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Cookbook Review

Make the most of what the seasons provide

The Santa Monica Farmers’ Market Cookbook: Seasonal Foods, Simple Recipes, and Stories From the Market and Farm, By Amelia Saltsman, Blenheim Press, 224 pp., $22.95

One response to a first look at "The Santa Monica Farmers' Market Cookbook" would be to go online and start checking real estate listings. Who wouldn't want to live in a place where you can apparently get everything from local blood oranges and borlotti beans to romanesco broccoflower and sapotes? I'd happily choose a four-fruit season and vegetable bonanza over a region that opens late in May with asparagus and thuds to a close in November with winter squashes.

OK, I'm over it. A more reasonable response is to make this inspired and inspiring cookbook work for you. One way is to consider all the substitutions, as in regular mint for Persian mint, regular lemons for Meyer lemons, flat-leaf parsley and oregano for nepitella, scallions for green garlic. Or start with the simplest, least ingredient-specific recipes. These I found to be good ideas, worth tweaking in the future.

Cold zucchini soup is an obsession of mine, and it's tricky to get right. This one, summery zucchini-lemon soup, was almost perfect -- cool, jade-green, tangy from lemon. To my taste, it could have been a bit sweeter, easy enough to fix with more caramelized onion. Melon, cucumber, and mint salad turned into a pleasant surprise. The briny feta countered the sweet cantaloupe, and the cucumber offered extra crunch. (Don't keep it more than a day, though, since the salt will leach out all the water.)

Also on the easy end of the spectrum were tangy white beans, in which garlic and parsley brought out the nutty sweetness of the cannellini, and cider vinegar relieved their monotony. Nothing (except for maybe the beans) could have been easier than farfalle with five herbs and cherry tomatoes, a lush cascade of basil, parsley, mint, dill, and chives jolting the pasta awake and flattering the sweet tomatoes.

Oddly, the book offers a scant choice of summer entrees; a handful of grilled fish and some roasts. Roasts in the midsummer heat? In California? I made salmon with creamy watercress using regular watercress in place of pepper or curly cress. The cream had a striking variety of ingredients -- capers, dill pickle, hard-cooked eggs -- whose acidity and pungency stood up well to the robust taste of the pink fish.

I had to try bumbleberry crisp just because of the name; apparently, it's an old term for mixed berries. The recipe differed from conventional crisps in its use of tapioca as a thickener, which proved an inspired choice for thick but not goopy juices. I was taken aback, though, by the final step: "Increase the heat [from 375] to 400 and bake until the topping is a rich golden brown, about 5 minutes longer." Does your oven heat that fast? Mine doesn't. The topping remained pale until I had more than doubled the time.

Everything I tried ranged from serviceable to very nice, yet I couldn't help but guess that the book's real inspiration lies in the very recipes that were beyond my reach: grill-roasted lipstick peppers, roasted okra with fresh peanuts, chicken with kumquats, prunes, and green olives.

In the face of such unattainable temptation, there is one more possible response. Talk to your local farmers. Promise them you'll buy the treviso radicchio, the cardoons, the wild fennel, the Bloomsdale spinach, if only they will plant it. If they won't, then perhaps start looking at California real estate.

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