"As the church bells chimed on New Year's Eve and the fireworks lit up the night sky, I vowed to dig up my lawn and grow at least some of my own vegetables and fruit. In a city garden barely larger than the average allotment, I could only dream of self-sufficiency, but over the next few years I would go on to grow dark, smoky-leaved cabbages, violet carrots, eight varieties of potato, speckled climbing beans and gnarled and exquisitely flavored heritage tomatoes. Vegetables that have now become the new backbone of my daily cooking and eating, and have signaled an important new order in the kitchen."
-- from the cover of Tender, A Cook and His Vegetable Patch
What is comfort food? Well, its usually something very familiar, associated with a happy time and place. Sometimes it's from our childhood or the culture we grew up in, but sometimes not. Comfort food warms us in the fall, winter and early spring and cools us in the heat of summer. It is usually abundant in its portions, not too fussy, seasonal, and satisfying in a way that is beyond just filling the belly for fuel.
If there is one cook that constantly produces recipes that speak to this passionate, abundant, delicious, satisfying way of cooking, it's Nigel Slater. Tender, Volumes I & II are Mr. Slater's tribute to the well-travelled path that connects the garden to the kitchen and the lavish plenitude that they produce.
Who doesn't dream of having a backyard devoted to a garden, brimming with vegetables, berries, fruits? If you have such a backyard, then these books are for you for their helpful gardening and kitchen advice. If such a thing is impossible for you right now (high-rise dwellers, owners of concrete covered backyards, anti-garden landlord renters) then these books are for inspiration and help in keeping the dream alive. Plus, now that farmers' markets are everywhere, you can still cook the recipes with lovely fresh farm produce.
The Look and Feel
Volume I, appropriately encased in shades of dusty green (sage) and deep, midnight green (kale) is devoted to the vegetable patch. It's companion, Volume II, jumps out with a bright fuchsia and silver cover and is appropriately focused on fruit. Together they offer over 700 recipes and dozens of photographs in 1226 pages. Both have an index and table of contents; Volume II's index also includes Volume I's offerings.
The photographs are lovely; simply styled, with a focus on the food. In Volume I, there's a series of four shots of the garden taken from the same place, with each photo representing a season. We see the garden in its summer voluptuousness and blanketed in winter snow, the tender greens of spring and the messy decline of autumn.
In general these volumes are very well made, with linen and paper covers, attached silk ribbon bookmarks and quality paper and bindings. The covers are embossed with a quote from the book, with a little flick of metallic copper 'vegetables' and silver 'fruit' in the text.
On Grams, Gas Marks and Aubergines
Mr. Slater is a British author and as an American, I have to do some tinkering here and there to adjust the recipes. Conversions are fairly easy math or, by far the simplest and most accurate, use a digital scale that has a grams setting. The internets are, as usual, extraordinarily helpful for oven temperatures and the like. The Brits also have different names for things, so if you're not up on your aubergines and courgettes, then this site is helpful.
A few recipes, like the ones that call for gooseberries, have so far gone untested, as I have yet to find gooseberries in San Francisco. But I enjoy the 'exotic' Britishness of these books and don't find the extra fussing at all a problem. It's actually kind of fun. But those of you not interested in bringing a calculator into the kitchen will be happy to know that Volume I is slated to be released in the States with the all the conversions and Britishisms corrected. Look for it in April 2011, when it will be released by 10 Speed Press.
Recipes for Right Now
From Volume I: A Pumpkin Pangrattato with Rosemary and Orange (pangrattato means cooked with breadcrumbs); Potatoes with Goose Fat and Thyme; Roasted Parsnips with Sesame and Honey; A Better Gratin, This TIme Made with Grain Mustard (chard baked in mustard, creme and parmesan); Brussels with Bacon and Juniper; A Hungary-Inspired Stew for the Depths of Winter.
From Volume II: A Casserole of Apple and Rabbit; Hazelnut and Breadcrumb Ice Cream; Baked Pears with Cranberries and Orange; Warm Christmas Tartlets of Candied Peel and Walnuts; Slow-Roast Loin of Pork with Qunice and Marsala.
Get the Book! Currently, the only way for people not in the UK to get these books is to find them at your local speciality bookshop -- Omnivore Books on Food in San Francisco stocks them for $60 each, for example.
You can also order directly from Amazon.co.uk. Tender, Volume I is approximately $23.17 (depending on exchange rates) and Volume II is (also approximately) $16.50. Depending on where you live, you can expect to pay about $15 in shipping for both books.
Related: Weekend Meditation: On Not Resisting Nigel Slater
(Images: Dana Velden)