The farmer’s daughter

11/03/2010 6:42 PM |

KATHARINE SCHROEDER PHOTO Relaxing in the kitchen of her 19th-century farmhouse Monday morning, Paula Croteau, author of ‘Farmhouse Kitchen Favorites,’ discusses the inspiration for some of her recipes.

On South Harbor Road in Southold there’s a little oasis of civility and country charm on the edge of an expansive field of grape vines.
Paula Croteau’s farmhouse kitchen has been a destination for food lovers since she started a cooking school there eight years ago. Last week, she unveiled the first book of recipes that she has put together over the course of her second career as a cooking teacher.
“Farmhouse Kitchen Favorites” is available for $30 at, and at Croteaux Vineyards on South Harbor Road. Ms. Croteau will be signing copies at Complement the Chef, a gourmet cookware supply store on Main St. in Southold this Saturday, Nov. 6, from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Last Saturday, she had a signing at the vineyard’s tasting barn and sold 250 copies, she said.
Ms. Croteau, who tests products for Complement the Chef, pays homage in the book to both the cookware store and her favorite local purveyors.
She sings the praises of the Southold IGA’s meat and produce departments, the Southold Fish Market, and the owners of Sang Lee Farms in Peconic, whom she describes as the most hard-working farmers she’s ever met.
“I’m in awe of them,” she said.
Ms. Croteau, 53, is the daughter of potato farmer Chester Skwara and grew up in Peconic. She left the North Fork after high school to pursue a career in fashion trend forecasting, working as an executive at Ann Taylor before she and her husband, Michael Croteau, a graphic designer, decided to settle on the North Fork full time eight years ago.
They bought the farmhouse in the mid-1980s and purchased the Stepnoski Farm across the street to prevent the land from being developed. They set to work planting grapes for what has become a boutique vineyard, Croteaux Vineyards, specializing in rosé.
Cooking has always been Ms. Croteau’s passion. As a young girl, her grandmothers’ kitchens were a substitute for pre-school.
“Children learn by observing,” she said of her visits to her grandmother. “My memories of food are all about comfort and how fun it is to prepare a meal. When you went there, you were given an apron and you got to work. It felt like I had joined a sorority.”
“I’m a country cook,” she said. “The heart and soul of what I do is in-season cooking, recipes that you want to make over and over again.”
Ms. Croteau makes a point of including wellness education in her cooking classes. In late October, she taught a total of 100 students how to be occasional vegetarians and in January she will devote a series of classes to salmon and other foods that contain Omega 3 fatty acids.
When she first started teaching cooking, she was lucky to have 12 people attend wellness and heathy cooking classes, she said. Now, those classes fill up very quickly.
Though she is a fan of rich cooking, and titled one chapter of her book “The More Butter the Better,” she said that it was easy to modify her recipes using apple concentrate instead of oil, or applesauce or pumpkin puree instead of sugar and butter.
“I use those substitutes so much that my children don’t even notice it anymore,” she said.
The book abounds with helpful hints and kitchen stories from her childhood up to her grownup experiences entertaining for a crowd.
A page of hints is titled “Inheriting Your Grandmother’s Spice Rack.” Ms. Croteau, who spent time in India learning about fresh spices, said that the best thing a person can do with their grandmother’s spice rack is to throw it out. Spices have a short lifespan and must be purchased in small quantities and used quickly, or grown and ground fresh for each meal, she said.
Ms. Croteau is a big fan of one-pot dishes, casseroles and cassoulets, and of comfort food, from macaroni and cheese to her father’s favorite, potato pancakes. She pared down the number of recipes from several hundred to 80 with the advice of six friends and family members who were intimately familiar with all the dishes. She then asked other friends, ages 20 to 80, to weigh in on whether or not the book’s contents made sense to people in their age range.
Her husband did the graphic design and photography for the book, which includes page after page of color photographs of the food. She is now at work planning four more cookbooks that will focus on cooking in each of the four seasons.
Ms. Croteau dedicated the cookbook to her dad, who is a frequent guest in the Farmhouse Kitchen and “my kitchen companion every step of the way … the person that every cook wants by their side. A master of the chef’s knife whose passions are equally fruits and vegetables.”
“It is about the North Fork. I am a native,” she said. “I wanted it to be a window into my past and what makes me who I am. I always say it’s not about the food. It’s almost competing with yoga. Cooking is very healing.”
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