Interview with Marilou K. Suszko, Author of The Locavore’s Kitchen

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Food writer Marilou K. Suszko has been advocating for, teaching and talking about (not to mention cooking and eat) great, local food for decades in the state of Ohio. In her new book, “The Locavore’s Kitchen,” Suszko shares information on finding, buying, storing and preserving local foods, as well as more than 200 recipes that highlight seasonal flavors–including these recipes for making flavorful stocks from leftover kitchen scraps.

What inspired you to write “The Locavore’s Kitchen”?

A love of fresh, homegrown food; gardening; farming and agriculture; and the ability to write. The time was right to offer what I know about the increasing focus on local and seasonal foods. People are returning to the way generations used to eat–in natural rhythm with the seasons. And they are getting back into the kitchen to cook from scratch, so there’s a lot of learning and teaching to do. I’m hoping that I am at the very least inspiring a new generation of cooks to get back into the kitchen and teaching them how to make the most out of what is in season, both at mealtime and preserving it for later in the year. I won’t say that “The Locavore’s Kitchen” is a revolutionary idea…just reviving interest in some pretty simple ideas about how we eat.

What, in your opinion, is the importance of eating local?

Let’s boil it down to the number one reason: flavor. What people will notice immediately is the taste. There’s a very good chance that most people have lost touch with what truly ripe and seasonal foods taste like…so genuine and flavorful. The longer a fruit or vegetable has to ripen in nature, the better it is on your plate. An added benefit, and you can ask any chef who uses seasonal foods on their menu, is that because the flavor is so good, you can choose and use simple recipes that complement, not compete with the flavor. This is where people first get hooked on the idea of local, seasonal, homegrown foods. If the flavor, texture and quality of the food weren’t there, it would give people little reason to dedicate themselves to seeking out locally grown foods. The other benefits of buying locally grown foods just naturally follow.

Keeping your food dollars in your local community is good for the local economy. Don’t keep it a secret from friends and family about where you bought the foods they ooh and aah over. Talk about the farmer’s markets and local farms and talk up those products. You are the best advertising for the farmer or producer. Growing is their strong suit, but not always marketing themselves.

Locally grown produce is simply fresher and keeps more of its nutritional value as the distance between you and the product is greatly shortened. 

Local foods keep you in touch with the seasons. A strawberry is an early summer fruit, not a fall or winter fruit. Peaches are a late summer fruit. When we eat them out of season, when the taste is dull, flat or lacking, we are settling for less.

There’s also a comfort in knowing your food sources. Putting a face to the apples that you buy and being able to ask questions about how it was grown and how it can be used makes you feel more confident about what you and your family eats.

There are many more reasons, but on top of all of this, I can say that one of my reasons for seeking out locally grown food is the people I meet: like-minded people who share their sources as well as the bounty of their own gardens, and who like to talk about the strange, unusual and delicious things they have going on in their own kitchen. I love talking with the growers and producers who are so eager to share their growing methods and personal philosophies on how they farm. Would that ever happen in a grocery store?

How did you develop the recipes?

Inspiration is everywhere. While I know I can easily rattle off and point to dozens of recipes for every ingredient I come across, it’s really a pleasure to learn what others are doing with seasonal foods. Some recipes are my own, others are from people I meet, some from farmers and growers, and more adapted from other sources. A crew of dedicated cooks, mainly students from a local cooking school, tested every recipe. I listened to their opinions and suggestions for improving or enhancing recipes and flavors–valuable information because the goal of any of the recipes I offer is to get home cooks to use them and make them part of their kitchen repertoire.

What’s your favorite recipe in the book and why?

Out of more than 200? That’s not fair. I suppose my favorite would be the one that fits in the season we are in. Right now, pumpkins are available although not as abundant as previous years, thanks to an uncharacteristically wet and cold spring and the ravages of Hurricane Irene. But I love making Sweet Pumpkin with Yogurt Sauce (page 200), which can only be made with fresh squash or pumpkin cubes. In a couple of weeks, when the farmer’s markets have largely closed up and the garden is at rest, my favorites will be whatever I’ve canned throughout the season like Gingered Watermelon Rind Relish, a bunch of different jams and preserves, pickled jalapenos, Bloody Mary Mix, tomato juice, applesauce. But up until that minute, I’m going to pick the garden clean of my fall crop of bok choy, lettuces, Chinese cabbage, daikon radishes, turnip, kale, spinach, herbs…

What cookbooks are in your kitchen?

My kitchen is filled with cookbooks, but honestly I can admit that it’s rare for me to grab one for a recipe anymore. I find more recipes and inspiration from others who grow the foods I love to eat. I do love Alice Water’s “The Art of Simple Food.” It’s the book I give all the young adults in my family when they show the first glimmer of learning to cook their own food. Why? Because good food does not have to be complicated. You’re after flavor and nature takes care of that beautifully when you choose to eat homegrown and seasonal foods.

If you could make a meal or dine with any celebrity chef, who would it be and what you make or eat together?

Alice Waters, Deborah Madison and Sally Fallon come to mind. But I think Marian Morash, the author of “The Victory Garden” would be great to hang out with. Anybody who speaks my “language!” Because it’s not just about food when we sit down to the table. It’s about conversation and the company we keep.

I’ll eat anything if someone else is behind the stove. We would simply eat what’s in season or raised organically and/or close by. And part of what would be so delicious about the whole experience is the stories we could share about the farmers and producers that enrich our lives or the gardens that provide a daily retreat for us.

What advice would you give to someone looking to break away from the grocery store and eat more local food? What resources would you suggest to them?

Here it is: “Put down the shopping list and step away from the grocery store”–when you can. Get out there and find the area farmer’s markets, co-ops and CSAs that you hear about. They will add in immeasurable ways more fun and satisfaction to “hunting and gathering.” You will receive an education like no other. The vendors know their products well and will share all the nuances of preparation, storage, uses and perhaps a recipe or two. They will add a story to your meal, and the experience a smile to your face. I can guarantee that you will think differently about the foods you think know. Foods like asparagus, kale and spinach are making a big splash in the kitchen these days because the cooking techniques (like boiling to death!) that we used to use to prepare these delicious and nutritious vegetables have been replaced with better techniques that capture and highlight flavor and texture.

One of the best stories to cross my path lately was the senior lady who never knew that Brussels sprouts grew on a stalk and reacted like she had just discovered the secret of life! How would one ever know how nature produced this little gem if they spent an entire lifetime buying them prepackaged or stripped from the stalk? I’m sure it comes as a wonderful surprise!

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