Thursday, October 11, 2007

a jug of maple syrup, and thou ...

BOOK REVIEW; Nostalgia for the Countryside Paired with Local Seasonal Fare

By Joy Hui Lin

“Cooking with Shelburne Farms” (Viking Group, $34.95) written by Melissa Pasanen with Rick Gencarelli strikes a resonating autumnal note.

The cookbook boasts of revolving around nine local Vermont ingredients. Lamb, maple syrup, and cheese are just a few of them.

Several things piqued my curiosity enough to agree to review this book. First, I admit any endorsement from Deborah Madison on a cookbook will catch my eye. While I spent a semester living in a vegetarian co-op discovering the wonders of homemade bread and soups rich with roasted vegetables plus the “joys” of whole wheat laden desserts, Deborah Madison’s recipes were often used to create these hearty dinners. Second, visions of pastoral Vermont pass through my mind with the deepest nostalgia. Third, the concentration on local eating is a pet food issue close to my heart.

“Cooking with Shelburne Farms” exemplifies this latest food trend. While there are many reasons to eat locally and seasonally the most convincing of the bouquet of reasons is that it simply tastes better.

I, myself, have been tossed into a quandary after a friend gifted us with garden grown tomatoes just a week ago. Each bite served to remind me of all the watery tasteless tomatoes I’ve eaten this year. Almost like a taunt.

However, let’s forget the tomato taunting, and focus on the beautiful Jersey cows. Previous to visiting Vermont, I had never seen such gorgeous cows with supple tan brown hides and extravagant lashes fringing their sweet brown eyes. “Cooking with Shelburne Farms” has wisely dotted their cover with these bovine beauties grazing on the rich green pastures which cover Vermont’s landscapes.

The recipes offered up in “Cooking with Shelburne Farms” are sprinkled with informative tips. For example, in a recipe about Shepherd’s Pie, they point out that steaming potatoes makes for firmer potatoes than boiled ones. This is a nuance that has escaped me since I grew up on eating rice. Also, the introduction of Shepherd’s Pie also notes that it is meant to be eaten with ground lamb, not beef. Apparently, the inclusion of beef makes a Shepherd’s pie instead a cottage pie. An error of which many have made, including myself. After their explanation, it dawned on me, of course, a shepherd shepherds sheep, not cows. Perhaps Cottage Pie should be called Cowboy Pie instead. I digress.

Trucking out to the countryside with this cookbook in hand, I was delighted to thumb through it and find a chapter on wild mushrooms replete with tips and recipes since I had been mushroom hunting that day. Does one need to go out into the countryside to appreciate this book? I don’t think so. Sometimes, city dwellers (myself included) need to open a page of a cookbook to create a memory of the countryside when it is not so easily accessible.

Moreover, the more I read through the recipes in “Cooking with Shelburne Farms” the more I am convinced of the steadfast practicality of the book. Nothing in the book lists anything that needs to be transported overseas in order to arrive at your dinner table. The recipes are rustic and hearty like “Braised Shoulder of Lamb” and “Maple Butternut Squash Soup”. They keep simplicity at the forefront to showcase the local produce and meats. When the meats and produce are themselves already tasty, the ingredients do not need overly complicated preparation methods -- which is the heart of the matter when it comes to local seasonal eating.

Also worth mentioning is the abundance of cozy types of baking recipes which include “Golden Raisin Scones” and “Chocolate-Sour Cream Cake.”

I especially enjoyed the brief vignettes into the local Vermont industries on pig keeping or maple syrup farms. My briefest concern is that the chapter introductions are printed in senior citizen sized font which startles and perplexes the eye. Why does it need to be that large? The reason escapes me.

What I most appreciate about “Cooking with Shelburne Farms” is its very modest proposal the entire book builds upon: eat local meats and produce, and local meats and produce will be good to you, too.

“Cooking with Shelburne Farms” has succeeded in its pitch to me. The reason I know this is because I’m filled with imaginings of burnt orange leaves falling from trees in Vermont, complete with an impulse to visit such a place as Shelburne Farms, and also, now, have a burning desire to make apple butter from the apples from the orchard.

Oven Roasted Apple Butter
adapted from “Cooking with Shelburne Farms”

Makes 1 ¼ c apple butter

5 lbs apples, cored, cut and peeled
½ c apple cider or natural apple juice
¼ - ½ c maple syrup depending on tartness of the apples, Grade B
4 whole cinnamon sticks
4 whole star anise, divide and tied up in 2 cheese cloth bundles

They recommend buying a good mill.

Preheat oven to 375 F. In a large heavy, shallow roasting pan, toss the apples with cider and maple syrup. Distribute the cinnamon sticks and star anise Roast until the apples are very soft, about 30-45 minutes depending on the apple variety.

Pull out the cinnamon sticks and star anise and set them aside. Run the apples through a food mill or, if they were peeled, mash them roughly with a potato masher or puree them in a food processor or blender.

Reduce the oven temperature to 300 F and spread the mixture back into the roasting pan with reserved cinnamon sticks and star anise. Taste and stir in more maple syrup if desired.

Baked until a dollop of the apple mixture on a plate releases no liquid, usually 1-1/2 hours, but this can vary depending on your apples. Stir every 30 minutes, take care to move the sauce away from the sides of the pan. You will want to do this more frequently the longer you cook it.

Remove the cinnamon sticks and star anise and cool before storing in the refrigerator. Apple butter will keep up to two weeks in the refrigerator or can be frozen for several months.

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