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Food Matters: Recipes, kids stories come together

Staff Writer
Austin 360

Crescent Dragonwagon was a household name growing up.

At the time, the author was running the Dairy Hollow House, a nationally renowned bed and breakfast in Eureka Springs, Ark. (No, that's not her given name. She made it up as a teenager when getting married to her first husband — the name outlasted the marriage.) She was a local celebrity for hosting people such as Bill and Hillary Clinton and Betty Friedan, and my mom relied on her "Dairy Hollow House" cookbooks as others did Betty Crocker's.

Only as an adult did I discover that, like her mother, Charlotte Zolotow, Dragonwagon also writes children's books, many of which use food as a storytelling device ("The Bread I Baked Ned," "Is This a Sack of Potatoes?" and, my favorite, "Alligator Arrived With Apples: A Potluck Alphabet Feast").

This year, she's back with both genres. "Bean by Bean," a recipe-filled homage to the lowly legume, came out earlier this year, and "All the Awake Animals are Almost Asleep," her first children's book in almost 10 years, is coming out this fall. (Another first: Dragonwagon will record an e-book, so children at bedtime can hear her mellifluous voice read her own carefully crafted words.)

This book, her 50th, is Dragonwagon's second on beans, but as she notes in the introduction, "beans have certainly come up, up, in the world since I first began writing about them." Once lacking in social standing and availability and "reviled nutritionally as little more than starch," beans across the board are more appreciated than they ever have been.

The self-proclaimed "legumaniac" gets excited talking about all the possibilities a single bean presents.

"If you have a dry bean, you could join it with hundreds of its fellows and have it for dinner," she said last week from her Vermont home. (She and her late husband, Ned, turned the Arkansas bed and breakfast into a writer's colony, which still exists today.) "Or you could rinse it, soak it and sprout it and have it for dinner in a couple of days. Or you could plant it and eat it as a shoot, eat it as a pod or eat it as a shelled bean. Then you could dry them out and plant them again."

As one of the only plants that puts as much back into the soil as it takes, beans are helpful at every phase of their lives. "They are so generous."

One thing that hasn't changed is the fact that beans are one of the cheapest forms of protein available. "Everyone is watching their income now, yet you can still bring a giant dish of wonderfulness and protein to a potluck," she said.

We tend to think of beans as an ingredient for wintertime soups and stews, but many of the recipes in the book are perfect for summer, including dips, stir-fries and salads, such as this Black Bean and Sweet Potato Salad with Honey-Lime Vinaigrette. (One of Dragonwagon's favorite dishes is a seven-layer Middle Eastern mountain dip that would be a nice change if you're tired of bringing the same seven-layer Tex-Mex dip to parties.)

Dragonwagon says she pours the nurturing spirit that made her bed and breakfast so successful into two places: Fearless Writing workshops that she hosts at her home (she still has openings for a Labor Day retreat called The Whole Enchilada. For details, go to bit.ly/LGDg08) and, much to her surprise, Facebook. "Thanks to the Internet, I'm interacting with people about food and tender things in a different way, but in a connected way. I ran the inn for 18 years. That nurturing energy needs to go somewhere."

Black Bean & Sweet Potato Salad with Honey-Cilantro Vinaigrette

When you next bake some sweet potatoes, do the cook-once-for-two-meals thing and bake a few extra. Then, especially if you use canned black beans (or if you have them, too, on hand as planned-overs), this Halloween-colored side salad is done in a flash. The optional green beans add a bit of time, but they're worth it, and with a little thinking ahead, they too can be on hand as planned-overs.

This extremely pleasing salad is perfect for pairing with a spicy main dish (like jerk-style chicken, tofu or eggplant), and because it doesn't have mayonnaise, is ideal for an outdoor potluck or picnic.

For the honey-cilantro vinaigrette:

1 bunch fresh cilantro leaves

1/2 cup cider vinegar

1/3 cup honey

4 cloves garlic, roughly chopped

1 1/2 tsp. salt

Plenty of freshly ground black pepper

Dash of Tabasco or similar hot sauce

1 cup olive oil

For the salad:

3 cups (two 15-oz. cans) tender-cooked black beans, drained well and rinsed

4 scallions, derooted, whites and 2 inches of green sliced

1/3 lb. (about 1 1/5 cups) chilled, cooked green beans, sliced into 1-inch lengths (optional)

2 or 3 large sweet potatoes, baked, peeled and chunked

Salt and freshly cracked black pepper

For the dressing, combine all of the ingredients except the oil in a food processor and buzz smooth. You may need to scrape the processor sides once or twice. If your machine's pusher tube has a little hole, pour the oil into the tube in two batches and let the oil drip in as the machine runs. Otherwise, drizzle in the oil by hand. Taste for seasonings, then transfer to a lidded container or jar and store in the refrigerator for up to a week.

Combine the black beans, scallions and green beans, if using, in a large bowl and toss with about 1/2 cup of the dressing. Add the sweet potatoes and toss very, very gently to keep the tender sweet potato pieces somewhat intact. Taste. Correct the seasonings with salt, pepper, and additional dressing if you like. Pass the remaining dressing at the table. Dig in, and get ready for the compliments; act modest. Use additional dressing on lettuce salads or even on entrees like enchiladas or a stir-fry. Serves 4 to 6.

– From "Bean by Bean" by Crescent Dragonwagon (Workman, $15.95)

Finding options for those with food restrictions

Finding gluten-free or vegetarian-friendly restaurants is easier than it used to be, but a new Austin-based website hopes to make that process a little easier. LocateSpecialDiet.com, created by Jessica Meyer, who also runs the food blog ATX Gluten-Free (atxglutenfree.com), lets users search a database of more than 30,000 grocery stores, bars and restaurants in 26 U.S. cities by type of diet (gluten-free, vegetarian or organic), location, cuisine and even additional features such as kid-friendly or outdoor dining. Users can also submit additional information, menus and photos, as well as tips on favorite dishes, how friendly the staff was, etc. The website is free to use, and within a few months, Meyer says, she'll add mobile applications to help diners on the go.

Book has tips on growing your own organic feast

¦ Pennsylvania author Robyn Jasko and illustrator Jennifer Biggs are in the middle of a cross-country train tour promoting their self-published book, "Homesweet Homegrown," which "empowers people everywhere to grow their own organic, non-GMO food, whether they live in a high-rise city apartment or an acre in the suburbs." From 6 to 8 tonight, you can join them at Springdale Farm, 755 Springdale Road, for a celebration of tomatoes, cocktails and the act of growing your own food. Tickets cost $15, which includes a signed copy of the book and nibbles from Pâté Letelier and Source Catering. springdale.ticketbud.com/homesweethome.

¦ Slow Food Austin and Central Market are hosting a series of young chef cooking classes this summer at the cooking school at 4001 N. Lamar Blvd. The event is open to kids ages 7 to 12 who, along with an adult, will learn hands-on cooking skills. The next classes, which take place from 9 a.m. to noon, are July 14 and Aug. 11. Cost is $20 per adult-kid team. slowfoodaustin.org.

¦ Andrew Brooks, who runs a catering company out of his Spirited Food Co. kitchen at 1208 W. Fourth St., is now offering a series of summer cooking classes. The first class, titled "Eating Well with a Busy Life," will take place from 6 to 8 p.m. on Friday and will feature roasted chicken, broccoli risotto and a BLT summer salad. Tickets ($50) include dinner and drinks. Email chefandrew@spirited food.com or call 844-1833 to reserve a space or get information about future classes this summer.