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Food and Drink

Changing times, changing cookbook

Co-op staff, volunteers test venerable recipe book one recipe at a time to bring it up to modern expectations

BRATTLEBORO—The 13-year-old Brattleboro Food Co-op Cook Book is getting a complete makeover.

Apart from the exacting detail of assessing the ingredients in more than 250 recipes contributed by a variety of people and organizations, the task is made even more challenging by how much food tastes and recipe styles have evolved since the book was published.

The cookbook, published in 1999 to mark the 25th anniversary of the store, was reprinted in 2002. None of the 2,000 copies from the two printings are left for sale.

As the cookbook revisions proceed, the recipes that make the cut will be posted online. The new published edition is planned for 2015, but there will be an e-book before that.

For more than two years, teams of shareholders and other volunteers, led by the Co-op’s Demo Coordinator Julie Robinson, have deleted recipes from the book, including most vendor entries and a majority of the others based on the judgments, tests and tastes of the co-op teams.

The decisions also include customer comments, invited at the site during store food demonstrations, as well as other shareholders who have made their feelings known.

Recipes are demo-ed regularly at the store and also tested at home by shareholders and others, with ingredients organized in boxes in Robinson’s office and a complete record of what comes off the store shelves kept. After food is prepared at home, a taste test is done at the store.

Robinson says September is the goal for getting a revised index up on the web, as well as the tested and approved recipes, bit by bit.

The current index is a challenge, with incorrect page numbers, sometimes no page numbers, and a grouping system that defies understanding.

From the vague to the bland

Robinson wanted to make it clear that the eliminated recipes served very well for 13 years and that changes in food culture and consistency of text were the real motives for redoing the book. She wanted to make sure former contributors felt good about their contributions.

But in evaluating the recipes, the cookbook revisionists have eliminated more than 80 from the pages.

The recipe for Baked Apple Turnover didn’t make the cut. “First of all,” Robinson points out, “it isn’t a turnover.”

The Grandpa Tom’s Cereal recipe calls for 10 scoops of rolled oats and 10 scoops of soy nuts, roast and unsalted. This recipe feeds about 50, and Robinson thinks the cookbook is not the place for it.

The recipe for Red Hot Green Beans causes Robinson to make an incredulous face. “It’s unpalatable,” she said.

The introduction to the recipe includes this sentence: “Since it is made in the microwave, the beans remain green and crunchy.” Meanwhile, the instructions include microwaving the beans, after they’ve been dressed with an assortment of flavorings, on high for 15 minutes.

Robinson notes that 15 minutes of microwave cooking is hardly a timesaver, since beans can be cooked using almost any method in 15 minutes, not to mention what 15 minutes of microwaving does to a string bean.

The author of the recipe for Rye Sour Soup speculates that this hearty fare enlivened the “romantic Polish Hussars who could dance all night and fight gallantly all day.” But the recipe takes four days from start to finish.

As for the tapenade, introduced as “[a] cold black sauce from the south of France,” the recipe includes the classic ingredients: anchovies, capers, garlic, lemon juice, black pepper, and olive oil.

But the recipe calls for a can of tuna and ½ cup of cognac to be filtered through a paper round on top of the jarred sauce.

Canned tuna is not traditional in tapenade, Robinson points out. “The sodium content of this oozy goozy version is astronomical.”

And, she adds, “That’s not what I do with cognac,” making a to-your-health gesture.

The Baked Parmesan Delight fails several of the new standards.

Customer comments called the recipe bland, even though ingredients include between 15 and 20 cloves of garlic.

Robinson makes note of the 28-ounce can of diced tomatoes on the list but suggested that the 4 to 6 sliced zucchini were probably the villains, given their tendency to shed water and turn to mush in casseroles.

One Pot Chicken and Sausage also failed to make the grade because of its vague instructions.

Robinson, with good humor, discusses the elimination or renaming of any recipes with “balls” as part of the title, including “Tofu Balls,” “Lamb and Olive Balls,” and a variety of cheese entries.

The ones that stay

Many recipes will remain, either as they are or tweaked.

Robinson describes the recipe for Captain Chicken as “an absolutely delicious, anybody-can-do curried chicken dish with onions, mushrooms and peppers over Basmati rice and topped with currents and almonds.”

“We all got a hoot out of imagining this caped crusader of free range chickens and organic poultry food,” Robinson says.

She added, “We also made the recipe gluten free by substituting snack chips whizzed in the food processor instead of bread crumbs.”

As for the Polenta with Gorgonzola and Walnuts, she said, “We made this for one of our wine and appetizer events, and it was amazing. It can be made even more quickly with pre-made polenta.”

And she was effervescent about Auntie Dot’s Golden Gingerbread with Lemon Sauce: “Another really beautiful recipe. We added some fresh ginger juice in place of some of the water to ‘up’ the gingery-ness, and the lemon sauce just made it spectacular.”

Robinson and her demo staff do six demonstrations a week at the Co-op, using ingredients from the store, cooking in the kitchen in Robinson’s office, and then setting up at the store’s demo corner by the bulk department.

Demonstration recipes are generally — but not always — seasonal and based on products on sale. Friday is always no-gluten day.

Customers gather behind a tape (courtesy of state liquor laws) on the second Friday of each month for a wine tasting with food, near the produce section.

On a Saturday afternoon demo in May, the co-op offered Springtime Chicken Fricassee, with asparagus, from the cookbook, which Robinson’s frequent demo colleague Rebecca Davis cooked in the morning.

Davis, who lives in Putney with her two children, used to work at the co-op and then left to do other things, including being the prep cook at T. J. Buckley’s on Elliot Street.

A relaxed and knowledgeable cook, Davis followed the recipe, along the way offering ironic commentary about the ingredients (such as “one cup of morels,” an expensive addition).

The author of the recipe writes in its introduction, “You can gather morels in the Vermont woods in the springtime, if you can find them before your neighbors do.”

There were no morels for sale that day, so Davis substituted large portobellos and small cremini, remarking that they would be more Mediterranean in flavor than other more obscure Asian varieties that are also available at the co-op.

While cooking, Davis speculated that the liquid-to-solid ratio was suspicious. But in the end, after following the directions precisely, the results were remarkably balanced and delicious, drawing a string of compliments from customers, who took small amounts of the chicken and asparagus and then did double takes as the flavors sank in.

A convert to healthy food

Robinson, 45, pretty and compact, approaches the editing task and the entire subject of natural/organic food with the zest of a convert.

“I saw a picture of myself at 39 when I weighed 211 pounds,” she said.

At that point, she said, she glommed onto to the beneficial reality of healthy eating and lost 70-plus pounds in different stages in a little more than a year.

Food played a peculiar role in her life growing up, for the same sorts of reasons — like issues of control — as eating does in most people’s lives.

Right after graduating from Syracuse University 24 years ago with a degree in art history, a friend who managed the Arlington (Mass.) Food Co-op offered her a job, and she has worked with natural foods ever since.

“I knew nothing about tofu or couscous. Salt, parsley, and bay leaves were the extent of my [experience] from growing up,” she said.

And it took her a long time, she reports, to understand what part food played in forming her personality, as well as her physical self.

“If you saw me eating Little Debbie cake rolls, you knew I was depressed,” she explained.

Nowadays she indulges from time to time in her favorite “organic junk food,” including Barbara’s Cheese Puffs, Lundberg Rice Chips, and Newman’s Own Espresso Chocolate Chip Cookies. She also mentioned that the first time she ever tasted tofu was in a chocolate mousse pie.

For all these reasons, Robinson, who’s been at the Co-op for four years and lives with her son Ben, 15, and daughter, Maggie, 12, in Northfield, Mass., appears to be the perfect person for the revision job. She also said that as the principal role model for her children, she is glad to be so entrenched in the natural-food movement.

She works and cooks in the kitchen/office/storage space behind the wine department, keeping the space in near military order, with boxes and files carefully labeled, as well as files similarly well ordered on her computer.

She also organizes the tasting tables and menus with Davis.

Belying her practical appearance at the store, Robinson’s small office cubicle sports a full-page fashion model advertisement from The New York Times.

She says she is mad about clothes and fashions and, from under her desk, she pulls out her red high-wedged shoes, the ones that she wore to work.

“I couldn’t work in these,” she says.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #155 (Wednesday, June 6, 2012).

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