15 April 2010

Review: New Urban Farmer by Celia Brooks Brown

When Quadrille offered New Urban Farmer by Celia Brooks Brown for review, I jumped at the chance because it sounded exactly like the sort of thing I love to read, although I didn't expect the book to be that useful to me. I thought it would be a back-to-the-land type of instruction manual with info on raising backyard chickens and canning vegetables and that sort of thing. Well, it turns out I was right and wrong. Self-sufficiency manual this is not--but I did indeed love reading it (more than I even expected).

New Urban Farmer is described as "...a year-round gardening book that is part-journal, part-gardening manual and part-recipe book with one aim: to inspire you to cultivate and enjoy your own delicious homegrown produce."

Talk about ambitious. And she succeeds.

I loved reading Brown's personal stories of life at her London allotment garden. I could easily delve into an entire book of such anecdotes, and I wish there had been more of them. Not exactly a social butterfly (especially when I'm digging in the dirt), I never thought I was the type to enjoy the public aspect of allotment gardening. But after reading about the author's garden friends and neighbours, and her interaction with the community at large, I suddenly find myself wishing for an allotment of my own (never mind that I already have a large yard). Journal: check.

I couldn't try as many of the (all-vegetarian) recipes in the book as I wanted, since they rely on fresh, local ingredients and there's not too much available around here at this time of year. But they all looked delicious, and I did get to try the ones for Pea + Feta Egg Cups (p 72) and Smoky Chard with Chickpeas (p 39). The Pea + Feta Egg Cups were fantastic, even with my substitution of dried spearmint for fresh. They're easy to make and are ideal for breakfast/brunch or as a side at dinner (maybe with a salad or some form of potatoes). Even better, they're just as good at room temperature as they are hot. I'll definitely make those again. The chickpea recipe is a little on the vague side (see below), but it's not really a dish you can ruin. And it's delicious: smoky and tangy and savoury. I have the crazy notion that some bacon crumbled into it would make it even better, so I think I'll try that with the leftovers. I'll be going to the recipes in this book again and again as things come into season. Can't wait. Recipe book: check.

But it was the gardening-manual portion of the book that I really fell in love with. Every bit of it was completely inspiring. I started fantasizing about growing all the things the author talks about, from asparagus to rhubarb and beyond. The fact that I'm within walking distance of a farmers' market, Parkview Neighbourhood Garden, and several supermarkets and ethnic groceries doesn't put any kind of dent in my newfound enthusiasm. Neither does the fact that I have limited sunlight in my backyard, most of it already given over to flower beds. The book's not just inspiring--there's plenty of good advice, as well (though by no means comprehensive, as the author herself points out). You'll find info on growing (in beds and containers), keeping costs down, when to sow and when to harvest (remember to adjust for your own climate)--even foraging. This is my new favourite garden book. Garden manual: check check.

As for the book itself, it's nicely designed, on heavy paper (this isn't a book to read once and put on the shelf) with lots of full colour photos. And the photos have captions! Informative ones! It's amazing how often captions seem to be an afterthought, or are overlooked entirely. My one quibble: it's hard to keep the book open (say to a recipe) even with a weight meant for that purpose. I'm afraid you might be in binding-breaking territory.

I think everyone should get this book. It's a fun, inspiring read and you'll learn things. Useful things. Writers like Celia Brooks Brown deserve all the support they can get.

Smoky Chard with Chickpeas

A quick supper--serve as is or with couscous or rice.

Drain the contents of a tin of chickpeas, then stir-fry with chopped garlic in olive oil. Add a few handfuls of shredded chard with a little salt and pepper and stir until wilted. Stir in some pimentón (smoked paprika), then add a squeeze of lemon juice.

Serve topped with yoghurt flavoured with lemon, salt and ground cumin.

More info on the author here.
Info on buying the book here.

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