Book Reviews: Vegetables and Gardening and Sustainable Eating, Oh My!

Welcome to our third installment of cook book reviews from Kristina Gill. It’s a spirited edition, don’t say I did not warn you! However, if you’re like me I suspect you’ll enjoy a personal take on some of the themes dealt with in a couple of the books from one of my most favorite people on the planet. I mean, one of my most favorite opinionated people on the planet. And if you don’t enjoy it, don’t be shy about sharing your opinion.  She can take it!  Take it away, Kristina!

The sun has finally come out after weeks of strange weather, and we have at least a promise of great weather to come.  Each year I promise myself I’m going to go convince the farmer across the street to come help me set up my garden (do it myself??  What??), and each year I never do!  So I have a little stack of books here all about gardening, eating from your garden, and all the things you need to know to get busy dibbling and dabbling…or getting good and dirty and starting a serious garden.  These days the topic of “growing  your own food” is always in the context of something a lot bigger, a moral and ethical sales pitch is in there too.  So I’ve included a couple of those titles for you.

The Conscious Kitchen:  The New Way to Buy and Cook Food– to Protect the Earth, Improve Your Health, and Eat Deliciously by Alexandra Zissu (Clarkson Potter 2010; no photography!)  I’ve been sitting with this book by my bedside for a few weeks, and it has been eating away at my brain.  Figuratively speaking.  This is a little manual about tips on how to live a more environmentally friendly life, in the food context.  I think if you’re moderately informed about the issues raised in this book (food miles, local vs organic, carbon footprint, recycling, etc) you will have a strong reaction to its content.  For now, all I will say is that if you’re easily depressed by learning that you’ve been packing your lunch for the past 10 years in something that has known carcinogens in it, this isn’t your book.  However, if you’re interested in knowing how much of the crap in your house is sending the earth to hell in a hand basket and how to move beyond that (NB: it’s about 99.999% of what you own), this is a great book.  If you’re the kind of person who wants to fit in to this movement, but looks for new ways to morally justify all of your exclusive imported food and wine choices to whomever may challenge you, this is your book.  If, like me, you are mortified, even paralyzed by the knowledge that you thought you were making good choices but apparently aren’t, and don’t really have the means to start over and this paralyzes you even more, yet you feel compelled to try do more or at least KNOW what you’re doing wrong, this book is a wealth of knowledge.  I personally feel that everyone should become familiar with the issues raised in the book, regardless of whether they agree with the author’s opinions and conclusions, and the book is short enough and simple enough to read quickly.  NB:  Using salted water in an aluminum pan in place of silver polish didn’t work for me though!!

Lucid Food:  Cooking for an Eco-Conscious Life by Louise Shafia (Ten Speed Press, 2009; photography by Jennifer Martiné).  This IACP award-nominated book is a recipe book, interspersed with tips on how to “make great food that will sustain you and the environment”.  Divided into seasons, so you learn when the “right time” of year is to enjoy different fruits and vegetables.  Although not an entirely vegetarian book, this would be a safe (and cherished) vegetarian resource.  The recipes are elegant and refined, quite varied and refreshingly new.  The spices and combinations of ingredients are Asian, European, and ‘New American’, a small sampling of the world.  The only slight drawback is that if you don’t live in a well-stocked city, finding some of the ingredients will be challenging like barberries, rose petals, sheets of yuba, and so forth.  (And of course since you’re trying to be eco-conscious, you won’t mail order anything, will you?)  But don’t get me wrong– I believe that having a hard time finding ingredients periodically just encourages a curious cook to try out new combinations.  Jennifer Martiné’s gorgeous photography ensures that you’ll spend a lot of time studying the pages of this book, and get good use out of it, whether it’s to learn more about how you can lead an environmentally sustainable culinary existence, or to cook, or both.

On a separate note, and one which I do not believe detracts from the utility of Lucid Food as primarily a cookbook, I must admit I was a bit perplexed at certain assumptions Shafia made in the book.  For example:  “…Many of these [out of season] foods come from countries where labor conditions and pesticide use are unregulated.  This produce is usually inferior to locally-grown fruits and vegetables in both taste and nutritional value,” as if our agricultural sector can boast of better labor conditions or pesticide use…  Shafia also writes, “Some will argue that eating local, sustainable, and organic food is simply too expensive– or worse, exclusive or elitist– and that families on fixed incomes can’t afford to eat this way.  I would like to challenge that misconception right off the bat.” and then goes into the hidden costs of “inferior foods flown in from distant countries”, obesity, diabetes, heart disease, keeping money in the local economy etc.  She, like Zissu, obviously assumes that “affordability” is only monetary.   I guess in her world, if families with fixed incomes just realized how beautiful it is to bicycle around town in between their two and three jobs to smell the roses, stop and dig in some good and wormy compost, and get their employers to give them a break during the day to get in a trip to the farmer’s market, these people would so be with the program.  I don’t know though, because she doesn’t deal with the idea beyond this very superficial and common approach we see so often in these sermons.

The Seasoned Vegetarian by Simon Rimmer (Mitchell Beazley 2009; photography by Chris Terry) Phew!  I needed a break from all the shame.  A break from the advice that I should only be eating food which was harvested during the new moon on Monday. And who better to turn to for that than a Brit.  Simon Rimmer’s book is the equivalent of vegetarian comfort food.  Note:  This isn’t traditional British by any means, but the recipes are indeed very ‘modern’ British.  (Goat’s cheese and onion tart, zucchini fritters with green olive salsa, baked cherry tomatoes with ricotta and basil, falafel, hazelnut and chocolate meringues…)  All the ingredients are typical ones you can find where you do your food shopping, without difficulty.  Technique is simple, creativity isn’t at the level of Lucid Food, but then again, comfort food never is!  Rimmer’s recipes are straight forward and easy to produce.  In fact, this would be a good book for someone who is just starting out in the kitchen, regardless of their preference for eating meat.

New Urban Farmer:  From Plot to Plate:  A Year on the Allotment by Celia Brooks Brown (Quadrille 2010; photography by Jill Mead). So if the first two books really convinced you you should run right out and start an environmentally friendly garden, here you go.  This book is a great little treasure.  It follows the months of the year, starting in March (so I’m a little behind in telling you about it).  For each month’s chapter, it has charts that tell you which fruits/vegetables can be grown indoors / under glass, outdoors, or in containers, and then whether there is a recipe in the book.  The beginning chapter explains the basics of what you will need, and each chapter walks you through what you should be doing at each stage of the month.  It’s a very handy book for preparatory reading and a good reference thereafter, including recipes!

Grow Great Grub:  Organic Food from Small Spaces by Gayla Trail (Clarkson Potter 2009) This book could be the companion to Celia Brooks Brown’s book because it covers all the areas that Celia’s book doesn’t:  this is where you learn where and how to make your garden, how to make your containers, what bugs will be destroying what plants and how to deal with them.  There are recipes here too, but few of them.  There is, however, a chapter on how to preserve and can your harvest.  When I read through this book, starting a few plants on my balcony  before heading into gardening in my yard seems doable.  This book is a companion to Trail’s comprehensive website “You Grow Girl”, which by the way turned 10 this year.  Happy Birthday!  I promise I will do at least 1 plant this spring following her methods!


  1. says

    Love this post! Just put some of them in my queue at the library so I can check them out before purchasing. Thanks for the great info, Kristina:)

  2. says

    Great post indeed, I have Lucid Food and I’m really enjoying the recipes. Grow Great Grub will definitely make a good addition to my collection of gardening books. Good luck with your own growing this year. Keep us posted!

  3. says

    Someone has rightly pointed out that I forgot to mention who the illustrator was for the cover of the Conscious Kitchen.

    There is only the cover illustration for the book though, nothing on the inside. I will copy here what is on the book:

    Cover design: Marysarah Quinn
    Cover illustrations: Onions and leeks
    Copyright Digital Vision Illustration / Getty Images
    Tomato and radish copyright
    Author photograph: Olli Chanoff

    I hope this helps those of you who were interested!


  4. says

    Thanks Matt! :-) I’m off to the book store now…
    I was jolted into some reality by Louisa Shafia’s comments on good quality food affordability. The hidden costs of quick easy food are expensive. The US has 34.3% of the population over weight or obese. I agree with Shafia, eat local, eat organic. Micronutrients in our diet equals wellness. Thanks again for reviewing these Matt.

  5. says

    I live in Seattle and found The New Urban Farmer book’s monthly advice to be good for the Pacific Northwest because our climate is very similar to England’s but some of the timing might be a bit off for warmer and cooler parts of the country. That said, it is really a lovely resource and inspiring! Thanks so much for the other reviews. The cover of Lucid Food completely sold me!

  6. Wendi in Biarritz says

    What a great post! I will definitely check all of these tempting books out next time I’m in the States.

  7. Tricia says

    I’m intrigued by the New Urban Farmer, but wondering if anyone has found the book stateside?

  8. says

    Urban Farmers must be the one that interests me the most. I live in an apartment building that does not really allow a garden. Great recommendation, thank you.

  9. says

    Hi Tricia,

    I haven’t checked Amazon for this title, but I did notice that shipping rates are surprisingly affordable for overseas rates. If that doesn’t work, You Grow Girl is a fantastic resource and you may find something similar you like through her site.


  10. says

    I would love to have a read. I started my own garden like a month ago and soon will be picking up my first radishes! This is so exciting, I cannot wait, I really cannot wait 😀

  11. says

    I think investing in sustainable food resources is an excellent way to spend your money.. I wish there was more emphasis on this right now, but unfortunately you seem to be the only one on board.

  12. says

    Rhubarb is my favorite! My grandmother had it on her farm when I was little and we used to eat it raw.. love love love it. We also used to make rhubarb pies and they are still my favorite to this day!

  13. says

    Thanks Matt for your book suggestions. The seasoned Vegetarian is perhaps the one I am buying soon as a consolation of not having indulged in Chef Jeremy Fox’s creative Vegetarian marvels when he was at Ubuntu, California.

  14. says

    Well, I’m not sure whether to be deeply flattered that people think my writing style is so close to Matt’s so as to confuse what I’ve written with his, or to be deeply hurt that people didn’t read the intro to notice that I’ve written the books reviews…

    I think I’ll choose to be flattered and thank you all for your kind comments!


  1. gardener…

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