The New Southern Garden Cookbook

Enjoying the Best from Homegrown Gardens, Farmers' Markets, Roadside Stands, and CSA Farm Boxes

By Sheri Castle

Back to book details

The New Southern Garden Cookbook

456 pp., 8 x 9.125, 24 color illus., index

  • Paperback ISBN: 978-1-4696-6614-3
    Published: August 2021
  • Hardcover ISBN: 978-0-8078-3465-7
    Published: August 2021
  • E-book EPUB ISBN: 978-0-8078-7789-0
    Published: August 2021
  • E-book PDF ISBN: 979-8-8908-8500-5
    Published: August 2021

Buy this Book

Request exam/desk copy

Author Q&A

Copyright (c) 2011 by the University of North Carolina Press. All rights reserved.

Sheri Castle, author of The New Southern Garden Cookbook: Enjoying the Best from Homegrown Gardens, Farmers' Markets, Roadside Stands, and CSA Farm Boxes, gives her take on recipes for the modern southern garden.

Q: How did you become a self-defined "storytelling southern cook"?

A:  I cannot remember a time when I didn't enjoy telling, reading, or hearing a good story. I come from a strong storytelling tradition in the Blue Ridge Mountains, but it's also my nature to pay attention to what people say. I enjoy a good spontaneous conversation, even with strangers. My husband says I'll get more information from a wrong number than he will after knowing someone for years. I also love teaching and talking to groups of people.

Given my interests and predilections, it was little surprise that when I decided to pursue a culinary career I chose to teach and write rather than work in a restaurant. I thrive on the connection that comes from sharing food and stories directly with other people. When I travel, I head to the farmers' markets, food shops, and home kitchens like other people visit museums. To learn how people live and what they think, I want to see where they shop and what they eat.

Southern food, like good food everywhere, is a great topic because it inspires people to share their own stories.

Q:  What makes a garden southern? And what's new about today's southern garden?

A:  I consider the southern garden to be those vegetables and fruits--both cultivated and wild--that flourish somewhere in the southern part of the United States, although nearly all of it also grows elsewhere in the country, making the book useful for cooks everywhere. A gorgeous, juicy, sun-ripened heirloom tomato is equally delectable whether grown in Chapel Hill or San Francisco, so this book offers possibilities to all cooks, southern or otherwise.

The south is a mosaic of microclimates, which means that just about everything grows somewhere. A typical garden, farmers' market, or CSA farm box in the hot and humid Deep South will look considerably different than one in the cool and snowy Mountain South, but both are equally and authentically southern. Like our dinner tables and recipes, our gardens are shaped by a mixture of circumstances and customs, history and habits.

Just as it offers a generous definition of what constitutes a garden, my book expands the notion of what grows in the modern southern garden. The South is a mixture of cultures and cuisines, and it shows in its gardens. Some gardens contain plants so common that they seem universal, while others are intensely local. Most gardens and farmers' markets contain reliable favorites such as corn, beans, tomatoes, and squash, but newcomers such as bok choy, broccoli raab, Japanese eggplant, and green garlic are also popping up.

Q:  The New Southern Garden Cookbook has quite a descriptive subtitle: Enjoying the Best from Homegrown Gardens, Farmers' Markets, Roadside Stands, and CSA Farm Boxes. Why are all of these elements important to conveying your book's message?

A:  This book is about enjoying what comes from a garden, not instructions on how to grow a garden, so it can embrace a broad definition of what constitutes a garden these days. A garden doesn't have to be a plot of ground out back. People can grow a few things in deck boxes, patio pots, or in a square of a community garden. They can pick their fresh produce from farmers' markets, pick-your-own enterprises, or roadside farm stands. They can purchase a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farm box to receive regular deliveries of fresh fare from a local farm. They can accept an armload of produce from a generous neighbor who gardens. Even supermarkets sometimes feature locally and sustainably grown food. With all of these options, it's possible for many of us to eat from a bountiful garden without having to personally grow that garden. The common thread among all of these definitions of "garden" is that the food is local and seasonal, two ideas as old as the ages not only in southern cooking, but in good cooking everywhere.

Home gardening and cooking is enjoying a renaissance not seen in generations. Hundreds of new farmers' markets and CSAs spring up in our communities each year, giving many of us curious cooks and grateful eaters more delicious fresh options than ever before. However, eating local, seasonal food doesn't have to be an all-or-nothing proposition. It's scalable and flexible, depending on what's practical and what's available. We can embrace the glory of a homegrown tomato and still buy bananas for our pudding.

Q:  What are the advantages/benefits to signing up for a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) program?

A:  Community supported agriculture (CSA) connects farmers with local consumers in a mutually beneficial agreement that creates a sense of community. A group of buyers (often called members or shareholders) forms an association with a local farm and agrees to buy shares of the farm's crops in the coming growing season.

The buyers pay in advance for their shares to cover some of the farmers' costs. In exchange, they receive regular shares of the farmer's harvest through the growing season.For buyers, it's analogous to subscribing to a magazine in that they pay up front for the issues that will be delivered periodically during the year. The subscribers don't know what will be in each issue, or even the size of the issue, but they trust they'll receive something of value, enough to warrant the subscription.

The benefits of the CSA for the buyers are that they will receive regular deliveries of the freshest local and seasonal food, often at below-market prices. They also get the benefit of knowing exactly where their food came from, giving them a direct connection to the grower and the land on which their food is grown.

The benefits of the CSA for the farmer are that the buyers pay in advance and agree to accept a portion of the risks of the growing season. For example, if there is a failure in the carrot crop, the buyer gets fewer or no carrots. On the other hand, if there is a bumper crop of tomatoes, they get extra tomatoes. Having sold predetermined portions of the crop before the farming season, the farmer can focus on farming instead of marketing and sales.

Many CSA farmers sell only fruits and vegetables, although the concept is expanding to include other farmstead products such as eggs, meat, milk, cheese and baked goods.

Q:  Why did you choose to organize your book by type of vegetable or fruit?

A:  I had three reasons. First, this book is built on the premise that when cooking with fresh fruits and vegetables, the ingredient, not the recipe, is the wiser starting point. When we start with the best of what's currently available in our garden, our neighborhood farmers' market, our CSA farm box, or even our grocery store, the cooking and the recipes follow easily.

My second reason is that the gardens, markets, and CSA boxes themselves are organized by ingredient. Fresh fruits and vegetables peak at their own natural pace, so we return from the garden or market with armloads of what was ripe, abundant, and tempting, not necessarily what was on a shopping list or in a given recipe.

Third, I believe that my organization is the most useful when cooking with fresh produce. For example, we gardeners and market aficionados find ourselves suddenly needing lots of good zucchini recipes when we suddenly have a profusion of zucchini, either because the plants are producing like crazy or because we saw so much great stuff at the market that we went a little overboard with the shopping. With my book, cooks can go straight to the zucchini recipes rather than searching through multiple books or magazines hoping to come across a zucchini recipe.

I intentionally did not organize the book by season, even though every product in the book has an optimal season. That's because seasonality isn't the same everywhere in the south, much less across the country. Spring comes much earlier to the Deep South than to the Upper South. Similarly, winter in Charleston is much different from winter in Asheville. The first perfect tomatoes of the season will appear in each of those places in due time, but not at the same time.

For times when a cook is searching for a particular type of recipe, such as a dessert or an appetizer, the detailed index will quickly guide them to that information.

Q:  What other features make your book particularly easy to use?

A:  I'm a professional cook, but I'm also a home cook and a working parent. I understand that a good cookbook has to be practical and the recipes have to be doable in the real world. It is critically important to me that my recipes are easy to follow and the entire book is easy to use.

Whenever possible, I offer substitutions for the main ingredient in a recipe, so that cooks have other options when that ingredient isn't available in peak seasonal form and that they can take advantage of an ingredient that is even more appealing than what they set out to find. That information can be found under the caption "What Else Works?" Similarly, I suggest alternative ingredients and variations for many of the recipes. Although there is value in sticking with a recipe, I want the readers to be able to make choices that customize the recipe to their own tastes or take advantage of the best ingredients they have on hand. I always encourage cooks to taste as they go along and trust their own instincts.

This is a very big book, so I made sure that the index would guide readers to the information they needed. For example, for times when a cook is planning a full menu or when the type of recipe is as important as the ingredients, the index sorts the recipes by the usual meal categories found in most books, such as appetizers, soups, desserts, and such.

I included dozens of practical tips and hints that apply not only to my recipes, but to cooking in general. I wanted to give novice cooks an idea of what to expect and explain why something will happen. I'm known for sharing that kind of information in my cooking classes, so I naturally shared it on the page as well. I intended for the tips and hints to be helpful, not preachy. Experienced cooks might have their own style and methods, but this book was a chance for me to describe mine.

Q:  Your book includes 24 gorgeous full color illustrations. How did you decide which of the book's over 300 recipes to highlight in this way?

A:  Ideally I would have been able to have a photo of each recipe, but that's not possible when a book includes over 300 recipes. Instead, I chose an array of shots that reflected the book's scope and point of view. It's possible to enjoy fresh food year-round, so there are recipes from all four seasons. The book covers all of the menu courses one would expect in a comprehensive cookbook, so there are photos of appetizers, condiments, soups, salads, main dishes, and desserts. I also made sure that each of the selected dishes showcased the appeal of fresh, luscious, seasonal food. Each photo looks good enough to eat.

Q:  If you had to choose a few signature dishes that are included in the book, what would they be?

A:  This is like asking me which is my favorite child (actually that would be easier because I have only one child), but I am particularly proud of these:
•Blackberries and Peaches in Sweet Basil Syrup
•Stirred Corn and Seared Sea Scallops with Lime Sauce
•Fresh Fig and Mascarpone Ice Cream with Walnuts in Port Syrup
•Creamed Collard and Country Ham Pot Pie with Cornmeal Pastry
•Summer Vegetable Potato Salad
•Butter Bean, Heirloom Tomato, and Cornbread Shortcakes
•Slow-Simmered Beans with Bacon and Tomato
•Fresh Strawberry and Shortcake Cream Biscuits with Chocolate Gravy
•Roasted Roma Tart
•Fresh Blueberry Parfaits with Pistachio Crumble
•Creamy Baby Turnip Soup with Smoked Trout Butter
•Pasta with Roasted Winter Squash in Browned Butter, Sage, and Hazelnut Sauce
•Strawberry Tiramisu Trifles

Q:  Although this is your first book, you've tested and developed recipes for several other cookbooks. How did your work on these projects prepare you for writing a cookbook with your own distinctive vision and voice?

A:  Developing, testing, and writing a recipe is considerably different from just cooking. I grew up in the kitchen of a pinch-of-this-and-that grandmother who rarely glanced at a recipe, which is pretty much how I operate when cooking for pleasure. But when writing a recipe to share with others, I meticulously measure and take careful notes as I go along. I often make the same recipe in multiple ways to determine which one is best. When I'm in development and testing mode, there is always a spattered pad of paper and a handful of colored pens next to the stove and a laptop on my kitchen counter. Calculated cooking is a different mindset and skill set from intuitive, free-form cooking, and I really love both.

The development and testing tasks are the same whether the recipe is for my project or for a client. The significant difference is in the way I write the recipe. When writing for a client’s cookbook, I try to sound as neutral as possible with no discernable voice or point of view, or I write according to their publisher's rules. For my own cookbook, I was liberated to use my own distinctive voice. I got to be a cook, a teacher, and a storyteller on each page. I wanted my book to sound just like me. I chose each word with the same thought and care I used when selecting ingredients and flavors.

Q:  You're also an acclaimed cooking instructor. How did your experiences with your students influence your development and presentation of the recipes?

A:  I'm known for peppering my cooking classes, demos, and recipes with lots of tips and hints that help people cook with confidence and enthusiasm. It's my nature to explain things and share information. That's why I used a friendly, conversational style when writing the recipes and headnotes for the book, as though I were talking with or cooking alongside the reader. This might make a recipe look a little long at times, but actually makes cooking easier and more efficient. I wrote as though I were talking to the reader directly, including all the little details that I would share with a friend who asked me for a recipe or when my teenage daughter asks me to teach her how to make a family favorite.

It's often the little things that make all the difference in how a recipe turns out, so I shared information that I hoped would guide beginning cooks and give experienced cooks a few “ah-ha!” moments. All cooks, whether beginners or experts, appreciate recipes that ring true and turn out right. Armchair cooks who read cookbooks for pleasure appreciate clear descriptions and fun anecdotes.

Q:  Which of the recipes are your own family's favorites?

A:  My first stab at this list included 75 items, which is a sure sign that my family does enjoy this food and that this book accurately reflects how I cook at home, but after some judicious pruning, I narrowed the list to:
•Real Skillet Cornbread
•BLT Chicken
•Cucumbers and Onions
•Italian Sausage and Tortellini Soup
•Cream Cheese Pound Cake
•Potato, Mushroom, and Gruyere Gratin
•Buttermilk Pie with Raspberry Crown
•Creamed Butter Beans
•Slow-Simmered Beans with Tomatoes and Bacon
•Sufficient Grace Summer Squash with Buttered Crumbs
•Sweet Potato Biscuits

Q:  What's your starting point for developing a recipe?

A:  I come up with recipes in all sorts of ways. I am passionate about food and cooking and muse about it daily. (My friends and family would say I'm obsessed.) I might start with a flavor combination I grew up with, or with something I taste in a restaurant or see in a market, or with some crazy notion or flash of inspiration that crosses my mind while walking the dog or running errands. I am constantly scribbling recipe ideas or jotting ingredient and tasting notes in a little notebook that I keep with me. For the classic recipes in the book, I didn't have to invent the dish or all of the flavor combinations, but instead came up with my own twist or interpretation.

Sometimes a new idea coalesces quickly and a new recipe works perfectly on the first try. Others take a few tries. And some things just never work out to suit me and I have to let the idea go and move on. Sometimes I aim for one thing and wind up with quite another after considerable revision. To hone in on the nearly 350 recipes that wound up in the book, I probably tested or contemplated 1200. Each recipe I ultimately included had to be what my family and I came to call "book-worthy." That meant that a lot of great recipes wound up on the cutting room floor because even a big book fills up at some point.

I've been at this for a long time. I invented my first recipe when I was four years old. I mailed that recipe to one of those daytime homemaker shows popular in the early 1960s. The envelope contained my little recipe, a drawing, and a story. Creative cooking and good stories are irresistible to me, down to my core.