Reading with roots: Three essential Hudson Valley cookbooks

Chef/author Ric Orlando of New World Home Cooking in Saugerties.

Chef/author Ric Orlando of New World Home Cooking in Saugerties.

A New Year, a new opportunity to cook healthier or bolder – whatever you please. But where to begin? The way I see it, you have two choices: Enroll at the Culinary Institute of America or buy a new cookbook.

As far as the latter goes, I’ll take any excuse, because I am a cookbook fiend. I most recently endeavored to get my mitts on What Katie Ate: Recipes and Other Bits and Pieces (Studio, 2012), the 304-page debut cookbook by Katie Quinn Davies, a globetrotting former art director turned food photographer and blogger.

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Oh, the blogosphere! It shrank the world, making it possible to befriend, in the digital sense of the word, a gaggle of fellow food enthusiasts. Davies’ eponymous blog is sumptuously photographed, and so is her cookbook. It’s filled with full-page photographs of deep, dark and beguiling dishes accompanied by typewriter-font recipes, many sourced from family and friends – which reminded me that Davies is not a professional cook, and maybe not even the best cook in her family. Her gorgeous cookbook could help a novice home cook stage a fabulous, eclectic all-night dinner party, and brunch the next morning. In other words, it is perfect for someone…but not me.

This disappointment got me thinking a lot about what we use cookbooks for, and what makes a good one. We want them for different things, to be sure: to show us, in luscious illustrations, how food can and should look; to teach the meanings of different food words and terms; to suggest how to stock one’s pantry. But mostly they’re to tell us what to cook, because if we knew, we’d A) make it or B) Google a specific recipe. And so it is that we look to authors and editors whom we admire or respect to guide our kitchen journey.

You’re not going to go along with someone you don’t trust. I choose my cookbooks the same way I choose my friends: We have something in common. We’re both in our 30s, or lived in Oregon, or are English majors of Irish- and Italian-American descent. That initial connection is the jump-off point. A cookbook should be a friend in the kitchen.

Some of the cookbooks that I use most are written by people with strong ties to the Hudson Valley, who tend to have much more than location in common: an interest in sustainability, the green beauty that surrounds us and making use of the local harvest. If I were to introduce you to a select few, these are the top three that I’d recommend you add to your pantry shelf:

Hudson Valley Mediterranean: The Gigi Good Food Cookbook by Laura Pensiero (HarperCollins, 2009), 336 pages. Pensiero is chef/owner of the superb Gigi Trattoria in Rhinebeck and Gigi Market and Catering in Red Hook, a registered dietician and author of my favorite local cookbook. “Hudson Valley Mediterranean” is her term for sourcing the best fresh seasonal ingredients and preparing them in a no-nonsense, flavor-forward style. This rustic approach echoes that of many Mediterranean cuisines, emphasis Italian.

My favorite recipe is Gigi Tagliatelle Bolognese, featuring a shout-out to Northwind Farms for the required ground beef and pork, and a no-fail recipe for perfect pasta. The pages are pockmarked and an ancient sprig of thyme is stuck in between.

We Want Clean Food by Ric Orlando (Clean Food Press, 2002), 201 pages. It’s no secret that I am a card-carrying member of the Ric Orlando Fan Club, and that I’m running for secretary at the next annual meeting. I love the grub up at New World Home Cooking in Saugerties, which Orlando calls “Global Heritage Cuisine”: a veritable passport to a globe’s worth of gustatory delights prepared with “clean” organic ingredients grown out in the yard and down the road.

In addition to featuring my favorite recipes from the restaurant – New World’s Pan-Blackened String Beans and Ric’s Mustard Remoulade, everyone – Orlando dishes in a cucumber-cool preface, encouraging home cooks to ditch the stressful nightly news and reclaim the evening hours as time to unwind with a glass of wine while cooking a nourishing meal.

The Butcher’s Guide to Well-Raised Meat: How to Buy, Cut and Cook Great Beef, Lamb, Pork, Poultry and More by Joshua and Jessica Applestone and Alexandra Zissu (Clarkson Potter, 2011), 240 pages. I can’t get away with calling this a cookbook: It’s a straight-up philosophical treatise. Jessica Applestone dreamed of a butcher shop where the meat was locally and ethically sourced, and the staff could tell you what it was and how best to cook it; and then she and her husband built it, with the help of a few good mentors.

Fleisher’s Grass-Fed & Organic Meats opened in Kingston in 2004, and now has a Park Slope, Brooklyn outpost. They learned along the way, in pastures and abattoirs, kitchens and coolers, and they aim to educate. Try the Brick Chicken, their tips for cooking the perfect steak, everything.

Read more about local cuisine and learn about new restaurants on Ulster Publishing’s hudsonvalleyalmanacweekly.com or dinehudsonvalley.com.

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