Home Plate: Three books for gardening cooks
Some of my earliest memories are of gardening with my grandfather and working in the kitchen alongside my grandmother. I have certifications from both the French Culinary Institute and the New York Botanic Garden. I should know a lot about gardening and cooking.
But I am humbled every day by how much I don’t know. There’s always some new conundrum that I can’t solve without the help of those who know a lot more than I do.
Stuff like: “What is that strange bug on my roses? Should I kill it because it’s going to finish off the leaves that have already been skeletonized by rose slugs? Or is it a good bug that will actually eat the rose slugs?”
Or: “What is the minimum amount of sugar I can put in my jam and still have it set properly? And while I’m thinking about jam, what exactly, is the chemical structure of pectin and how does it work?”
Sure, the internet is a great place to find quick answers. but it is not the place to go if you want to think long and hard about something. And when I’m asking questions like these, I’m looking for more than instant gratification. I want to learn a deeper lesson. I don’t want to just identify a bug. I want to know its life cycle, whether it spreads viruses, what its frass looks like, whether I should be happy to see it or squish it on sight.
I don’t just want to make jam. I want to understand how jam happens and what pectin has to do with it. I want to know the history of pectin, how colonial housewives extracted their own from green apples and what chemicals modern food companies use to produce it artificially. I want to know which fruits naturally contain a lot of pectin and which don’t.
The thing is, when questions are considered deeply, they spawn more questions, they generate ideas, they lead me to serendipitous discoveries. A question well-considered is the first step in creating anything wonderful. And that is why when I have questions, I almost always wind up not on the internet, but in a book.
As it happens, a lot of excellent books about growing food and eating from the garden have been published recently, many of them good enough to teach this old gardener-cook some new lessons; below is a list of some of my new favorites. If you have your own garden, or have joined a CSA and suddenly find yourself with more vegetables than you can eat, try picking one of them up.
‘The Four Season Farm Gardener’s Cookbook:
From the Garden to the Table in 120 Recipes’
by Barbara Damrosch & Eliot Coleman
I wish this information-packed book had been available when I first started growing and cooking my own food. Coleman and Damrosch are stars in the cold-weather gardening world, and for good reason. Through decades of research and practice on their coastal Maine farm, they have developed systems for year-round harvests that even beginners can use.
The first half of their latest effort is devoted to the how-tos of gardening – from tools and composting, garden layout and rotation and building a root cellar and small portable greenhouse, to the specific needs of different fruits, herbs and vegetables. The second half is full of delicious-sounding and simple recipes in which fresh produce is front and center, like Lamb Chops with Fresh Mint, Carrots with Honey and Rosemary and Hazelnut Torte with Fresh Berries. Sounds like an amazing dinner to me.
‘Vegetable Literacy’ by Deborah Madison
Like Coleman and Damrosch, Deborah Madison has decades of experience and practice as a chef-owner of vegetarian restaurants and writer of cookbooks. Vegetable Literacy is almost a coffee table book – oversized and filled with gorgeous photographs both from the garden and the kitchen.
While most garden cookbooks are arranged by seasons, Madison takes a novel approach – her chapters are arranged by botanical family. So, for example, the chapter on the sunflower family includes discussions of everything from absinthe to tarragon, with artichokes, cardoons, endives, echinacea, lettuce, chicory and many other plants in between.
Madison provides plenty of growing advice, such as which varieties she likes to plant, as well as useful tips on pairing flavors. There’s also a lot of historical information here, as well as tips on nutrition and medicinal uses of foods. Small sections titled, “Kitchen Wisdom,” in which Madison shares what she’s gleaned over her many years cooking these plants, may be the best part of the book. I learned, for instance, that Jerusalem artichokes never cook evenly, so it’s not my fault if they don’t. Phew.
‘The Holistic Orchard:
Tree Fruits and Berries
the Biological Way’
by Michael Phillips
Okay, this book is a few years old, and it is definitely not a cookbook (unless you consider recipes for compost tea and other plant remedies cookbook material). But if you have struggled to grow fruit organically in New Hampshire (as I have) you must pick up a copy of this book, and the sooner the better. That’s because it is written by a man who actually lives and grows in Northern New Hampshire, one who has figured out how to work with nature to successfully grow and harvest organic fruit crops of all kinds, from apples and pears, to peaches, cherries, raspberries and blueberries.
Philips has spent decades observing the biologic dynamics of orchards. He knows the life cycles of pests, how to maintain healthy microflora and fauna in the soil to feed tree roots, how to plant young trees and prune ancient ones back to life. He believes in a holistic approach to orchard management, one that eschews mono-culture, but instead incorporates native insects, animals, birds and plants to create the kind of permaculture that keeps trees healthy.
This spring, we began employing Phillips’s methods in our mixed orchard, and we can’t believe how terrific the results are already. Not that it’s easy. Keeping fruit that are susceptible to plum curculio covered with a fine coating of Surround (essentially made of finely ground clay) through all the rain this spring has been a challenge. But for the first time in 10 years, it looks like we may be getting a decent crop of plums.
We also took Phillips’s advice to cover our cherry tree with what amounts to a giant net bag, with mesh fine enough that it keeps out birds (without tangling them) and large marauding insects. It took some doing to pull the mesh over a full-grown standard cherry tree, but we did it. Imagine my pleasure when a few hours later I looked out to see a dozen sad cedar waxwings assembled on a nearby trellis, gazing mournfully at the almost ripe cherries, so near and yet so far.