Exotic Prairie: Cookbook celebrates 10 years of using unusual local foods

Nancy O'Connor finishes off a salad made with couscous. O'Connor is celebrating 10 years of her cookbook, Rolling Prairie Cookbook, which talks about cooking locally and the healthful benefits of local food.

Nancy O'Connor is celebrating 10 years of her cookbook, Rolling Prairie Cookbook, which talks about cooking locally and the healthful benefits of local food.

Nancy O’Connor is aware that most people don’t walk into the grocery store and throw some kohlrabi in the cart along with the bananas, apples and lettuce.

“We tend to eat what we’re comfortable with, what we’re emotionally attached with, what we learned to eat when we were growing up,” O’Connor said. “So, left to our own resources, when we go to the store and we’re in a hurry and we run into the produce aisle, most people don’t think, ‘Today, I’m going to go to Community Mercantile and buy some vegetable I’ve never eaten.’ It just doesn’t happen. And so it’s easy to understand when you’re looking at kohlrabi, why would you buy it?”

The problem was, the people who subscribe to the Rolling Prairie Farmers’ Alliance, a community supported agriculture group of local organic farmers, were getting kohlrabi … and they had no idea what do with the German vegetable.

Each week, subscribers to the CSA service pick up a bag of fresh produce from participating growers. By buying into the service, which requires a membership fee and then a monthly payment, customers get bags of produce April through November from the six participating farms. But the members also absorb some of the risks of farming, including crop failure, and they have little control over what produce they buy each week. They could get everything from run-of-the-mill potatoes, onions and carrots to the more exotic kohlrabi, escarole or edamame.

“We could do it on the fly to a certain degree, but then there’s this little dark secret, too: A lot of market gardeners don’t eat all that well because they’re so busy working,” said Hoyland Farm’s Bob Lominska in explaining the uses of the CSA’s more unusual offerings.

Realizing they needed to help out their customers, Rolling Prairie recruited O’Connor, the director of education and outreach at The Community Mercantile, 901 Iowa, to make a recipe newsletter, which they called “In the Bag.” She also prepared one of the recipes for customers to taste-test as they picked up their weekly bags.

“We grow a lot of kohlrabi; we appreciate that,” Lominska said, laughing.

For the CSA’s first few years, the drill went something like this: The producers would call O’Connor on Sunday night to tell her what was going to be in the week’s first bag – the Monday pickup at The Merc – then O’Connor would scramble to include the perfect recipe.

“Of course I have lots of recipes and I cook this way, but I had to get them all typed out,” O’Connor said. “And after doing that for several years … I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be easier to just have a cookbook where it was all compiled and instead of getting weekly sheets, they would get this cookbook?’ So that’s where this idea of this Rolling Prairie Cookbook came from.”

Originally, O’Connor thought her Sunday nights would get a little easier. Little did she know how long and hard she’d have to work, on top of her day job, to get it done.

“It took so much longer to write the cookbook than I thought – because I self-published it – that the Rolling Prairie customers ended up getting it on the last Monday night of the season, like on Oct. 31,” she said, referring to the time from spring to fall that customers pick up their Rolling Prairie produce. “And we had it printed locally, so we had to drive down to Winfield like at 4 a.m. to pick up this cookbook headed to people on the last day, so it was a sprint to the finish.”

A decade later and still cooking

Now, 10 years later, the Rolling Prairie Cookbook is in its “fifth or sixth printing” and already has been printed twice this year. The book, which can be found at The Community Mercantile and other local stores, as well as on Amazon.com, is organized by individual fruits, vegetables and herbs, with a couple of recipes for each and basic preparation and storage methods.

Even the CSA’s growers learned a thing or two about what they were giving their customers.

“It taught me how to use fresh herbs,” said Lominska’s wife, Joy. “I had only really used parsley before as a fresh herb and she had a section for each herb and incorporates it in simple recipes. And then after you work through her recipes, you kind of have an idea of how to use fresh herbs.”

Though the cookbook features fruits, vegetables and herbs commonly grown in eastern Kansas, the produce featured is also the bare minimum of what could be produced in other regions of the country, O’Connor said, making it a popular purchase by CSAs from across the country. Some of these CSAs, like Rolling Prairie, make the book available to first-year customers as part of their dues.

O’Connor is somewhat flabbergasted by the cookbook’s success. It took a lot of work to sell the book at first, and now it seems to sell itself. O’Connor just recently received her largest order, from Hen House grocery stores in Kansas City.

These days, O’Connor sees evidence that people are changing the way they eat in her everyday interactions.

“I am impressed with how many people I have talked to who are changing the way they eat. I mean, I was just at a meeting … and we all went around the room and we talked about one thing that we were doing for ourselves that we thought made us better … and people talked about all kinds of things: ‘I do exercise,’ ‘I do yoga,’ and one woman in the group said ‘I am eating locally,'” O’Connor said. “Wow, that is great that that was her way of improving her life.”

Festive Couscous Salad

1 cup couscous, soaked in 1 cup boiling water, then cooled to room temperature2 cups cooked black or kidney beans (rinsed and drained)2 cups fresh or frozen corn kernels, lightly steamed1 large carrot, diced1 bell pepper, finely chopped (red, yellow or green)1/2 cup chopped green onions1 fresh hot pepper, minced (more or less to taste)1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro (more or less to taste)1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley1/4 cup chopped fresh basil6 tablespoons olive oil4 to 6 tablespoons fresh lime juice3 cloves garlic, minced or pressed3/4 teaspoon ground cumin3/4 teaspoon saltFreshly ground black pepper to taste

In a large bowl, toss together the couscous, black beans, corn, carrot, bell pepper, green onions and hot pepper. Sprinkle on the cilantro, parsley and basil. Toss again until herbs are well distributed. Whisk or shake together the olive oil, lime juice and garlic. Drizzle over salad. Season with cumin, salt and pepper. Combine well. Refrigerate for several hours. Toss again before serving. Serves 8.

– From The Rolling Prairie Cookbook by Nancy O’Connor