One of the perks of being a food writer is that every few days or so a new cookbook lands on my doorstep. One of the burdens of being a food writer is that every few days or so a new cookbook lands on my doorstep.
Trust me: With these often unsolicited gifts comes guilt. There are the cookbooks that go straight in the bag destined for the public library sale. Sometimes a publicist doesn’t know my work well enough to surmise that I’m unlikely to cover, say, the latest in cupcake trends, or 101 ways to cook with lard, or a weighty tome on D.I.Y. butchering. There are audiences for all these books — and writers who want to cover them — but they’re just not for me.
Then there are the cookbooks destined to collect dust on a shelf piled high with many other food books, despite my best intentions. Some I won’t ever open. Sad but true. Eventually, these books will make their way to the public library sale pile as well. Many others, of course, I will reference in roundups, profiles, and reviews. And yet, even with some of these cookbooks, including well-written prize-winners in the mix, I still may never make a single recipe from their pages. My bad.
And then there are the cookbooks that turn up on my front porch and I couldn’t be more delighted to welcome them into my home like, well, a good friend. Ripe: A Fresh Colorful Approach to Fruits and Vegetables (Running Press, $25, 312 pages) is my kind of book. Not just because I write a blog with a pro-produce focus called Lettuce Eat Kale. Not just because the author, Cheryl Sternman Rule, is one of the first friends I made in the food writing world when I switched to that beat three years ago. And not just because, when I — a modest home cook — flipped through the book’s brightly-hued pages my first thought on many of those 75 recipes was: “I can do that.”
But there were, of course, people to interview, stories to write, and after-school schlepping to be done and still that color-saturated cookbook’s recipes had not found their way into my kitchen. I did sit down one afternoon with a cup of tea — and encourage others to follow suit — and read it cover to cover. Granted, that’s an unusual way to consume a cookbook, but Cheryl is a writer with a quirky turn of phrase and a pithy wit whose craft I admire. Consider: “You can also boil artichokes whole, but then you’ll need to deal with the choke after the fact, and the only thing worse than a hairy choke is a hot hairy choke, if you know what I mean.” Bada-boom.
Also, it must be said, I had a deadline to profile Cheryl for her hometown paper, the San Jose Mercury News.
The book includes bite-sized essays showcasing Cheryl’s signature style, familiar to many as the voice behind 5 Second Rule, which recently won top honors from the International Association of Culinary Professionals for outstanding culinary blog. Her partner in this produce lovefest, a cookbook arranged not by seasons or courses but rather grouped by color (with chapters titled red, orange, yellow, green, purple & blue, and white), is the award-winning photographer Paulette Phlipot, who gets credit for the book’s chromatic concept. The pair met at an IACP conference in the Big Easy in 2008 where Phlipot flashed Sternman Rule her portfolio via iPhone, and Sternman Rule, a smart-phone virgin at the time, was instantly smitten.
Fast forward to a couple of weeks ago: Cheryl had a soiree at her home, where neighborhood friends and food writer pals from around the Bay came to celebrate the release of Ripe, out just four weeks, now in its third printing, and picked up by Anthropologie, not too shabby for a first-time author. So I headed down to the Silicon Valley, home today, as Cheryl herself likes to say, “to Google, Yahoo, Facebook, and me.”
There’s nothing like seeing someone in situ to get a more complete picture of her life. Here is Cheryl’s kitchen where she makes all those artfully-photographed baked goods that feature on her blog like Double Chocolate Coconut Slice and Bake Cookies, Blueberry Corn Muffins, and Raspberry-Cardamom Tart in a Cocoa Crust. There is the grill where she tests recipes. Upstairs her office is piled with papers, downstairs the beaming author sports one of her vintage-inspired aprons.
Scattered throughout her home that night: A rainbow assortment of food stations featuring matching tablecloths and bouquets bursting with colors corresponding to recipes from the chapters of her book. At the yellow station, for instance, guests could nosh on Corn with Cilantro-Lime Salt or Grilled Five-Spice Pineapple Kabobs and wash it down with Agave Meyer Lemonade — leaded or sans spirits — while a big bunch of sunflowers stood watch. Red gerber daisies kept the beets company, while elegant iris shared the spotlight with slices of Blueberry Nutmeg Cake.
I thought it was a brilliant move: Every morsel on offer that night came straight out of that color-coded cookbook. All those dishes tasted so finger-licking good I made a mental note then and there to get cracking on some of those recipes myself.
And I have. Lots of them. Cucumber Halloumi Salad with Licorice Notes (recipe below). Avocado Tangerine Salsa. The aforementioned lemonade and the pineapple kabobs. Also the Carrot Soup with Garam Masala Cream (recipe follows too.)
On my to-do list: Kumquat Arugula Salad. Warm Fava Shallot Couscous. Toasted Nori Edamame with Garlic-Chili Oil. As well as Shaved Chioggia Beet Salad with Mixed Citrus Vinaigrette, Apricot Frangipane Galette, Miso Tofu Bok Choy, Eggplant Romesco Rigatoni, and Turnip and Yukon Gold Puree with Buttermilk and Chives.
Here’s what I learned that night at her house: The girl — who is appearing at Omnivore Books in San Francisco this Thursday and at a farmers’ market in San Jose on Sunday — has a serious thing for kumquats. These sharp, tart little beauties featured in a kick-arse drink, a Kumquart Sidecar (cognac + orange liqueur + fruit + ice + sugared rim), a salad, and a simple dessert with blueberries. While she clearly adores farmers’ market finds, Cheryl also knows her way around a spice rack — flavor pairings with herbs and spices make all the difference in many of her unfussy food ideas. For instance, it’s those licorice notes — toasted fennel seeds and tarragon — that make that Cucumber Halloumi Salad sing. I’ve subsequently tweaked it some: The side morphs into a satisfying meal served over spring greens, with quartered falafel, and a tad more dressing.
Also: This food writer is going to keep surprising us with her ability to play with food, photography, and words. One to watch, read, and savor.
Recipes follow. Go make something simple, colorful, and ripe to jazz up tonight’s dinner. Enjoy.
Recipe: Cucumber Halloumi Salad with Licorice Notes
Toasted fennel seeds and abundant fresh tarragon lend a licorice-y backdrop to this unique salad, which pairs cucumbers with seared Halloumi, a Cypriot cheese that can be browned or grilled without melting. You’ll find the interplay of textures, flavors, and temperatures irresistible.
2 teaspoons fennel seeds
4 (1⁄2-inch-thick or 1.25cm-thick) slices Halloumi cheese, blotted dry
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
2 teaspoons sherry vinegar
1⁄2 medium garlic clove, smashed and minced
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 English cucumber, unpeeled, halved lengthwise
1⁄4 cup (10g) loosely packed chopped fresh tarragon leaves
In a small, dry nonstick skillet, toast the fennel seeds over medium heat, shaking the skillet a few times, until fragrant, 2 to 3 minutes. Transfer to a small dish. Crank the heat to medium high, add the Halloumi, and brown on both sides, turning once, about 4 minutes total. Set aside to cool slightly.
Whisk the oil, vinegar, and garlic in a medium serving bowl. Season with salt and pepper.
Run a small spoon (a serrated grapefruit spoon works well) along the length of each cucumber half, making a tunnel and scraping out the seedless membrane. Slice the cucumber into 1/2-inch-thick (1.25 cm) half-moons. Add to the vinaigrette along with the tarragon and toasted fennel seeds. Tear the cheese into irregular pieces and toss on top.
Toss gently to coat. Adjust seasonings to taste, and serve immediately.
Recipe: Carrot Soup with Garam Masala Cream
Here’s a creamy soup with a gentle kick from the spice mix garam masala, a warming combo of coriander, cumin, cinnamon, clove, pepper, bay, and several other spices. You’ll find it in any Indian market.
1⁄4 cup (60ml) olive oil
3⁄4 cup (120g) diced yellow onion
4 to 6 medium carrots (about 1 1⁄2 pounds, or 680g), peeled, quartered lengthwise, and roughly chopped
1 small yam (about 7 ounces, or 198g), peeled and diced
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
3⁄4 teaspoon garam masala, divided
3 cups (725ml) vegetable stock
2 teaspoons fresh lime juice, or to taste
2 tablespoons sour cream, plus additional for garnish
Heat the oil in a large soup pot over medium heat. Add the onion, carrots, yam, 1 teaspoon salt, 1⁄4 teaspoon pepper, and 1⁄2 teaspoon of the garam masala. Cook for about 15 minutes, stirring frequently.
Add the stock and 1 cup cold water and raise the heat to high. Bring the soup to a boil, then reduce the heat to a simmer, partially cover, and simmer until the vegetables are tender, about 15 minutes. Remove from the heat.
If you have an immersion blender, use it to purée the soup. (Otherwise, allow it to cool slightly and then purée it in batches using a traditional blender. Return the soup to the pot.) Season with the lime juice, to taste, and adjust the salt and pepper.
Mix the sour cream and the remaining 1⁄4 teaspoon garam masala in a small bowl. Swirl into the soup. Serve hot, garnished with additional sour cream, if desired.
Recipes reprinted with permission from RIPE © 2012 by Cheryl Sternman Rule, Running Press, a member of the Perseus Book Group.
Photography © 2012 by Paulette Phlipot.
Cheryl Sternman Rule reads from and signs copies of Ripe:
Thursday, April 26, Omnivore Books, 6 p.m.
3885A Cesar Chavez Street
Sunday April 29, Blossom Hill Farmers’ Market, 10 a.m.
Princeton Plaza Mall, 1375 Blossom Hill Road