`The Gardner's Table' by noted baker, Joe Ortiz and agricultural academic, Richard Merrill attracted me with Ortiz' name, known from his two excellent book collaborations on baking. And, I was immediately impressed by some of the novel graphic culinary material. Closer reading showed me that the horticultural material was of an equally high quality.
While I have read and reviewed hundreds of cookbooks and am much more familiar with the culinary content of this book, I have read a few gardening books in my time and turned a few clods of dirt in summers past, so I am not a complete newby with the gardening advice. I say this because it may have influenced my impression that the gardening advice is a lot stronger than the culinary advice. It may simply be that I am much more familiar with the culinary material, so it impresses me less. That being said, I will summarily say that I think one will have to look far and wide to find a book that does as good a job as combining these two closely related disciplines. I have reviewed only two, `The Arrows Cookbook' by culinary professionals who are horticultural amateurs with a good sized kitchen garden in Maine, and `Oriental Vegetables' by Joy Larkcom who seems to be an especially talented amateur at both cooking and gardening. Both are good books in their own little worlds, but neither can hold a candle to the wide world opened by this excellent volume.
The book is organized with alternating horticultural and culinary chapters where each author discusses his specialities at a pretty high level of expertise. There is no dumbing up of the material here. There are a few weak attempts to show similarities between culinary and horticultural techniques as in the analogous methods for producing a stock and a compost tea. These are cute, but the real common platform for the two disciplines is nutrition. How do you get the greatest yield of nutrients out of either a patch of ground or a batch of cooked veggies?
There are four major chapters, each beginning with a horticultural exposition followed by a culinary exposition. The first chapter may have the most important horticultural section, as it deals with climate and microclimates, choosing the best plants, planning your plantings, starting seedlings, planting in season, and rotating crops around your garden. One of the symptoms that this is not rote gardening advice is the agonizing over interpreting all the various planting zones. There are three with very different criteria and the most common, the USDA scheme based on the number of warm days can be very misleading. The culinary section to the first chapter is a bit weak and until I got to the second chapter, I thought maybe gardener Merrill was doing all the heavy lifting in this book.
The second chapter begins with a horticultural section devoted exclusively to getting to know your soil and improving it. In this chapter, the culinary section really picks up and offers us something really new. The section is primarily about pantry preparations such as gremolata, bouquet garni, harissa, fines herbes, and lots and lots of vinaigrettes. The high point of the culinary section in this chapter is what is called `The Mesclun Wheel' that places greens on a circular scale of most tart to sweetest with dandelion being at the sharpest and butterhead lettuce being the mildest. This would be interesting in itself, but the author doubles the interest by plotting vinaigrette ingredients against types of greens to show how to match up dressings with greens. This is the kind of wisdom that is rarely so effectively summarized and which is commonly acquired only after years of reading and experimenting with salads. This is the kind of schema a cook probably pulls forward in his mind when they plan a salad based on available ingredients.
The third chapter opens with every organic gardener's favorite topic, composting, and its related topics, humus and mulching. Having taken a few turns with a compost pile and having read a few Rodale Press items on the subject, I was still surprised to find something new to me, which was vermicomposting, or creating an environment which encourages worms to actively work on composting your biological waste. The culinary section deals with stocks and soups. The things which distinguish this section from your average introduction to soups are the discussions of combining vegetables to get the healthiest result and tips on preparing to cook in bulk. I find the emphasis on steaming as a method to preserve nutrients in vegetables to be pretty depressing, but the author redeems himself a bit by pointing out that cooking by several different methods is superior to eating raw vegetables, as cooking releases the nutrients in most veggies and makes them more easily available to our digestion.
The opening to the fourth chapter deals with garden pests, both animal and vegetable, and plants and animals that can assist in the battle with pests. For a book that is sharing its 470 pages between horticultural and culinary material, this discussion is remarkably detailed, including sidebars on equipment and techniques for examining garden fauna and a display of the life cycles of some of the most common pesky insects. This book would be superior on its own, but it enhances its value immeasurably by offering a detailed chapter by chapter bibliography which has more details on the many different topics touched upon in this book.
The second half of the book is something of an encyclopedia of the growing and eating attributes of the plants most commonly grown in the United States. Even this section has its pleasures to the casual reader, as it is very nicely organized by type of plant rather than by the alphabet.
To an old `Whole Earth Catalog' hippie like me, this book is pure gold. To anyone interested in both subjects but who is weak in one, I highly recommend this book!