Six Seasons is the first cookbook I’ve trusted in a long time.
As a cookbook reviewer, I am required to be suspicious of every new book I crack open, in order to figure out what traps it has set for the unsuspecting home cook. What shortcuts did the author take? What assumptions did he or she make? I want to be able to hold up the book to you and say: This book is watertight. Buy it with your hard earned money; trust it with your groceries.
But in order to say that with authority, I must hunt for the leaks. Cookbooks almost always have leaks. Sometimes it’s obvious at a glance that a book’s basically a sieve; other times hairline fractures take time to discover. My shelves are filled with cookbooks that have a fabulous premise and recipes that just don’t work. Books from beloved restaurants that feel hollow in print. Gorgeous books that either under- or over-estimate their readers, becoming pretty doorstops in the process. Books that are great, but…
Portland chef Joshua McFadden and his co-author Martha Holmberg have produced a great book. Period. No except. It’s a book to lean on, to cozy up to. It’s a fever dream of what tomatoes tasted like when you were a little kid. It’s your grandmother’s advice on dealing with a bumper crop of zucchini, if your grandmother cooked at the hippest Portland restaurants.
Six Seasons: A New Way With Vegetables is the latest in a recent batch of cookbooks (Hugh Acheson’s The Broad Fork, Steven Satterfield’s Root to Leaf) that aim to help readers cook seasonally. Its title refers to the idea that, as far as vegetables are concerned, the concept of four seasons doesn’t really cut it. McFadden instead splits the year into six: Spring, Early Summer, Midsummer, Late Summer, Fall, and Winter. This allows him more nuance with his recipes, which pair same-season produce with punchy, often Italian ingredients like olives, salami, citrus, cheeses, and fresh herbs.
And it passed every test I could throw at it. McFadden’s goal here is “to encourage and energize cooks of all skill levels…in your efforts at seasonal and local eating.” It’s a noble and lofty aim, but Six Seasons accomplishes this in part by providing a monstrous volume of recipes: 225, by the publisher’s count. Imagine going to the farmers’ market—as seasonal, local cookbooks cajole you to do—and returning home with snap peas. On one hand, we have a cookbook that has one recipe for snap peas; on the other, Six Seasons has three, plus advice for preparing them simply. Which one will you reach for again, when you return home with broccolini, or collards, or perfect, tiny sweet potatoes?
Another goal the book achieves is addressing “cooks of all skill levels.” Never before have I seen so many fascinating, delicious, easy recipes in one book. “I hate chef books that presume home cooks have the time, money, and skills—and desire—to replicate restaurant-style recipes,” McFadden writes. “Not to mention the dishwashing staff!”
I promise you, beginner cooks, there are dozens of recipes in Six Seasons that are well within your grasp, and they result in sophisticated, modern, fun dishes. McFadden’s great talent is his ability to combine unexpected ingredients (turnips and radicchio and prunes, fennel and Tallegio, snap peas and pickled cherries, collards and hazelnuts and grapes), which means he can do so in simple preparations as well as complex ones. In other words, Six Seasons and its delicious good ideas are accessible to most. And, in a world full of chef cookbooks that view simplification as condescension, I’m grateful for it.
McFadden’s local and seasonal is not my local and seasonal—living in Texas, no cookbook’s is—but it’s not a deterrent as it so often is. Instead, the difference in geography opened the entire book to me at once. I found snap peas for a snap peas with pickled cherries and peanuts salad in the spring section, turnips for the turnips with prunes and radicchio in the early summer section, and the kale for McFadden’s famous “Kale Salad That Started it All” from the winter section. Again, this is where the sheer number of recipes came in handy: I was able to find recipes that fit the unique growing season of Central Texas because I had enough options to choose from.
I could not stop testing recipes from this book. There were just too many delicious options: grilled radishes with dates and sharp cheddar; a celery salad with sausage and provolone, beet slaw with pistachios and a Thai-ish peanut sauce. Everything is enlivened with spice and acid and a slug of good olive oil; every page I flipped to was something new, something I suddenly, desperately wanted to try. Try them I did, and with great success. I didn’t want testing to end.
My frenzy of testing taught me that I could rely on Six Seasons and its bounty of vegetable knowledge. In fact, it’s about as close to a perfect cookbook as I have seen. What McFadden and Holmberg have achieved is no small feat: This is a book that will educate nearly everyone who picks it up, a book beginner and seasoned cooks alike will reach for repeatedly. It’s the rare book that achieves what it sets out to do, and manages to do so in a manner that is both appetizing and engaging. It is accessible without sacrificing its artistry.
Six Seasons is solid. It does not leak.