When Ian Knauer was a boy, summers moved like honey at his family’s farm just outside Pottstown, as they had for his father and his father’s father before. When Knauer was a man, working as a recipe developer for Gourmet, the lush, meticulously tended family farm was no longer either of those things. Weeds choked the pastures, and with them, Knauer’s childhood memories.
One season, he, his sisters, brother-in-law and a cast of down-in-the-country-for-the-weekend New Yorkers (including one named Big Phil, who makes a sick-sounding mac-’n’-cheese) resurrected the clan’s land.
This forms the central conflict of The Farm: Rustic Recipes for a Year of Incredible Food (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, April 17), a cookbook that’s noteworthy because it has a conflict and a real story. The passages in between the seasonally driven recipes bounce from heartfelt to comedic to educational without sappiness, an easy pitfall where dead grandparents are concerned. Knauer’s prose drips with imagery. You can hear the hungry flames during a pig roast. You can feel the summer sun (“like baseboard heat”) on your back while Knauer mows the grass, and get sympathetic shrinkage when he leaps into the icy pond for relief. Knauer’s recipes are good, but his writing is better.
About those recipes: They begin green and sprightly, featuring springtime produce (spaghetti with arugula carbonara, creamed spring onions with bacon), ripen with summer’s stone fruits (peach cobbler, sorrel-buttermilk panna cotta), and put on weight for cooler months (chipotle-venison chili, pumpkin cake).
I cooked from The Farm during the transition from spring into summer, so I took a recipe from each section. My backyard oregano was thriving, making its way into a radish slaw that was a crunchy, herbaceous complement to Knauer’s grilled pork tenderloin rubbed with cilantro, cumin and lime.
Most of the recipes are entry-level, but The Farm teaches subtly, weaving tips and tricks into familiar formulas. I’ve been making ice cream for years, but I’ve never thought to use sour cream in the base the way Knauer suggests in his strawberry-sour-cream ice cream. I spun up a batch; the texture was a dream.
More than the recipes, this book is about Knauer’s connection to his family’s farm, not about getting back to the land for the sake of the planet or his conscience. It celebrates food and family, which just so happen to converge on a few hundred fertile acres in rural Pennsylvania.