Becket — The arrival of July is reason enough to celebrate the availability of fresh, local produce: The season’s first zucchini and summer squash begin to appear, diminutive and sweet, and thoughts of nearly ripe tomatoes linger on the horizon. For foodies who understand that these things just taste better in season, July is like hitting Mother Nature’s proverbial jackpot. Need a bit of inspiration? Look no further than “The Berkshires Farm Table Cookbook: 125 Homegrown Recipes from the New England Hills” (Countryman Press, May 2020). Elisa Spungen Bildner and Robert Bildner, who spent several seasons combing the Berkshires and beyond to learn about the region’s farms and farmers, are eager to share what they learned along the way: namely, what makes the recipes in their cookbook is the extraordinary local produce.
For Dave Leavitt, summer means melons — lots and lots of melons. And while you won’t find Dave’s melons at your local farmers’ market, you will find them at Guido’s (in Pittsfield and Great Barrington); his sweet-fleshed fruit, in hues of orange and green, shine in “Chilled Melon and Mint Soup,” one of the myriad recipes compiled by the Bildners to showcase some of the season’s finest stars.
“People are cooking more than ever,” said Robert in a recent phone interview.
“And they are getting more into local, [both] the need to support local farms and to eat local [produce],” said Elisa, who turns to the chilled summer soup time and again, calling it “beautiful and perfect for entertaining.” For Elisa, a professionally trained chef, this is the whole point of the cookbook: The recipes are meant to be flexible, while highlighting local produce, and need not be exact. “Whether using honeydew or cantaloupe, the recipe will come out,” she urges all cooks, from novice to professional, while gently directing them to the Cheshire-grown melons mentioned earlier.
Elisa also points out “the whole panoply of places to buy local.” Their website, Berkshires and Beyond, informs visitors of the many ways to buy local, from seasonal CSA shares to direct purchase from farmers and various options in between. The Bildners are quick to point out that produce is but one of the local products available in the Berkshires. Take, for instance, their High Lawn Farm-inspired chocolate ganache. “This is SO easy to make,” said Elisa in a nod to the fact that kids could tackle it. As to the star ingredient? Local dairy from a herd of Jersey girls grazing on grassy fields in Lee. “We certainly want to support our local dairy farms as they are vanishing,” said Elisa, calling them “few and far between.” According to their book, “High Lawn is the last Berkshire County dairy to process its own milk and deliver finished products” ranging from four varieties of milk to half-and-half, heavy cream and butter. The extremely simple recipe has just five ingredients, and “the local [heavy cream] makes it what it is,” according to Elisa. (June, by the way, was National Dairy Month.)
All of the cookbook’s recipes — inspired by what the region’s farmers grow and raise — were created by chef Brian Alberg, vice president of culinary development for Main Street Hospitality Group (which includes the Red Lion Inn). A pair of pasta dishes — “Ditalini with Sugar Snap Peas and Pancetta” (or mushrooms) and “Confetti Vegetable and Goat Cheese Lasagna” — rounds out the Bildners’ suggestions for wonderful entrees that invite flexibility depending on what you’ve got on hand. The former offers cooks a vegetarian and nonvegetarian version, while the latter is “a project — a bit more complicated, but very visually attractive and great for entertaining,” according to Elisa. As to the cherry on top? Both feature local dairy: High Lawn Farm heavy cream and Monterey Chevre from Rawson Brook Farm in Monterey. Both entrees are, as Elisa reminds readers, “only enhanced by getting local produce and local dairy.”
This first weekend in July, when you’re missing the customary parades and fireworks, go ahead and get creative: Chat up your local farmer; check out the local farmers’ market; introduce your family to a new vegetable; and get cooking! “The Berkshires Farm Table Cookbook” is available at various local bookstores and is available for purchase through the Bildners’ website. “The interest in cooking fresh and local has just grown at hyper speed,” said Elisa, who calls the recipes in their cookbook “really accessible.” Robert chimed in: “What’s exciting for us is finding recipes that feature locally grown and -raised products. By publishing these recipes, that message — ‘know your food, know your farmer’ — is really getting through to many dinner tables and breakfast tables and lunch tables,” which, at the end of the day, is a win for everyone who cooks and eats and enjoys celebrating all the (short) season has to offer.
NOTE: Join Rob and Elisa Bildner Tuesday, July 28, at 6 p.m. for a virtual discussion of their book, “The Berkshires Farm Table Cookbook.” For more information,” or to join this event, visit the Stockbridge Library’s website.