Cookbook Review: The Berkeley Bowl Cookbook by Laura McLively

Note: I received a digital advance reader copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Diving into this cookbook, I had never heard of the Berkeley Bowl. This East Coast girl had never encountered "California's most iconic market", helpfully explained on the cover. It seems to be no ordinary market. From the author's reverent description in the intro, it's a family-run supermarket that's dedicated to stocking a wide array of rare and exotic produce and has come to embody the Berkeley food scene. 

This book turns out to be just as much a love letter to this market as it is a mini encyclopedia of the unusual and interesting fruits and vegetables one can find and buy from the Berkeley Bowl--as well as how to cook them, which would seem to be the main hurdle when you come home with such vegetables as chrysanthemum greens, stinging nettle, hedgehog mushrooms, and satsuma. Being Chinese, I have eaten a fair amount of the Asian vegetables, but there are many more that were foreign to me, and are sure to be foreign to the majority of readers.

There is a page or two devoted to each vegetable or fruit, along with a recipe that McLively has created to highlight its best features. The recipes are as creative and globe-trotting as Treviso Spring Rolls with Black Tahini, Charred Cactus and Black Eyed Pea Chili, and Moroccan Cardoon Stew. A little detail that I loved is the little legend at the bottom of each recipe that includes what signs of freshness to look for when buying the fruit or vegetable, seasonal availability, storage information, and substitution options. 

It's immediately apparent that McLively knows her stuff. Each recipe comes with a blurb where she describes the qualities of the vegetable or fruit in rich detail, as well as why she cooks it the way she does. Her writing is compelling and filled with such vivid detail that despite not knowing many of the vegetables, I could almost taste them from the descriptions alone. This is the book's biggest strength. She clearly has a passion for cooking with fresh produce and a fearlessness in the kitchen that is inspiring to read about. 

The recipes are smart, approachable, but also impressive for company. They make me lament the fact that I don't have a Berkeley Bowl of my own to shop at. Some of them can be found at your local Asian market if it has a large enough produce section. Some can be found at gourmet grocery stores such as Whole Foods. I haven't had the chance to make any of the recipes yet, but I will update this review when I do. The recipes I'm most excited to cook are the Grilled Cheese with Mizuna, Dates, and Goat Brie; Sweet Corn and Chive-Stuffed Squash Blossoms; Roasted Chestnut Chocolate Torte; Morel Pot Pies with Asparagus and Peas; and Anaheim  Chile and Corn Chowder. If you're a vegetarian, you're in for a treat because all of these recipes are vegetarian. As a meat-eater, I didn't find that I was missing meat dishes, as that would defeat the whole purpose of the cookbook. 

The other strength of this cookbook--the photos. They are jaw-droppingly gorgeous, and some of the best I've ever seen in a cookbook. They are bright, colorful, and perfectly evoke the sunniness of McLively's Berkeley kitchen. My one biggest criticism of this book is that I wish there were more photos. There are pictures for about a quarter of the dishes, far too few when a lot of the vegetables were new to me. She does helpfully include a key at the end where there are pictures of all of the vegetables and fruit. 

My other major criticism is the layout, which I felt could have been more organized. She groups the recipes by types of vegetable/fruit, rather than meal course. There are desserts interspersed with appetizers and mains, which felt odd and might make it harder to go back to recipes later.

Clearly, I loved this book. At first, I was worried it would be too niche and only useful for people near the Berkeley Bowl, or a similar market. However, with some persistence, I could probably find most of the ingredients in this book even in New England, and at the very least, this is a useful collection of knowledge for any aspiring cook.

Overall Rating: 5/5 Stars

No comments