There is much to admire in this modestly priced, attractively produced collection of 100 recipes for “naturally sweet and savory treats.” The operative word is “naturally.” Veteran food writer Laura Martin (24 books over the past 30 years) is a talented, enthusiastic “green” cook and gardener; on the evidence of the book’s illustrations of fruits and vegetables, she is an accomplished water-colorist as well. In addition to offering her own recipes for sugar-free cookies, cakes, pies and pastries, Ms. Martin has collected recipes from 15 prominent American chefs. The results range from old standards like chocolate-chip cookies (with maple sugar and maple syrup replacing refined sugar and chocolate chips sweetened with malted grains instead of sugar) to more sophisticated items, including Honey-Figgy Toffee Pudding, Rosemary Olive Bread and Asparagus Flan With Smoked Salmon Potato Salad. All the sweetness on display here is occasionally undercut by slightly sour moments when Ms. Martin, in her own words, jumps “feet-first into the politics of food.” Refined sugar and corn-syrup sweetener are “cheap” and “addictive,” she declares, while “natural” sweeteners like maple syrup, honey, brown-rice syrup, barley malt syrup and agave nectar are less addictive, she claims, and therefore better. But maybe they’re simply more expensive and not as tasty and therefore used more sparingly?
Readers may also wonder why our author considers one sweet syrup processed from a grain (corn) unhealthy and unnatural while extolling another sweet syrup processed from a grain (sorghum) as healthy and “natural.” But putting up with Ms. Martin’s occasional preaching is like sitting through a dull sermon in order to get to a delicious church bake sale: It’s well worth the wait. The excellent recipes are accompanied by useful rules for growing and preserving produce and by Web addresses for tracking down farmers’ markets and hard-to-find specialty products. One wonders, though, how many people will search for Xylitol, a not very “natural”- sounding sweetener derived from birch trees and described as “tricky.”