Alana Chernila: The Homemade Pantry from a Homegrown Gal
The best very best trips to the farmers’ markets are expeditions of discovery. There, amidst the familiar greens, beans, and tomatoes, sits a knobby root vegetable that you may have heard of – or even enjoyed in a restaurant – but you have no idea of what to do with it, much less the greens that sprout from it. Intrigued, you’re game to give it a go.
That’s where Alana Chernila comes in. A familiar face at the Great Barrington Farmers’ Market, Chernila cheerily hands out change and cooking advice from behind the tables at the Indian Line Farm stand, where she has worked since 2008 as part of her membership in the farm’s CSA. Thanks to her gentle encouragement, scores of shoppers are no longer scared of celeriac or timid with turnips.
Chernila so enjoyed dispensing simple vegetable preparation ideas during her farmers’ market gigs that she created a blog, Eating From the Ground Up, in which she shared recipes based on seasonal produce in our region. Though she literally grew up baking in the kitchen of the Turning Point Inn on Lake Buel in Great Barrington, which her grandparents owned before it was purchased and converted into a private home, Chernila explains that her approach to cooking stemmed from “…the need to feed hungry children when our wallets were relatively empty.”
Chernlla jokes that because she entered motherhood nearly as soon as she was graduated from St. John’s College in 2002, she had to figure out how to make a living right away. As a young mother she worked a variety of jobs, including forays into publishing, film, teaching, and secretarial work. (Her husband Joey is a Montessori preschool teacher.) But she found her passion, and a culinary challenge shared by many other parents, in the kitchen.
Chernila’s children, now seven and nine years old, didn’t always want vegetables. But some foods they always did want, like granola bars, presented issues that trouble many parents, including expense, excessive packaging, and concerns about nutrition and the source of ingredients. Chernila channeled these concerns into a quest to make her kids’ favorite foods better – and cheaper – than the store-bought versions. The recipes that resulted from these pursuits made it into her blog, and Chermila’s readers applauded her kitchen forays beyond farmer’s market fare.
Recognizing a serious hunger for recipes for foods people normally buy in stores, Chernila wrote a book proposal based on her culinary exploits. “I felt like this book had to be written, and the agent in New York who took it on was my top choice.” This spring her book, The Homemade Pantry: 101 Foods You Can Stop Buying & Start Making, was published by Clarkson Potter. In its pages, home cooks can find out how to make everything from fish sticks to ketchup to mozzarella cheese to Chernila’s versions of Pop Tarts and peanut butter cups. Most recipes are preceded by a brief story from Chernila, which makes it seem as if an old friend is sharing some of her favorite things.
At 33 years old, Chernila is more than a working mom and newly minted cookbook author; she’s also the youngest-ever member of the Great Barrington board of selectmen. A Great Barrington native, Chernila says she got involved in local politics to combat her own sense of apathy. “I wanted to find a way to be a model of optimism and political action for my kids, and for myself, too.”
Chernila is certainly a model of can-do optimism in the kitchen, where she recommends taking on make-it-yourself projects that suit your specific needs. “For my purposes, the first staple was yogurt, because one of my daughters subsisted on it and I felt like I could make it better and cheaper and without so much packaging. That said, a great first from-scratch project is butter, because it takes five minutes and will never fail you.” Don’t believe it? Watch this.
Chernila also suggests that eager market-goers consider food preservation. “Often farmers have seconds,” she explains, “and besides canning, I think people don’t realize how easy it is to freeze vegetables.” Both techniques are covered in her book, with simple-to-follow instructions.
While Chernila plans to return to her post when the Great Barrington Farmers’ Market reopens on May 12, you need not brave Saturday traffic to get her cooking advice. She’ll be sharing her seasonal recipes on Rural Intelligence, so you can make the most of the local harvest. And if you’d like to stop wasting money (and other resources) on supermarket products that you can easily make yourself, you can check out The Homemade Pantry at a variety of events in our region (like the signing and cheese-making demonstration she held at the Chef’s Shop in Great Barrington, above, in April). Next up: Chernila’s launch party, at The Bookstore in Lenox on Friday, May 4, at 5 p.m. It’s a potluck party, naturally, so get in on the Homemade Pantry spirit and bring some food to share that you made at home, preferably something that you used to buy in the grocery store. —Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser
Lenox, MA; Friday, May 4 @ 5 p.m.
Booksigning, reading, and potluck launch party
The Bushnell-Sage Library
Sheffield, MA; Friday, May 18 @ 6:30 p.m.
Booksigning and talk on how to get kids in the kitchen