From the Garden to the Table
Most good cooks know that when it is time to prepare a great meal, you always start with the ingredients that are fresh and available, and make them the basis for the recipes that will be used.
That philosophy is at the heart of a new cookbook written by Watauga High School Class of 1978 graduate Sheri Castle. With the lengthy yet descriptive title of "The New Southern Garden Cookbook: Enjoying the Best from Homegrown Gardens, Farmers' Markets, Roadside Stands and CSA Farm Boxes," the new cookbook was presented this month by the University of North Carolina Press.
The book is timely in that it taps into the booming locally grown food movement and celebrates the pleasures of fresh, seasonal food. It is also written in a casual, conversational style that gives the reader the feeling of being in cozy kitchen listening to Castle as she cooks.
"I cannot remember a time when I didn't enjoy telling, reading, or hearing a good story," Castle said. "I come from a strong storytelling tradition in the Blue Ridge Mountains, but it's also my nature to pay attention to what people say. I enjoy a good spontaneous conversation, even with strangers. My husband says I'll get more information from a wrong number than he will after knowing someone for years."
Castle's ability to combine conversation with cooking has served her well over the years, and she is now a Chapel Hill-based food writer and cooking instructor who blends culinary expertise, storytelling and humor to inspire people to cook with confidence and enthusiasm. Her food writing has appeared in the Raleigh News & Observer, and she has hosted cooking classes at A Southern Season in Chapel Hill.
These days, she is particularly interested in the small garden movement among cooking enthusiasts or "foodies" as they are sometimes called. Though her book is aimed at Southern gardens, she readily admits it could apply to just about anywhere in the United States.
"The South is a mosaic of microclimates, which means that just about everything grows somewhere," she said. "A typical garden, farmers' market, or CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) farm box in the hot and humid Deep South will look considerably different than one in the cool and snowy Mountain South, but both are equally and authentically southern."
"The New Southern Garden Cookbook" aims to please both cooks looking for traditional recipes from the South and those looking for something a little more adventurous. Castle said this reflects the changing nature of Southern gardens and farmers' markets.
"The South is a mixture of cultures and cuisines, and it shows in its gardens," she said. "Some gardens contain plants so common that they seem universal, while others are intensely local. Most gardens and farmers' markets contain reliable favorites, such as corn, beans, tomatoes and squash, but newcomers, such as bok choy, broccoli raab, Japanese eggplant, and green garlic, are also popping up."
Castle's new cookbook contains more than 300 recipes and is arranged by ingredient, which she did for three reasons.
"First, this book is built on the premise that when cooking with fresh fruits and vegetables, the ingredient, not the recipe is the wiser starting point," she said. "When we start with the best of what's currently available ... the cooking and the recipes follow easily.
"My second reason is that the gardens, markets and CSA boxes themselves are organized by ingredient. Fresh fruits and vegetables peak at their own natural pace, so we return from the garden or market with armloads of what was ripe, abundant, and tempting, not necessarily what was on a shopping list or in a give recipe.
"Third, I believe that my organization is the most useful when cooking with fresh produce. For example, we gardeners and market aficionados find ourselves needing lots of good zucchini recipes when we suddenly have a profusion of zucchini, either because the plants are producing like crazy or because we saw so much great stuff at the market that we went a little overboard with the shopping. With my book, cooks can go straight to the zucchini recipes rather than searching through multiple books or magazines hoping to come across a zucchini recipe."
Some of Castle's favorite signature recipes in the new cookbook include slow-simmered beans with bacon and tomato; creamy baby turnip soup with smoked trout butter; stirred corn and seared sea scallops with lime sauce; and creamed collard and country ham pot pie with cornmeal pastry.
It also contains some her family's favorites, including BLT chicken; sweet potato biscuits; buttermilk pie with raspberry crown; and creamed butter beans.
Castle estimates that she probably tested or contemplated 1,200 recipes before settling on the 300-plus that made the cut.
"Each recipe I ultimately included had to be what my family and I came to call 'book-worthy,'" Castle said. "That meant that a lot of great recipes wound up on the cutting room floor, because even a big book fills up at some point.
"I've been at this a long time. I invented my first recipe when I was four years old. I mailed that recipe to one of those daytime homemaker shows popular in the early 1960s. The envelope contained my little recipe, a drawing and a story. Creative cooking and good stories are irresistible to me, down to my core."
Even though the book has just been released this month, it is already drawing praise from a number of publications.
Oxford American said, "Sheri Castle offers a vision for Southern cuisine that's based wholly on locally grown, seasonal foods ... the ingredient lists are seductive on their own, but Sheri is a warm and engaging writer with the kind of practical wisdom that enlightens any kitchen."
And SavorNC wrote, "Inspired by the bounty from our Southern soil, seasoned author Sheri Castle challenges chefs to think fresh...The book is a perfect marriage of recipes and stories, blending practical tips and delightful anecdotes into a collection that's as much a narrative as it is a recipe guide."
Castle in Boone
Sheri Castle will visit her hometown of Boone on Saturday, July 9, to meet with the public, share her recipes and sign copies of her new book. She will be at the Watauga Farmers' Market that day from 9 a.m. until noon. Later that day, she will be at Black Bear Books at 3 p.m.
"The New Southern Garden Cookbook: Enjoying the Best from Homegrown Gardens, Farmers' Markets, Roadside Stands and CSA Farm Boxes" by Sheri Castle is available in hardcover for $35. For more information, visit uncpress.unc.edu.