‘Wild Flavors’

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in: Book Reviews

There are cookbooks that send you rummaging through your cupboards or propel you to the grocery store in a hot swoon, eager to find that one missing ingredient that stands between you and the recipe on page 64. There are cookbooks that work as coffee table reminders that there is the high art of gastronomy, and then there’s everyday supper. “Wild Flavors: One Chef’s Transformative Year Cooking From Eva’s Garden” isn’t any of these.

This cookbook by Didi Emmons chronicling her work with produce from Eva Sommaripa’s garden is almost a field manual for foragers. The narrative and the recipes invite you to wander off the grid and out into your backyard, or a neighbor’s backyard. It may even inspire you to go scavenging off the roadside of your closest superhighway.

“Wild Flavors” is an invitation to a lifestyle, an encouragement into the wild, (or the nearly wild) to discover perfectly wonderful edibles that have been unnoticed and under your nose.

And at its core, “Wild Flavors” is a love story between Emmons, a Boston-area chef and cookbook writer, and the intense and irrepressible Sommaripa, a legendary grower of more than 200 herbs, greens and edible weeds. Sommaripa is the green guru, the soul in residence on her farm, Evas Garden, 80 miles south of Boston.

An ambassador for all things green

Local chefs get a faraway look when you mention Eva’s name­­. Singlehandedly, she has initiated local chefs and their customers into a secret society of fanatics about the flavor of fresh herbs and salad greens that bite back. She is an in-your-face eccentric and happy ambassador for all things green.

“What, you’ve never tried African basil?” Sommaripa might query a chef during one of her marathon phone calls. “Never used calamintha in an omelet?”

She’ll be up soon, in your kitchen, with a fresh-snipped batch. Emmons was one of the chefs who fell under Sommaripa’s spell. Hard.

After years of hearing about Sommaripa, and fielding her phone calls and joyous faxes, Emmons decided to make a trip to Eva’s Garden. And there, wandering through the fields, observing Sommaripa’s titanic energy and commitment to all things edible, Emmons fell in love. She describes her first visit to Eva’s Garden as finding Shangri-La.

The resulting cookbook, written over more than a year, follows the seasons and focuses on 46 uncommon garden plants that have starring roles in several hundred easy-to-follow recipes. Emmons has divided up the year into the four seasons, not only by what’s growing in spring or summer, but also the psychic energy that characterizes each time of the year.

Flavors

Winter is for “salvaging,” as well as a time for recipes starring beets, cabbage, juniper berries, parsnips and sprouts. Spring is for “community” and depends on alliums, arugula, curly dock, goosefoot, stinging nettles, pea greens and lovage. Summer is for “bartering” and focuses on recipes featuring herbs like African blue basil, anise hyssop, bronze fennel, lemon verbena, summer savory and rugosa rose. And fall is for “preserving and conserving,” and its recipes and tips feature autumn olives, cardoons, chervil, chickweed, and a few familiar friends such as kale, leeks, parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme.

Emmons is an experienced recipe writer and cooking teacher, and her recipes are wonderful. They are easy to follow and successful even if you can’t find chickweed or goosefoot at the store or in your own backyard. You will savor each page with its tips for growing, storing and serving green things you never dreamed were edible. Among the highlights:

  • homespun Boursin, amaze and delight your friends with herbed cheese you’ve made yourself
  • lamb with Israeli couscous and oregano thyme
  • linguine with kale, lemons, and brown butter
  • spaghetti squash with lentils and sage
  • minted whipped cream

Folklore and fantastic greens all in one

One of the elements of “Wild Flavors” that I loved was its focus on the “health virtues” of each plant. I learned that lovage root is an age-old diuretic, and basil is an anti-inflammatory, and that cardoons contain cynarin, a bitter compound that can lower your cholesterol.

Thank goodness that neither Emmons nor her muse Sommaripa approaches herbs and sprouts with a dreary, eat-your-spinach overlay. Growing, preparing and eating green things are a source of sensual delight. They love the earthiness, the thriftiness, the crunch and spunk of the shoots they bring forth from the ground, and you will too. In many ways, like all great cookbooks, “Wild Flavors” is an adventure book masquerading as a cookbook. Buy it and have a little adventure in your own backyard.

Buy Didi Emmon’s “Wild Flavors” Now!


Zester Daily contributor Louisa Kasdon is a Boston-based food writer, former restaurant owner and founder of letstalkaboutfood.com. She is a columnist for the Boston Phoenix, the food editor for Stuff Magazine and has contributed to Fortune, MORE, Cooking Light, the Boston Globe, Boston Magazine and the Christian Science Monitor, among others.

Photos, from top:
Didi Emmons and Eva Sommaripa. Credit: Louisa Kasdon

“Wild Flavors: One Chef’s Transformative Year Cooking from Eva’s Garden.”  Credit: Courtesy of Chelsea Green

 

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