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Books for the Seasonal Cook

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When I first started cooking with the seasons, I had to make some transitions in the way that I cooked. Before this time, I would find a recipe that I wanted to make, and then would go to the supermarket to find each ingredient. Nevermind that it was the dead of winter and I was looking for zucchini, the market provided exactly what I needed.

Once I started going to the farmers' market on a regular basis, I found I wasn't always finding what I needed. "Do you have cilantro?" I'd ask. "Not in season," the farmer would tell me. Nevermind that I had to have cilantro for the dish I was creating. I was faced with a problem: I could either ditch the idea of eating seasonally and run to Albertson's for cilantro from a far away place or I could adapt the way that I cooked to match what was available at the farmers' market.

These days, cooking is a much different proposition. I often have less control over what vegetables are in my household, and I rarely walk out of the house with a recipe that is hard and fast. Most vegetables come to me through the CSA we belong to, and with that, we have no control over what comes to us. Any other items I supplement come from the farmers' market but I often go with nothing in mind and return with whatever looked best that day.

At home, I have collected a bookshelf of reference books to guide me whenever I have a foreign fruit or vegetable. Before this year, for instance, I had never cooked with a rutabaga. It showed up in my CSA box with a few suggestions, but I wanted to know more.

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My first reference for what to do with vegetables is usually Vegetables from Amaranth to Zucchini by Elizabeth Schneider. Schneider shows a photo of the vegetable, and then a lengthy description. From her book we find out the rutabagas came to the United States in the 19th century, and that you can have success cooking rutabagas in any way aside from the way that most people cook them: boiled for a very long time. Schneider then outlines basic uses for the rutabaga in a general manner: you can julienne it and serve it raw, marinate it in salads, or steam it until al dente among many other suggestions. From the "selection" section we learn that we want our rutabagas to be relatively heavy as that implies juiciness.

The last section of each entry is the one that I often read first. In an area called "Pros Purpose," Schneider asks lots of industry professionals what they do with rutabagas in their kitchen. This section does not have specific recipes, but usually has short blurbs from many chefs generally describing dishes in their kitchens featuring the vegetable.

When I first mentioned buying The Victory Garden Cookbook last summer, fellow BAB writer Amy Sherman commented "You will LOVE the Victory Garden Cookbook, mine is falling to shreds...". Marian Morash first published the Victory Garden Cookbook in 1982, and I remember it well from growing up. To this day, my mom uses Morash's scalloped potatoes recipe from this book. The Victory Garden Cookbook combines growing information about specific vegetables with preparation methods and general information for those of us who don't grow our own food.

In Morash's section about rutabagas, we learn some additional tidbits about rutabagas. They can be stored for a couple months if unwashed and stored in a container of dry sand, sawdust or peat. Another option for storage is to freeze mashed or pureed rutabagas. In her many recipes, there is a delicious-sounding Shinbone Soup with Turnip and Rutabaga made with beef shinbones, and even a sweet rutabaga pie, as she says that root vegetables make "wholesome yet delicate pies."

When Heidi talked about The Organic Cook's Bible on her site about a month ago, my first response was suspicion. I am generally wary of books that are targeted at "organic" cooks, as I feel that someone using organic ingredients can use any recipe available, and that it is a marketing ploy to make people buying organic foods think that they need to find books aimed at them. One look at this book, however, and I knew that I had to have it.

Jeff Cox's 500-page tome is organized into sections describing "Vegetables", "Fruits", "Nuts, Seeds, Beans & Grains", "Herbs and Spices", and "Meats, Dairy & Eggs". The layout for each entry is well-organized and easily understandable. After spending just three weeks with this book, I am already finding it to be an invaluable reference. The entries are succinct, but give the reader a lot of information about each fruit and vegetable.

From the rutabaga entry, we discover that some rutabagas are grown for their seeds and commercially become canola oil. Cox explains the season that rutabagas are available (fall and winter) and has a lengthy description about uses. His approach seems to be very much that of a consumer who has used most of these fruits and vegetables in his home kitchen, though he is well qualified by having been and editor of Organic Gardening for many years, as well as hosting Your Organic Garden for public television.

If you are a seasonal cook like me, any of these books would be an invaluable addition to your library.

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