Mrs. Restino’s Country Kitchen

drawing of a country kitchen
This is a cookbook for people who want to learn more about how to use healthy ingredients to whip up delicious meals without too much fuss. It’s also full of stories about our life on the farm and how we learned to do things on our own.

I am not a professional cook. I do not spend large chunks of my life perfecting my mousse technique or getting better at piecrusts. The things I put time into are mass recipes, things like whole wheat bread, potluck casseroles, or pots of jam. I picked up a wealth of French cooking techniques working as an au pair (mother’s helper) in Europe in the ’6os. Then I fell in love with Asian stir‑fry and hummus from the Middle East. But by far the most important influence came from cooking on our farm in Nova Scotia, for my husband, who has an Italian appetite, and for our two children. That was where I learned to make the most of what was available, and to pay close attention to nutrition, as well as making delicious things to eat.

There are recipes in this book from around the world and right next door, and there are recipes both traditional and experimental. Chicken with Chanterelles. Rice dry‑roasted instead of fried. Salads and stir‑fries appropriate to the season of the year. Desserts that are good endings to meals, not meals in themselves.

There are also sections about how to brew wines and beer, bake your own bread, make cheese out of milk, dry herbs, and operate a wood‑burning cook stove. It seems to me that such capacities engender a kind of independence, a way of beating the system and doing things on your own.

We live tucked back in a steep little valley in the Cape Breton highlands of Nova Scotia, Canada, surrounded by trees and hills and streams. Once there were maybe a dozen little farms out here. Now and again you come across a pile of stones or an ancient, gnarled apple tree, but there is remarkably little trace of the community that lived here a hundred years ago.

My husband and I came from away, as they say in Cape Breton. We emigrated from New England to Canada in the early 1970s. We spent several years on a borrowed farm, but we lusted after land and a compost pile of our own. We found the right place, and with the help of our neighbors hastily assembled a 10 x 20 foot cabin for ourselves and our two small children, Samantha (aged 7) and Carey (aged 1). That first summer we also raised a barn in which to house our goats, horses and chickens. I began writing all this in a tent under an apple tree, just as a way of keeping track of recipes from season to season.

Looking back, I am amazed at how much energy we had. We cleared pastures, pulled stumps, established gardens and survived with very little money. In the winter we ate potatoes, carrots, cabbages, apples and beets, from a hillside root cellar, deep under the snow. We kept a freezer at a farm of a neighbor who had electricity three miles away, packed with greens, fruits, fish and meats. We bought whole grains and legumes by the 50 pound sack. We traveled, when necessary, by bicycle or horse and wagon. At that time we had no telephone or electricity, no television or radio, and no motor vehicle. We didn’t, for the most part, miss them. We were focused on the land, the turning of the seasons, the growing of the children, and our own survival.

It seemed to us of value that the children participated in that struggle. They helped us till the garden, tend the animals, fuel the stove, and build additions to the farm: a chicken house, a wood shed, a kitchen. We had time to wander with them and gather things in season: fiddleheads and brook trout in the spring, chanterelles and berries in the summer, apples and game in the fall. We made endless batches of cookies. In the winter we skied and snowshoed and went sliding. I remember the two of them sitting in the back of the sleigh, drawing lines with sticks in the snow as the big black horse trotted silently home in the magical winter night.

Nothing stays the same. The children grew. Samantha liked home schooling, but Carey wanted to ride the big yellow bus. We bought a half‑ton truck and had a telephone installed in the kitchen, so we could keep after the highway department about the road, which, in the spring, was a mire.

When we needed a bigger house, Charley and I went to work in the woods, cutting and planting for the forest industry, supplying the paper mills in Nova Scotia. With the money we built a wood frame house, well insulated, with deep water lines and woodstove heat. Through all of this, we kept the farm running, and continued to cook terrific meals for each other.

Our daughters grew up and moved out on their own. Both now live in Alaska, which they say is like Cape Breton in some ways, but with “real” mountains. Samantha and her husband, Scott, now work as paramedics in isolated communities in the far north. Carey serves in restaurants. Both like to garden, bake bread and cook. They also paint, draw and write terrific letters. I write to them, send the occasional package, and welcome them home once in a while. It’s a great thing for young people to get out and explore the world, to get a sense of the planet as a living entity. We are not only citizens of one valley, one town, one country or climate.

After the kids were gone, Charley and I began to take farming more seriously. We planted gourmet crops such as asparagus and strawberries. We set up a large greenhouse for tomatoes, melons, peppers, and basil. We joined an organic farming movement that brings young people to our farm to help with the harvest work. I wrote magazine articles about the sorts of things we do around here: hunt fiddleheads, can tomatoes, recycle everything. I have always illustrated my own cookbooks, but after the kids were gone I began to draw and paint more for the sheer pleasure of it.

We’re not trying to turn back the clock. There are a great many things about the times we live in now which I’m grateful for. But that doesn’t mean we have to buy the whole package, or pay the price thereof. We like to do things for ourselves, to cook with foods that are very near their source. Some we grow and some we buy. We try to know what we’re eating and where it comes from, to be sure that it’s not laced with sprays, preservatives and artificial who‑knows‑what‑all. And it feels good to do something to slow down our personal consumption of the earth’s limited resources.

It’s not, however, just that I like the philosophy of our lifestyle; it’s also fun. Country cooks have to do a lot of improvising, experimenting, and inventing in the kitchen. You have to, since the store may be far away. But after the initial shock wears off (A birthday cake? Without eggs?) you begin to enjoy getting into the essentials of cooking. It becomes less like something out of a package or a book and more something you just feel like eating. I’ve tried to get enough fundamentals into this book so that maybe when you get through reading it, you won’t need cookbooks any more.

If so, be sure to pass it along.Susan Restino
Baddeck, Nova Scotia