Some dishes are built ingredient by ingredient. Others are constructed brick by brick. Last week, retired chef Bob Titterton, 58, took the warm weather as an opportunity to don his barn boots and build a mangal by the pond on the sprawling Elmore property that he shares with his wife, dog and a pair of exceptionally vocal cats. The cookbook author and food blogger built a glowing bed of coals between two short towers of bricks to slow-roast tender skewers of lamb known as shashlik.
The makeshift rotisserie and the dish are central-Asian inventions that Titterton learned about on a trip to the Soviet Union with other Johnson State College students in 1975. It may seem a bit exotic for inclusion in his latest project, The Vermont Home Cookbook. But Titterton’s shashlik recipe, learned in Dushanbe, is in there, as is one for accompanying Tajik-style flatbread.
The recipes in the book — more than 150 — encompass a world’s worth of dinners, drawing in part on the author’s experiences growing up in a diverse New Jersey mill town. In the red-meat section alone, meatballs with porcini and prosciutto share space with chimichurri steaks and sauerbraten. So why call it a “Vermont” cookbook?
Because the recipes can all be prepared with local ingredients, and Titterton tells his readers which are best. On his blog, he’ll even share where to find them. Take today’s shashlik: The cubes of butterflied lamb leg that he marinated overnight came from Winding Brook Farm, just down the road in Morrisville. Titterton’s Tajik feast also includes pickled cucumbers, cherry peppers and green beans, all grown at home. The chef even cooks with wild cattails when they’re in season. He says they taste like cucumbers.
The book reads like an encyclopedia of preparations for uniquely Vermont foods, many based on international recipes, others wholly original. It opens with a carefully compiled key to the uses of native apple species, many of which Titterton grows on his property. Once readers have established that Chenango Strawberries are best eaten out of hand or as sauce and that Stayman Winesaps are more appropriate for baking or cider, they can move on to learning about maple, beer and local cheeses. Like many Vermonters, the author is particularly effusive about Maplebrook Farm burrata and local clothbound cheddars.
Titterson got his culinary training at Johnson & Wales University and last cooked professionally in the 1980s, when he was cochef at the Ten Acres Lodge in Stowe alongside Jack Pickett, now owner of Frida’s Taqueria and Grill. Retired from his subsequent job as a middle school social studies teacher, Titterton is a man with a mission. He wants to teach Vermont to cook.
The author released The Vermont Home Cookbook last month through the self-publishing company Shires Press, operated by Northshire Bookstore in Manchester. His previous cookbook, North Country Gourmet: A Vermont Chef Cooks at Home, was published in 1991 by Countryman Press, now part of Norton. He also published a biography of Johnson artist Julian Scott by more conventional means.
But this time, Titterton didn’t want to wait for a third party to get his recipes to the public. He had already waited long enough, he says, to launch his website, HowToFood, which he envisioned as a recipe and cooking-advice community. Though he had long had dial-up internet, Titterton lost it for a year before FairPoint finally brought high-speed connections to Elmore Mountain last September. “It was all part of ConnectVermont,” he says of the state program devoted to getting the internet to rural areas. “It was like, ‘Wow, we’ve finally arrived!’ It was great.”
The website now features regular recipe posts, including detailed photographs not in the book. Titterton encourages followers to send him questions and even has a section devoted to must-have gadgets that will make home cooking easier. Far from recommending brands of immersion circulators, he explains the uses of basic tools such as potato ricers and digital thermometers.
And people are responding. The cauliflower-and-carrot soup with dill has 10 reader comments with serving recommendations and questions. Several other food bloggers have joined the conversation, attesting to the success of Titterton’s recipes.
Sharing these simple principles is Titterton’s raison d’être. “I went to school for [cooking],” he says. “For most people, they’ve got regular day jobs, and they just can’t commit to learning complex skills, and they’re all really good at things I don’t have a clue about.” Titterton drew on the knowledge of friends and family to put together his book and website, he says. He traded food and cooking advice for the work of his cover designer and photographer.
His recipes are all conceived to use the simplest possible means to each end. Convenient tips include boiling water in the microwave, but that doesn’t mean Titterton recommends breaking out bags of premade ingredients. On the contrary, he spreads the gospel of from-scratch cooking, with recipes ranging from homemade egg noodles to farmhouse-tomato ketchup. (He makes it from his own fruit.) On his blog, Titterton even shares a recipe for Brewer’s Bread, which he made from the spent grain that remained after his son home-brewed his latest IPA.
Living in a rural area without a nearby co-op, Titterton highlights the importance of going to the farm for ingredients you don’t grow yourself. “Pretty much, you have to go to the source unless you’re a professional operation,” he says. “If you’re the Bee’s Knees [in Morrisville] or Claire’s [Restaurant & Bar in Hardwick], they’ll come to you, but the rest of us, we have to do a little traveling.”
Though he says he didn’t share all his hyperlocal foodie secrets in the book or on the blog, Titterton will be doing just that later this month, when he teaches a series of workshops at River Arts in Morrisville. Though most classes at the arts center focus on subjects such as poetry and filmmaking, the chef says the building’s kitchen is surprisingly well suited to his hands-on plans. He’ll begin on March 28 with a soup-making workshop and hold five weekly classes, ending with a homemade “pasta party.”
The April 13 class focuses on flatbreads from all over the globe, but one that won’t be on the menu is the Tajik non bread that Titterton is dressing today with coarsely ground salt and chopped shallots. While the lamb roasts outside in weather that’s become cold and rainy, Titterton pops the bread into his professional-grade oven on a pizza stone.
When it’s all finished, he puts the bread on a plate, tops it with a skewer’s worth of lamb and showers a handful of scallions on top. The ultra-tender meat is imbued with the oils from chopped garlic and onions, a perfect smattering of salt and little else. The bread has a sourdough-like pucker. Titterton explains that it’s made with yogurt, yet another Vermont product.
The names of the foods may be exotic, but in the end, it’s a delicious Vermont lunch, cooked in a Vermont home kitchen. And what could taste better than that?
"The Vermont Home Cookbook: Local Ingredients, Global Flavors, Universal Techniques" by Bob Titterton, Shires Press, 317 pages. $28.95. The “How To” cooking series begins Wednesday, March 28, 6-8 p.m. at River Arts in Morrisville. howtofood.net; riverartsvt.org
4 to 6 servings
2 lbs. (1 kg) lamb leg or shoulder
Few grinds black pepper
Salt as needed
1 large or 2 medium onions, thinly sliced and separated into rings
4 cloves garlic, minced
6 scallions, sliced
1. Cut the lamb into 1-inch (2.5 cm) cubes, or have the butcher do it for you. Do not trim away all of the fat, as this flavors the meat and will help keep it tender and juicy as it cooks. Salt and pepper the lamb on all sides.
2. Combine the sliced onion and garlic in a bowl. Put a layer of these vegetables in a shallow refrigerator dish, top with a layer of lamb, and then another layer of the onion mixture. Cover tightly and refrigerate for at least two hours; it will be better if it sits all day or overnight. The lamb will absorb the flavors and aroma of the onions and garlic.
3. Thread the lamb onto skewers. Use flat-sided skewers, as they are easier to turn and will stay put when you turn them.
4. Construct a mangal from eight bricks. Place two bricks in the center of your firepit end to end on their narrow sides. Place two bricks on top of these. Construct another wall of four bricks parallel to the first wall with about 10 inches (25 cm) of space between the walls to accommodate the length of the skewers. Light the charcoal using a starter chimney. Lighter fluid ruins the flavor of anything you cook. When the charcoal is burning — it usually takes about 15 minutes to get started — dump it into a pile and let it burn another 15 minutes. Spread it out into an even layer between the bricks. Allow it to burn for another few minutes so that you have a nice, glowing bed of coals.
5. Place the sticks of shashlik onto your homemade mangal with the bare metal ends of the skewers resting on the bricks. Turn them occasionally and cook until done to your liking. It should take a good 15 to 20 minutes if the bed of coals is the correct temperature and the lamb is far enough above the coals. The smoking coals flavor the lamb. Serve showered with scallions.
Cooking shashlik is a very social affair. There is no need to worry about anything. Your friends will love hanging around the fire and pulling another cork while the lamb is cooking. Slow food is the best food. This is a meal best enjoyed outdoors.