One of my favorite spring time rituals is to pour over cookbooks and dream of my perfect summer garden. Green beans will wind up the old ladder in the yard, we'll drop bags of zucchini off on neighbor's doorsteps when we can't eat anymore, and everywhere you look sunflowers, herbs and radishes will greet you. In reality our cat digs up starts and sometimes we forget to water enough and dry days wipe out our leafy greens. Some years the tree on the south side got a bit bigger over the winter and has taken a prime sunny spot and reduced it to shade. Inevitably come July I'll wonder where the time has gone and realize the window has passed on planting some of my favorite things.
But despite setbacks and unrealistic expectations, there's something so dreamy about early spring and the great hopefulness you get towards your garden. Things may not be perfect, but trying to plant a little more, or do a little better than the year before, is for me one of the great joys of gardening. It's a big experiment to see what works, what doesn't, and what you can cook in your kitchen that you grew with your own two hands.
Last year, I took home a napa cabbage start from GFE and grew a giant, gleaming head in my own backyard. I couldn't believe it, couldn't believe something so big and nutritious and beautiful had started off as a tiny seed, and that somehow it was able to thrive and grow in my soil. I felt awesome and invincible and like it was this incredible victory. It was a great success, and while there were countless failures that year as well, these ups and downs and small victories are what make this process so fun.
This time of year I pull a few of my favorite cookbooks off the shelf and read them before bed, dreaming of what I'll grow this year. Every chef writes, "a dish is only as good as its ingredients", and plucking something from your ground into your kitchen is the freshest and best ingredient you can find. Grow what you can and cook it. Your beans having a bumper year? Learn what to do with them. Have lots of borage and not much else? Do as the Italians and make soup!
Here are three of my favorite cookbooks to help me get inspired to up my backyard gardening game.
Chez Panisse Vegetables by Alice Waters
Alice Waters is one of the biggest vocal advocates for local food, and nothing is more local that your own backyard. This book is organized by vegetable from A --> Z so when my artichokes start producing I know where to turn for perfect recipe after perfect recipe.
Vegetable Literacy by Deborah Madison
Deborah Madison is the queen of vegetarian cooking (quite literally, she opened Greens Restaurant here in San Francisco) and her latest book, Vegetable Literacy, is an ode to growing your own food. The book is divided up by plant family and includes lots of information about how best to grow things and then how to cook them. She lives in New Mexico so while her climate is somewhat different than ours, much of the information carries over. Reading this book makes me want to work on my back door herb garden.
The River Cottage Cookbook by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall
Ok, so I dont live in England and don't own a good pair of wellies, but this book is so darn practical and dreamy that nothing inspires my spring planning more then River Cottage. The first 90 pages are devoted to gardening, and soil, and compost (see why I like it?), how to design a garden space and even organic pest control. This is before the section on raising your own livestock if you're going to go full tilt farm. The pictures are escapist and reading this makes me want to chuck my computer off the desk and stick my hands in the dirt.