Eating a (Complicated) Ecosystem

The Kitchen Ecosystem: Integrating Recipes to Create Delicious Meals, by Eugenia Bone, (Potter), 408 pages, 400+ recipes

The back cover of Kitchen Ecosystem observes that “Seasoned cooks know the paradox of great meals is this: the more you cook, the less you actually have to do to produce delicious food.” This is a premise I can embrace. Who wouldn’t want to produce delicious food while doing less? I was imagining simple, fresh recipes that I could work up when I get home from my commute at the end of a work day.

Unfortunately, there’s little in this book that will meet that need. What “do less” means in this context seems to be “do a whole lot of work using ingredients you already did a whole lot of work to produce.” In other words, the work seems doubled, not halved.

Perhaps I’m being unfair. The idea is that when one buys something fresh—a fruit, a vegetable, a cut of meat—one can use some of it fresh, preserve some of it, cook later recipes with the preserves, and whip up interesting concoctions (usually cocktails) using scraps. And the organization of the recipes is useful. They’re clustered alphabetically by key ingredients: Apples, Apricots, Artichokes, Asparagus, etc.

For someone like me who lives on the west coast, ingredients like these are easy to get fresh. Other key ingredient choices seem more quixotic: Currants (fresh, not dried), Duck, Figs, Lobster, Mussels. I don’t know which part of the country has fresh currents or where one can buy a duck one hasn’t shot one’s self. I’ve never had such a surfeit of lobster that I needed multiple recipes to use up the extra.

The Kitchen Ecosystem also presupposes a remarkably well-equipped kitchen, with recipes that call for canning jars (and know-how), food dehydrators, stovetop smokers, and several pounds of potter’s clay (for chicken baked in clay with onion sauce, which appears in the Onion chapter, not the Chicken one). Even if I had the time and desire to prepare them, many of these recipes would be out of my reach without several hundred dollars’ investment in new equipment.

The logic of the book also breaks down in places. In the Beef chapter there are recipes for Filet Mignon with Gorgonzola Sauce (sounds good, though not a new idea), Braised Beef Cheeks with Cloves, Veal Tail Stew with Potatoes, Canned Beef, Beef Cannelloni, Canned Beef Pot Pie, Beef Stock, Beef Stock with Poached Eggs and Meatballs, and a Bullshot Cocktail. But recipes for filet, beef cheeks, and veal tail all seem to presuppose that not only have I picked up fresh, grass-fed beef at the local farmers’ market, I’ve decided to splurge and buy half a cow, as well as the back end of a calf.

I have highlighted some recipes that seem reasonably straightforward and yummy: pestos made from asparagus, mushrooms, and carrot greens, procini salt and porcini butter. However, most of these are sides, condiments, or small bites; they won’t  work as entrees and would require buying ingredients in very small quantities.

Bottom line: if you’re an adventurous cook with a cutting-edge kitchen and you enjoy devoting hours to getting a complicated dish just right, you’ll enjoy this book. If you’re someone looking for fresh, fast meals for yourself and your family, you’re only going to find about a quarter of the book’s 400+ pages useful.

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