After four years in Beijing, what better way to celebrate my repatriation–and to launch this blog’s “Cooking the Books” feature–than with a review of Cooking with Shelburne Farms? Based in Vermont, Shelburne Farms is a working farm, guest inn and educational center that supports sustainable agriculture. The cookbook, which was published in September and written by the farm’s head chef, Rick Gencarelli, and journalist Melissa Pasanen, celebrates the produce of Vermont: apples, dairy, maple syrup–essentially, all things American. It sounded like the perfect way to celebrate autumn, but how would their self-proclaimed country-style cooking stand up in my city kitchen? It took two pounds of butter to find out.
The book’s recipes are grouped by ingredient, with headings like maple, milk, or game and fish. It’s a charming concept, but makes for very difficult dinner party planning. Instructions are clear and precise, but tend to rely too heavily on hard-to-find Vermont ingredients. (Substitutions for some special items are suggested, but they seem to detract from the authenticity.) Smoked cheddar crackers, which I brought to a cocktail party as the book suggested, were crisp and rich–not to mention a snap to whip up–but mine lacked the zing smoked cheese would have provided. I couldn’t find it, despite going to two specialty stores. (Butter count: 1 stick.)
Likewise, my dinner party plans for roast duck legs with sour cherry sauce (“an elegant and colorful company meal”) were foiled by a lack of quack–no duck legs to be found at Whole Foods. Plan B called for duck breast with tart apples and hard cider; the duck breast seared, slow-roasted and topped with a sweet-and-tart sauce with sliced apples. I am not an experienced game cook (or a fan of fruit-and-meat combos), but I loved this dish. The duck married well with the tangy sauce, and was tender and flavorful, despite my overcooking it to medium. Feather-light cheddar and herb biscuits (butter count: 1 stick) and honey glazed turnips (butter count: 1/4 stick) rounded out a cozy, fall meal.
Like the other recipes, desserts are grouped by ingredient–apples, sweet milk, and sweet maple. Cup custards with pears poached in sweet wine were silky, sweet, and easy to make–a pleasant ending to the duck dinner party, but visually unappealing (too beige) and too slimy for some. Surprisingly, a very plain apple pie recipe called for crust made with butter and shortening–I opted instead for the no-fail all-butter pastry from the New York Times, adding a few ounces of cheddar (butter count: 2 1/4 sticks). A simple honeyed apple tea bread stayed moist out of the oven, aided by a slightly too sweet lemon honey glaze (butter count: 1 stick).
Indeed, Cooking with Shelburne Farms means cooking with butter. It also means combining savory and sweet flavors (21 recipes feature this combination), and cooking with meat–particularly pork or lamb. (Alas, for my poor dinner party that featured one pork abstainer and two lamb haters!) The book’s few vegetarian main courses seem like afterthoughts and often feature impossible-to-find ingredients like fiddlehead ferns.
Still, for special occassions, or for those trying to gain weight for a movie role, Shelburne Farms’ country cookin’ is hearty and tasty, the recipes clear and easy to use. Just loosen your belt a few notches and tuck in.
*Future “Cooking the Books” will feature photos!