One thing that I had been meaning to do after my move to Baltimore was get a library card. That was taken care of for me when I started working for The Village Learning Place. Once I had my card, I found the cookbook section and started to browse. Sadly, there are no vegan cookbooks, but there are vegetarian ones that seem to be perpetually checked out - bittersweet I suppose. I also found a particularly vegan-friendly book, thanks to a recommendation from a coworker.
How to Pick a Peach by Russ Parsons is a book that approaches everyone's favorite buzz phrases about eating seasonally and locally and attempts to cover the "The Search For Flavor From Farm to Table." Parsons approaches this search by weaving together several aspects of produce selection.
One thing that struck me immediately was the organization of this book. Following the Table of Contents, there was a list of the fruits and vegetables alphabetically, and then all of the recipes divided into course categories. This bodes well for a book that has several functions. It's all well and good to provide recipes, but for we meal planners, a merely chronological list just won't do it.
The introduction provides a brief primer on the history and economics of American agriculture. Parsons explains how a modernizing nation changed its habits, how grocery stores came to be, and how farmers' markets went from being common to scarce before enjoying a renaissance that seems to be getting stronger. He also highlights how convenience and availability have hurt our enjoyment of food, and how the organic movement isn't exactly what we think it is.
The other "modern irony" he discusses was more thought-provoking. Parsons points out that we have access to more ingredients than ever, but that most of them are not very good, and certainly not worth spending money on. He specifically points to how foodies may have obscure knowledge of techniques or fancy vocabulary, but they still don't know how to choose produce at the market. This is important because, "when you start with good ingredients, you finish with great dishes."
What I really liked though was that the tone of the introduction inspired me to think about these things without being too assertive. I like assertive, but a lot of people are turned off by food politics because of arrogance, condescension, or outright cruelty. "I'm not one of those preachy vegans," is a cliché for a reason right? The introduction basically says that there are some things that people could benefit from knowing, and that's a great way to start a conversation.
In addition to these quick dishes, each food has a few simple recipes to showcase it. These recipes aren't all vegan, or even vegetarian, but for the most part, the recipes are meant to feature vegetables and fruits, so making them vegan is simple.
Finally, throughout the book are pages that are like sidebars; they aren't listed in the table of contents and they provide helpful bits of information. Some of them are about produce, like "When It's OK to Buy Unripe," while others talk about recipe concepts like Clafoutis or Souffles. As a lover of the sidebar, I'm all in with these.
Now nothing drives me crazy like a person who writes a cookbook review having never made any of the recipes, but this isn't strictly a cookbook. Plus, I won't review the cooking aspects yet. However, I will say that this is a book worth having, or at least reading. The tips on selection lined up with what I already knew, but I still learned quite a bit. I'm excited to go flex my new muscles at the Farmers' Market this weekend. Additionally, the information about agriculture reminded me why farmers' markets and food education are so important. Not only can you cook better food, but you can do right by your local farmers and community by making an effort to send your money directly to them.
If you can't stand the suspense, take a sneak peak with this 2007 NPR story, Russ Parsons: In Search of Quality Produce. It excerpts the section on Artichokes, complete with recipes.