By Annette Gallagher Weisman
EdibleASPEN – Spring, 2009

Years ago, when my son was knee high to a grasshopper, we’d stroll along the Rio Grande Trail looking for signs of spring. Reveling in the optimistic song of a chickadee or the rare, exalted leap of a trout in the Roaring Fork River, or discovering buds and leaves appearing like magic on the chokecherry bushes, there was always a sense of wonder. Or, when the snowfall’s been heavy, even a few blades of grass bullying their way up to find sunlight seems evidence that we, too, can make a fresh start; a new beginning that can buoy us through the rest of the year.

Fresh is the optimum word when it comes to cooking and healthy dining, and, for that, seasonal ingredients are a must. Why, I wonder, do we eat and pay for shrink-wrapped, out-of-season, blandtasting produce that’s been shipped from halfway around the world rather than seasonal, locally produced foods at home? Perhaps it’s lack of imagination.

“In Season: Cooking with Vegetables and Fruits,” by Sarah Raven (universe, $40) is the kind of cookbook that’s inspirational. It will propel you out the door to your nearest farmers’ market or, if you are lucky enough to have a vegetable garden, help you plant produce that will create a nutritious meal at any time of year.

For instance, in spring, consider the rhubarb. No, really, consider it—on page 66. “It’s a miraculous plant,” says Raven, “increasingly hailed as a superfood, rich in antioxidants, as well as being an excellent gentle purgative.”

While most of us have eaten a rhubarb tart, have you ever had rhubarb upsidedown cake? Chard and nutmeg farfalle? Cranberry and macadamia flapjacks? How about lavender crème brulée? No? Perhaps stuffed roasted quail with jeweled couscous and spiced citrus sauce? I’ve selected these recipes at random. But wait, one more. Surely you’ve had frozen mocha and ginger meringue cake with pomegranate sauce?

Raven endows us with abundant information about how to cook a myriad of fruits and vegetables that deserve “center stage” and when and how to grow them. Jonathan Buckley’s photography is what my late mother-in-law would have called “stunning,” and almost every page has superb recipes for combinations that are new to us—in a good way, like those above—as well as the more typical ones, such as stuffed butternut squash or really rich tomato sauce. Do I like this book? No. I love this book.

Love is, of course, another sign of spring, and there’s plenty of love in “Jamie at Home: Cook Your Way to the Good Life,” by Jamie Oliver (Hyperion, $37.50). Oliver’s the friendly English guy who sounds like a younger version of that cheeky gecko in the oft-shown TV commercial. Oliver’s your bud, your mate, the guy who’s at home in any kitchen. He’s known as the Naked Chef because he’s always been a proponent of getting back to flavorful basics using local produce, and his latest cookbook also guides us through the seasons, showing us what’s best to eat and when. Oliver is now into personally growing the food he cooks, something he’d never thought he’d be good at. He’s so enamored by gardening that his enthusiasm is contagious, showing us in recipe format how to grow fruits and vegetables year-round and encouraging us to “have a go.”

There’s nothing fancy or pretentious about Oliver, as the titles of his recipes suggest, such as fresh tagliatelle with sprouting broccoli and oozy cheese sauce, eggy breakfast crumpets or creamy rice pudding with the quickest strawberry jam. Not to mention the best barbecued meat and proper chicken Caesar salad. But his cooking isn’t all oozy and creamy; there’s plenty of crunchy, and good for your waistline, recipes, too. Oliver is respectful of vegetarians’ opposition to hunting and truly concerned about responsible animal farming, but you’ll find more recipes with meat in this book than in “In Season.” The photographs, by Lord David Loftus, with his “brilliant” closeups of dishes like steak, Guinness and cheese pie with a puff pastry lid is a feast to the eye for carnivores. From the outset, Oliver invites you to “have a nice little chat” with him; once you understand his philosophy of cooking and sustainable growing, you cannot help but become a fan of this ebullient chef.

A book I enjoy referring to now and again is “Life Is meals,” by the awardwinning author James Salter and his wife, Kay (Knopf, $27.50). It’s a calendar year’s worth of food-related anecdotes about kings and queens, poets and writers, as well as other international stories about food that are listed under the month and day they occurred. Plus, it has interesting tidbits: for example, in the citrus trade, “seedless” doesn’t mean there are no seeds, but that there are five seeds or fewer per lemon, orange or grapefruit.

When the Salters first moved into their Aspen home in 1976 they began to write journals about what they cooked, who attended their dinner parties and the funny or odd things that happened along the way. Your guests will find it fun to pick any day in this book and find a good story. But, hey, it’s spring, why not keep it on your nightstand? It’s incredibly sexy to be read to by the one you love. Think of these little tales as individual amuse bouches, something appetizing that’s a sign of what’s to follow … enough said.

Annette Gallagher Weisman is a freelance writer and a longtime part-time Aspenite.
A member of the National Book Critics Circle, Weisman has written for many publications, including national magazines.