Saturday, March 8, 2014

Cookery Bookery: The Fresh Honey Cookbook

Title: The Fresh Honey Cookbook: 84 Recipes from a Beekeeper’s Kitchen
Author: Laurey Masterton
Publisher: Storey Publishing, LLC
Publication Date: September 10th, 2013
Read: March 2014
Where It Came From: eARC from publisher via NetGalley*
Genre: Cookbook
Rating: 3.5 Honey Varietals

I enjoy honey. It is known. Cookbooks featuring this delicious sweetener are something I naturally gravitate toward, and thus it is no surprise that I find myself reviewing this one. Unlike The Honey Connoisseur, which I reviewed previously, this one is first and foremost about cooking things. While it does provide some introductory information about bees, honey, and bee-keeping, it’s not as technical and super-detailed as Connoisseur. The Fresh Honey Cookbook definitely promotes an appreciation of all things bee and their relation to the environment, but the emphasis is on recipes.

The introduction relating author Laurey Masterton’s start in cooking and how she became involved with bee-keeping managed the magic trick of both making it seem like an achievable hobby, and also illustrating that there’s more to it than one might expect (as another beekeeper admonished her, “You can’t just leave them [the bees] alone, you know! … you need to help them. They are living beings, not lawn ornaments!”). Her experiences and how she faced the challenges of bee-keeping inspired me to entertain thoughts of one day keeping bees. Hmm, I wonder if there are zoning regulations against it in the city…what would Northwest Phoenix honey taste like?

Before getting into the recipes, she includes a short guide to tasting and analyzing honey, based on how it looks, smells, and tastes. She’s got a nifty, detailed flavor wheel to help readers pick out the nuances of flavor present in honey—starting at the middle of the wheel, you choose the big category you think the honey you’re tasting would fit in (let’s say it’s “fresh,” for example). From there, you move out to the middle section of the wheel, and choose which flavor within the fresh category best describes your honey (in this case, “refreshing” or “citrus fruit”). If it’s citrusy, we then proceed to the edge of the flavor wheel, where we are able to choose between lemon, orange, and grapefruit to characterize our honey’s flavor. Citrus flavors in honey might be fairly easy to pinpoint without the wheel, but for some of the other flavor profiles, like “woody,” “warm,” and “vegetal,” this is definitely a good tool to have.

After that primer, we move without further ado into the recipes, which comprise the bulk of the book. Now, if you’re hoping for a book of recipes that feature honey as a main ingredient, this may or may not leave you satisfied. Most of the recipes here include honey in them, but her other focus in gathering recipes for this book was to create ones highlighting foods that wouldn’t exist without bees to pollinate them. I think this is a pretty cool idea, and very enlightening, as so much of our food supply is dependent on bees. It’s one of those things that makes sense and I knew in the back of my mind, but I didn’t really consciously grasp the full extent of how important bees are to food production until I had it written out on a page right before my eyes. It makes you think about your eating a little differently when you know that every third bite you eat would not exist if not for honeybees!

The recipes are divided into sections for each of the four seasons (yay, seasonality!), and a different honey varietal is featured each month. Each seasonal section starts with a page describing what’s going on in the hive during that time of the year, and the monthly varietals showcase all sorts of honeys, from the more standard and easy-to-find types (orange blossom, tupelo), to those you might have to venture beyond your local grocery store to find (sourwood, avocado), to the very unique (chestnut). The author notes that you aren’t obligated to use the specific varietal in the recipes for a certain month, and that you should feel free to experiment to your tastes and what’s available. She also mentions that what’s in season in her part of the world may not necessarily be in season where you live, and you should not feel constrained to make certain recipes in the months/seasons she has listed them, but rather adjust your cooking to what’s locally available to you at a given time.

The header text for each recipe is straightforward, mentioning the inspiration for the recipe or the memories she associates with it, and maybe a tip or two regarding cooking or serving it. It’s not wildly inspiring or full of super-evocative imagery like some cookbooks I’ve read, but instead it conveys more of a sedate, quieter, slowed-down-country-living sort of inspiration, and it feels like you’re being given a little window on the author’s life in the mountains of North Carolina. The ingredients are clearly listed for each recipe (with the ones that wouldn’t exist without honeybees in bold), and the steps are simple and straightforward. There are many lovely color photos throughout the book of bees, bee-keeping, and honey in jars, and even some to represent the recipes. By now you know this is a sticking point with me—I want pictures of the things I am to cook. Less than half of the recipes included in the book had a photo to go with them (I counted), and I really would’ve liked more. Don’t get me wrong, I love the nature images, too, and the photos of honey are important in showing the differences between the varietals. But when the food is as beautifully prepared and presented as it is here, why not show more of it?

Despite my desire for more pictures to whet my visual appetite for these recipes, there were plenty that sounded enticing with or without photo accompaniment. I’m looking forward to trying the Grilled Pineapple Skewers at my next barbecue (mmm, juicy), the Mango-Key Lime Slushes sound like a perfect summer treat, the Fresh Pea Soup with Minted Cream might reinvigorate my efforts to recreate a mint pea soup I once had at the Bellagio in Las Vegas, the Wild Salmon with a Smoky Onion Crust actually made me salivate a little, and the Watermelon Salad featuring my favorite kalamata olives had me thinking about picnics. Is it any surprise that of these highlights I picked out, three of them had photos illustrating the final result? Of course not. You know what they say about people feasting with their eyes before their stomachs…

As you may have gathered from my sampling of recipe offerings listed above, there are recipes of all sorts filed under each month and season—drinks, desserts, meat dishes, veggies, mains, sides, appetizers… To my delight, I found in the back of the book a handy section that arranges all the recipes (with page numbers) into courses, in case you’re looking for, say, a dessert, and don’t want to flip through the whole book. Very useful! Interspersed amongst the recipes are pages that enlighten us as to the roles of bees within the colony, the substances bees make, and aspects of bee-keeping. Short factoids related to bees, honey, and recipe tips are sprinkled throughout the book, too. There is also a page with ideas of what you can do to help honeybees, and after the recipes are a master list of foods pollinated by them, suggestions on where to find specific honey varietals (including places on the internet), and books suggested for further reading.

Overall, I thought this was a really nice cookbook. Did it immediately whip me into an inspired frenzy of cooking in my kitchen? Maybe not, but the slowed down, relaxed approach was inspiring in a different way, and I found many recipes in this book that intrigued me and that I would like to try. Who knows? Maybe someday I’ll even have beehives of my own as a result of reading it. So while this cookbook might not be on my urgent to-buy list, it is one that I would be very happy to add to my collection someday. Recommended for those who like fresh, home-style food but are not averse to a little adventure in their palates, and especially for those who are into the local, sustainable food movement

*As ever, much as we are grateful for the copy, our review is uninfluenced by its source.


Susan said...

The flavor wheel sounds like a genius variation of dichotomous keys. And exactly what I would need in beginning to learn about honey (since previous efforts to interest me have resulted in several jars of honey whose differences are unknown to me).

Alyssa L. said...

Yes! I look forward to trying it, since usually my honey-tasting notes just involve labels of "yummy," "yummier," and "yummiest."

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