The Four Season Farm Gardener's Cookbook
For many Mainers, April is affectionately known as mud season. For me, it's when I met Barbara Damrosch and Eliot Coleman for the first time at their Four Season Farm in Harborside, Maine. I have two distinct memories from that trip. The first was stepping into one of their greenhouses and seeing healthy, waist-high tomato plants, a sight most Mainers only see in June. That experience led me to step up my season extension game. My family and I grew salad greens right through the winter that year by installing low-tunnels inside of a larger walk-in hoophouse.
But the real relevation at Four Season Farm wasn't in the greenhouse, but in the kitchen. April can be a challenging month for garden-variety locavores, but not for Barbara and Eliot. My wife and I were treated to a delicious, fresh salad followed by a pork roast braised with root vegetables. I had suspected that Barbara and Eliot ate well. With all those fresh vegetables on hand, how could you not? But it was an epiphany to see just how well one could eat in April with the right touch in the garden and the kitchen.
Fortunately for us, Barbara and Eliot are talented and generous writers and educators sharing what they've learned via a series of best-in-their-class books. This month, we've chosen their latest offering, The Four Season Farm Gardener's Cookbook, as our book of the month. It's a unique work and a great value in that it's two books in one: an everything you really need to know about organic gardening book combined with a how to cook it all too book. Below is a Q &A with them that sheds light on how they live, garden, cook and eat. Buying their book and seeing the lovely photos it contains of their gardens and favoite dishes may not be as pleasant as paying them a visit, but at $20 it's also a heck of lot cheaper than traveling to their farm.
Q & A
What exactly is organic gardening and how does it affect the quality of the food you grow?
Growing organically avoids certain negative aspects of conventional food, such as pesticide residues. But the positives are equally important. Organic food is grown in the way food was designed to grow, with fertility administered at nature’s pace rather than with growth-forcing, soil- depleting chemicals. It means building a soil rich in organic matter, in which minerals are readily available to the plants. Deliver the right package of nutrients to a carrot, in an unstressed manner, and it will deliver a good nutritional package to you.
Why should someone grow his or her own organic food?
Eating is something we all do every day, so why not eat the best possible food? Nothing is fresher or more delicious than vegetables and fruits you have just brought in from the garden, to share with family—or anyone you love. Growing them organically gives you a feeling of confidence about the quality and quantity of your food supply. And it doesn’t hurt that growing that food is a pleasurable, health-giving, stress-relieving outdoor activity, one that connects you with the natural world.
Does one have to have a large plot of land to have a home garden?
Not at all. It’s all about getting the most from the plot you’ve got. This means choosing the most productive plants to grow, then using the experienced gardener’s bag of tricks: following one plant with another, doubling up in a bed, getting many meals off a single plant, planning for winter storage and winter growth. Things like that.
How is cooking from a garden different from cooking from the grocery store?
It’s much more fun, because you’re celebrating every vegetable or fruit at its perfect moment. You discover that this is much more important than having every item all the time. No matter how good a cook you are, it’s the quality of the ingredients that make food taste not just good but great. So you tend to adorn the food less, and let the natural flavors shine. Having a big crop of something inspires creativity too. Having a garden—or even seasonal produce from a farmers’ market or a CSA subscription—will always make you a better cook.
How would you describe your style of cooking?
I would say my cooking is that of a prosperous peasant. I love to feed people food that tastes good and satisfies them, so I don’t stint on ingredients, but since many of them are home- produced, I don’t spend a lot of money on what we eat. We grow most of our produce, our eggs, and some of our meat, and even when we use store- bought ingredients, my dishes are made from scratch. Almost nothing starts with a box or a can. It’s healthy food—“real food,” we call it—but never in a self-depriving way. Because I’m busy, most of my recipes are quite simple and quick to prepare.
What kinds of dishes do you cook for your family on a daily basis? On special occasions?
I make a lot of big, hearty soups, sometimes with meat or fish. I make steak, chops, and burgers like everyone else, but there are always veggies on the plate too. Pasta with vegetables on top. Meat loaf with vegetables mixed in. Fish on top of greens. Open-faced sandwiches topped with vegetables and cheese and grilled. Most nights we eat a light supper with something like an open-faced omelet with vegetables and/or a composed salad, which is just a big plate of salad greens with fruit and cheese or cooked vegetables and maybe a bit of meat arranged on it and sprinkled with dressing. For special occasions like feeding guests or the farm crew (which I do once a week), I’ll roast a chicken or two. Or make a huge shepherd’s pie with meat and veggies in it. I make cakes and tarts for special desserts, but our favorite dessert is fruit custard, hands down.
How do you incorporate seasonality into your recipes?
Most of the recipes in this book can be made at any time of year, by adapting them to what’s in the garden or at the farmers’ market. All of the recipes can be made from purchased ingredients, but they’ll taste better if you buy what’s in season. Our meals are based on modular concepts—such as composed salads, stir-fries, omelets, soups, quiches, fruit custards—made with the day’s pickings. The day’s harvest basket gives our dishes their personality.
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