When my cousin offered us her home for the summer in the mountain town of Asheville, NC, I wasn’t quite convinced. Then she gave us a video tour of the organic permaculture garden wrapping around the humble little house. Here was our chance to test out the life I had always imagined living one day far in the future, a life of fresh food and my hands in the dirt.
Along with overalls and a sunhat, I packed a selection of cookbooks based on local and seasonal eating. And I’m so glad I did! We seldom order takeout these days, and our trips to the grocery store have stretched to every two weeks thanks to all the fresh, locally grown ingredients we’ve been using.
Our table has been flush with wholesome, homemade meals that have kept us full, healthy, and grateful.
I know we’re not the only ones eating more locally and seasonally. Business is booming for CSA (community supported agriculture) boxes. In April I referred several New York friends to the one we subscribed to, and they reported back that there was a waitlist. There was a waitlist for the CSA service in Asheville, too, though it opened up after two weeks.
Summer is over, but fall’s bounty has just begun. Now is a great time to share the seasonal cookbooks I’ve been cracking open over the last few months, plus a few more that I’m eager to add to my collection.
With these on your shelf, you’ll never wonder “What do I do with this?” when opening a farm box — or in my case, staring down 25 dirt-covered turnips from the garden — ever again.
You can find pretty much anything at the larger New York City farmers markets, which are a destination for top chefs and — come springtime — tourists and curious amateur cooks. The recipes in here are love poems to the variety of ingredients available there and can be mixed and matched for impressive meals. There are a couple recipes that are hard to pull off outside the tri-state area (quail, anyone?) but even while I’m limited to Asheville, NC markets, this is the first cookbook I look at before I head out to the Saturday market.
#2. Six Seasons: A New Way With Vegetables, by Joshua McFadden
One of my favorite eating experiences ever was at the famous restaurant Blue Hill, which highlights organic, heirloom, and seasonal ingredients. So any chef who has spent time there is an inspiration to me. McFadden refined his skills there and at Momofuku in New York City, and produced an award-winning cookbook that has been hailed as “perfect.” This cookbook doesn’t just tell you what’s in season — it highlights how vegetables change from season to season. That’s so helpful when turnips go from bright and crunchy-sweet in spring to big and bitter in the summer, for example. With 225 certified-easy, vegetable-focused recipes, it’s an encyclopedic reference of how to maximize your backyard garden and farmers market offerings without ever missing meat.
This isn’t a cookbook, but it is a crucial tool for the home chef who wants to use up what she has on hand. At first it was great for avoiding trips to the grocery store or saving money by using a more affordable ingredient or tool. But it’s also come in handy for verifying that I could use lemon balm from the garden instead of lemon verbena in a fruit dessert, figuring out the difference in measurements from fresh to dry herbs, and confirming that I could use up those darn turnips in recipes that normally call for potatoes.
#4. Simply Organic, by Jesse Ziff Cool
I bought this back when it came out in 2008, and I still use it and love it today. That’s because it’s not based on clean eating or superfood trends, but on whole, fresh ingredients, organized by nine precise seasons, including Deep Winter and Indian Summer. Its 150 recipes are uncomplicated and use ingredients that are both deeply familiar and a fresh addition to your repertoire.
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#5. Eat a Little Better, by Sam Kass
This cookbook by the former chef for the Obama White House doesn’t dangle the impossible ideal of perfection in front of you, but teaches you basic strategies and tricks to overhaul your family’s pantry, fridge, and eating patterns so you eat healthier and more earth-friendly.
#6. Mostly Plants, by Tracy, Dana, Lori, and Corky Pollan
Reading Michael Pollan’s two mid-aughts books revolutionized my health and the way I eat, so I bought this book by his family as soon as it came out. This flexitarian cookbook is seasonless and does center plants, with a section dedicated to vegetarian recipes, but still has plenty of meals with meat involved if that’s your thing. My husband and I are now locked in a battle in which he wants me to make the “riced” broccoli and chicken piccata recipe every single week while I would like to try the rest of the 101 recipes first!
#7. The First Mess Cookbook, by Laura Wright
A friend brought this down to our summer house erroneously thinking I’m a vegan, and I’m so glad she did. It would be easy to dismiss Wright as “just a blogger,” but she came to her blog with a lifetime of experience and professional training in cooking fresh, wholesome, seasonal, and, yes, vegan food. This book starts with a fancy but easy Earl Grey tea, runs through hearty tempeh-based meals, and finishes with luscious berry desserts. It’s gorgeously photographed and anything but unsatisfying. Just note that you’ll have to do some special pantry stocking to hit the balanced nutritional profile, with things like unrefined coconut oil and almond flour. But if there’s any time to try out being vegan, it would be now while you’re cooking more than ever.
#8. The Love & Lemons Cookbook, by Jeanine Donofrio
If you’ve ever pulled out a bunch of something from your CSA box and scratched your head while googling, then this is the cookbook for you. Organized by ingredient and offering advice for pre-stocking your pantry for any contingency plan, it offers an array of recipes that will satisfy anyone’s preferences, with vegan and gluten-free options for many of the recipes.
#9. The Art of Simple Food, by Alice Waters
Waters’ mantra is: Eat locally and sustainably; eat seasonally; and shop at farmers markets. If that is your goal this year (it’s definitely mine!), then her bible of precise and crucial cooking techniques for making tasty yet deceptively simple meals will get you there.
#10. Dishing Up the Dirt, by Andrea Bemis
Written by a smallholder, organic farmer who whips up dinner based on what she pulled from the dirt that day, this flexitarian cookbook is tailor-made for someone who hates to see a plump zucchini go to waste. It also will give you an inside look (and taste) at what it’s really like to go back to the land, in case you’ve been considering it.
#11. David Tanis Market Cooking, by David Tanis
If you don’t have a backyard but want to learn your way around the nearby farmer’s market, this cookbook by a Chez Panisse chef will have you roaming the farmers’ tables and selecting pints of cherries with confidence. With recipes from around the world based on ingredients you can get locally, you won’t get bored.
#12. Farm to Chef, by Lynn Crawford
Crawford doesn’t have a big American following like some of the other chefs and bloggers here (she’s Canadian,) but owners of her seasonally organized book universally praise it as easy, fun, and incredibly delicious, with a dash of fusion recipes and gorgeous recipes to inspire.