Henceforth, we are tabling “farm to table” and farming out the job to a new phrase. I nominate, in no special order: soil to skillet, field to fork, barnyard to backyard, slaughter to house, and range to range. These phrases echo the modern mantra that ingredients are best when they are locally sourced, picked at peak freshness and used as soon as possible – something we knew by default before the advent of supermarkets and the Interstate Highway System.
Call it what you will: The Farm: Rustic Recipes for a Year of Incredible Food, by Ian Knauer (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, April 17, 2012), is one of those cookbooks. Knauer spent childhood summers helping out on the 40-acre family farm in Knauertown, Pennsylvania. Now he spends the weekends tending its vegetable garden, chickens, honeybees and fruit trees, and collecting its forageables, watercress, ramps and wild mushrooms. During the week, he is a New York City food writer whose work has appeared in Bon Appetit, Men’s Health and Gourmet (R.I.P.), where he was promoted to food editor by Ruth Reichl, who penned the introduction to “The Farm.”
With one foot in the dirt and one on the sidewalk, Knauer’s cookbook is a bit of a hybrid: 150 recipes, modern takes on American classics – many in the Pennsylvania Dutch style of his foremothers – interspersed with personal essays, à la Reichl, on farm, food and family.
“I feel like getting dinner on the table is not just about cooking. For me, food has a story behind it and each recipe has its own little reasons why I love it,” said Knauer in a phone interview with Alm@nac.
The rustic cuisine is pictured in sleek, glossy color photography by Hirsheimer & Hamilton. Recipes can be accomplished by a cook with a small home garden or a CSA share, supplemented by trips to the local farmers’ market. It’s country cooking for city mouse, and vice versa.
“The recipes in the book are not necessarily for someone who has a big garden and grows their own food,” said Knauer. “They’re for people who are inspired by farmers’ markets and CSAs, who want to know what to do with what they find. … Second, to make things really simple. These are not chef’s recipes. I don’t want it to be a coffee table book. I want it to be a book that people really cook from.”
I really cooked from this book, and was pleasantly surprised. It obviously benefits from the recipe rigorous testing Knauer learned at Gourmet, and is accessible enough for beginners without being a bore to a more advanced home cook. The simplicity and down-to-earthiness of the recipes leave a lot of room for riffing (a dash of cayenne here, omit the dill there), and the pages have nice-sized margins and white space down below for penciling notes.
Cocoa-Zucchini Cake with “Whipped Cream” Frosting is my favorite, thus far. That watery vegetable does nothing but add moistness to the batter, disappearing into the baked cake quite stealthily. If you need to trick someone into eating vegetables, this is a good place to start. The cake is deep, dark and delicious, not too sweet. The dessert-time sweetness comes from frosting, which is thickened with a mixture of milk and flour, boiled then cooled, and incorporated into unsalted butter, sugar and vanilla extract. You slap it on thick with an offset spatula, and it looks like one of those great refrigerated cakes from a Midwest truck stop.
Smoked Cheddar and Jalapeño Corn Bread is baked in a cast-iron skillet, and Knauer spends several sentences praising this worthy alloy. In the finished product, cubed cheese adds that subtle smoky flavor and the jalapeños taste fresh and bright, reminding us that they still grow on plants and don’t all come pre-pickled for nachos. One thing to pencil in the margin: the recipe says to slide the cornbread out of the skillet and serve it warm, but I would either a.) serve it in the skillet or b.) turn it out of the skillet when it’s completely cooled, because the hot cheese compromised its structural integrity. Half of my bread stayed in the pan while half was on the plate, but it was still delicious.
Recipes also include Rabbit in Cider-Mustard Sauce, Radishes with Bacon Butter, Rhubarb-Sour Cream Crostata Pie, Pasta with Garlic-Scape Pesto, Lemon Pudding Cake and Grilled Filet Mignon with Summer Herb Sauce. Knauer will help you roast a pig, make your own ricotta out of buttermilk, can pickled beets and zucchini relish, and create a jar of “Master Fat” in your refrigerator, to add depth to your fried foods.
Knauer’s favorite cookbooks are The Joy of Cooking, The Zuni Café Cookbook and, of course, the Gourmet cookbooks. The Farm deserves a place on such a shelf, somewhere between the utilitarian and the heady gourmet.