Is your idea of fun trolling the stalls of your favorite farmers market for the more interesting stuff: the loaded baskets that appear like sudden gifts and that then happily require an entire conversation with your farmer? Do you have copies of Elizabeth Schneider’s books about esoteric vegetables in your kitchen, maybe under a bowl of, I don’t know, esoteric vegetables? If so, Michelle McKenzie’s just-released cookbook “Dandelion & Quince: Exploring the Wide World of Unusual Vegetables, Fruits and Herbs” is likely next on your list.
McKenzie, a San Francisco-based cooking teacher, has made us an exceedingly pretty book. There’s lovely photography (by Rick Poon) of the 35 plant profiles that function as chapters, as well as many of the 150-plus recipes that are divvied up among those chapters. If you’re reading this worried that you’ll have to spend more time sourcing obscure ingredients than actually cooking and eating from the book, fear not. Yes, there’s a chapter on Buddha’s Hand — the weirdo citron that pomologist David Karp once described as looking “like a cross between a lemon and a squid” — and another on gooseberries and ground cherries, but McKenzie does a smart job of balancing the mysterious with the accessible.
The cookbook is also happily pragmatic, a very good thing in a farmers market handbook. There are suggestions for using frequently overlooked ingredients (a chapter on fava leaves), pantry essentials (kombu stock), tips (build a smoker) and sidebars that read like short stories (a “refugee” breakfast of delicious spent vegetables). And then there are the recipes themselves, vibrant and seasonal and creative without being irritatingly so — food in the key of Deborah Madison and Ana Sortun and, yes, Alice Waters (whose imprimatur fronts the book).
So: nettle sandwiches, huckleberry hand pies, sardine pâté with fennel pollen and a pretty great recipe for green fish stew, which turns out to be fried fish in a chile-spiked puree of tomatillos and green aromatics. It’s a recipe that’s easily sourced, easily made and very easily consumed. After which you can put your figs on a plate for dessert — the fig leaves having been made into to smoked fig leaf cookies — and plan your next trip to the farmers market.