Book Review: Fresh Pleasures: Tender and Cooking in the Moment
Two new cookbooks honor the simple and seasonal
Thanks to limited real estate and limited skills— no outdoor space, no green thumb—I can't grow vegetables in my city apartment. But because I'm not harvesting my own salad, I'm captivated when other people do, especially folks as prolific as British food writer and television personality Nigel Slater, who, in his latest book, Tender (Ten Speed Press, 2011), chronicles the yield of his London garden. Slater delivers nearly 500 poetically named recipes, like "A Warm Pumpkin Scone for a Winter's Afternoon" and "A Gentle Vegetable Dish of Old-Fashioned Grace" (that's celery braised in chicken stock and butter, a beautiful comfort food), with a reverence for the soil that birthed their ingredients.
Tender's recipes have an elegant simplicity, but the genius of the book lies in its non-recipe content. Organized alphabetically by vegetable, asparagus to zucchini, each chapter opens with a brief essay on the crop, accompanied by tips for getting the best results in the garden and the kitchen. I didn't have to be a farmer to be fascinated to learn that favas are a hardier choice than peas in a garden prone to frost, and onions are best stored in a pair of pantyhose hung from the ceiling, so as to help prevent rot. Slater's prose can be florid (chervil leaves are "like wisps of lace petticoat"), but it transports me to the rain-soaked backyard where I imagine the author sits at a wrought-iron table and writes. The green, smoky smell of his "Spring Leeks, Fava Beans, and Bacon" sauteing on my stove doesn't hurt the fantasy, either.
There's fantasy of a different order at work in Andrea Reusing's Cooking in the Moment (Clarkson Potter, 2011), a book that, to a nongrower like me, is a welcome counterpoint to Slater's one-man farm-to-table show. Reusing is the chef at Lantern, a market-driven, Asian-accented restaurant in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and her volume is also a paean to nature, but her harvest is a group effort: She does the cooking, and local farmers, foragers, artisans, and purveyors provide the ingredients that mark the ebb and flow of the North Carolina seasons. Here, recipes are grouped by date and occasion rather than by ingredient or category: "Last Day of School, Middle of June" introduces a verdant pea, lettuce, and green garlic saute (see recipe at right); and "Friday Morning, December" is dedicated to "Snow-Day Food," like paprika-spiked pot roast, Pernod-glazed carrots, and an elegant, sour cream-sorghum ice cream.
This format makes for an intimate, accessible take on seasonality, and the author's enthusiasm for such a way of life is infectious. Reusing doesn't weigh her book down with seasonal dogmatism; Cooking in the Moment is the story of her year. So what if lard-fried chicken works just as well as a cold-weather dish? She served that chicken in August, so the recipe goes in the August section. Moreover, there's both genuine excitement and a wry smile in her lectures on sustainability. "The fact that our great-grandchildren may never eat a real seafood dinner gives those of us who still eat fish a responsibility not to put blue cheese on it," she writes by way of introduction to a dish of mackerel dressed in a classic salsa verde.
Reusing's recipes, simple at their essence, are written with a true cook's attention to detail: A straightforward dish of asparagus tossed in an emulsified soy and butter sauce and topped with a poached egg lists its cooking time in seconds and delivers a contingency plan just in case the sauce breaks. Mine did, of course, but it came back together, just as Reusing promised it would.
For those of us with a tendency to come home from the farmers' market with a bag of whatever looks exciting and no culinary plan, books like Reusing's and Slater's are a boon. I found inspiration in locating the minor bounty I unloaded onto my kitchen counter within their greater harvest. "I grow for the joy it brings," Slater writes, while Reusing writes that eating seasonally is "a reason for celebration." I might not be able to grow what I eat, but with these books, I, too, can celebrate, in my own small apartment, the cornucopia brought forth by others.