We all head to the farmers market with the best intentions. We aim to buy a cornucopia of fresh, seasonal vegetables, fruits, meats, and cheeses with which we then will whip up healthy, delicious, budget-friendly meals for ourselves and our families. We feel good about supporting local farmers while buying food that doesn’t come with a 2,000-mile carbon footprint. And then we go home, throw the food in the refrigerator, and — more often than we care to admit — let it languish until it’s mushy, brown, and stinky.
Local food critic and cookbook author Beth Dooley is here to help us move from a sincere desire to shop and cook locally to actually using and enjoying the Minnesota foods that appear at our local markets year-round. Minnesota’s Bounty: The Farmers Market Cookbook ($29.95 paperback, University of Minnesota Press) is the latest collection of recipes from Dooley, whose The Northern Heartland Kitchen we enjoyed upon publication two years ago. As in her earlier work, which also includes 2004’s Savoring the Seasons of the Northern Heartland, Dooley focuses on the foods native to this region, but she takes a simple, streamlined approach to recipe development. In fact, she begins the book with the declaration, “I don’t like recipes. Period.” It’s a curious comment from someone whose name is attached to three cookbooks, but as Dooley further explains, she sees the recipes in her newest tome more as suggestions than strict instructions: “Just let what is in season, what looks the best, and you own appetite be the factors that help you decide what to eat.”
With that philosophy in mind, Dooley guides readers through a typical Minnesota farmers market ingredient by ingredient, dividing her recipes among fruits, vegetables, cheese, grains, and meat and fish. The recipes fall into two categories: “quick ideas,” in which she uses only a sentence or two to suggest how to throw together a soup, salad, or vegetable toss using the featured ingredient, and longer recipes with a full lineup of ingredients and step-by-step instructions. For experienced cooks, the quick ideas will not be groundbreaking — Dooley is not the first person to suggest tossing a handful or two of cranberries into chocolate chip cookie dough — but kitchen newbies and farmers market novices may appreciate the tips. And while the full-blown recipes for everyday ingredients, such as carrots or tomatoes, also won’t be earth-shattering to anyone who subscribes to Cooking Light or has a shelf-full of veggie-centric cookbooks, everyone can appreciate the ideas for using the less-familiar foods, such as fiddlehead ferns and bitter melon.
Paging through the book, it’s hard not to wish we could skip ahead to August so we could savor the corn, tomato, eggplant, and summer squash preparations Dooley details so devotedly. Our never-ending winter hasn’t brought a bounty to our local markets just yet, but a few early vegetables are ready for recipe testing. Small spring radishes are ready to travel from the market to local plates, and Dooley’s Radish, Cucumber, and Mint Salad tampers those urges to jump into the full-on heat of late summer. The crunch of the tender radishes meets its match in the cucumber, but the cherry tomatoes add a delicate sweetness, and the honey-cider vinegar dressing offers a lovely tang to round out the dish. Even non-radish fanatics can appreciate the salad’s balanced approach and freshness, thanks to the liberal sprinkling of chopped mint.
A similar zing comes from the Arugula Mint Pesto, which uses up the rest of the mint purchased for the radish salad and combines it with a healthy-sized bag of peppery arugula for a springtime sauce to top grilled fish, boiled potatoes, or, of course, pasta. Those accustomed to eating exclusively basil pesto may be surprised by Dooley’s version, which offers a sharper bite that is not tempered by the pine nuts or walnuts typically found in pesto recipes. But the bright green color and zesty flavor — along with the generous handful of grated cheese — answer any doubters.
The cookbook’s main dishes fare almost as well as the sides. The Heartland Brisket cooks up tender, juicy, and aromatic: It’s definitely a winter dish, but for Minnesotans, that means we can enjoy it through April. The Wild Mushroom Pasta earns a B- rather than the brisket’s solid A. While the earthy mushrooms add depth to the pasta toss, the amount of sauce proves to be too skimpy for the volume of noodles. A thicker, more luscious cream would have clung better to the pasta spirals and provided a luxurious touch to the dish without overwhelming the delicate texture of the mushrooms. While Minnesota’s Bounty offers lovely images of the ingredients at market, it lacks photos of the finished recipes, so readers don’t get a good sense of how their finished dishes compare to the intended result.
A few instances of sloppy editing mar an otherwise solid cookbook. A recipe for Honey Mustard Basting Sauce does not list honey among its three ingredients, but maple syrup mysteriously makes the lineup. Dooley describes a cascabel chili as a mild red pepper, but the following sentence states, “It can be pretty hot.” And while Dooley mentions that a few featured ingredients, such as chicories and quince, are only spotted rarely at local markets, she doesn’t offer any hints on which markets are most likely to carry these items. Those of us whose eyes light up at the idea of locally grown apricots are curious to find out.
Minnesota’s Bounty may carve few new culinary paths for cooks accustomed to using farmers market ingredients, but for the rest of us looking to maximize the value of our well-intentioned purchases (or a CSA basket that provides more kohlrabi than ever imagined) will benefit from Dooley’s intuitive, easy-to-follow recipes. Take some time to dog-ear the cookbook’s pages now to take full advantage of its ideas when market tables are bursting with mid-summer freshness. July will be here before we know it.
Beth Dooley will appear 12 pm on Wednesday, May 22, at Byerly’s, 3777 Park Center Blvd., St. Louis Park, to host a class and book signing for Minnesota’s Bounty: The Farmers Market Cookbook. A full event schedule can be found on the University of Minnesota Press website.