Book Club Tuesday: Outside

Even though the air is getting much crisper as these November days shorten, when I walked my daughter to school this morning, I did as I usually do, I kept on walking. Maybe it was the cloudless blue sky or the bright sun that beckoned me forward on this cool morning. Growing up, I lived an in-between experience – a weekday city girl while being a weekend country kid. Sure, it was the ‘80s, and like many parents, my mom would push us out the front door to play outside, but it was a different kind of outside to the one we’d enjoy at my grandparent’s farm. The farm was quiet. It lacked all the city noises that reminded me that I was never truly alone with my thoughts. Being on the farm also connected the beautiful things growing in my grandparent’s kitchen garden to what would find its way onto the kitchen table at mealtime. From a very young age, I loved being outdoors and, while I had forgotten about it for a time, I’ve recently started to push myself outside again.

It also doesn’t hurt that I’ve had a new book as a companion – and, while Gill Meller’s newest book is technically classified as a cookbook, I feel that it offers so much more than just recipes to make. Outside presents a way of living that includes nature – Meller shows home cooks that it’s less “home” and more “cook” that’s happening when we make meals on a barbecue or on a fire. Food is a great connector of many things, and while technology has made aspects of modern life more convenient, it has inconveniently weakened our connection to the natural world around us. I appreciate Meller’s approach to cooking because it’s as I said in my review of his last book, Root, Stem, Leaf, Flower, “[h]is recipes tell a story about the landscape and reveal the important connection between the plate on the supper table and the natural world.” Unlike his previous book, Root, Stem, Leaf, Flower, the ingredients used throughout Outside are more in keeping with his other books where animal proteins are used in roughly equal amounts to produce. However, while Outside is not a veg-focused book, I found many intriguing and delicious recipes to try.

Kale with Halva and Raisins, p.179

In a recent conversation I had with someone regarding whether recipe head notes are honestly needed or appreciated by home cooks, we decided they are. To me, they are crucial because they offer an insight into why an author thought to put a particular recipe into their book, or why they used a particular ingredient over another. In rare cases, authors use the head notes to tell a story connecting themselves to the food they create. Maybe this is why I adore Meller’s books as much as I do – he never squanders the opportunity to offer insight, tell a story or even, to be funny. His writing is clever and witty, but most important of all original. As with his other books, the photography of Andrew Montgomery pairs so well with Meller’s recipes and overall vision. Thankfully the publishers haven’t been stingy with the layout, for there are as many beautiful outdoor scenes throughout the book as there are delicious-looking photos accompanying the recipes.

Was I worried when I received a copy of Outside from the publisher knowing that I can barely strike a match to light a candle, let alone tend to an open fire outdoors? Heck, if I am being really honest, I will even admit to you all that I don’t even own a barbecue. No matter, as I work through my own issues surrounding accidentally blowing something up or burning something down, Meller’s wild way of cooking is not only focused on actual cooking. There are ideas for picnics – making the food at home, then packing it to take on an adventure is certainly something I can do. As in his other books, he offers wonderful fresh assemblages of raw produce which draw bounty from whatever the season should be, which can be prepared out-of-doors too. Meller offers no rules, so if you want to make something and enjoy it around the kitchen table, that’s okay.

Spiced Lentil Soup with Crunchy Buckwheat, p.277

The recipes are organized into 6 different sections: 1) Cooking Over Fire (Meat, Fish & Shellfish, Vegetables & Fruit), 2) Eating Out (Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter), 3) Camping Out (Breakfast, Lunch, Supper), 4) Wild Things, 5) Picnics (Meadow, Garden, Woodland, Seaside), and 6) An Early Autumn Feast. As the book offers home cooks a gentle beckoning to the world beyond our homes, through the openings to each of the sections, Meller’s stories not only offer guidance or tender and poignant remembrances of his times spent outside but a careful appeal towards preservation and conservation. What Meller is doing with his books like Root, Stem, Leaf, Flower or Outside is to help home cooks to not only develop an appreciation of and for nature but to not become desensitized by modernity.

One of my favourite recipes from the book is for the Kale with Halva and Raisins. If you’re like me then adding halva (a sweet, thick fudge-like treat made from water, sugar, flour/tahini, nuts, or seeds – my preference is for the tahini-based variety) to a savory dish doesn’t seem obvious. But as Meller tells us in his head notes: “[kale leaves] have a deep, iron-y flavour with a hint of bitter (it’s not lettuce). I find kale irresistible, but occasionally it likes something sweet to carry it over the finish line. That’s where halva comes in” (178). The accompanying dressing – full of tahini, apple cider vinegar, garlic, honey, and olive oil – has just the right amount of tangy-sweetness that is perfect for this salad.

Lemon and Bay Rice Pudding with Brown Sugar Baked Apples, p.139

Saturday mornings are a time for my family and I to listen to a replay of a Casey Kasem countdown from the 1980s on the radio while enjoying a quiet breakfast together. On one of these mornings, my daughter and I made a batch of the Cheese and Herb Scones to have alongside some hard-boiled eggs. This recipe makes excellent use of any garden herbs you might have – we used a combination of dill, chives, parsley, and basil. The scones were tender and delicious – I managed to save some to enjoy with dinner that evening – a Spiced Lentil Soup w/ Crunchy Buckwheat (also a recipe from the book).

There is something about the intriguing way Meller pairs ingredients together that makes the food even more delicious. Take the lemon and bay he puts together for flavouring rice pudding. Bay leaves are sweet and earthy which seemed to brighten with the addition of the lemon zest and juice. Rice pudding is such a comforting dessert, only to be made more so here when served with the brown sugar baked apples. While Meller has baked his apples in the embers of a fire, I opted to bake mine in the oven. A perfect dessert for a cool autumn evening.

Cheese and Herb Scones, p.251

As my family and I have been going outside more to enjoy the beautiful Nova Scotia coastlines as well as the wooded trails around our neighbourhood, Gill Meller’s latest book, Outside, has been a companion. Even though I am not yet comfortable cooking outside, as we walk the beaches, I have started to look for places where one could have a small fire. Cooking and enjoying meals outdoors offers a different way to contemplate our existence – to experience the landscape in a way that’s removed from the noise modern life has brought.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank Hardie Grant USA, Quadrille Publishing and Raincoast Books for providing me with a free, review copy of this book. I did not receive monetary compensation for my post, and all thoughts and opinions expressed are my own. 

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