A new book by columnist Rachel Weston digs into New Jersey’s agricultural bounty.
It’s a book about cooking, not a cookbook, Rachel Weston explains. The author of New Jersey Fresh: Four Seasons from Farm to Table is underselling her contribution to the popular American Palate series. Her book is not only the ﬁrst of its kind within this regional collection, it stands alone as a thoughtful and engaging compendium of everything that bursts from the ground in the Garden State.
New Jersey Fresh begins by taking the reader inside the state’s farms and farmers markets, proﬁling people who have dedicated their lives to agriculture—some relatively new to the business, others who’ve been in it for generations. The bulk of the book is dedicated to produce by season.
Within each, every vegetable and fruit gets its due from Weston, who has crafted individual six-paragraph (or so) essays on fava beans, Swiss chard, nectarines, parsley and 50 other menu items. Those essays include tips and tricks for buying and preparing and, often, a look at how the state’s better restaurants serve them. At the back of the book is a collection of recipes from well-known Jersey chefs.
“I was always interested in cooking,” says Weston.
She began her culinary journey as a girl, after her parents split, when she and her sister often cooked their meals while her mother worked. Her grandfather was a chef, so it was already folded into her DNA. An interest in journalism took her in a slightly different direction, however, as Weston worked for many years as a newspaper photo editor, including stints at the Asbury Park Press and Newark Star-Ledger.
BACK TO SCHOOL
In the early days of the recession, the Ledger offered buyouts to its longtime employees. Weston took the money and enrolled in Promise Culinary School in New Brunswick. The school is afﬁliated with Elijah’s Promise, an organization that aims to harness the power of food to “break the cycle of poverty, alleviate hunger and change lives.” From 2009 to 2014, she honed her skills at the Better World Café in Highland Park, the state’s ﬁrst pay-what-you-can restaurant, which inspired Bon Jovi’s JBJ Soul Kitchen in Red Bank.
“I worked with an all-volunteer staff, many of whom came with no kitchen skills,” she recalls. “So I was always teaching. And at night, I taught at the culinary school.”
Weston was also thinking about putting her knowledge into prose. She reached out to her old newspaper contacts. The result was a weekly In Season column at nj.com, which in turn served as the inspiration for New Jersey Fresh.
The book was released in late spring 2015 and she’s been busy promoting it all summer and fall.
“I’ve really enjoyed meeting people during my appearances around the state,” Weston says. “One woman came up to me and said, ‘Rhubarb…what do you do with this?’”
From pages 51–52: I go a little rhubarb crazy and experiment like mad with new recipes every year. If you are lucky enough to have some rose bushes in bloom, rhubarb and rosewater syrup is wonderful as a base for cocktail or seltzer drinks. Drizzle some over your morning yogurt with chopped pistachios for a Persian ﬂair. I like to bottle the pink syrup and give it as gifts.
As they say in food court…asked and answered.
In getting to know New Jersey’s farms and farmers, Weston also became acutely aware of the impact that individual shopping decisions can have. “When you are making a purchase at a supermarket versus a farmers market,” she points out, “it has a huge inﬂuence on the local culture and economy.”
Not that it’s possible to patronize farm stands for every shopping trip, Weston admits, but it’s worth the extra effort when you can, both for you and the farmer.
The nature of information-packed books is that authors, to their frustration, end up having to leave a few things out. What’s not in New Jersey Fresh?
“I would have liked to have gone beyond produce,” Weston says. “New Jersey makes wonderful cheeses. We have meat from pastured animals. And there are wonderful artisan food products made with locally grown produce. This book just touches on these things.”
According to her devoted readers, something else is “missing”: Weston’s own favorite recipes. This is the constant chorus from her readers, she says.
“So I’ve started work on a cookbook.”
SALAD & SQUASH
New Jersey Fresh: Four Seasons from Farm to Table features signature recipes from some of the state’s top restaurants. Here are two that would be a good ﬁt for virtually any holiday table:
Endive Caesar Salad
The Orange Squirrel • Bloomﬁeld
2 endive heads
1 pkg. marinated white anchovies (appx. 12) ½ cup fresh grated Parmesan
1 egg yolk
½ tbsp. salt
½ tsp. dry mustard
2 tsp. lemon juice
1 tbsp. white wine vinegar
1 cup vegetable oil
½ tbsp. fresh ground pepper
1 tbsp. roasted pureed garlic
1 tbsp. Worcestershire sauce
- Whisk together the egg yolk and mustard. Slowly drizzle in oil while whisking to create an emulsion.
- After dressing is fully emulsiﬁed, add lemon juice, vinegar, garlic Worcestershire, salt and Parmesan.
- Cut apart endive. Dress each leaf individually and then stack about a dozen leaves, starting with the larger on the bottom and smaller on top, in a crisscross pattern.
- Top with 3 anchovies per salad.
- Sprinkle with grated cheese and black pepper. Option: add thin bread croutons as a garnish.
Acorn Squash Moranga Samba • Montclair
2 med. acorn squash
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
2 med. White onions, diced
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 med. Butternut squash, diced 1 pt. heavy cream
1 13.5 ounce can of coconut milk 1 pound jumbo shrimp
¼ cup shaved Parmesan parsley & cilantro for garnish
- Cut acorn squash in half and remove seeds, creating a bowl. Cover with aluminum foil and cook at 350 degrees (60 to 75 minutes) until tender.
- Heat oil in a large skillet. Over medium heat bloom the onion with garlic and caramelize the butternut squash. When squash is tender, add the heavy cream and coconut milk and simmer.
- Add shrimp and cook for another 4 minutes.
- Pour the cooked butternut squash and shrimp mixture into the acorn squash. Garnish with parsley, cilantro and Parmesan.
Editor’s Note: New Jersey Fresh (Arcadia/History Press, 2015, $19.99) is available at bookstores and other retail outlets around the state, and as an eBook. However, if you order directly from the author at racheljweston.com, you’ll receive your copy signed! Her web site also has a schedule of personal appearances and demos.