In Harlem's Test Kitchen: A Taste of Local Recipes

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The Go Green East Harlem Cookbook, edited by Scott Stringer, Jones Books, $17.95 in stores, free at community events.

It’s difficult to take critical aim at a community cookbook. Rarely intended as just a repository of cooking advice, the recipe collections of neighborhood associations, houses of worship, immigrant clubs and tenants' groups are often aimed more at raising funds and morale than actually generating whole, good meals. Any true culinary skill gleaned from them is a result of luck as much as intention.

Still, even as home cooking – or at least the notion of it – has skyrocketed in appeal along with the popularity of television cooks like Rachael Ray, there’s been a yawning gap between what our cookbooks suggest and what people actually have the time, skill and money to cook. It is with that in mind that I set out to prepare a meal from the pages of “The Go Green East Harlem Cookbook,” released last week under the auspices of Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer.
Published in both English and Spanish, the book is part of Stringer's office's “Go Green” initiative to improve the health of East Harlemites in a variety of ways, including erecting a new asthma treatment center and planting hundreds of new trees. As community cookbooks go, it's a beauty: large, professional-quality photos of contributors are interspersed throughout the pages, all of which are bound into a softcover book—no plastic ring binding here. The bulk of the 68 health-focused recipes cover the smaller pieces of the meal—the appetizers, sides, soups and salads—with comparably few entrees and just a handful of desserts.

This unusual distribution of recipes (in cookbooks, desserts rarely get short shrift) likely stems from the book’s raison de etre: promoting healthful eating and home cooking among East Harlem’s residents. It’s a worthy goal. Though it is only hinted at in the book’s four essays, the neighborhood posts some of the city’s most dispiriting health and welfare statistics. More than one-third of residents live below the federal poverty level, and combined with Central Harlem, it boasts one of the city’s highest rates of diabetes and obesity.

It is also a part of the city where the odds are stacked against someone trying to pick up ingredients to cook at home. Bodegas outnumber supermarkets by nearly nine to one in East Harlem, according to a 2007 study from the city’s health department. Few of those little markets carry fresh produce to cook for dinner; just 4 percent of East Harlem’s bodegas carried greens, according to the study. The imbalance can matter: For every additional supermarket in a census tract, fruit and vegetable consumption can increase by as much as 32 percent, according to an American Journal of Public Health study.

Still, access isn’t the only barrier. Even if fresh produce is readily available, one has to be able and willing to prepare it on her own, which is precisely where “Go Green” seeks to make a dent. Unfortunately, this is where the book falters most.

I set out to make a meal for some young parents I know and their 3-year-old son, using only recipes from the book. I chose recipes that would suit a relatively inexperienced cook trying to cook dinner on a budget and satisfy a young child. After nixing unusual ingredients (fresh fennel in the Sicilian Orange Salad), a lengthy cooking process (Sancocho Spanish Stew Soup) and fussy preparation (julienned lettuce and fish in Zesty Smoked Salmon Salad), I settled on a basic spread for a work night's supper.

I’d make Collard Greens from MoBay Uptown Restaurant and BBQ and Lemon Chicken from the renowned Italian eatery Rao’s. To keep things sweet – and easy – I’d end with Gingerbread and Apricot Sauce from the John S. Roberts Middle School 45 Environmental Club. I’d shop at the Harlem Pathmark, since it seemed like a place I might stop if I lived nearby and needed to cook a meal after work. Supermarkets also tend to be cheaper, and I wanted to watch my budget; to that end, I also resolved to take the cheapest option for an ingredient, though I could make an exception if quality seemed a substantial issue.

The first problem I ran into was, sadly, the ingredients. I’d somehow missed the fact that the collards required something called “smoke sauce.” This may be sheer ignorance on my part, but I don’t know what smoke sauce is. The Pathmark staffer I sought advice from was no help, so I grabbed a bottle of Wright’s All Natural Mesquite Flavored Liquid Smoke, on sale for just $1.89 (instead of $6.99!) and hoped for the best. Then there was the chicken. Rao wanted me to cook two chickens of 2

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