A plant lover’s delight

THE BERKELEY BOWL COOKBOOK: RECIPES INSPIRED BY THE EXTRAORDINARY PRODUCE OF CALIFORNIA’S MOST ICONIC MARKET

By Laura McLively (Berkeley, Calif.: Parallax Press, 2018, 216 pp., $34.95, hardcover)

It all started with an African horned melon.

This peculiar orange fruit captured the interest of Laura McLively during a shopping trip to Berkeley Bowl, the revered East Bay supermarket known for its vast selection of produce. When she first encountered the spiky native of sub-Saharan Africa, she did no more than smell it, and a whole decade passed before she finally took the plunge of buying one and tasting it.

The experience was revelatory. Inspired by the melon’s exceptional flavor, McLively embarked upon a personal quest “to try every unfamiliar fruit and vegetable from Berkeley Bowl and to create a recipe honoring each of their unique qualities.”

The dietician and food writer began documenting her exploratory efforts on a blog, and now, just a few years later, she’s taken the project to the next level by publishing “The Berkeley Bowl Cookbook.” Replete with alluring photographs, this attractive volume offers 96 recipes — such as the Kiwano Cooler, which incorporates the African horned melon’s tart, green innards into a fizzy, gin-based cocktail.

Most of the produce featured in McLively’s book would be hard to find at any conventional American supermarket, and the fact that all of it has graced the aisles of Berkeley Bowl serves as a testament to the pioneering spirit of owners Glenn and Diane Yasuda. The husband-and-wife team first opened their store in a former bowling alley back in 1977, then relocated to a larger space some 20 years later, and after another decade launched a second location nearby. All the while, they’ve remained committed to procuring the best produce they can from both local wholesalers and small farms.

McLively includes a short section describing the Yasudas’ endearing story, but the central focus of her book is encouraging culinary experimentation with uncommon fruits and vegetables. She organizes these into seven categories (“Leaves,” “Flowers, Seeds, and Pods,” “Spores and Succulents,” “Stems,” “Roots and Tubers,” “Savory Fruits,” and “Sweet Fruits”) while providing a full range of appetizers, soups, salads, entrees, desserts and drinks. Steadfast meat lovers should be forewarned that this is essentially a vegetarian cookbook, although a number of entries do call for eggs and cheese abounds.

McLively asserts that with some perseverance you should be able to obtain the necessary ingredients most anywhere in America, but people who live near Berkeley Bowl are obviously best poised to take advantage of her cookbook. As one of those people, I thought I’d bike on over and put a few recipes to the test.

Just deciding what to try proved daunting, faced with such unknowns as rau ram, malanga and rambutan (a spicy herb, a starchy root and a juicy fruit, respectively).

Eventually, I turned to the natural choice of daikon (radish); I’ve been seeking new ways to prepare it, and as McLively points out, it’s pictured in the Berkeley Bowl logo.

Her Savory Daikon Pancakes with Ginger Maple Syrup proved a winner. The essence of the pungent root came through nicely, not overwhelming or even assertive, but definitely making its presence known in the slabs of fried batter. And the ginger maple syrup supplied a fun complement.

For companion dishes, I settled on Grilled Cheese with Mizuna, Dates, and Goat Brie as well as Toasted Salad Savoy with Pears and Goat Cheese. Both were excellent. With regard to the former, although the mizuna did add a welcome crunch, the taste of this Asian mustard green was difficult to detect underneath the dominant brie and dates.

But in the latter, the featured ingredient took center stage, as the Salad Savoy delivered a pleasant flavor, a satisfying chewiness, and a striking color combination of green and purple.

In total, I was quite pleased with the meal, and I feel confident I can return to “The Berkeley Bowl Cookbook” for those special occasions that call for gustatory adventure. I might even find some recipes to mix into my regular rotation, despite appearances that this elegant tome seems best positioned to serve as a gourmet guide for daring foodies. Either way, it’s yet another excuse to patronize one of the last and best independent supermarkets.

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