I know you’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover, but as I stared longingly through the plastic wrap at the bunches of kale (Dino! Red Russian!) on the front of The Northern Heartland Kitchen (Beth Dooley, University of Minnesota Press, 2011), I felt this cookbook had already won me over. Outside, the first winter’s snow whirled, and I knew that tonight would be the night to eat the last of the garden kale.
After the plastic wrap was removed (and I got over the initial disappointment of the lack of kale porn that seemed promising based on the cover) I found a cookbook that carried a gentle respect for the abundance of our harsh climate. The book keeps a low profile; there are no flashy photos of prepared dishes. Seven recipe sections cover the four seasons and also “The Northern Heartland Hearth,” and two sections of condiments and preserves. I will confidently judge a cookbook by its index, and this one is thorough, lending much to the book’s usefulness. Overall, though, this is a cookbook to be inspired by more than one to reference in a pinch. Boxed sections tucked on pages between the recipes offer stories from the local food landscape (“local” being in and around the Twin Cities, where Dooley lives and works as a food critic). Quotes from farmers, chefs and philosophers grace section heads. This is a book I will turn to for help when cooking becomes more of a chore and less of a joy.
I am out of the practice of following recipes strictly, but I attempted this for the sake of a full review. I chose Barely Pilaf with Chickpeas and Autumn Vegetables, which I thought I had nearly all the ingredients for. I was wrong, but the result was a pleasant-enough dinner, even though the one teeny beet I put in with the pile of assorted root vegetables substituting for “parsnips” turned the whole thing a younger-crowd-pleasing shade of magenta. Judging by the “how many substitutions can I make before ruining dinner” test, this recipe rates high. The dish pairs nicely with store-bought steamed kale.
A few days later I turned to the book again for help preparing the stalk of brussel sprouts I’d just pulled up in the back yard–the very last fresh offering from our garden for this year. The result was a simple, sweet-as-candy side dish. A success.
If you are looking for a book that will move you in the direction of a sustainable, affordable, and ethical diet, this book isn’t all that. If you need a nice gift for the foodie-with-a-conscience on your holiday list, however, I’d recommend it. The recipes in this book feel good; they made me want to cook more. Whether I’ll ever have a meal on my table that looks just like one prepared by Beth Dooley or not, her cookbook has a place in my kitchen.