“Home-grown Harvest: Delicious Ways to Enjoy Your Seasonal Fruit and Vegetables” is the kind of cookbook that is as thrilling to browse through as a full-color seed catalog in the dead of winter. I experienced that rush when I opened this handsome book in the doldrums of the squash, potato and beet season. The first chapter of root vegetables spoke directly to me with recipes for potato and parsnip croquettes, Thai red pumpkin curry and spiced carrot dip. Revitalizing a desire to use my storage crops, it propelled me into the kitchen — one of the first tests of a keeper cookbook.
Inspiration for the seasonal cook
Organized by botanical groups (“Bulb & Stem Vegetables,”Greens & Salad Vegetables”), “Home-grown Harvest” is intended as a recipe resource for gardeners. However, lacking any of the horticultural information found in similar books, such as in Alice Waters’ “Chez Panisse Vegetables,” it is approachable for farmers market shoppers and Community Supported Agriculture farm members alike. There is a short supply of text overall (a plus for many; for me, less so), and this book reads like a beautifully designed magazine feature.
The chapter “Fruiting Vegetables” leads you through the warm-season crops of eggplants, peppers, tomatoes, corn and artichokes with alluring photographs. The recipes are a balance of classic and novel, European and Asian, even mixing savories with sweets, and this collection feels modern without seeming scattered. The lengthy tree fruit chapter was far less useful, since I have a garden, not an orchard.
Recipes are short on specifics and salt
“Home-grown Harvest” only revealed its true shortcomings when I brought it into the kitchen. Braised fennel with polenta was the first recipe I made, since I am always looking for more ways to use this beloved bulb. It started off promising with instructions to use the fronds, which I typically compost, and offered directions for trimming and slicing the bulb, a procedure unfamiliar to many home cooks. As soon as I turned on the burner, the situation soured.
I followed the directions to heat the olive oil in a saucepan (no size specified, my first red flag) over high heat to cook chopped onion and garlic. I took a second look in the book, then turned the heat down to medium-high anyway to avoid scorching (red flag number two). The fennel slices barely fit in my largest saucepan (red flag number three). I stuffed them in to braise in lemon juice, wine and stock for 20 minutes, covered, over a low simmer. Thirty-five minutes later, my fennel was crisp enough for a wilted salad but hardly braised (red flag number four), and where in the world was the direction to season with salt (red flag number five)?
Next, I tried the recipe for cauliflower and Swiss chard salad, beckoned by the beautifully caramelized florets in the photo. I found the same pan-size omission, the wanton instructions for high heat, unrealistic cooking times and a serious lack of seasoning in the tahini dressing. I’m sorry to report that the four other recipes I attempted to follow faithfully required some intervention although the recipe ideas throughout continued to allure me.
A cookbook looking for an author
What, precisely, was going on here? I sat down with the book to find out who was guiding my hand at the stove. I flipped the book to the title page and realized that there was no single author. On the copyright page, there was a list of 22 contributors, and I had my answer. As I pored over “Home-grown Harvest” in depth, I noticed how generic, too, were the sparse sidebars and tips, how they lacked the personal attention to detail that makes any cookbook — no matter how lovely — merit a long-term position in our collections.
The mark of an excellent cookbook is the voice, experience, perspective and particularities of its author. Like a kitchen without a chef, this cookbook offered no one to instruct, inform or mentor me. A recipe is not just a recipe. In the end, “Home-grown Harvest” proved to be a quick-reference collection to excite the imagination of the home gardener in the throes of winter, but ultimately could not satisfy this hungry, inquisitive cook.
Zester Daily contributor Lynne Curry is an independent writer based in the mountains of eastern Oregon. The author of “Pure Beef: An Essential Guide to Artisan Beef with Recipes for Every Cut” (Running Press, May, 2012), she also works as a private chef and blogs about rural life at www.ruraleating.com.
Photo: Sesame sweet potato with peanut dipping sauce. Credit: Lynne Curry