Earth to Table: Seasonal Recipes from an Organic Farm by Jeff Crump and Bettina Schormann (Random House Canada, 2009).
On recent trips to Chapters I have found my attention drawn repeatedly to the displays of this cookbook and its evocative cover picture of an heirloom tomato salad. Some in-store scanning convinced me that this was a book I needed to check out and luckily the people at Random House were good enough to send me a copy of Earth to Table to review.
Earth to Table is co-authored by Jeff Crump and Bettina Schormann the Executive and Pastry Chef, respectively, at the Ancaster Old Mill. By combining their views on philosophy of Slow Food, anecdotes about growing and preparing food, profiles of other chefs who are at the leading edge of the farm-to-fork movement, along with the recipes this book manages to be more than just a straight cookbook.
When I realised that Earth to Table has three themes (philosophy, anecdotes, and instruction) I worried that quality would be sacrificed by trying to do too much. Happily, it is really only the sections of argument that suffer for a lack of space–and then just barely–because they don’t do a good enough job of presenting (and addressing) the counter-arguments and realities against Slow Food. The story-telling which covers Bettina’s experience with growing Red Fife wheat for baking, the relationship between their restaurants and ManoRun Farms, and the profiles of chefs like Dan Barber and Thomas Keller adds a human element that properly connects the philosophy to its execution. The section for each season includes an appropriate Spotlight (e.g. compost in spring), a How-To (canning and preserving in summer), and a varied selection of recipes.
Personally, I really enjoy having a book about seasonal cooking that is written from a southern Ontario perspective. Converting the schedule from what happens (and when tend to read about) in California or Tuscany (strawberries in May, brown fields in August) is easy enough, I guess, but its also nice to read of about foraging for fiddle heads, ramps, and morels and building a traditional Quebec clay oven.
As well as offering philosophy and anecdotes Earth to Table is also a collection of recipes and in order to properly judge the book I set myself to the task of testing several of the recipes. Now that we’re solidly into October it definitely seems appropriate to be working from the Fall section of recipes. Recipes, as well as producing delicious food, should be accessible–this is a particular concern when dealing with recipes that originate in a restaurant equipped with prep cooks and Garland ranges–and also original or unique in a way that pushes our current best option for that type of recipe aside and earns its space on our shelf.
Eager to jump right into the fray I made the recipe for spot prawns and chanterelles, but because of my haste was just working with what was on hand and that meant shrimp and cremini mushrooms. This recipe pairs two ingredients that aren’t often seen together and connects them by highlighting how the flavour of both, truly benefits from the same fast, hot cooking of pan-searing.
Both the roasted fennel gratin and the apple tarts were crowd pleasers and (as adapted) easy to prepare. The only negative point with both recipes is that they call for a sub-preparation–a tomato sauce called tomato confit in the case of the gratin and frangipane for the tarts. These extra steps I’m sure are more easily managed by a restaurant kitchen and I was going to suggest that home cooks would probably appreciate a suggestion for an already-prepared alternative (I used my tomato conserva for the gratin) but I guess that wouldn’t suit the Slow Food ideal. Along with cost, convenience seems to be the razor’s edge on which this movement is balanced. I suppose the best option for the reasonable among its proponents (and chefs Crump and Schormann are definitely reasonable) is to offer suggestions for a relatively “whole hog” version of the system and silently recognise that readers will probably sub in tomato paste for a Tuesday dinner especially after taking the extra few minutes to buy the fennel from the farmers market.
The parsnip and apple puree is a very good combination of three principle flavours (sour cream helps highlight the earthy and sweet notes of the two title ingredients) that complement each other very well. Definitely a side dish that can stand up to a hearty autumn stew or a rich meaty sauce.
Finally, for sweet potato gnochi I had mixed results. All gnocchi recipes I have come across use a ricer to make sure the potatoes are light and evenly pulverised but this recipe has the cook roast (for two hours) both kinds of potatoes and then scoop out the flesh. Despite my best efforts at the scooping stage and the mixing stage small pieces of (sweet and white) potato broke up the texture of the finished product. Also the quantities seem to have been misjudged. The dough is split into eighths that each are cut into twenty gnochi to serve six people. That’s twenty-seven gnochi per person which is way more than I could ever eat or have ever been served in a restaurant. I know there are eggs (an ingredient that causes difficulties when scaling down because recipes can’t really call for 2/3 of an egg) in the dough but I would have cut everything in half, used one egg, and produced a still very generous twenty-gnochi portion for each of four people.
In reading through the sections for the other seasons I noticed several recipes that I’m eager to try and I’m pleased to see that the authors have walked the walk when it comes to preserving. It seems that many cookbook authors who subscribe to the ideals of seasonal cooking only go so far as to mention the joys of preserving and include glamour shots of Mason jars filled with photogenic produce but Earth to Table includes a thorough guide to canning, recipes that are shelf-stable and ones for the refrigerator.
I particularly recommend Earth to Table to fellow cooks and readers from southern Ontario who will appreciate the perspective on growing, cooking, and eating seasonally in an environment where January is so drastically different than July. Those who are interested in a thorough treatment of the Slow Food vs. Big Agri debate will need to delve further into other books and the recipes need a bit of tinkering for home use. Earth to Table is a very good book about seasonal cooking whose anecdotes and profiles will earn it a place on the bedside tables of those interested in sustainable food preparation and whose recipes will keep it on cookbook shelves.