Seasonal cookbooks similar to Mark Bittman's "Kitchen Express"?
October 30, 2017 5:25 AM   Subscribe

I have fallen in love with Mark Bittman's "Kitchen Express" cookbook. It does a couple of things VERY differently than any other cookbook I've seen:
  1. Recipes are arranged seasonally, which makes it really easy to design your meals around whatever happens to be freshest when you get to the store.
  2. Directions aren't too precise, and allow for improvisation (as Bittman puts it, "It's long been my belief that the most specific recipes are the most limiting...there's almost never a critical difference between one onion and two.")
I know it sounds like hyperbole, but this book has completely transformed how I approach each meal...coming home to cook after work has suddenly become something that I look forward to, and I'd love to find other books that are laid out in a similar fashion. Any ideas or suggestions would be greatly appreciated!
posted by richmondparker to Food & Drink (21 answers total) 35 users marked this as a favorite
Nigel Slater's Kitchen Diaries take a similar approach in terms of the calendar, but he also puts in a fair amount of suggestions on varying ingredients, the third one came out last month. We have used the first one a fair bit and he's very reliable at producing the goods. One codicil, he is a Brit and his seasonal variation and ingredients are on that basis.
posted by biffa at 5:36 AM on October 30, 2017 [6 favorites]

The Improvisational Cook might be something you'd like. I can't remember if it has recipes arranged seasonally, but it definitely has that 'directions aren't too precise' piece.
posted by cooker girl at 6:01 AM on October 30, 2017

Paul, Stella and Mary McCartney's Meat Free Monday did a similar thing to me. It's arranged seasonally and divides up each Monday into full day's recipes. So, three months of winter Mondays, etc. I followed it for a year, loved it so much that I have made every single thing and some many times over since. Some have become reflexive staples (eg rocket, red onion and cannellini bean salad I now have with poached eggs for breakfast just about every second day.) Each recipe is simple to follow, not very precise and it's easy to sub in things you like that are similar. My copy has so many stickies on my favourites that I easily moved to a more plant based diet in general.
posted by honey-barbara at 6:02 AM on October 30, 2017 [2 favorites]

Deborah Madison's Local Flavors is arranged seasonally. It's probably less explicit about allowing for variation in the recipes, but I've never followed a recipe precisely in my life, and that hasn't been a problem using this book.
posted by dizziest at 6:30 AM on October 30, 2017

Mark Bittman is my hero. He taught me how to cook, after years and years of cooking from recipes. I strongly suggest any of his cookbooks for both reasons you mention. I started with his vegetarian cookbook. I think you would love it.
posted by janey47 at 7:01 AM on October 30, 2017

A lot (all?) of Mollie Katzen's cookbooks provide suggestions for how to customize and adapt each recipe depending on preference and available ingredients. Not sure if any are seasonal but I think they are pretty reliable and like Bittman's, pretty easy to pull off.
posted by latkes at 7:17 AM on October 30, 2017 [2 favorites]

The Ratio: The Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking, by Michael Ruhlman gets at item #2, the improvisational cooking part. Ruhlman talks about the basic structures of baking, and sauces and stocks (and more) which form the baseline, if you will, from which you can improvise. I've found it useful. It's jazz for cooking.
posted by bonehead at 7:33 AM on October 30, 2017 [1 favorite]

A Year In A Vegetarian Kitchen by Jack Bishop (of ATK fame)
posted by Room 641-A at 7:57 AM on October 30, 2017 [1 favorite]

Directions aren't too precise, and allow for improvisation

For this (along with Ruhlman's Ratio, which I use ALL THE TIME but mostly for baking), you want Salt Fat Acid Heat by Samin Nosrat. Her premise is that if you master those four elements, anything you cook will be delicious.

For a more casual approach to imprecise recipes with improvisation, try Tamar Adler's An Everlasting Meal.

Neither is set up seasonally (though I remember that Tamar Adler touches on seasonality a bit), but these and Ruhlman's book are ones that have significantly changed the way I think about and approach cooking.
posted by carrioncomfort at 8:37 AM on October 30, 2017 [4 favorites]

I would also recommend Tamar Adler's An Everlasting Meal--even though it's not exactly a cookbook it had the same effect on me you describe of really changing my approach to cooking. It's written as a narrative with "recipes" embedded in it, so she will talk about putting a pot of water to boil, then throwing in some broccoli and then a few different simple, easy things you can do once the broccoli is cooked (like using pureed cooked stems to make a pasta sauce). It really encourages improvisation and creativity, as well as using what you have to make simple, good food, saving money and not wasting anything.

I don't know where you live, but where I am in Minnesota there are plenty of place-specific seasonal cookbooks that focus on what's fresh at different times (like this one by local chefs Beth Dooley and Lucia Watson)--maybe your area would have something like that too? But they don't necessarily have the same radical approach that you are talking about, which for me might be more essential.

I would also recommend Bittman's How to Cook Everything. Even though it's not designed seasonally or written in the same way as Kitchen Express (I have both books), he still does things differently from conventional cookbooks in it. One thing I really appreciate is that he gives you a base recipe for something but then includes several suggested variations, which really gives you a sense for how flexible the recipe is and highlights which things are changeable. For example, you can make quiche all year long with the same base recipe and just switch out the seasonal ingredients, so it wouldn't necessarily need to be a seasonal cookbook once you feel confident changing things. I feel like for me, once the shift in my thinking has happened to make me realize I can change recipes and improvise I can look at a more traditional cookbook and see where changes can be made. I think the How to Cook Everything book has been huge for me in learning how to vary things and not feel tied to the recipe exactly as written. I would say that book is what literally taught me how to cook rather than just make certain dishes.
posted by ialwayscryatendings at 9:04 AM on October 30, 2017

Simply in Season has the seasonality you're after. For improvisation, How to Cook without a Book is the one that helped me learn to improvise as I go!
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 11:47 AM on October 30, 2017

Cook Without a Book hits a lot of these notes. This is one of the books we give to our kids when they go off to college.
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 12:12 PM on October 30, 2017 [1 favorite]

+1ing Simply In Season. Recipes in it tend towards simple, which makes them better for continuing the improvisational style you're getting from Bittman.
posted by girl Mark at 12:35 PM on October 30, 2017

I enjoyed Alfred Portale's 12 Seasons cookbook, which gets granular down to the month, but is fairly frufru. Nathan Lyon's Great Food Starts Fresh is simpler and has detailed instructions and is based on seasonal availability.
posted by Candleman at 3:47 PM on October 30, 2017

I just want to strongly second Nigel Slater. His recipes are very forgiving, and his Kitchen Diaries have some great writing and photography as well, that I personally find really inspiring.
posted by Diablevert at 4:58 PM on October 30, 2017

Michael Chiarello has a book arranged seasonally: The TraVigne Cookbook
posted by freezer cake at 5:19 PM on October 30, 2017

Thirding Nigel Slater, "Real Fast Food" is arranged by season.
posted by the long dark teatime of the soul at 1:47 AM on October 31, 2017

Edward Espe Brown's The Complete Tassajara Cookbook is definitely improvisational. It's vegetarian. There are recipes that are more like suggestions, along with traditional recipes but his whole attitude is very chill. Plus there are amusing kitchen stories and thoughts on Zen buddhism, so that's something you don't get every day in a cookbook.

He has this little essay in it about elements to consider when making a delicious salad and it was transformative for me!
posted by purple_bird at 10:59 AM on October 31, 2017

If you were on the West Coast I'd recommend the old Sunset Annual cookbooks which have all the recipes from the previous year in chronological order. I use them a lot, turning to the current/next month for inspiration. They aren't set up for improvisation though.

Southern Living has a similar Annual book series as well but I'm not sure if it's set up the same way.
posted by vespabelle at 9:52 PM on October 31, 2017

Twelve Months of Monestary Soups (Amazon) is not nearly as austere as you might think and never fails to suggest just the seasonal soup I need. Mostly vegetarian, but I usually toss in a little meat where appropriate
posted by donnagirl at 7:39 PM on November 1, 2017

I think you might also enjoy Bittman's Kitchen Matrix. It's not seasonal, but it's highly improvisational. Most all of the recipes come with a multitude of variations, or are basic frameworks with suggested ingredients to combine as you like. It's definitely an inspiration first, instruction second sort of cookbook and I haven't seen any others quite like it.
posted by gennessee at 11:17 PM on November 3, 2017

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