04.12.11 12:17 PM ET
Eat It Now!
Every truly interesting cookbook lifts its lid to reveal a willfully mad author. Sure, we may come for the recipes, but we stay to be entertained by the cook's own peculiar passion for the world of the edible. Eating is, after all, a personal act above all else, and we want not just a seat at the table but a chance to see what's going on (and maybe even going wrong) in the kitchen. Enter Cooking in the Moment: A Year of Seasonal Recipes, chef and restaurateur Andrea Reusing's invitation to a spring, summer, fall, and winter in the culinary wilds of Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
A New York City transplant, Reusing fell headlong in love with the bounty of southern field, stream, and sea, opened a restaurant (called Lantern), and set about learning the conscientious patois of the locavore. So far, so ordinary—especially in this moment of all-things-sustainable religiosity. It doesn't help that the book is gorgeously illustrated; lush photographs of ripe produce and happy manual laborers have become a telltale sign that the vital ingredients may be wanting.
But page through this diary of seasonal flavors, and the quirkometer comes alive. We're not dealing here with an earnest novitiate of the kind you see at your local farmer's market, falling rhapsodically on a pile of wild nettles (are there any other kind?). Reusing is an extreme forager, with a nose like a hound dog's, on an exuberant but calculated mission to track down good things to cook and to eat. Luckily, she landed in prime territory: if it’s March, it must be time for tender broccoli and cauliflower "wrapped giftlike in pale leaves"; July, corn on the cob ("and if you run into it somewhere else, there had better be a good reason"); September, Southern field peas (which turn out to be beans); March again, "a pig's head and some chunky feet for extra oomph."
Her hunting-gathering mania is satisfyingly over the top. "I give oysters credit for some of my best times," she writes, going on to admit that, "my obsession has also been a problem. I endangered a close friendship in my crazed, afternoon-long pursuit of an unmarked oyster farm near Point Reyes, California, on a winding road in a rainstorm." The close friend was nine months pregnant. But she probably knew what she was in for—Reusing also allows that at her bachelorette party, nirvana was achieved when her friend Dave pulled a whole ham, lugged from a beloved Ukrainian smokehouse in New York’s East Village, out of his suitcase.
"Cooking in the moment," Reusing writes, means "focusing on one meal at a time," taking one's cues from nature and, in her case, from an army of farmers, fishmongers, cheese makers, egg-wranglers, bakers, and orchardists—not to mention other foragers with specialties such as native truffle-hunting—all of whom she seems to have on speed-dial. (At a precise moment in late winter, for example, she will race to a particular farm stand before 9 a.m. for a couple of prize bunches of watercress plucked from a nearby stream.) Mere geography can't hold her back: mention is also made of citrus crates arriving from the Louisiana bayou, single-variety honey from Italy, and Plymouth Barred Rock chickens from Kansas. In a hilariously self-incriminating section called "Schlepping Food," she writes that, "At baggage claim, I can sometimes smell my suitcase before I see it."
The book's table of contents is sliced into quarters, so you have to find each season's section in order to locate its list of recipes—a sly means of getting you to think in a circle. This reviewer stuck dutifully to "Spring" and tried out the recipe for cauliflower gratin, with aged raw milk cheese. It was wonderful, and reflective of the large number of companion dishes in the book, which is also heavy on general wisdom (how to store ripe tomatoes) and musings about food politics. The sheer enjoyment of cooking in the moment comes through, but every lesson Reusing offers reinforces the credo of people like her oft-invoked grandmother, Marie: that success is, ultimately, about cooking in every moment—which is to say, making each meal with bits of the last and an eye to the next.
"Schlepping Food," she writes that, "At baggage claim, I can sometimes smell my suitcase before I see it."
It's a skill especially relevant for a cook whose own professional survival depends on economy and practicality, yet largely a forgotten one for the home cook facing down leftovers. In such moments of instruction, the book recalls How to Cook a Wolf, M.F.K. Fisher’s brief opus on how to eat well during the food shortages of World War II. Fisher had a special place in her heart for what she called "wise extravagances," and Reusing follows a similar tack, emphasizing simplicity and prudence but giving herself over to the occasional splurge, such as Porterhouse steaks.
Like other contemporary writer-chefs such as Alice Waters, Reusing also makes the case for a pantry renaissance. Having essential supporting ingredients on hand—preserved fruits and vegetables, meat stocks, oils, herbs and spices, tinned sardines—cuts way down on the running-around time.
Or, if you're Reusing, just leaves you more time for running around. But even she apparently gets the point of a calm moment. In a section on overnight cooking, she writes, "It's a good trick to stumble into the kitchen in the morning and open the oven door to a complete meal—as if you were on a cooking show. But, if you are like me, what grabs you is the comfort to the animal brain of knowing where your next meal is coming from."
Katrina Heron, Newsweek/The Daily Beast's editor at large, has been editor in chief of Wired, senior editor at The New Yorker and Vanity Fair, and story editor at The New York Times Magazine. Her articles have been published in Vogue, Dwell, and The New York Times. She is a co-author of Safe: The Race to Protect Ourselves In A Newly Dangerous World (HarperCollins, 2005), co-founder of Civil Eats and an adviser to the Atavist.