I think it is quite fitting that my first blog post of the new year is a review of a book that seems to epitomize the concept of frugal eating and home cooking with mostly home grown ingredients. In the current economy, many of us are searching for new ways to stretch our dollars and make our food budgets go a bit further. Our first lady, Michelle Obama, is on a personal mission to encourage our nation to explore the local community for our farm fresh local ingredients, often a cheaper, healthier, fresher alternative to relying solely on supermarkets.
When I lived overseas, I used to relish the weekly walks to the local farm stand (Obsthof) where I lived in Germany, where the produce was abundant, inexpensive, and freshly grown. Even in London, where I most recently lived, farm fresh produce was available in every community on nearly every corner at little vegetable stands and green grocers. Even in the bigger markets, each item was clearly labeled with the farm the food had come from. While international fare was also available, it was marked as such, and the trend was clearly to select foods that had fewer "miles" on them... local over imported was the way to go. I really enjoyed this aspect of food shopping overseas, and when I moved back to the US, it was a hard adjustment to go back to the old way of massive bulk sized packaging and foods from unknown locations on the shelves. Many foods do indicate the country of origin, but it isn't always clear or noticeable. And there certainly isn't a green grocer on practically every corner.
In the US, the Amish have been in on this secret to wholesome, frugal eating for years. It is deeply embedded in their culture. Most Amish communities still rely on home gardens, self-reared and butchered meats, home canning, sewing etc as just part of their normal, daily lives. Some modern conveniences have begun to enter their kitchens, such as refrigeration, modern plumbing, and even some commercially prepared ingredients, but overall, they still offer a good example of how to use local, seasonal foods to both an ecomonical and nutritional advantage.
I was recently given the opportunity to review The Amish Cook at Home, by Lovina Eicher, with Kevin Williams. Expecting this to be a typical cookbook, I was in for a bit of a surprise. This book is really one woman's account of her life as part of an Amish community, her daily activities and chores with her family and church, her seasonal gardening, and her family history. This is a peek into her unique life, something to be read and enjoyed, with recipes included along the way to highlight each season. The book is studded with breathtakingly beautiful photographs by Betsy Blanton, depicting not only some of the lovely recipes included in the book, but also charming images of the Amish community.
Now onto the recipes themselves... the book is broken down into the four seasons, describing the types of foods Lovina would typically harvest and prepare when they are most appropriate seaonally. In the Spring chapter, there are recipes using dandelions, peas, radishes, strawberries, rhubarb and asparagus from Lovina's garden, morel mushrooms plucked from the woods.
I prepared the Pancakes with Fresh Strawberries (page 50), as winter here in Florida is more like spring. I was able to use locally grown Plant City strawberries. The pancakes were quite easy to make and were very light and puffy. They are tiny silver dollar sized cakes, with no sugar in the batter. A hefty tablespoonful of vanilla gives them a lovely aroma and flavor. I did sprinkle a bit of sweetener onto my berries, which was plenty sweet enough for me.
Moving onto the Summer chapter, Lovina describes her schedule and methods for planting and harvesting onions, zucchini, tomatoes, cucumbers, carrots, corn, and surprisingly, jalapeno peppers. As she details in her book, the Amish have a foothold in Mexico as well, and thus recipes for Mexican influenced foods have begun to appear on the tables of the modern American Amish family. Lovina provides recipes for home-canned salsa, relish, pickles, and vegetable juice, hot pepper butter, stuffed tomatoes, carrot cake, vegetable casseroles, and dessert bars made from carrots and zucchini.
As I have mentioned previously, I have a particular love for zucchini, so naturally I had to try out the Zucchini Bars (page 67). These were so easy to prepare that I had the entire batter ready to pop into the oven before my preheating timer had gone off. I did skip one step, peeling the zucchini, since I like the pretty green flecks from the skin. Just look at that gorgeous raw batter! These tasted like blonde brownies, with loads of chocolate and butterscotch chips in each bite. These were really delicious and moist and I think would go over well with otherwise finicky vegetable-hating children.
In the Fall chapter, the emphasis shifts more towards hearty casseroles and pies with recipes for Pumpkin Pie, Pumpkin Bread, Apple Crisp, Chicken Chowder, Chicken Potpies, Sourdough Bread and Sourdough Cinnamon Rolls, to name a few. In the Winter section, several holiday treats such as Noel Cookies, Cinnamon Pudding, and Sour Cream Cookie Cut-Outs are included, as well as a selection of beef, sausage and ham recipes. Although I had originally planned to make a selection of holiday goodies from the fall and winter chapters, my little trip to the hospital and then the subsequent trip to my mom's for the holidays meant I did almost no holiday baking. I did give Farmer's Breakfast (page193) a try however, which was a nice simple medley of vegetables, leftover ham, and eggs. This was a nice, tasty breakfast, although a bit heavy on the butter for my tastes.
In reading The Amish Cook at Home, I first had to overcome some incorrect preconceptions I had about the way the modern Amish family eats. Several recipes call for some commercially prepared items (canned soups and Velveeta cheese, for example) that struck me as not quite fitting my apparently false image of a people who never touch anything that isn't 100% homemade. While it is indeed true that the Amish culture promotes a heavy reliance on home grown and home-made ingredients, it is no longer unheard of or unusual to include some modern prepared ingredients. The recipes I tried were very tasty and I very much enjoyed reading about life in the modern Amish world. It was quite eye-opening and an interesting read. Leave this book out on your coffee table, it is one your guests will be able to savor even if they are not interested in cooking, for the photographs and story alone.