you would never dream of cooking, this book is worth picking up – it may just turn your brown thumbs a bit greener.

No comments: