Crowd members in a University of Vermont conference room one recent Sunday afternoon started their final workshop at the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont’s winter conference by sniffing sassafras root and chewing on juniper berries.
“This will get your senses going,” said Eva Sommaripa, the workshop co-presenter and legendary Massachusetts farmer who has a devoted following among Boston-area chefs.
Sommaripa and her farm are the focus of a recently published book by friend and fellow presenter Didi Emmons, a Boston chef, cooking teacher and award-winning cookbook author.
“Wild Flavors: One Chef’s Transformative Year Cooking from Eva’s Farm” (Chelsea Green, 2011) shares Sommaripa’s quirky but thoroughly commonsense approach to food and eating — and life.
“Like a good relationship, there needs to be an intimacy with food,” Sommaripa says. “Shopping in most supermarkets is like consuming food blindfolded: We don’t know the history or life of these foods.”
The book is filled with the poetry of seasons spent on Eva’s Farm, but Emmons also offers practical advice and recipes for conjuring delicious food from unexpected places. “Wild Flavors” just landed a finalist spot in the Food Matters category of the highly regarded International Association of Culinary Professionals 2012 Food Writing Awards.
Workshop attendees heard from Emmons about how she first visited Sommaripa on her coastal farm and gradually learned to cook with ingredients including juniper berries (“the foodies’ chocolate chip”), chickweed (“stellaria, or star, our own version of Brad Pitt”) and spruce tips (“a lime and a nut wrapped into one”).
I want to love them all, but my own experience with wild foods has been mixed. I love crunchy, succulent purslane and the lemony bite of wood sorrel, but I remain unconvinced of the edible merits of some, such as the invasive known as Japanese knotweed, although Sommaripa uses it in a reportedly delectable Invasive Sorbet.
Beyond the wild, Sommaripa also raises a wide variety of herbs and vegetables, but even there she finds ways to love cultivated plants beyond when most people would cut them back or compost them: after they’ve bolted, gone to seed or grown old and tough.
She also eats parts of plants that others might not, including tulip petals (“strew them in a salad and consider them a brightly colored lettuce leaf”) and rose petals, which Emmons bakes into a tea-party-perfect pound cake that she had brought for workshop attendees to sample.
Since I do not have bags of beachside wild rose petals in my freezer as Emmons and Sommaripa do, I had to settle on making another cake from the cookbook with parsnips, an ingredient that does exist in wild abundance in Vermont farm storage bins in February.
Emmons explains in the book that she came up with the recipe the “year Eva grew parsnips the size of small children.” It’s a great use for parsnips of all sizes, with a result very similar to carrot cake, which you easily could turn it into if you’re parsnip-averse.
But I urge you to give parsnips a try. The winter section of the book argues eloquently on their “rich, nutty, creamy, sweet” behalf. If you give that local, cellared parsnip another chance, I promise to do the same this spring for Japanese knotweed.
Parsnip Tea Cake
From “Wild Flavors” by Didi Emmons (Chelsea Green, 2011)
2 large eggs
Three-quarters cup extra-virgin olive oil (or try local sunflower oil)
One-half cup buttermilk or yogurt
1 3/4 cup sugar (I used a bit less and next time will sub in some maple syrup)
1 3/4 cups grated parsnip (about 3 medium, wash but no need to peel)
1 1/4 cups unbleached white flour
1 1/4 cups whole wheat flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon grated nutmeg (preferably freshly grated)
1 cup chopped walnuts
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Oil or spray two 8-inch loaf pans. (I used 2 8-inch rounds instead.)
2. Whisk together eggs, oil, buttermilk, sugar and parsnip in a large bowl. In a separate bowl, whisk together white flour, whole wheat flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, cinnamon and nutmeg. Using a large wooden spoon, mix dry ingredients into wet ingredients. Fold in walnuts, mixing until just combined. Do not overmix.
3. Pour cake batter into greased pans. Bake for about 45 minutes (35-40 for 8-inch round pans), or until a knife inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean. Cool for 10 minutes in pans, then remove and set on racks to cool completely.