Publishers love to send us cookbooks here at Fork in the Road, and often those books come straight from the chefs at some of New York’s best restaurants. So we decided to share the love, and each week, we’ll feature a new book, a recipe, and a few thoughts on cooking from the authors. Check back every Tuesday for a new book.
The Nourished Kitchen: Farm-to-Table Recipes for the Traditional Foods Lifestyle
By Jennifer McGruther, 320 pages, Ten Speed Press, $27.99
Jenny McGruther started her blog, “The Nourished Kitchen,” in 2007 as a chronicle of her personal exploration and interest in traditional food. Last week, she released a collection of the resulting recipes in a beautiful new book, filled with lush photos she shot herself. It’s an impressive and far-reaching collection, with recipes ranging from smoked salmon roe to bohemian rye bread.
A food educator and farmer’s market regular, McGruther was taken by the work of Dr. Weston A. Price, a pioneering M.D. living at the turn of the last century, who trotted the globe studying how primitive cultures sourced, prepared, and ate food.
Dr. Price’s studies revealed that isolated, primitive populations subsisted on whole grains, meats, nuts, fruits, and vegetables, sourced from nearby land, and prepared them in simple, straightforward fashion, preserving surplus for later. These people, he contended, had very few health problems, longer lifespans, and better resilience in the face of injury than their counterparts in developed areas, who ate from a more refined, processed pantry. Price believed the difference was largely due to diet.
The traditional foods movement is based in this work, and it’s what the Nourished Kitchen (blog and book) is all about: recapturing this inborn way of sourcing, preparing, and consuming food in a modern kitchen.
The ideas that unprocessed, fresh, organic foods taste better and are more nutritious than super refined things from a box or produce grown steeped in pesticides and genetically modified is not exactly news, but McGruther notes that back when she started the blog, “traditional food wasn’t really being talked about; since then it’s really taken off.”
The author looks at food as a whole experience, linking how it’s produced, prepared, and how well it nourishes both body and community. She says it’s as much a mindset as anything: It’s about “food that’s been grown with intention, prepared with intention, consumed with intention, and then shared with intention for the community, as well.”
How do these ideas differ from farm-to-table?
Within the traditional foods movement, there’s a lot of focus on farming in general, not just cooking. So I think that there’s quite a bit of compatibility between the two movements, but there are key differences. The traditional foods movement highly prizes animal foods: There’s a focus on the inclusion of meats that have been largely absent from the American diet for the past 75 to 100 years. It’s only very recently that we’ve enjoyed the luxuries of restriction and waste. And what I mean by that is there’s a lot of nose-to-tail eating within the traditional foods movement, and that harkens back to the meats that were prized by native people all over the world: things like liver. That was often considered a sacred thing; in rural Sudan, liver was so sacred, it couldn’t be eaten with human hands. You had to have a special fork to touch it. In the [book], there’s a whole section about offal and eating it, with recipes for bone marrow custard, chicken liver pate, etc.
Also, there’s a lot of emphasis on preparation. So while farm-to-table is certainly a comparable concept, the traditional foods movement focuses on how food is prepared to maximize the benefits that it can convey. So, for example, I recommend soaking your beans, and grains, which can enhance the bio-availability of the minerals. There’s a lot about fermentation. If you look at culinary traditions all over the world, you find that fermentation played a pretty critical role in the culinary heritage of various cultures. Take cabbage: You can find ferments for cabbage in Asia as kimchi, in South America as curtido, and in Europe as sauerkraut. So yes, there’s a lot of emphasis, like in farm-to-table, on knowing where your food comes from, knowing it benefits the farmer, the land, yourself, and your community, but also about preparation…I think that’s the fundamental addition that the traditional foods movement brings to the table.
What is one of the oldest recipes in the book and where did it come from?
There are quite a few. For me, it was a real balance to bring dishes that have a lot of contemporary appeal and balancing those with the very traditional old world recipes. So I have two favorites. The first is Portugal cake, and you’ll find that in the section on nuts. This was incredibly popular in the 17th and 18th centuries, and it started to fall from favor around the middle of the 19th century, and we just don’t hear about it anymore, and it’s this beautiful cake made of blanched almond flour, and it’s dotted with currants and flavored with rosewater and sherry. And it’s dense, and moist, and sweet and it just has this very beautiful delicacy from the rosewater. It’s really quite lovely. I make it for special occasions, and people just love it.
The other is a recipe for buttered spinach. That doesn’t sound terribly exciting, but it was a recipe I found in an old journal a friend had given me, and it was written in the 1840s by a farm wife down south. She wrote paragraphs and poems and recipes, and there was one for this very young, baby spinach, which she would mince and wilt and serve with hard boiled egg, butter, salt, and pepper. It’s so simple but so lovely, too.
What is one spring ingredient you really love and where can we find it in the book?
As far as plants go, radishes. These are just such a wonderful springtime food; they’re one of the first root crops to come available, because they don’t take very long to grow. And they have such a punch of flavor, that sharpness to them. And what I like about radishes is they’re just very versatile. We always think of that poor cherry belle radish, relegated to salads, but one of my favorite ways to prepare radish is blistered, or buttered. There’s a recipe for blistered radish in the first chapter of the book. When radishes are cooked, it brings out their sweetness. And it also, they’re very good pickled or fermented in a basic salt water brine, and that can bring out a wonderful sour flavor. They make a great pickle!
What is an underrated, or under-used ingredient that figures prominently in traditional cooking?
I would say lard. With the low-fat craze over the last couple decades, lard was demonized, perhaps more than any other cooking fat. We have so many negative connotations with the word lard: lard-ass, lardo, you know? So many insults, and it’s all terribly undeserved.
But consider olive oil. We love olive oil; we call it “heart healthy” because of all the monounsaturated fats it contains. We love avocados for that, too. But the dominant fat in lard is monounsaturated fat. About 45 percent of the fat in lard is monounsaturated, that same healthy fat you find in avocados and olive oil. Also, the hogs [you get lard from], when they are out in the sun, they manufacture vitamin D in their skin and their fat. So lard — they did a study a few years ago that said something like 70 percent of American children suffer from deficient levels of vitamin D; we’re just not outside enough, or getting enough from our food sources — but when you consume lard, not only are you eating a traditional fat that’s really rich in monounsaturated fat, it’s also one of the best food sources of vitamin D. And it makes the best pastries.
Is there one lard recipe you can point us to in the book?
Oh, my goodness, let me think. It’s not a pastry recipe, there are actually not a lot of pastries in the book, but there are these slow-baked cannellini beans, with lemon, rosemary, and smoked paprika, and I use lard in that; it really adds a wonderful touch.
And where does one buy lard? From a butcher? Can you get it at the grocery store?
Most of the lard in grocery stores has actually been hydrogenated, or partially hydrogenated, [so] you want to source your lard as you would any other food: directly from a butcher, and you can render it yourself. There are directions in the book for that. Or you can get it directly from a rancher who you know uses humane methods. So that’s where I get my lard; it’s from the same place I get my pigs — there’s a local farm that raises heritage pigs that we use. So you can get it directly from the person raising your meat, or from a good quality butcher, or, if you absolutely can’t find it, there are actually sources you can order it from online. But I imagine in New York, you can get it pretty readily.
If someone is interested in incorporating traditional foods into their daily cooking regimen, where is a good place to start?
If you go to nourishedkitchen.com, there’s actually a page that says “getting started,” so there are resources available there, but I would just recommend that people begin by cooking one truly home-cooked meal at home. It’s really easy. When people begin to read about traditional foods, this whole big world opens up, and it’s really easy to get really excited, because it’s a beautiful way to cook. It’s very satisfying, and the connections it builds between you and your farmers and your community can be very heartening. But it’s also easy to get overwhelmed, especially for someone who’s not accustomed to cooking regularly. So I recommend that people take one small step at a time, in whatever way is manageable for them. You could start with trying lard, or making preserved lemon; that’s very easy, it’s just lemon and salt and thyme. Or one of the greatest things I recommend for people to start off with is roasting a chicken. It’s super easy, not complicated at all. You roast the chicken, remove the meat from the bone, and then start making your bone broth, which is another critical feature to the traditional food pathway, is high quality broths. It’s easy to have success with stocks and broths and roast chickens, and once you have that sense of success, you can branch off into whichever other paths you want to.
Blistered Radishes With Parsley
In the dark days of the year, I buy winter radishes by the case. They store well when kept cool in a root cellar, exterior closet, basement, or garage, covered in dirt, and insulated with an old blanket. I ferment quite a few but save others for cooking: either roasting with salt and pepper or sautéing on the stove until they blister. Watermelon radishes, daikon, purple plum radishes, and the long Violet de Gournay all do well.
Winter radishes have thicker skins than do spring radishes, but do not be tempted to peel them as their color can brighten your plate with its charm.
In spring, when milder and more tender radishes begin to arrive at area farms, I prepare this same dish from little Cherry Belle, Pink Beauty, and elongated French Breakfast radishes.
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1/4 cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
Freshly ground unrefined
Chop the radishes into 1/4-inch dice and set them in a bowl while you prepare the remaining ingredients. Melt the butter in a wide skillet over medium-high heat.
When the butter foams, decrease the heat to medium-low and stir in the radishes. Cook the radishes in the butter, stirring frequently, for 8 to 10 minutes, until their skins blister slightly.
Sprinkle them with the parsley and season with salt to suit your preference.
Recipe and photos used with permission from The Nourished Kitchen, written and photographed by Jennifer McGruther (Ten Speed Press, © 2014).