‘Real Food’ cookbook reveres veggies and organic ingredients

Experienced cooks who don’t shy from the expense of farm-fresh foods and organic ingredients will like The Real Food Cookbook: Traditional Dishes for Modern Cooks by Nina Planck.

Planck’s Virginia farming family raised produce and sold it at farmers’ markets in Washington, D.C. After moving to London in 1999, Planck was so homesick for fresh veggies that she persuaded some local farmers to truck their harvests into the city. This venture, she writes, became London’s “first modern farmers market.”

Planck, a former vegetarian, said she came to realize that a low-fat, vegetarian diet wasn’t the only healthy one. She decided to learn to cook and eat “traditional foods from land, sea and sky.” With Real Food, she aimed to create the cookbook she didn’t have when she ventured beyond vegetarian fare.

Leafing through it, I concluded I am not Planck’s “modern” cook. I tend to be thrifty, having been raised by Depression-era parents. I avoid unfamiliar recipes with expensive ingredients that will be wasted if the dish is a flop. But what could be more “traditional” than pot roast? I decided to give Planck’s version a go.

In deference to Planck’s directions, I marinated the roast — bottom round, instead of my usual chuck — to tenderize it. Rather than use red wine, which we don’t enjoy, I tried the German method Planck mentioned: I marinated the roast in buttermilk for a couple of hours. Not a pretty sight: After the roast had its bath, the red-tinted buttermilk was so grisly it convinced me skip marinating altogether next time.

Planck advises browning and braising beef shank along with the roast to add richness to the broth. Amen to that. Preparation also includes long, slow sautéeing of an enormous heap of sliced onions. After browning, the roast is covered with liquid and put into an oven. “That smells great — is it done yet?” my husband kept asking. But the meat took almost twice as long as the recipe said it would. Next time, I’ll do it on the stove top — Florida in the summer is plenty hot enough without running the oven for two or three hours.

The result? The meat tasted like . . . pot roast. But the broth was a triumph worth the time and effort. I am happy to say I still have some of that marvelous stock in the freezer.

Planck’s tomato soup recipe is genius, an uptown take for soup-and-grilled-cheese night. The ingredients are simple, it’s easy to prepare, it’s fast and it’s delicious. I had every ingredient on hand, from half of a leftover Vidalia onion to a can of diced tomatoes.

After the veggies are sautéed and seasoned, but before the soup is puréed, it’s a terrific vegetable ragout. I stood at the stove eating chunks of it out of the pan. After puréeing, I added (I confess) half-and-half instead of milk. Yum.

To use up the leftovers, I tossed it into homemade vegetable beef soup. It was one of the best pots of soup I’ve ever made. (And at an age where I can liquidate an IRA without paying a penalty, I’ve made an ocean of soup.)

Real Food is a well-designed and beautifully photographed book. It’s not for beginners. Planck assumes knowledge of techniques and terms, and even a touch of clairvoyance.

There’s a list of what she considers staple pantry items and what to look for in selecting them. A “shopping list” helps locate grass-fed and pastured meat and organic ingredients.

Vegetables are treated with reverence. There’s even a chapter for the family Seder table, including an impossibly rich-sounding flourless chocolate cake.

Planck deftly explains the Maillard reaction, a bit of chemical magic that happens as the amino acids in meat and the sugar in vegetables interact over high heat. Who knew? It’s why meat and onions smell so good when they are fried together. Information like this and the book’s conversational style make Real Food educational and readable. But if you’re on a budget, this is a cookbook for special occasions.