The title – Farmer John’s Cookbook – has a homey feel, promising something loving from the country oven. The subtitle is intriguing: “The Real Dirt on Vegetables.” It’s a spin-off of the award-winning (Sundance Jury Award) film The Real Dirt on Farmer John, to be aired by PBS on Tuesday, June 13.
Midwestern farmer John Peterson and his family were victims of the farm crash of the 1980s. Forced to sell, John and his mother wound up with 100 acres and grim prospects. John, who had gone a little hippie after his early years as a farm kid, tried everything he could to maintain the farm, including marketing a product he and his girlfriend called “Pig Newtons.” The Fig Newton cartel made threatening grunts and the pig-shaped pastries went in the bin.
After a soul-searching trip to Mexico, Peterson came back inspired to explore traditional farming methods for a solution. He started growing organic/bio-dynamic vegetables and soon tapped into the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) movement. He recreated himself as Farmer John, complete with straw hat, pitchfork, denim overalls and red feather boa. He calls his consortium Angel Organics, the heaven-sent means to revitalize his farm. By the CSA model, subscribers pay the farmer’s seed money in the spring and receive boxes of fresh organic produce during the growing season (there are quite a few CSA growers in North Carolina). In Peterson’s case, his charisma and entrepreneurial genius gathered a group of helpers, interns, and publicity, including the film which gives an entertaining look at his remarkable life.
The life generated a movie, and the movie spawned a cookbook without peer - not only a big brightly illustrated bag of recipes that will send you flying to your local farmers market, but also a physical and spiritual examination of the secret life of veggies and a re-chronicling of the struggles and triumphs of Farmer John.
Let us take the lowly Brussels sprout from its place on the very back shelf of our vegetable larder. Here’s what Farmer John says: “These enchanting miniature cabbages are nutritious, delectable little morsels.” And his culinary expert chimes in: “The best thing about Brussels sprouts from a kid’s point of view …is that when you eat them you can pretend you are a giant eating whole heads of cabbage in one bite.” Then try this concoction:
Brussels Sprout Slaw with DatesThe book is divided not by the usual main dishes, breads, and desserts, but by veggie variety. Each chapter highlights the vegetable’s culinary uses and its “partners” – herbs, oils, grains and green things. Every recipe sounds savory and lip-smacking, or sweet and tender. Farmer John’s Cookbook is, like the man, unconventional, spiced with delectable sidebars such as the theory that fasting involves eating plenty of “fast food,” or this overheard remark: “If I ever get married, I want a nice frying pan.”
½ pound Brussels sprouts (about 2 cups), shredded
1 cup grated carrot
1 cup chopped dried dates
2 Tbsp. olive oil
2 Tbsp. apple juice
1 Tbsp. balsamic vinegar
1 Tbsp. red wine vinegar
freshly ground black pepper
Combine the Brussels sprouts, carrot, dates, oil, apple juice, balsamic vinegar and red wine vinegar in a large bowl and mix well. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Refrigerate for 2 hours before serving.
Farmer John has included entries from his CSA farm diary, reminding us that farming, organic-intensive style, is hard work: “This season has been dominated by floods and persistent cloud cover…catching up is just about impossible in a complex produce operation like ours. It’s akin to going back in time and seizing a lost opportunity.” But there are joys too: “This year we started all our sweet corn in the greenhouse and transplanted it. Rains were on time. The days were hot and humid. Nights were cool. We’re happy.”
John Peterson, he unabashedly admits, is married to his farm. Farmer’s John’s Cookbook is a first, endearing progeny and will quickly find a place on your kitchen shelf, your reading list, and your veggie-loving heart.