Farm to Cookbook
About 25 miles northwest of the Washington Monument lie more than 93,000 acres of farmland known as the Montgomery County Agricultural Reserve. Created by the county in 1980 to limit urban sprawl, control development and protect natural resources, the reserve comprises the upper northwest third of the county’s land and includes more than 500 farms. To bring attention and pay homage to its bounty, authors Claudia Kousoulas and Ellen Letourneau wrote a stunning, coffee table-worthy cookbook called Bread & Beauty: A Year in Montgomery County’s Agricultural Reserve, which debuted in October.
Kousoulas, a D.C. resident who lived in Montgomery County for 30 years and worked for the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission for 20 of them, and Letourneau, who lives in Boyds, met in 2015 when Letourneau worked for the Montgomery Countryside Alliance, a Poolesville-based nonprofit organization that promotes the reserve.
“ ‘It’s a beautiful place and needs a beautiful book,’ Ellen told me,” explains Kousoulas, an accomplished cook who has written many freelance articles that include her own recipes. “Ellen knows everyone out there, so she would call and get interviews. I focused on research and history and would come up with recipes. We had testing dinner parties and people would come to potluck suppers and critique and make suggestions.”
Working on the book broadened the scope of Letourneau’s own cooking methods. “I was astonished at the bounty of the reserve. I joined a CSA [community-supported agriculture group] and received fruits and vegetables from them. I started eating seasonally. Now I know how to use kohlrabi and beets and I don’t eat strawberries in February. And I learned how to preserve food.” In 2017, she prepared Thanksgiving dinner with ingredients almost entirely from the reserve.
The 320-page tome, which is self-published, includes 120 recipes divided into four seasonal sections, starting with winter. The book is filled with color photographs taken by Kousoulas’ husband, George, and Martin Radigan. In addition to the recipes—including kohlrabi and apple slaw, chamomile streusel muffins, lamb-stuffed eggplant, summer squash spoonbread and parsnip cake with brown butter cream cheese frosting—Kousoulas and Letourneau expound on the reserve’s history, entrepreneurs and places of interest. The book covers Button Farm, a living history center that portrays 19th-century slave plantation life; Soleado Lavender Farm, which produces and sells on-site sundry products from its fields of purple flowers; and Kingsbury Orchard, which produces peaches, apples, Asian pears and other crops.
Bread & Beauty: A Year in Montgomery County’s Agricultural Reserve costs $45 and is available at breadandbeauty.org and at Waredaca Brewing Company in Laytonsville, Soleado Lavender Farm in Dickerson, Rocklands Farm in Poolesville, the Darby Store in Beallsville, Maryland, and at Politics and Prose bookstores in D.C. Proceeds from the book will be donated to Montgomery Countryside Alliance and Manna Food Center.
Button Farm Sweet Potato Soup
Adapted from Bread & Beauty: A Year in Montgomery County’s Agricultural Reserve
Serves 6 to 8
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium onion, diced
4 garlic cloves, minced
1-inch piece ginger, grated
1 quart chicken or vegetable stock
3 medium sweet potatoes, peeled and cubed
1/3 cup 100-percent peanut butter (no added oils, salt or sugar)
1 hot pepper, such as serrano, diced (to taste)
3 tablespoons tomato paste
½ cup milk
Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
Heat the olive oil over medium heat in a large saucepan and sauté the onion until softened, about five minutes. Add the garlic and ginger and sauté for one minute. Add the stock and sweet potatoes and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer until the sweet potatoes are tender, about 20 minutes.
Using an immersion blender or a blender, purée the soup. Return it to the pan over low heat. Add the peanut butter, hot pepper, tomato paste and milk and whisk until smooth. Season with salt and pepper. Heat and serve.