Lush Life: Food & Drinks from the Garden by Valerie Rice

Review by George Yatchisin

I’d argue that the best cookbooks double as secret memoirs, often telling us more about the author than a straight-ahead account that began, “I was born in the house my father built….” We are what we eat, and even more how we eat what we eat. Too many in our country don’t have the time and money to consider that question while they sit in the fast food drive-thru, and that’s not a personal failure of imagination, that’s a condemnation of a series of horrible systems trapping the unfortunate in their bad fortune.

Which means I’ve gone a long way to get to this lovely new cookbook by Valerie Rice, Lush Life: Food & Drinks from the Garden. The book’s intro makes her modus operandi crystal clear: “My goal as a home cook is to cook the cleanest, most flavorful food, tied to the rhythms of the earth and the seasons, in the simplest way and with the least amount of dishes. Words to live by, right? Scientists call this practice ‘chronobiology.’ I call it nutritious and frickin’ delicious.” 

So, yes, this is a book that’s chatty and comfortable while being informed without rubbing too much “I’ve got knowledge” pretentiousness in your face. Even when it comes to her drink advisor for the book, acclaimed somm turned winemaker Rajat Parr, who gets introduced as a dear friend. Rice suffers a lush life Billy Strayhorn could only dream about.

Let’s just wander amidst some of her fall (this is a seasonally arranged book) recipe names and luxuriate: Tamarind Margaritas. Crostini of Drunken Figs & d’Affinois. Fall Salad with Quick-Pickled Persimmons, Avocado & Orange Thyme Dressing. Indian-Spiced Cauliflower Steaks with Turmeric Cream. Grilled Purple Sprouting Broccoli with Tahini Dressing & Za-atar. Kahlúa Bundt Cake with Cream Cheese Icing. If the titles alone don’t get you salivating, the photography surely will, for this is a cookbook with at least a photo per recipe, shot and styled by the talented team of Gemma & Andrew Ingalls.

It’s not surprising that chef Suzanne Goin, James Beard Award-winner and Los Angeles master of elevating the seasonal to the wonderful, penned the foreword for this book by Montecito, Calif. resident Rice. They very much share the same ethos—start with great materials and do no harm. While Goin does that by working with some of the best organic farms, Rice gets to do much of it out of her own yard—she even has chickens for the freshest of eggs. One of the nifty additions to the book is each season offers a “what to plant now” grid for your own garden. I could almost imagine the recipes offering preparation times that included each produce item’s growing time, too.

By the book’s end, it’s easy to imagine Rice as your well-traveled neighbor you only wish asked you over for tapas a bit more frequently. The book closes with all sorts of helpful advice, from pantry staples to gardening tips (mulch!), from liquor recommendations (she knows and loves her gins) to online resources so you can cook up a lush life of your own. Again, all of this is explained like you were having a nice sit down and chatting over one of the book’s Arugula Gimlets, which give her a chance in the recipe headnote to make the case for Bearss limes. For that’s the kind of small talk a good cocktail deserves. Throughout those headnotes are breezy, informative, and sly, like the passing comment above her tri-tip recipe, “This is how I discovered how delicious padrón and shishito peppers are when you leave them to get red. They become sweeter as they mature—I wish that were the case for all of us.”