by Joan Baum
With apologies to Shakespeare, East End foodies know the answer to the poetic question: “Who is Sylvia? what is she” / That all farmers and fish folk commend her — and vineyard owners, artisans and restaurateurs, too. She’s Silvia Lehrer, of course, Certified Culinary Professional, long-time “Simple Art of Cooking” columnist for Dan’s, Papers and well before that, teacher, author, lecturer, founding member of the James Beard Foundation and member of Slow Food International. Her book, Savoring the Hamptons (Running Press), which came out earlier this year, shows why she is admired. It’s a glorious 351-page celebration of The East End and what it produces to eat and drink. Ten years in the mulling over, it couldn’t have happened before 2000, she says, because “we didn’t have the fresh ingredients we have today,” or the number of artisans and growers who would make “sustainable” and “organic” household words. Here is one so-called coffee-table book (because it’s hefty and slightly oversized) that should never remain on the coffee table, thanks not only to the author but also to Karen Wise, a noted wedding photographer for whom this food book is a first, and does she ever marry image and text.
In a charming foreword, Alan Alda notes that he first met Silvia more than 25 years ago “over French Pizza” – who should know there was such a thing. A cooking class followed, then a trip through Italy where he witnessed Silvia’s “insatiable curiosity” about where food is grown, how and by whom, topics she’s been pursuing locally from her base in Water Mill. He likens the North and South Forks to the jaws of a hungry alligator that are separated by “enough water to create a diverse food environment.” And he invites readers to savor the results, as they appear here. Silvia herself provides an introduction, though readers can also watch her online in a talk she gave in July at The East Hampton Library.
It’s significant that she celebrates first not food but the beauty and natural bounty of The East End whose changing seasons she uses to structure the book. She also pays homage to culinary artists with whom she has worked, among them Jacques Pepin, Giuliano Bugialli, Paula Wolfert, Martha Stewart, Elizabeth Andoh, Maida Heatter, Nicholas Malgieri and Madeleine Kamman.
Savoring the Hamptons is not just a compilation of favorite recipes but a unique collection of mini essays featuring profiles of various personalities in the area and brief histories of places on both the North and South forks, including vineyards (recipes are paired with recommended wines). Though the book started to circulate in April, it is now, with winter coming on, serendipitously appropriate. Winter, Sylvia writes, most exemplifies the “timelessness” of The East End. “With snow falling and fewer restaurants and stores open, it is like living in the Hamptons of fifty or sixty years ago.” It’s also a good time to try out restaurants that were too crowded to get into, during The Season. How fitting, therefore, to find between recipes for Spring Green Soup and Scallop Ceviche, a tribute to The American Hotel in Sag Harbor, where executive chef Jonathan Parker serves this savory dish.
The book opens with spring, “the season of delicate flavors.” Oh, the asparagus (“low in calories and high in nutrients” – roast the stalks to intensify flavor). Where to look? Farm stands such as The Green Thumb, which goes back generations and offers high-quality organic vegetables, herbs and fruits. The section also gives a nod to North Fork Potato Chips and to Paumanok Vineyard in Aquebogue. Time does fly: strawberries (try Oyster Pond Berry Farm on the North Fork) get a jump on summer and appear in the section on spring — when you see the shortcake, compote and cobbler recipes, you won’t care why.
Summer, of course, is when the farmers’ markets are in full glory. Tomato recipes abound, but wait `til you see those “Stuffed Zucchini Blossoms” and the fish and shell fish (hello Stuart’s, hello Montauk). Summer also brings out the author’s passion for home-grown Asian ingredients, while Autumn stirs her love for “true” free-range poultry (Ludlow Turkey Farm in Bridgehampton is a must-visit, as well as North Sea Farm in Southampton). And yes, Long Island Duck lives – on 140-acre Crescent Duck Farm in Aquebogue, and in inherited traditions.
Winter is not just a time to celebrate with friends and neighbors but to do “pot luck.” So store up: keep chicken stock in the freezer and fresh herbs and a wedge of Parmesian in the fridge. But go out, too: James Carpenter’s still holding forth at The Maidstone. Savoring the Hamptons is not all East End, however. Silvia features a make-ahead, kitchen-friendly version of rack of lamb that was made famous by Chicago chef, restaurateur and author Charlie Trotter. But she’s quick to double back to local, to Nick and Toni’s, for example, for roasted leg of lamb (with Raphael Vineyard Port), heady fare in case you’re moved by Karen’s photo to go ice sailing on Mecox Bay. By the way, the crème fr?iche recipe that closes the book looks elegantly simple (and simply elegant) and Silvia promises it can rival famous French versions.
There are over 250 recipes in the book, over 60 full-color images of food and the countryside. As the subtitle puts it, Savoring the Hamptons is “discovering the food and wine of Long Island’s East End.” A resources section, listing contact information for farms, artisans, restaurants, vineyards, farm stands points the way. Bon appetit.
Silvia Lehrer will be signing books at Parrish Art Museum on November 25, from 5 to 8 p.m., and at Canio’s Books on November 26, 5 to 6 p.m.