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The Chicago Homegrown Cookbook: A Celebration of Chicagoland’s Local, Year-Round Harvest

Jun 30, 2011 10:09AM ● By Megy Karydes

Can you really produce meals throughout the year in Chicago using local and fresh ingredients? Chicago-area author Heather Lalley, countless chefs and many local farmers believe so.

The Chicago Homegrown Cookbook is a new celebration of the local food scene that goes beyond accolades for celebrity chefs—it also gives respect and ink to farmers that realize more and more people really do care about where their food comes from.

The book shares the stories of 28 chefs and the farmers with whom they’ve forged a relationship over the course of years and in some cases, decades. Lalley sought out chefs that demonstrate a clear commitment to the farm-to-table movement and aren’t throwing around the term as a marketing strategy.

“I learned that farming is hard work,” says Lalley, a former journalist and culinary school graduate. “You don’t have a day off. The cows still need to be fed, even on Christmas. It takes a special breed of human to do the work they do.”

Household names like chefs Rick Bayless and Paul Virant, as well as Michelle Garcia, of Bleeding Heart Bakery, made time to speak with Lalley and provide her with their recipes. But, unlike other cookbooks, Lalley also delves deeper and shares the narratives about chefs and their restaurants, as well as the stories behind the farmers that grow the crops—about their land and why they grow the vegetables or raise the animals they do, so readers form an even stronger connection to their food sources.

Lalley’s book, with stunning photography by Brendon Lekan (known for his farm-to-table photography), credits the farmers behind the scenes that, she notices, are becoming much savvier marketers. “They are using tools like Twitter to announce what they are bringing to the famers’ markets, and they are visiting restaurants directly, rather than waiting for chefs to come to see them at the markets,” she explains.

Farmers aren’t used to being in the limelight, but Lalley enjoys learning about their varied backgrounds and considers them superstars in their own right. “Quite a few of the farmers we feature don’t have traditional farming backgrounds,” she says. “One was a successful tool and die manufacturer; another was a stocks trader. They decided they’d have enough and wanted to raise pigs.”

But it wouldn’t be a cookbook without recipes, and Lalley entices her readers with those that can be prepared throughout the year, despite the Midwest’s short growing season. “The Green City Market is open year-round, and farms like Werp Farms, in northern Michigan, have greenhouses, so they can supply restaurants in the winter months, too,” Lalley says. “And, of course, we have root vegetables for the winter months.”

Lalley is often amazed at the recipes the chefs are able to develop based on the crops the farmers bring to them. “I have a lot of respect for their craft,” she says. “Even if they don’t know what something is, they’ll ask the farmer for suggestions on ways to create a recipe, and the result will be outstanding.”

Like, perhaps, an odd-sounding vegetable called corn fungus? Chef Chuy Valencia, of Chilam Balam, is a big fan of the Three Sisters Garden corn fungus, more commonly known as huitlacoche. Valencia uses the vegetable for everything from making a sauce to using it as a filling, and shares his recipes for this delicacy of Mexican cooking. Lalley weaves in tales from Valencia and the folks at Three Sisters Garden about their experiences explaining “corn fungus” to Midwest customers.

It is stories like these that Lalley uses to successfully engage her readers. Sure, the book can easily take its place on the coffee table, because it’s a gorgeous hardcover with visually appealing images of vegetables and the people who prepare the foods in one way or another. But Lalley hopes the coffee table is firmly planted in the kitchen, because she wants people to not only read and enjoy the book for the stories and photos, but to try their hand at the recipes provided by the chefs, too.

“Don’t be intimidated by the farmers’ markets,” she says. “Don’t be daunted by the choices or not knowing what some vegetables are or how they can be prepared. Ask the farmers. Most are willing to share ways to prepare them. It’s just food. Have fun with what you find!”

This book definitely has lots of options to try. Be sure to experiment with some new vegetables the next time you visit your local farmers’ market.

The Chicago Homegrown Cookbook can be purchased locally at the Lake Forest Book Store and the Book Stall at Chestnut Court, in Winnetka, as well as other local retailers and online bookstores.

Megy Karydes is the founder of World Shoppe, a fair trade importing business. When she’s not picking her own veggies in her backyard during the summer, you can find her and her family at the local farmers’ market, where the kids always head to the baked goods vendor.


Blueberry Basil Lemonade

From Michelle Garcia, of Bleeding Heart Bakery

Serves a crowd

12 cups water
5 cups sugar
10 cups lemon juice
12 cup cold water
8 cups blueberries, pureed
1 cup basil, minced

Make simple syrup by combining the water with the sugar in a large pot. Stir. Hear over medium until it comes to a boil and the sugar dissolved. Remove from heat. In a large container, combine the lemon juice and cold water. Add in the simple syrup, blueberry puree, and basil.

Simple Honey Tea (Iced)

From Rene Gelder, of Ellis Family Farms

Makes 4 cups

2 bags tea (green or black)
½ cup fresh mint leaves
¼ cup honey
4 cups boiling water

In a heatproof pitcher, place tea, mint, and honey, along with the boiling water. Let steep for 5 minutes. Remove mint leaves and tea bags. Let cool. Serve over ice.

Farm Vegetable Pasta Salad

With Arugula and Walnut Pesto
From Brian Millman, of Uncommon Ground

Makes 3 cups

2 cups cooked pasta (your choice of pasta)
½-1 cup Arugula and Walnut Pesto (recipe below)
2 oz green beans, blanched
2 oz cherry tomatoes
2 oz carrots, sliced
2 oz onions, sliced
Shredded Parmesan cheese, as needed

Cook desired pasta and reserve about ½ cup of he cooking liquid. Cool pasta completely. In a mixing bowl, combine all ingredients except Parmesan cheese, starting with ½ cup of the pesto. The amount of pesto you will need to use will depend on how flavorful the arugula is in the pesto. Taste the pasta salad and determine if you need more. If the pesto is too thick and does not coat the pasta, add a small amount of the cooking liquid to thin the pasta salad. Top with shredded Parmesan cheese.

Arugula and Walnut Pesto

From Brian Millman, of Uncommon Ground

Makes 1-2/3 cups

4 cups arugula
3 garlic cloves, minced
1/3 cup toasted walnuts
1/3 cup Parmesan cheese, grated
½ tsp salt
¼ tsp black pepper
4 oz oil

Combine arugula, garlic and walnuts in food processor and chop until the arugula is broken down. Add Parmesan cheese, salt and pepper and continue to process until fully incorporated. With food processor running, slowly drizzle in oil until all the oil is added.

Win an autographed copy of The Chicago Homegrown Cookbook!
Post your favorite summer vegetable on our Facebook page at or tweet it to us @NAChicago for your chance to win one of two signed cookbooks! Each post counts as one entry and you can post daily from July 1 through midnight July 31. After your post, please send an email to [email protected] to enter the contest. Entries without email accompaniment will NOT be considered. Winners will be chosen at random and announced via Facebook and Twitter the first week of August. Not on Facebook or Twitter? Send your entry to [email protected] with the subject line: cookbook