Friday, October 19, 2012

Vegan MoFo 19: How to Pick a Peach

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."

This makes me wonder how many people who claim that they could never give up meat/cheese/whatever really just couldn't give up such heavy flavor. How many of those people would be won over if they could choose and prepare amazing plant-based dishes for themselves?

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.

From there, the book is organized by season, each one having several fruits and veggies under it. For each plant (or sometimes groups of similar plants), Parsons provides several pages of general information and then summaries under the headings: Where They're Grown, How to Choose, How to Store, How to Prepare, and One Simple Dish. All are very informative, but One Simple Dish is the most interesting to me because it would come in handy when you have something that needs to be used NOW, or when you have last minute guests to feed.

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.

Also interesting to the vegan who loves food politics (don't we all?) are the essays between each season. In the first, "The Plant Designers: Factories in the Field," Parsons uses the strawberry as an example to discuss how scientists and farmers mutate and manipulate breeds over time to produce new varieties of produce. GMOs as a serious issue are touched on briefly, but the focus is on the goals and the results of efforts to make produce that is robust, and ultimately profitable. While you may or may not agree with Parsons on everything, you can probably learn something or become interested in learning something thanks to these.

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.

I've selected three recipes from the fall section to make this week. I should be able to pick up most of the ingredients at the farmers' market. I will naturally report back. I know I can't really review this book completely until I've sampled all the seasons, so I'll revisit it throughout the year.

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.

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