Book Reviews: Back To Basics

I’m thrilled to bring you another installment of book reviews from my dear friend Kristina Gill. This week we’re heading back to the basics. And I’m not just saying this as an upcoming author but it makes me so happy that so many of us are book lovers. I’ve really grown to love K’s reviews and am fortunate to share them with you. Take it away, Kristina!

Getting back to basics

Within a 10 mile radius of where I live there are beekeepers, wine growers, olive presses, cheese producers, working farms.  We buy 70% of our food from these local producers during spring, fall, and winter, and 100% in the summer.  I buy my olive oil from the farmer who lives across the street from me.  And yes, I am also surrounded by many supermarkets within the same ten mile radius.  Still, I prefer to eat locally because I can see where the food comes from, from seed to harvest, from birth to prosciutto sandwich etc.

I learned about being self-sufficient from my grandmother, who grew up in rural Alabama.  Though she moved to the city as an adult, she made sure she had a yard big enough for fruit trees and a vegetable garden.  I always thought she was a magician because I always saw food on the table, but never saw where it came from.  Later I learned that in addition to the refrigerator and freezer in the house, there was also a deep freeze in the utility house.  She preserved, froze, and ate what she got from her garden.  What she couldn’t produce on her own of course she bought. I went to my first farmer’s market with her.  She did supplement her home grown food with supermarket purchases, but I remember her always out in the garden with her large floppy hat.  In part because of these memories, I’ve always carried a tremendous amount of respect for people who grow and eat their own food.

Eating and growing locally seems to have a romantic connotation and is quite “fashionable” in the United States these days, but it is a vocation for much of the world, and for a large number of these growers it is barely subsistence.  This week’s book reviews draw on eating locally and the people in the developed world who dedicate their lives to producing food.  Whether for vocation, or necessity, it is a lot of hard work.  Though they have only recently come into the spotlight, their greatest satisfaction is in knowing that the food they’ve produced is truly enjoyed.  With these books, perhaps you’ll be able to make yourself and some of your favorite local producers quite happy.

edible:  A Celebration of Local Foods by Tracey Ryder and Carole Topalian (Wiley 2010;  photography by Carole Topalian) Tracey Ryder and Carole Topalian are the co-founders of Edible Communities, a family of magazines nationwide which celebrate the local foods and people who produce them. This book celebrates the local foods movement, capturing the best of what is featured in the Edible Communities magazines,  divided into regions and told through Edible Stories, and concludes with chapters of recipes, divided seasonally, of course.  I flipped right to the Southeast section and started to read about Tennessee, and every state my family lives in.  If you like personal stories, you will love this book.  I haven’t tried any of the recipes, but take for granted that they will be good because they are based on the seasonal harvests of the different regions of the United States.  Reading through the various chapters of this book I am learning so much about the food we produce in the United States, and the issues confronting the producers.  I find it fascinating and am really sorry that I have been out of the United States so long that I only learned about the Edible Communities through this book.  In the back of the book is the comprehensive listing of all the websites for the communities.  I consider this one of the best all around food books I’ve seen this year.  You can find podcasts by the Edible Communities as well.

The Italian Farmer’s Table:  Authentic Recipes and Local Lore from Northern Italy by Matthew Scialabba and Melissa Pellegrino (2010 Morriss Book Publishing photography by Melissa Pellegrino) Matthew and Melissa, a husband and wife team, took a year to live in Italy and produce this cookbook, a dream they both had since they met in Italy.  They were able to produce the book by living and working in Northern Italy at agriturismi, working farms and guest houses.  The book presents recipes from these farms in the regions north of (and including) Emilia-Romagna.  Matthew and Melissa captured some of my favorite recipes, like the bigoli con ragu di anatra (pasta with duck ragu), Polentina con Ragu di Maiale e Noci (shaped polenta forms with ground pork and walnut ragu), Torta di Mele (Apple Cake),  and many others which are so seasonal and local, that you would not ever find them in Italy outside of the region of origin, sometimes not even outside of the town where a particular recipe or vegetable/fruit is harvested.  Each chapter introduces a different agriturismo and its recipes (you can’t get any more authentic than this), and the chapters are dotted with stories and facts about the producers and the areas in which they live.  Quite impressive coverage, and a great first book!

The Real Food Companion by Matthew Evans (2010 Murdoch; photography by Alan Benson) Oooops they did it again.  Murdoch has made another amazingly beautiful book shot by none other than Alan Benson!   Matthew Evans, chef and food critic for the Sydney Morning Herald, has written a gigantic volume on food, the ethics of food choices, the importance of eating local food, and recipes which bring out the best of the food’s flavor.  The book is divided into chapters based on food type (meat, dairy, fruits, vegetables, seafood, poultry & eggs, etc).  Each chapter opens with a description of the food type and how to select the best ones.  Evans has gone back to basics with a collection of recipes which are neither difficult nor time intensive, in fact they seem almost intuitive to me and reading through them you can really begin to see how a certain dish or way of preparing seasonal foods could indeed grow out of eating ingredients when they are available.  This is a good book for someone who loves beautiful images to accompany beautiful recipes.  It’s also a good gift book for someone who doesn’t want to amass a library of cookbooks, but would like a few quality books with lots of great recipes.

The Clatter of Forks and Spoons by Richard Corrigan with Sheila Keating (2008 Fourth Estate; photography by Kristin Perers) Even though I opened this week’s reviews with a backhanded slap at treating food as anything other than a necessity for survival, I have to say that there is indeed something so very dreamy about Richard Corrigan’s book.  Irish-born Corrigan is a fanatic about farm-to-fork eating, and his upbringing on a farm transpires in his writing and knowledge of ingredients and combinations to make the best tasting food ever.  As someone who does not believe in waste, Corrigan gives you your fair share of kidneys and liver and the likes, so don’t say you weren’t warned!  However, this beautifully photographed book is as much about the food as it is about its origins, the farmers, fishermen, butchers, et al with whom he works, and how to prepare their food.  It’s a perfect balance of prose and unpretentious recipes, a little British, a little Irish, with a touch of Italian here and there.  The narrative and recipes are so finely woven, in fact the book seems more like a diary than a cookbook even in its design.  I absolutely love it, and often visit it on my bookshelf just to be reminded of the good food and producers there are out there and what I should be looking for when I shop for our food.  (And to make the oat cookies that my husband loves so much).

The Blackberry Farm Cookbook:  Four Seasons of Great Food and the Good Life by Sam Beall  (2009 Clarkson Potter; photography by beall+thomas photography) You didn’t really think I’d let you get away without a little bit about Tennessee, my home state, and home to Blackberry Farm, did you??  This is the cookbook and story of Blackberry Farm and is a beautiful book in its own right, but a great treasure of Southern recipes starting with blackberry cobbler, peach shortcake and running the gamut of coleslaw, barbecue (ribs and sauces), fried chicken, biscuits, greens, cornbread, chess pie, and then more ‘inventive’ dishes which all draw on ingredients harvested on the farm itself.  Of course I feel compelled to say that this is but one version of Southern cooking and if you’re really interested in our food, you should also try out some traditional Black Southern recipes in books by Edna Lewis, for example.   But this book holds its own, and was a very welcome book to the cookbook market not only for its focus on Tennessee, but also for the story of a working farm and the food it produces over each season.  The book is so beautiful you may not want to risk getting it dirty in the kitchen, but it is totally worth using!

Mattbites in Bon Appetit Magazine

I recently had the honor of taking a few minutes to chat about food photography with the fine folks at Bon Appetit Magazine for a small feature in the August 2010 edition. It’s out on newsstands right now and to say I’m touched and humbled would be the world’s greatest understatement. It’s a wee bit surreal to open a magazine and see your mug looking back at you*. And for the record, I could easily eat fifteen of those parfaits on the cover. I’m not joking.

The magazine is out now, let me know what you think!

*Perhaps one day after the shame subsides I’ll share with you some back story about that self-portrait.

Cherries: A few days in Traverse City, Michigan

Last week I was invited by the Cherry Marketing Institute to join them and a few others at the Cherry Festival in Traverse City, Michigan. I haven’t visited in over 10 years and have always heard how beautiful Michigan is in the summer but the real reason I wanted to go was because I’ve never once had a Tart Cherry. That’s right, I said it.  Sure, I know Bings and Raniers and all our other delicious sweet cherry varietals but a true sour Michigan Cherry had always escaped me. And after spending a few days with cherry experts, researchers, growers and enthusiasts I know why: they’re just too fragile and don’t ship well. At least not in their fresh state. But more about that later.

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