The produce aisles at Berkeley Bowl. Photo: Erin Scott

Berkeley Bowl may be where the majority of Berkeleyans (and many East Bay residents, in general) shop, but chances are that even the most avid home cooks among us pass by the lesser-known fruits and vegetables on the shelves, leaving them for someone else to experiment with.

But of course some shopper buys them, otherwise the store wouldn’t carry them. One of those shoppers is Laura McLively, author of The Berkeley Bowl Cookbook: Recipes Inspired by the Extraordinary Produce of California’s Most Iconic Market (Parallax Press).

After picking up McLively’s inspiring book, more Berkeley Bowl shoppers may be much more likely to pick up the malanga, milpero or singua once they see how malanga (a root from Central America) gets turned into Malanga Masala Latkes; milpero (a cousin of the better-known tomatillo) becomes a roasted milpero salsa verde and singua, a gourd that when dried becomes a loofah, is paired with paneer to make Singua Paneer Curry.

The Berkeley Bowl Cookbook officially drops on April 17. It is entirely an East Bay production — Parallax Press is based in Berkeley, McLively lives in Oakland and Erin Scott, who took the beautiful photos, is a Berkeley-based photographer and cookbook author in her own right, specializing in food.

The book grew out of the author’s quest — that started with a blog called “My Berkeley Bowl” in 2015 — to cook her way through the entire produce section of her favorite market. (In the interest of full disclosure, I first met McLively when I wrote about her blog for Berkeleyside in 2015. Later, I tested three recipes for the cookbook. To read a complete summary of how her blog got started, see that article.)

McLively first fell in love with Berkeley Bowl while an undergraduate at Cal, but her project started when she returned to the East Bay after living in Spain, where she volunteered at an open market and became culinary pals with a local who also loved to experiment in the kitchen. For the past several years, she has worked at the Native American Health Center in Oakland as a registered dietician and diabetes educator.

When McLively began her blog, the crest of popularity for food blogs had already come and gone. She had no grand aspirations for a cookbook; it was more of a personal challenge to use every unfamiliar ingredient in the produce section, so getting a book deal out of it was a complete surprise. Nevertheless, McLively started My Berkeley Bowl in March, and she had a cookbook deal by December.

“My blog was a personal project, and my own little thing, but when I was approached about a cookbook, right away it made sense because it’s a finite project,” said McLively. “There are only so many unfamiliar fruits and vegetables at Berkeley Bowl, so it made sense to wrap it up nicely in a cookbook, and I loved the idea of having a really beautiful coffee-table book, which is more than a cookbook.”

Given how well-known the market is both here and nationally, McLively was surprised that no one had ever produced a cookbook affiliated with it before.

In fact, the first time Berkeley Bowl’s owners, Glenn and Diane Yasuda and their son Gen, heard about McLively’s passion for their store, was when I called Diane Yasuda for a comment about McLively’s blog in 2015. To get said comment, I had to send her the blog’s link.

“After your article, I got an email asking if I could come to their staff meeting the following Saturday,” McLively said this week. “I thought they might tell me ‘cease and desist,’ or I wasn’t sure what to expect, but it was really just to thank me for being a fan of their store.”

From that point on, the store subsidized McLively’s experiments, letting her choose ingredients to cook with for her blog free of charge.

By the time the cookbook deal was in the works, Diane Yasuda had introduced McLively to all of their produce buyers, so she could have the inside scoop on when hard-to-obtain items would come into the store — helpful since some of them have such a short season.

They also worked closely together on the book’s introductory chapter about the market. McLively interviewed the Yasudas several times, and the family provided all of the archival photos. Beginning with Berkeley Bowl’s humble beginnings in 1977, opening in a former bowling alley, McLively delves into how the store developed relationships with small, local farmers, opened its second store and gained such prominence as an institution that it’s been mentioned by writers and cooks like Mark Bittman and Yotam Ottolenghi and appeared in an episode of “Top Chef.”

McLively was elated to learn that Deborah Madison, founding chef of Greens Restaurant in San Francisco and author of numerous vegetarian cookbooks, had agreed to give her a promotional blurb. “She’s one of my major idols and influencers, and obviously a pioneer of vegetarian cuisine, so I was absolutely stunned and thrilled that she was willing to blurb my book,” McLively said.

When asked to describe her process on developing a new recipe, McLively said: First she goes to the store, as the inventory differs from one day to the next. “My research starts there,” she said. “I talk to people who are buying the same ingredient, and ask them, ‘What do you do with that?’”

She’ll also talk to the produce staff (yes, she’s gotten to know them very well by now) and read up a bit about the fruit, vegetable or herb on her phone.

If it’s a piece of fruit, sometimes the staff will cut one open and let her sample it. Once she gets it home, she tries it raw first, and then tries different techniques; “boiling it, roasting it, braising it, to see the best way to draw out its flavor and texture,” she said. Often, she’ll have to return to the store to get more ingredients. “Sometimes it works the first time and sometimes it doesn’t,” she said. “Most times it’s workable enough, and I adjust things from there, swapping out an ingredient to get it to the point where it can be tested.”

The Berkeley Bowl Cookbook features 100 recipes, categorized by type of fruit or vegetable, so there are chapters called “Leaves,” “Flowers, Seeds and Pods,” “Spores and Succulents,” “Stems,” “Roots and Tubers,” “Savory Fruits” and “Sweet Fruits.” The categories are especially helpful since a reader might not know an African-horned melon, for example, is a sweet fruit or that gai lan is a leaf, while long chow sum is a stem.

The avid home cook will find that many of the items are familiar already (things like celeriac, sunchokes, rhubarb and kumquats make an appearance), but McLively’s creativity is both inspiring and infectious. She has an international palate — her parents are of Spanish and Greek origin — that’s reflected in the diversity of recipes, which include an Indian-style curry with paneer, Jewish latkes, homemade tamales and tortillas.

Of course, it’s always difficult for a cookbook author to choose her favorite recipe. While the Indian Bitter Melon Tonic may not be her favorite, McLively counts it as her proudest achievement, given how hard it was to come up with a recipe using the savory fruit that didn’t taste completely medicinal.

McLively said her recipe for prickly pear sorbet is a personal favorite, and a crowd-pleaser, with its hint of serrano chili and deep purple hue. And her Wood Ear and Israeli Couscous Consommé is a recipe she goes back to again and again, because of its simplicity.

“The book is beautifully done with lots of terrific food pictures and recipes,” Diane Yasuda said in an email this week. “We are honored to have our store chosen for such a wonderful cookbook.”

The prickly pear sorbet is Berkeley Bowl Cookbook author Laura McLively’s favorite recipe from the book. Photo: Erin Scott

Prickly Pear Sorbet

Serves 4-6

7 to 8 ripe red prickly pears
1 cup water
2/3 cup sugar
4 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
3 tablespoons freshly squeezed lime juice
1 serrano chili

To extract the juice, slice the prickly pears in half lengthwise and use a spoon to scoop out the flesh, getting as close to the skin as possible. (Caution: Prickly pears can have invisible spines on their skin, so consider wearing rubber or gardening gloves while handling them.) Pulse the prickly pear flesh in a blender for 5 to 10 seconds to separate the flesh from the seeds. Pour the contents of the blender through a fine-mesh strainer. Stir for several minutes to extract as much juice as possible and discard the seeds and thick pulp that remain. There should be about 1 2/3 to 1 3/4 cups of juice.

In a small saucepan, heat the water and sugar until the sugar completely dissolves. Remove from the heat and stir in the prickly pear juice, lemon juice, and lime juice. Using a fine grater or Microplane, grate the sides of the serrano chili all the way around, avoiding the seeds in the middle. Add half the chili to the juice mixture and taste for spiciness. Grate and add more chili if desired. Refrigerate the mixture until completely chilled through, about 3 hours or overnight.

To make the sorbet, turn on the ice cream maker and pour in the chilled prickly pear mixture. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions or process until the sorbet is thickened and velvety in consistency, about 15 to 20 minutes. Serve immediately for a softer sorbet. For firmer consistency, transfer the sorbet to a container and freeze for at least 3 hours, allowing the sorbet to soften for a few minutes at room temperature before serving.

Photos and recipe reprinted with permission from ‘Berkeley Bowl Cookbook: Recipes Inspired by the Extraordinary Produce of California’s Most Iconic Market’ © 2018 by Laura McLively, Parallax Press

Alix Wall is an Oakland-based freelance writer. She is contributing editor of J., The Jewish News of Northern California, for which she has a food column and writes other features. In addition to Berkeleyside’s...