A cookbook for your bedside table

Amanda Hesser's culinary tale of life at the Chteau du Rey

Cookbooks touting fresh ingredients and simple cooking are popping up like portabello mushrooms these days.

But none tell a story quite like Amanda Hesser's.

Since college in the early '90s, when she dropped her major in finance to pursue a career in food, the soft-spoken yet determined Ms. Hesser has had experiences some people only dream about.

She worked for one of the Northeast's top chefs, Jody Adams; apprenticed in bakeries and restaurants throughout Europe; studied at the Harvard of cooking schools, cole de Cuisine La Varenne in Paris; and wound up as the personal cook for the school's founder, Anne Willan, and her family and friends at a 17th-century chteau in Burgundy, France.

It was during Hesser's two-year stint at the Chteau du Fe that she stumbled upon the idea for "The Cook and The Gardener" (W.W. Norton,$32.50).

A culinary memoir so evocative it's been compared to those of M.F.K. Fisher, Hesser's first cookbook tells of her experience shadowing the chteau's crotchety, old-fashioned gardener.

A peasant farmer, Monsieur Milbert tended a walled two-acre garden as he would his child. This intrigued Hesser. She became determined to penetrate his gruff exterior and tap his knowledge.

"I needed to know what was going on within those walls in order to better understand my ingredients in the kitchen," she writes. "I wanted to know why thyme's intensity fluctuated, why leeks sweetened with age, when raspberries would be at their peak."

After many months, she befriended him, but only with the help of her homemade bread and jam. "It took nearly a year to gain Monsieur Milbert's trust. It also took tremendous patience and many loaves of bread before I convinced this old man to allow anyone, much less a young woman, into his world," she writes.

He realized I was serious, she says, when I appeared with a notebook. "I'm going to write a story about you," she told him. But she was careful not to be a pest. "I knew my boundaries well," she writes. "Observing his everyday life spoke volumes."

Now, three years later, Hesser is living in New York, and Monsieur Milbert's vast French garden seems worlds away. And with a demanding job as a food reporter for The New York Times, dinner is sometimes the last thing she thinks about.

But Hesser's approach to food, cultivated during her years in Europe, has stayed with her. She has struck up a rapport with many farmers at markets in her Upper West Side neighborhood, and like her heroine, California chef Alice Waters, Hesser insists on eating only fruits and vegetables that are in season. She wouldn't think of eating a tomato in January or an artichoke in November.

This approach not only guarantees more flavorful meals, she says, but it's also less expensive and much simpler. "No matter how many vegetables are for sale, I only see about five - those that are in season," she explains. "And I hardly have to fuss with them when I get back home." The fresher the food, the less adornment it needs, she explains.

In "The Cook and The Gardener," Hesser arranges her 240 recipes by month, helping readers adopt this seasonal approach to cooking. In May, for instance, Braised Lamb with Garlic, Asparagus, and Peas; Egg Salad with Tarragon, Chervil, and Chives; and Asparagus Risotto make use of recent harvests.

She also offers helpful shopping tips. When buying asparagus she suggests you choose tightly braided tips and slender stalks, avoid bunches bound together "like sardines with a thick rubber band," and be sure the ends of stalks are slightly moist.

Most cookbooks don't travel far from the kitchen stove. But "The Cook and The Gardener," with its sweeping literary prose and compelling story, just might find its way to the bedside table too.

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