Like so many home cooks and food devotees ( I will resist the dreaded “f” word), I love paging through cookbooks even when I’m not planning my next meal. I use them for inspiration (I need a new idea for cooking a head of napa cabbage), or reference (how long does Julia roast her chicken?) or cultural research (so those are the traditional spices in ras al hanout!). I have also used some great cookbooks – like Michael Ruhlman’s Charcuterie – to learn new skills, and have recently followed Ana Sortun’s directions for making Moroccan chicken to learn a bit more about North African cooking techniques. But in general, I rarely follow a recipe when I am cooking.
That is, until I picked up The Farm by Ian Knauer. Organized roughly by season, with chapters on foraged foods and preserving, among potentially useful recipes (need to know how to cook wild game, anyone?), The Farm is full of simple recipes that are just unique enough enough to help see an oft-eaten ingredient in a new light. Dishes like “radishes with bacon butter” are pretty much as I would have imagined it, if I had imagined this first. I have no need to make up my own version of this dish – Ian’s take on it is sure to be the tastiest and simplest. But man, do I now know what to do with those bunches of radishes I always pick up in late spring because of their robust red color, and then lose interest in slicing in my salad.
Maybe I also love this cookbook because I feel an affinity with the author. He grows much of his own food and sources most of the rest locally and seasonally. And from the bit of personal narrative he writes before each recipe, I get the sense that he does this for the same reasons that I strive to as well – because it is a more delicious, more personal, and more fulfilling way to eat. But he’s not righteous about his food; in one recipe for a breakfast sandwich (with eggs, cream cheese, mayonnaise and asparagus) he notes its provenance as inspired by a fridge full of left-overs and a raging hangover. Rare is the ingredient that can’t be sourced locally or from a farmer’s market, and many recipes are noted as coming from a friend or family member, or improvised from the seasonal produce on hand.
I must admit, I take pride in not following recipes – in not needing someone else’s expertise to put a delicious meal on the table. But I am not ashamed to admit that The Farm is a cookbook I will be following to the letter for more than a few dishes.