Fresh ideas for area cuisine


Resource: Cookbook spotlights mid-Atlantic farms and restaurants.

January 17, 2003|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

I've long said typing and shucking are two of my most useful skills. One keeps me employed, the other surfeited with my favorite seafood.

Wintertimes, when the oysters get fat and tangy, I move shucking to the top of the list -- the end product, unlike my wordsmithing, never fails to satisfy.

This winter's been especially satisfying for oysters, because I've been buying mine direct from Jessie Marsh, a Smith Islander who's been tonging a few remote channel edges in Tangier Sound.

I know waterman Marsh well, as well I know the bay marshes where he's harvesting -- where I have kayaked, fished and camped for decades, and where nature has grown this year's crop so salty and flavorful.

It all adds dimensions to my enjoyment of oysters on the half shell, of oyster pie, and of oysters lightly broiled with a sliver of Gruyere cheese on top. Those dimensions would be missing from oysters bought in a jar at Wal-Mart.

And I like knowing my cash goes to Jessie, and into the economy of lower Dorchester County, where he lives.

Contrast that with shipping part of my oyster dollar to Bentonville, Ark., where five Wal-Mart owners have a net worth of $20 billion each (they'll get theirs anyway, when Jessie shops at the Wal-Mart in Cambridge).

It's become all too hard to have such intimate and fulfilling connections to fresh, healthy, local seafood and produce -- too hard to ensure our food dollars go to support our local farmers and watermen.

In the past two centuries, we've gone from a nation where 80 percent of us grew or caught food to one where 2 percent feed us all.

Fresh produce coming into the wholesale market for Maryland, in Jessup, has traveled an average of 1,700 miles, according to the Capital Area Food Bank. Eighty cents of each food dollar now goes, not to those who produce it, but to those who distribute, package and further process it.

All of which is why you should get Cooking Fresh From the Mid-Atlantic, a dandy new book that is far more than a collection of healthy recipes.

Cooking Fresh, from Wendy Rickard and Fran McManus of Eating Fresh Publications in Hopewell, N.J., is a resource for where to find restaurants in our region featuring locally purchased cuisine. It's also full of fascinating profiles of small, local producers of everything from lamb and goat cheese to berries and lettuce.

There are informative essays on the joys of eating what's local and in season, and on the economic and environmental reasons for doing so.

I'm no expert on cookbooks. All I can tell you is that virtually every page of this one made me hungry.

Listen to the description of Polyface Farm, a small, Virginia producer of organic food that pairs free-range hens with cattle, and turkeys with rabbits -- all part of a sophisticated, pasture-based system to mimic the way animals interact with the landscape in nature:

"Meat is firmer and more dense -- not tough. Pork especially carries a beautiful rose color, which indicates higher vitamin and mineral content. Egg yolks contain a natural deep-orange color, and the whites whip up significantly higher for meringues. The eggs enhance moisture in pastries and often double shelf life."

Then there is Rucker Farm in Flint Hill, Va., outside D.C., which makes a variety of "boutique" cheeses from the morning milk of 30 goats. They sell only in those months of the year when pasture is available for the goats to graze.

There is Butter Pot Farm in Cambridge, which specializes in organic lettuce, sold at local farmers' markets and to area restaurants. And farther down the Eastern Shore, one finds unique white sweet potatoes called Haymans, so delicate they must be picked by hand and not refrigerated -- so flavorful, devotees say, they need no butter, sugar or salt.

In Virginia's Fauquier County, there's Westmoreland Berry Farm, specializing in strawberries, blueberries and blackberries, and offering a Red, White and Blueberry Sundae that is to die for. You can pick your own there.

There's a description of a small tomato grower who has spent more than 30 years striving to produce that "perfect, sweetly acid burst of real tomato flavor" -- and who thinks there is still much more to learn.

A stretch of soil in Halifax County, Va., produces cantaloupes so sweet and juicy, loaded with vitamin A and calcium, you'll never eat from California again; and a fruit farmer named Neal Peterson has been working since 1980 to produce a superior variety of the wild pawpaw fruit.

The book is also very much about recipes -- more than 130 -- from Hayman Sweet Potato Soup to Braised Local Rabbit Loin; from Pawpaw Zabaglione to Cream of Fresh Turnip Soup.

Cooking Fresh will have you planning trips to restaurants and unique farms throughout the bay region, discovering a phenomenon the French call terroir.

Meaning "flavor of the soil," it's a word English ought to have, embracing the entire physical environment of a place, its peoples, traditions and how all this translates through the local soils into wines, cheeses and other delicacies. Check your local bookstore or online at

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