Whether you buy your salmon farm-raised from Whole Foods, flash-frozen or even canned from Kroger, you probably know that the Triangle has found its way onto the national foodie map. Recent restaurant write-ups and food culture rankings in The New York Times have built upon the foundation of thriving local farmers markets and rejuvenated co-op efforts. Face it: We have arrived, and we're delicious.
Beyond all the hype, however, there's a surprisingly large community of committed local food growers, suppliers and cooks. And Andrea Reusing, chef (though she prefers the term "cook") at the Lantern restaurant in Chapel Hill and current James Beard Award finalist, believes that each of us is one of them.
Reusing gives us more than 130 recipes in her cookbook Cooking in the Moment: A Year of Seasonal Recipes, but only a few of those recipes were culled from the Lantern's menu. Instead, Reusing focuses upon the kinds of foods grown and raised in the Triangle and the times of year that each particular bounty is available. The book might be better kept in the bag one takes to the market than on the kitchen bookshelf.
Cooking in the Moment is organized into sections for each season, within which Reusing provides recipes and information keyed almost week by week to the Central North Carolina schedule of what's fresh. It reads like a culinary treasure map that leads from the farm to one's plate. And there's no reason to be intimidated by that.
"The person I'm writing for is the person who once said to me in front of a big pile of turnips at the farmers market, 'Those look beautiful, but I just wouldn't know what to do with them,'" Reusing said in a phone conversation from the Lantern kitchen last week, above the din of sashimi prep and entrées being plated.
Under the dateline "Saturday morning, February," Reusing waxes on the noble and underestimated turnip: "Turnips are one of those vegetables that tend to hang around until the end of the market, sometimes making the trip back to the farm to become supper for the pigs." On the next page she offers the recipe for "turnip soup with rosemary and black pepper," the ingredients list of which is cross-referenced to her homemade chicken stock instructions and the best local supplier for Carolina Gold rice grits.
Reusing wants to show the turnip-intimidated the light. "It's almost this mantra of people at the farmers market, where they're buying like one or two tomatoes. They just feel like, because of Food TV or foodie-ism, we're surrounded by people who know more about food than we do. And there's this ratcheting up of food as a kind of acquisition rather than something that's pleasurable. This climate has created this thing that we're somehow afraid to just cook dinner."
Inserted among the recipes are seasonal and instructional anecdotes from Reusing's own food journal, such as her turnip tale. But these aren't highfalutin reminiscences of bygone family meals or fulsome gushing about visits to restaurants one needs a second mortgage to visit. In good anecdotal prose, she tells you how to grill steaks for guests, cook greens even if you aren't so fond of them, and pack fresh ingredients for a week of meals at the beach.
"I wanted the book to feel journal-like without having the quality of a literal journal where you're saying, 'Today I picked the most tender salad greens,'" says Reusing, affecting a hoity-toity accent. "At home, I just try to write down dinners that I make, because you forget. You're like 'What was that thing we had with the chicken and the fennel?'"
Reusing defines key locavore terms such as "farm shares," "old breed chicken," "pantry meal" and the seemingly obvious "grass-fed" in brief tales of her connection to real farmers, rather than in dry textbook sidebars. And you get occasional insight into the running of the Lantern and Reusing's home kitchen as well.
She gives contact information for many of the farmers she mentions throughout Cooking in the Moment in the sources section at the back. The most experienced local food shopper and the grocery-goer with unfulfilled intentions will want to have a highlighter in hand while scanning this listing of small family farms and suppliers of ingredients within the Triangle area.
Reusing laughs about the eccentric variety in her listing, "I don't know that there's another book out right now that's going to have high-end Spanish anchovies and lard-fried Pennsylvania Dutch potato chips."
John Kernick's gorgeous photographs celebrate the beauty of these ingredients and the dishes without treating them like precious artifacts. Thick chocolate hunks and muscadine grapes seem as easily strewn across one's own cutting board as Reusing's, and her baked beans with smoked bacon looks like it should be cooling on one's countertop before one's family attacks it with relish.
Kernick's two-page spread of 27 varieties of heirloom apples from a Pittsboro orchard—none of which you'll find in a grocery store aisle—is worth a dog ear in its own right. Hand-lettered tags note the whimsical names of the varieties. What does a "July-August-Go-No-Further" apple taste like, anyway? Is it the best kind to go into the "skillet apples and onions" recipe?
Cooking in the Moment is completely approachable, a spirit that also emanates from the Lantern restaurant. "People bring us food a lot, to the back door. We've met some really great friends and suppliers that way. And we have probably 60 people that we buy from, so we meet a lot of people that way," Reusing notes.
Underneath the scrumptious recipes and eye-popping photos, those connections are what her book is all about. "This was designed to give impromptu, in-the-moment examples of how to cook seasonally. It doesn't have to be this kind of act of purity or of rigor. It can just be pleasurable and bring so much more to your diet when you can connect to people growing food nearby."