I buy my cookbooks the old-fashioned Portland way.
When I burn out on my current repertoire of recipes, I go to Powell's. I check out the new arrivals in the cookbook section—pretending to care about the vegetarian books and ignoring the goofy celebrity vanity projects—and try to dig out a book whose recipes strike a nice balance between novelty and simplicity.
My cookbook buying process usually takes at least three visits. In my research, I'll take a perfunctory first look (Do the recipes tend to require multiple expensive and/or hard-to-find ingredients? Do these recipes tend to require annoying amounts of preparation?) to see if the book in question is worth a second.
I'll take a more detailed second look, (Am I going to have to spend a half-hour paging through this to find something I want to eat? Are these recipes mostly vegetable and meat-based, so I'm not going to pack on the pounds making deep fried dough in cream sauce?) paying closer attention to organization—and ingredients, because if I have to pay $40 for a dinner for two I'd might as well eat at a restaurant.
Finally, I'll either pull the trigger on the book (Do I keep thinking about this book in my spare time?) or let it fade into oblivion, forever.
Like you, I'm a passionate home cook. Also like you, I don't have infinite money for fun gadgets—I want to put my fist through a window every time I see a recipe calling for an ice cream or sous vide machine—or infinite time to dote over a stove. Also like you, I like fun, healthy-enough recipes that aren't going to break the bank and that utilize the bounty of Oregon's lush farmland to its fullest.
Which is why Portland-based Joshua McFadden's new cookbook, Six Seasons: A New Way with Vegetables, is the most exciting approach to home cooking I've seen all year.
As the name suggests, McFadden, who co-authored the book along with Martha Holmberg, organizes his cookbook into six seasons: One each for fall, winter and spring, and summer divided into early, middle and late stages. From there, the book is organized by ingredient, so you can always find what's in season. Hence, you'll find certain vegetables showing their faces across the year. Herbal, early season carrots appear in McFadden's early summer season where he serves them pan roasted with avocado and seared squid. Sweeter late season carrots show up in fall, where they're roasted and served with honey, black pepper, butter and almonds.
McFadden uses the prelude of Six Seasons for a brief introduction to his cooking philosophy and his sourcing at Ava Gene's. What you'll learn from preparing more any one of his dishes is that McFadden bombards his dishes with big flavors.
It's common knowledge that the trick to good home cooking is using significantly more salt than you think you need to. McFadden ups the ante not only with salt's partner in crime, freshly ground black pepper, but acid, dried chile, extra virgin olive oil and hard cheese. Pickles, garlic and roasted nuts feature heavily. Though over half of the recipes in Six Seasons are vegetarian or vegan, so long as you go appropriately wild with the pepper mill and chile flakes, McFadden's recipes are umami-packed beyond most pallid vege-forward cooking you'll find on the food internet.
A crostata of swiss chard, leek, fresh herbs (I used parsley and cilantro) and ricotta was both deeply savory and delicate, thanks to sauteed chard and leeks cooked inside of a delicate dough mixed with ground walnuts. A raw kale salad—which McFadden explains set off his career at Franny's in Brooklyn in 2007— exploded with farmy Pecorino Romano, buttery with olive oil with bright chile and lemon playing off of the kale's gentle astringency. In another recipe, kale is sweetened through a brief blanching then blended with Parmesan, garlic and olive oil into a silken, emerald green sauce for pappardelle.
Though, the most spectacular dishes in Six Seasons—in fall, at least—tended to be fairly mundane. Collard greens and dried beans (I used cranberry beans) stewed with Parmesan rinds were so pungently rich and soft that I didn't feel an ounce of shame gnawing on rubbery cheese rinds out of the pot. Even better, a dish of roasted and smashed beets served with a poblano and cilantro-based salsa renewed my hope in the vegetable as worthy of home-cooking. Where I usually find beets served with soft cheese and nuts to compliment their sweetness, McFadden's pairing of a punchy salsa was both visually striking and the most compelling use of the vegetable in a cookbook in memory.
It's recipes may be inspired, but Six Seasons is not a particularly beginner-friendly cookbook. McFadden's recipes seem dialed for a particularly powerful stove, and home cooks shouldn't be afraid to push his cooking times until vegetables approximate those in the accompanying pictures. In a few instances, oven temperatures are missing from recipes (such as with the aforementioned crostata), which can put amateur cooks into a black hole. Particularly anal cooks will find frustration in the fact that weights aren't provided for in measurements (volume is used instead), where those not used to carpet-bombing their meals with seasonings could find McFadden's dishes underwhelming.
These quibbles are minor. Six Seasons is one of the most satisfying cookbooks I've purchased in years, and McFadden's insights into seasoning are invaluable, even for an experienced home cook. I used his approach in a familiar braised beef short rib recipe (using about twice as much pepper as I usually do) this weekend, and it is by far the best the dish has ever turned out for me.
Six Seasons also feels like distinctly rooted in Portland. As a regular attendee at the Saturday farmer's market, I found myself seeing McFadden's recipes reflected in the abundant stalls of the market's vendors—almost every dish could be completely sourced from a once-round the Portland State campus. Here's to scraping the ice off of turnips in the middle of January.
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