“The Volante Farms Cookbook: A Century of Growing.” By Ryan Conroy. Recipes by Todd and Jen Heberlein. Union Park Press. $35.

Aptly, given its name, “The Volante Farms Cookbook: A Century of Growing” grew on me. I came across the book as a judge for Readable Feast, an annual contest for New England food books and cookbooks. At first, it was overshadowed by some of the slicker, more highly produced cookbooks that were entered in the contest. But when I finally sat down with “The Volante Farms Cookbook” and gave it a serious look, I was quietly charmed.

Through family stories, old photographs and essays on farming that are scattered in its pages, the cookbook chronicles 100 years in the life of a family farm near Boston. The place thrives to this day while, as the introduction states, surrounding farms have given way “to housing tracts and urban sprawl.”

The farm was started in 1917 by Italian immigrant Peter Paul Volante. He’d come to America 17 years earlier looking for opportunity “after a short stint in the Italian Bicycle Infantry,” we learn. It’s exactly the sort of detail that gives the book its appeal, and the stories are peppered with such gems. Early on, we learn of cousin Ferdinand, still in Italy, also farming, whose farmhouse attic “sagged from the weight of ripening persimmons in the fall.” Some time later, it’s now the early 1960s, we’re told the pay scale of the Volante children of that generation, who are pitching in on the farm: “Al was paid a quarter an hour at age nine, while twelve-year-old Helen earned an hourly wage of seventy-five cents.” When Al grows up and is courting Mel, her soon-to-be father-in-law, that same cousin Ferdinand, now in America, is “particularly impressed that she knew how to properly use a push broom.”

Such details make the farm, and the farmers, spring to heartfelt life, and they also help “The Volante Farms Cookbook” stand out in a genre that has become a cliche – the farm-to-table cookbook. This cookbook isn’t self-important nor does it fall into raptures over budding blossoms, bountiful harvests or frolicking goats. When it tells the reader about farming, the tone is matter of fact: “Both bountiful and temperamental, tomatoes require patience and skill to grow. When the weather cooperates, however, they grow so well on their own that Al has been known to exclaim, ‘This crop makes us look like geniuses!’ ”

The recipes, too, have a knack for adding the unusual and interesting detail. A Peach Polenta Upside-down Cake adds kernels of sweet corn and chopped fresh thyme. A classic Italian pignoli tart is transformed with the unusual addition of a strawberry-rhubarb filling. Volante’s version of Char Sui Pork (delicious!) gets its classic pink coloring from a surprising ingredient – pureed beets. And my favorite of the recipes I tested, rhubarb scones, are luxed up with white chocolate.


Normally, I’m a scone purist; Americans often smarten them up with too much sugar and too many sugary add-ins like chocolate and caramel for me. But these won me, and my co-worker-tasters, over entirely. An emailed thank you for the office treat summed up the general opinion: “Best scone I’ve had all year, by far!”

I liked the Tomato and Corn Tart, too, especially the easy-to-work-with cornmeal and cheese dough, which made a tender and buttery shell. The tart was an ode to summer, and pretty, to boot.

A few recipe quibbles – the Honey Pine Nut Tarts with Strawberries and Rhubarb instructed the reader to make 12 to 18 individual tarts in muffin pans; could one simplify and make one large tart instead? I’d have liked instructions for that. That Char Sui Pork left me with a lot of leftover marinade – must I throw it out or might I boil it (for safety), then recycle it for other recipes? Again, I was on my own. More significantly, I had too much batter to fit into a 9-inch pan for the Peach Polenta Upside-Down Cake. But on the whole, I liked this book – its warm spirit and its recipes, both.

It’s a fraught and ugly time for immigrants in this country. And though, with one gently worded exception in the introduction, “The Volante Farms Cookbook” is never overtly political, the story itself of an immigrant family’s success testifies to the best of America: how our acceptance (if not always warm welcome) of penniless but determined and hard-working outsiders is no small part of what has long made America great.

Peggy Grodinsky can be contacted at 791-6453 or:

[email protected]


Twitter: @PGrodinsky


Peggy Grodinsky: Next time I make this, I’ll add a generous 1/4 teaspoon salt to the crust. Also, I rested the dough in the refrigerator, not the counter. In August, it was just too hot for it to sit out. Lastly, I had no fine cornmeal so used stone-ground medium-coarse instead, which worked perfectly well.

Serves 4 to 6 as an appetizer or side


7 tablespoons salted butter, cubed, cold


1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

1/4 cup fine cornmeal

1/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

2 tablespoons olive oil

3 tablespoons cold water, more if needed



2 tablespoons olive oil

1 small yellow onion, diced

1 tablespoon chopped garlic

1 1/2 cups fresh corn kernels (about 2 ears)

1 tablespoon chopped marjoram


Kosher salt, to taste

Black pepper, to taste

2/3 cup grated Fontina cheese

3/4 pound heirloom tomatoes, thinly sliced

1 egg, beaten

Freeze cubed butter for 10 minutes prior to making crust.


Make crust. In a food processor, mix together flour, cornmeal, Parmesan cheese, and black pepper. Pulse for 10 seconds, and then add chilled butter, olive oil, and water. Pulse until dough starts to come together, about 30 seconds.

Place dough onto a floured work surface and knead into a ball. Add a little cold water if too dry and crumbly. Flatten dough into a disk, wrap in plastic, and let rest at room temperature for 1 hour.

Make the filling. Heat olive oil in a large sauté pan over medium-high heat. Add onions and cook until golden brown, 8 to 10 minutes. Add garlic and cook for 1 minute. Add corn kernels and cook for 1 minute. Remove from heat and add marjoram and a pinch of salt and pepper. Allow to cool completely and then mix in Fontina.

Preheat oven to 400 F.

Lightly flour both sides of the dough and roll it out into a large circle, about 12 inches in diameter with 1/4-inch thickness. Place dough on a sheet pan and spread corn mixture on top, leaving a 2-inch border.

Pat dry the tomato slices and arrange on top of corn. Fold dough border over corn and tomatoes. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and lightly brush dough with egg. Bake until golden brown, 30 to 35 minutes.

Remove from oven and serve warm.

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