The Winter List:Our picks for the best food books with a local connection.
by Andrea Pyenson
According to this year's local crop—of books that is—'tis the season for doing-it-yourself. Cooking at home is fine, as far as it goes. But it can pale in comparison to whipping up eggs that you retrieved, warm, from the nest of the chickens you raised; or reveling in the satisfying crunch of the sauerkraut you made from a simple head of cabbage. But for those who are not quite ready to hop on the DIY bandwagon, a couple of new guidebooks point to the best places in Boston and surroundings for aficionados of all kinds of food and drink. Or you could curl up with the memoir of a local restaurateur whose family helped launch our city's restaurant renaissance.
Nine years ago, when Jennifer Trainer Thompson took her then four-year-old son to visit her father's neighbor's chickens in a Boston suburb, the western Massachusetts-based cookbook author thought for a minute about raising a flock of them. Then she dismissed it as a crazy notion. But a few months later when her husband, Joe, the director of Mass MOCA in North Adams, suggested raising chickens, she thought, "A family project? In which we share the pleasures of the table and shoveling the coop? I was in." Thompson relates her family's journey from egg eaters to eggsperts in The Fresh Egg Cookbook: From Chicken to Kitchen, Recipes for Using Eggs from Farmers' Markets, Local Farms, and Your Own Backyard.
The Williamstown resident, who thinks nothing of shoveling a path for her brood on snowy winter mornings so they can get from their coop to their feed easily, maintains that raising chickens is both satisfying and fun. "There's something incredibly sweet to waking up and finding fresh eggs waiting for you. I love eating the eggs from animals that we trust, take care of, and nurture," she writes. Additional benefits include chickens' tremendous suitability as pets for families with children because they are independent, low maintenance and "surprisingly affectionate." And said children, like Thompson's son and daughter who have spent the majority of their lives enjoying fresh eggs from their own flock, learn to appreciate the relationship between the food they consume and its origins.
In addition to recipes for everything from hard- and soft-boiled eggs—which, Thompson points out, are not as simple as people may think—to Shirred Eggs, Pickled Eggs, Gruyère & Broccoli Quiche, Meringue Cookies and Lemon Meringue Pie, The Fresh Egg Cookbook is replete with interesting egg facts. Birds who forage for bugs and greens and eat food scraps will produce yolks that are a much deeper yellow (almost orange) than those who are raised in processing plants; deep yellow yolks taste richer than their pale counterparts, due to their freshness and the hens' diets; and eggs from pasture-raised hens are more nutritious, higher in Vitamin D, Omega-3 fatty acids, Vitamins A and E, and lower in cholesterol, to name a few. The book includes several recipes that call for raw eggs, like Hollandaise Sauce and Mayonnaise, because, the author points out, "eggs from your own hens, with proper care, can be eaten raw." List price: $14.95
From pickled eggs we move on to pickles. And kimchi. And kombucha. And some other dishes that are very much in vogue right now even though they don't necessarily taste good. Real Food Fermentation: Preserving Whole Fresh Food with Live Cultures in Your Home Kitchen, by Alex Lewin, is an informative, well laid out primer on fermentation. The volume includes health benefits of the process and recipes with detailed instructions for preserving and fermenting vegetables, fruits, dairy and meat. A Harvard-educated software engineer who loves food, Lewin graduated from the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts and the Institute for Integrative Nutrition and sits on the board of the Boston Public Market Association. Among his culinary passions is making fermented foods, and these days he is not alone. As Lewin puts it, "When we make our own food, we regain some control over our lives, especially at a time in industry when many of us feel at the mercy of events, governments, corporations and industrial food producers."
The book begins with an overview of food preserving and the requisite equipment, why it's safe and what to do if anything goes wrong. Next, the author outlines how to select ingredients. One entire chapter is dedicated to sauerkraut, which Lewin says is the perfect first fermentation project because, "It is simple and relatively quick to make, has a high success rate, and is delicious." In addition, he explains that the issues that arise when making sauerkraut –selecting the right raw materials and equipment, mixing the vegetables with salt, deciding to add a fermentation starter, packing the product in the fermentation jar – also come up when fermenting most other fruits and vegetables. The book has several nice photographs, including helpful instructional shots. Though it has so much of the background information inexperienced fermenters will need, some recipes, like Cucumber Pickles, presume a level of expertise that readers may not have. This recipe does not specify seasonings or their amounts. Some people, who prefer experimentation in the kitchen to rigidly following recipes, may prefer this. As someone who has never made pickles, I would have liked a little more guidance. List price: $24.99
Maybe doing-it-yourself isn't your thing. Or you've packed every edible foodstuff into jars and have nothing to eat while you wait for it all to ferment. No problem. Veteran local travel-and-food writing team Patricia Harris and David Lyon have your back with their comprehensive, well researched Food Lovers' Guide to Boston: The Best Restaurants, Markets & Local Culinary Offerings. The book is divided into 11geographic regions, seven of which are in the city of Boston; the rest are in adjacent cities and towns (Cambridge, Somerville, Chelsea and Brookline) and western suburbs (Newton, Belmont, Arlington, Wellesley, Waltham, Watertown, Lexington and Concord). Within each region the locations are separated into Foodie Faves and Landmarks, most of which are restaurants; Specialty Stores, Markets and Producers; and Farmers' Markets. There are separate chapters for Bars, Pubs & Lounges; Culinary Instruction and Food Festivals & Events. The team also includes a smattering of recipes from the sites listed throughout the book. I, for one, can't wait to try Uncle John's Lobster Thermidor, courtesy of James Hook & Co. or Nanny Sheila's Carrot Cake from Dorchester's Ashmont Grill.
Each chapter opens with a history and description of the neighborhood. Initially, I thought this tome would be perfect for tourists. And it would. But it is equally suitable for those of us who live here. A nearly lifelong Bostonian whose job it has been for more than a decade to follow the food, I discovered a few places I did not know but am anxious to visit. Like BMS Paper in Jamaica Plain, where I can round out my collection of baking pans and squeeze bottles without breaking the bank; and Twin Donuts in Allston. This is a valuable addition to any food lover's collection. List price: $15.95
A true communal effort by the Somerville Arts Council yielded Nibble: Exploring food, art and culture in Union Square-and beyond. The book is a testament to the culinary destination that this diverse city has become. It focuses on the Union Square neighborhood, home to Latin American and Caribbean small plates restaurant Casa B; intimate, elegant Journeyman and its adjacent craft cocktail spot, backbar; and Machu Picchu Charcoal Chicken & Grill, to name a few. But as Mayor Joseph Curtatone notes in his opening letter, the diverse nature of the neighborhood and its growing food culture "reflect a citywide trend."
In 2005, the Somerville Arts Council received a grant from the Massachusetts Cultural Council to increase Union Square's cultural economy. Building on the area's key assets—food, diversity and the vibrant arts community—the Association started a blog to share the stories they gathered. The blog grew into this book, which captures the spirit of this neighborhood. The stories are enhanced by beautiful illustrations, photos and more than 25 recipes—from Sherman Cafe's Donut Muffins to Highland Kitchen's Spicy Coconut Goat Stew to the pupusas contributed by El Salvador native and area resident Ana Flores. Fluff S'Mores Brûlée, a dessert that celebrates our national delicacy (Marshmallow fluff), born in Somerville in 1917, should not be missed. The book closes with a guide to Union Square food markets, products and restaurants. List price: $20 (proceeds go to Somerville Arts Council, www.somervilleartscouncil.org)
A lot of people who love food and love to cook dream about opening a restaurant. Very few actually do it. And even fewer succeed. Kathy Sidell, the powerful force behind the MET Restaurant Group, with outposts in Chestnut Hill, Natick, Dedham, Boston and Nantucket, has done both and shares her story in When I MET Food, a memoir with recipes.
Sidell, who grew up in Newton, spent years as a film producer before following her passion for food and opening her first restaurant, The Metropolitan Club in Chestnut Hill, in 2004. Her late father, Jack Sidell, a former banker, is credited with launching the city's culinary revolution in the 1980s by giving many of its star chef-restaurateurs—including Jasper White, Lydia Shire and Todd English—the loans they needed to start their businesses. Her sister, Stephanie Sidell Sokolove, owns the upscale comfort food spot Stephanie's on Newbury and its younger offshoot, Stephi's on Tremont. So getting into the business was in many ways a natural for her. But Sidell's appreciation for delicious food, nurtured from a childhood spent in her grandmother's kitchen, dining at many of the world's finest restaurants on family vacations, and savoring her father's Saturday burger feasts, was a major motivation.
The restaurateur, who is no slouch in the kitchen herself, learned to cook from her grandmother and the family's housekeeper. She writes of turning her college dorm room "into a kitchen" and co-hosting cocktail parties with her best friend, at which she created the hors d'oeuvres in her toaster oven to complement her friend's drinks. She credits the entertaining skills she learned from her mother at lavish dinner parties held throughout her childhood with instilling the sense of hospitality essential to running what is, at heart, a service business. Part business tutorial, part paean to the joys of eating everything from hamburgers and tuna salad to lobster and foie gras, When I MET Food resonates most strongly when Sidell focuses on her obvious passion for food, family, friends, and making guests happy at the table. List price: $24.95
In her book, Sidell emphasizes how important it was to her to create a lively, welcoming bar scene at each of her restaurants. Former Boston Herald reporter and editor Stephanie Schorow dedicates an entire volume to Boston bars and alcoholic heritage in Drinking Boston: A History of the City and its Spirits. From 17th-century taverns through Prohibition, renowned nightclubs and our current infatuation with craft cocktails, the author paints a picture of a city with a patchwork population of immigrant cultures that is a lot more colorful than its Puritanical reputation.
Schorow has written six books about Boston history, and her most recent is well researched and filled with unexpected facts. For instance, though they were opposed to hard liquor, champions of the temperance movement encouraged beer drinking, because they believed that beverage was less potent, and therefore less harmful; it was not legal to serve alcohol to women in taverns until the early 1970s; and popular cocktail spot The Hawthorne, in The Commonwealth Hotel, was named after the Hawthorne strainer, a cocktail instrument that is believed to have been invented in Boston. Drinking Boston also includes recipes for classic cocktails and a glossary of drinks and ingredients. List price: $18.50
Last but not least, an Edible Boston contributor once again earned a spot in the pages of Best Food Writing 2012. "Serving up Sustainability" by Erin Byers Murray, which appeared in the Summer 2011 issue of this magazine, talks about how area chefs navigate the choppy waters of making sure the seafood they serve meets the standard for sustainability when there really is no standard. It's a complex issue, and Murray lays out the numerous considerations facing chefs, then talks to a handful who are highly respected for the way they source and prepare their food. The article does not present a neat solution because right now there are none. Rather, it sets out the thoughtful approaches taken by a group of talented, concerned members of the local food community. The book contains several other notable pieces. List price: $16
Andrea Pyenson writes about food and travel. Her work has appeared in several print and online publications, including the Boston Globe, the Washington Post, Edible Cape Cod, Fine Cooking, msn.com and oneforthetable.com. Her first cookbook, Wicked Good Barbecue, written with local chef Andy Husbands and Chris Hart, was published in March 2012. Andrea can be reached at email@example.com