October 2011 Issue
For author and culinary instructor Marilou Suszko, it’s not just about food. It’s about life.
The wooden screened door off the kitchen slams loudly as Marilou Suszko gives a tour of her favorite workplace. It was one of the items she left “as-is” when she and her husband Ihor renovated their Vermilion century home 15 years ago.
“That noise says to me the kids are home or the dog is going in or out or a friend is here,” says Suszko, petting Ben, the two-year-old golden retriever who’s ventured in to see if he can get the unsuspecting visitor to toss a tennis ball.
“Do not throw that ball even once,” warns Suszko, as she continues the tour of her sage-colored kitchen with white cupboards, stainless-steel appliances and pale floor-to-ceiling draperies that frame the large windows overlooking the back yard. On the table is a huge bouquet of basil from the garden waiting to become pesto. The inviting space looks brand new, but it’s actually the same as it was a decade and a half ago when Suszko bathed son Ian in the deep porcelain sink and when now-25-year-old Abby did homework at the island.
These days, it’s where she experiments with recipes for her books and hones cooking and canning techniques for television shows and cooking classes. While many culinary experts rave about their state-of-the-art tools, Suszko swears by the basics: a deep sink, hot burners, cold storage, a sharp knife and good lighting. Her equipment repertoire includes a Thermador gas stove, as well as a double oven, convection oven and refrigerator — all KitchenAid, like many of her smaller appliances.
She admits most of her dishes come from discount stores. In fact, she’ll be using old diner cups and saucers she bought at Goodwill to serve the dessert she’s preparing today: Pumpkin Custard with Peppered Brittle, a recipe from her newly released cookbook, The Locavore’s Kitchen: A Cook’s Guide to Seasonal Eating and Preserving
(Ohio University Press, ohioswallow.com).
If you’re unfamiliar with the word “locavore,” it refers to people who prefer to buy, cook and eat food that has been harvested, raised or produced within a 100-mile radius of where they live. Added to the Oxford American Dictionary in 2007, it was first coined by San Francisco-area chef Jessica Prentice. In Ohio, however, the locavore movement is synonymous with Marilou Suszko.
“It’s a pleasant return to the way we used to eat but we’ve given it a new name,” she says, punctuating the sentence with the swift crack of an egg. “We ate from our gardens and from local vendors. I remember the strawberry man and the sweet corn man who came to my neighborhood growing up.”
That neighborhood was in Lakewood, in an area of the Cleveland suburb nicknamed “Birdtown,” because the streets are named after birds. It’s there she learned to cook at her Slovakian mother’s and grandmother’s sides. Another influential grandmother, also Slovak, lived in Cleveland. Her family had gardens and all cooked from scratch, providing Suszko with an everlasting sense that cooking, eating and time spent with loved ones go hand-in-hand.
“It’s not just about the food,” she says. “It’s about the time you spend with the people doing it. It’s about who’s there with you, the conversation, the traditions in your family.”
Unaware that those childhood memories were forming the basis of her future career, Suszko pursued writing as a profession. After graduating from Magnificat, a private all-girl Catholic High School in Rocky River, she attended The University of Toledo and Baldwin-Wallace College. She worked as an advertising copywriter before moving on to serve as editor for several food industry magazines. She also wrote freelance culinary features for The Plain Dealer.
“Before I knew it, I had amassed all this knowledge with nowhere to go,” she explains. In 2005, she began funneling it into her first book, Farms and Foods of Ohio: From Garden Gate to Dinner Plate. Suszko spent a year traveling the state meeting farmers and learning more about food production. The experience only heightened her dedication to the local-foods movement, and she soon found herself lecturing, writing and teaching on the subject.
Her culinary skills were also evolving. She began preparing her own mayonnaise, butter, ketchup, yogurt and juices and started canning like crazy. It may seem a bit over the top (she even made her own pectin this year), but it’s part of the logical progression in the life of a locavore. It’s what Suszko describes as a “passionate pursuit” that takes on a wonderfully fulfilling life of its own.
“You start out with strawberries in the summer and they taste so good you begin to think of the next thing you’ll try,” she says. “In berry season it’s blueberries, then blackberries, then you move to the next local food and the next.” And it’s not just about produce, she continues, listing maple syrup, milk, artisanal cheeses, locally raised beef and poultry and even nuts to the list of local products she buys.
Her descriptions of Ohio’s bounty always include the farmers and friends with whom she shared the experiences. When she sips tomato juice in the morning she remembers how she and friend Linda Burkart laughed like schoolgirls while making 30 quarts of it in her back yard. When she plans Thanksgiving, she looks forward to going to the Shaker Square farmers market with her mother to pick up the freshly processed main course that Doug Raubenolt will bring up from Tea Hill Organic Farms in Loudonville. And when she thinks about next year’s harvest, she’s already imagining how her first grandchild, due this month, will be taking joy in all the new sights and tastes.
Suszko believes the first step to eating local is to simply try it. That was her focus when writing The Locavore’s Kitchen
, a delightfully inspiring primer for anyone who may be curious about the local foods movement.
The book takes readers through the seasons with tips on choosing and storing fresh produce, unique recipes and easy-to-understand instructions on canning, freezing and dehydrating to make fresh foods available throughout the year. Interspersed throughout the pages are techniques to make your own condiments, stocks, crème fraîche, infused vinegars, yogurt, breads and more. Even the pumpkin pie spice she’s sprinkling into the coppery bronze mixture she’s preparing is her own creation.
As Suszko grabs a pinch of ground ginger from a Mason jar, Ben makes a covert attempt to slip a visitor a Frisbee . . . then a floppy rope creature. Finally he stations himself under the kitchen table. In no time he falls asleep to the gentle whisking of eggs, cream, brown sugar, spices and pumpkin puree. It’s not until he hears the sound of the refrigerator door being opened that he lifts an eyelid.
Suszko takes out a chilled version of the custard she’s just prepared, drizzles pure maple syrup over it and tops it with peppered walnut brittle. The dessert is beautifully homespun and absolutely delicious.
With spoon in hand she praises the rich color and texture that the pumpkins from Aufdenkampe’s Family Farm add to the dessert. Her credit is to the farmers and the fruit. She insists that what she is doing is nothing special, handing her visitor a linen napkin on which she has embroidered over the signatures of her past dinner guests, a tradition she started five years ago.
“When I look at them, I see the history of my table. This is who’s been here,” she pauses, “and who’s not here anymore.” Her mind seems to be thinking of all of them and you just know she could give you the details of every meal spent with them.
In that moment it’s clear that food and friendship and family are one and the same to Marilou Suszko, and there is, indeed, something very special about it all.
Visit mariloususzko.com for more information.
Courtesy of Marilou Suszko, The Locavore's Kitchen: A Cook's Guide to Seasonal Eating
Pumpkin Custard with Peppered Brittle
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1 cup pumpkin puree (see recipe below; if frozen, thaw in refrigerator and drain first)
3/4 cup half-and-half or heavy whipping cream
1/4 cup packed brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon pumpkin pie spice (see recipe below)
1/4 teaspoon salt
Peppered Brittle (see recipe below)
1/4 cup pure maple syrup
1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
2. Combine the eggs, pumpkin, cream, brown sugar, pumpkin pie spice and salt in a medium bowl. Beat with a wire whisk until smooth.
3. Arrange six, 4-ounce ramekins in a shallow baking pan. Divide the pumpkin mixture between the ramekins. Place the pan on the oven rack and carefully add boiling water until it reaches halfway up the sides of the ramekins. Bake for 35 to 40 minutes or until a knife inserted in the center comes out clean. (The custards will still be wiggly but will firm as they chill.)
4. Remove from the water and cool on a wire rack. Chill in the refrigerator for at least 2 but up to 8 hours. Serve with a drizzle of maple syrup and a sprinkling of Peppered Brittle. Yield: 6 servings
Pumpkin Pie Spice:
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon + 1/4 teaspoon ground ginger + 1/8 teaspoon ground allspice or ground cloves + 1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg = 1 teaspoon pumpkin pie spice
To make Peppered Brittle:
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Combine 1 cup coarsely chopped walnuts or pecans, 3 tablespoons sugar, 2 tablespoons light corn syrup and 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper in a small bowl. Line a small baking sheet with foil. Butter the top of the foil. Spread the nut mixture on the foil and bake for 15 minutes, stirring twice. Allow to cool before breaking into small clusters. Sprinkle on top of the custards before serving.
Fresh Pumpkin Puree
1 sugar pumpkin (about 4 pounds)
1-1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
2. Slice off the stem end of the pumpkin 2-1/2 inches from the top, reserving it. Scrape out the seeds and the membranes and brush the inside of the pumpkin with butter. Put the top back on the pumpkin and place it in a shallow baking pan. Roast for 1 hour or until pumpkin is soft to the touch.
3. Remove and let sit until cool enough to handle.
4. Discard any of the liquid accumulated in the pumpkin. Scoop out the pulp and, working in batches, process into a puree using a blender or food processor.
5. Line a large sieve or colander with large paper coffee filters and place over a large bowl. Cover the surface of the puree with plastic wrap. Place it in the refrigerator and let it drain overnight.
6. Pack in freezer containers in 1-pound increments and freeze for up to 6 to 9 months. Yield: about 1-3/4 cups or about 1 pound
Reprinted courtesy of Ohio University Press