Seasonal I: Local Flavors

Several months ago, I vowed to eat more foods in their prime.  I will eat more from our garden. I will seek out the best of  farmers’ markets. I will search for fruit and vegetables most in season and most recently picked.

Since then, the woodchucks ate all our zucchini, the squirrels made off with our tomatoes, and rabbits have gradually nibbled away at all the rest. “Nothing like gardening to turn mild, pacific folk into ravening, blood-lusting murders,” my colleague insists, but Ann, God love her, continues to approach pest control organically. She constructs magical wards from dog hair, garlic pellets, and even coyote urine.  Sadly, our suburban squirrels have never seen a coyote before, so they don’t seem put out by it. They continue to roll the still green tomatoes across the yard where they can eat them in peace.  I even found a half-eaten one on the picnic table. Are they borrowing our lawn furniture as well?

“At least the woodchuck is keeping its distance,” Ann said.

“So are the neighbor kids,” I add. And it’s true.  Last year they continually leapt over the chain-link fence, looking to play catch on a wider expanse of green.  Now they just pace back and forth on their lot, looking feral.

I’ve also been somewhat frustrated with the range of cookbooks that genuinely help me with my newfound quest.  Publishers, it seems, have discovered that people like farmers’ markets. They know we read Michael Pollan and we’re willing to pay 40 or 50$ for a book that will bolster our belief that locally sourced, organic vegetables are noble.  Ann, who grew up on a farm in Northeast Pennsylvania, insists that this is just called “food,” but I remind her that when she was growing up, her organic sweet potatoes came with marshmallows.  Today’s organic and locally sourced food is not about picking your dinner up off the ground or out of a spiral-bound junior-league cookbook. Locally sourced food is sophisticated, elegant, and politically subversive.  It does not come with marshmallows.

But here’s the problem.  As much as one may want to get behind simple, local and seasonal aesthetic of someone like Alice Waters, it seems that it’s actually difficult to capture that effectively in a cookbook.   I remember the disappointment I felt the first time I looked at a Chez Panisse cookbook.  Really?  This is what the fuss is all about?  Chez Panisse’s reputation was built on the quality of its ingredients and the skills of its chefs. Without these, the cookbooks were simply spartan recipes for Caprese salads.

More recent cookbooks have tried to address this trend.  They’re as much about procuring ingredients as they are about preparing them.  The more a writer gets into talking about local sources and markets, however, the more one realizes that his or her locale isn’t mine or yours.  I’m also somewhat impatient with cookbooks that are organized by season.  It’s hard to accept that during the summer, I’m can only use summer recipes, or when I have a summer like this one, the cucumber recipes. Meanwhile there are all these pages of sour cherries, fiddle-head ferns, blood oranges and quinces that are either out of place or out of time.

The first book to wrestle with these issues seriously, I think, was Deborah Madison’s Local Flavors: Cooking and Eating for America’s Farmers’ Markets.  This book was useful several years ago when Ann and I joined our first CSA, the Red Hills Farms west of Philadelphia.  Like most new CSA members we had questions like, “Is Kohlrabi food?” and “No seriously, do people actually eat this?”  There is a whole range of alternate dimension vegetables, like garlic scapes.  They grow exactly as plants shouldn’t, in stiff curling stalks like crazy straws; if left to their own devices they will flower in a colorful globe.  Yes, they are part of the garlic plant that everyone loves, but we don’t see them in grocery stores any more than we tend to see heads on chickens.  Scapes are too mild to use as an aromatic and too tough to sprinkle on as an afterthought, like chopped scallions. So what do you do with them?  You look in a book like Local Flavors.

And you don’t find them.

Don’t get me wrong.  Madison gets most of it right. Kohlrabi is there, along with fiddle-head ferns, quinces and blood oranges.  But there’s no scapes, and this bothered me because that’s what I needed, a quick DYI reference for dealing with scapes.  Instead, I’m leafing through alluring pictures of citrus that only grow in Southern climates.

Madison’s admits to spending most of her time in Santa Fe markets, so perhaps that’s part of the problem.  But she says she’s writing a book for all America’s Farmers’ Markets.  Is that even possible?  Is it desirable? If one could cover all that territory, wouldn’t the book end up focusing on the most common things in markets — which would miss the point — or it would have to become encyclopedic — which also would seem to miss the point.  There are actually more recipes for Kohlrabi in her previous, utilitarian opus, Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, but it’s about as much fun to read as a phone book.  That sense of place, that sense of cooking in the moment that I’m looking for, isn’t here either.

I have a growing suspicion that blogs may actually be better for this kind of thing than cookbooks.  Local blogs can tip me off to when the sour cherries hit the market and explain what to do with them. But this is a cookbook blog, so I have to give books the benefit of the doubt.  Over the last two months, I have  experimented with the newest crop of books with mixed results.  I worked my way through the in-season part of Andrea Reusing’s Cooking in the Moment, which emphasizes not only cooking by seasons, but by the month and even week. I worked my way through Nigel Slater’s Tender, with its ultra-local emphasis on terraforming urban backyards. I also tried to overcome my prejudice against Chez Panisse style cookbooks and bought David Tanis’s A Platter of Figs, and The Heart of the Artichoke.   I’ll break these reviews into separate posts to make them easier to digest, but to ease the suspense a little, I’ll tell you advance.  None of them say anything about garlic scapes.

Nor do they have recipes for woodchucks.

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