Here we are, smack dab in the middle of the holidays. When the swirl of celebrating and visiting becomes too much, you are hereby permitted to grab a handful of Christmas cookies and find a spot to escape and curl up with a new book, and lucky you — the crop of new cookbooks and books on gardening is as abundant as ever. Even if you use the internet for recipes, as I certainly do (sorry, tech repair guy, I lost that plastic cover you gave me so you’ll find flour and spices under the keyboard again next visit), it’s still wonderful to have hard copy to page through periodically for mealtime inspiration. Additionally, a beautifully illustrated new gardening book can keep you sane during endless grey winter days (seemingly endless, although the shortest day of the year is officially behind us). Here are a few of each for your consideration. 

First up, a book that combines botany, world travel and agricultural and culinary history with adventure and drama. “The Food Explorer: The True Adventures of the Globe-Trotting Botanist Who Transformed What America Eats,” by Daniel Stone, which received an American Horticultural Society award this year, recounts the adventures of David Fairchild, a roving botanist for the fledgling U.S. Department of Agriculture who, during the waning years of the 19th century, undertook expeditions to more than 50 countries in search of new crops to send back to American farmers. While still only in his early 20s, Fairchild planted the seeds of the culinary revolution that would sweep the United States during the latter half of the 20th century. Avocados, kale, mangoes, zucchinis, dates, nectarines, seedless grapes, cashews, pistachios and lemons — all were first introduced by him.

Fairchild’s expeditions took place when travel was still hair-raisingly hazardous. He visited Fiji at a time when cannibalism was still practiced by some elders and, after acquiring the seed stock for America’s first recorded avocados in Chile, nearly lost his life when crossing the Andes toward Argentina when his mule fell on a patch of ice, launching him toward the edge of a 1,000-foot cliff. At the last second, the beast regained its hoofs and Fairchild lived on to become recognized as a great botanist. The days of introducing new plants to the country, however, began to come to a close with the realization that alien insects often traveled to American fields and orchards along with foreign plant material. By 1912, a majority of the insect pests in the country were of foreign origin, among them coddling moths, asparagus beetles, cabbage worms, gypsy moths and cotton boll weevils. In response, Congress passed the Plant Quarantine Act and bureaucracy smothered the era of plant espionage. But what a ride, and what a story!

For winter dreams and eventual spring inspirations, you’ll want to delve into the expanded and updated classic “Planting the Natural Garden,” whose original publication ushered in a revolution in landscape design: the New Perennial Movement. Spearheaded by internationally renowned designer Piet Oudolf, and articulated by the late plantsman and designer Henk Gerritsen, it transformed private and public spaces with its naturalistic use of hardy perennials and grasses. Including scores of new plants and combinations, this edition is filled with practical information and visual inspiration, detailing its distinctive plant palette for all gardeners. This is a must-see for anyone aspiring to plan, design, grow and sustain a garden environment that is home to a multitude of pollinators and species while providing a multi-layered, year-round feast for the senses.

More practical, but still with inviting visuals, is Nikki Jabbour’s “Veggie Garden Remix,” another American Horticultural Society award-winner. In her latest book, Jabbour encourages readers to try international vegetable and herb varieties, selected from her own garden, that hail from India, Italy, Lebanon and Mexico, among other places. Cabbage lovers, for instance, are urged to try komatsuna, an Asian green that tastes similar to cabbage, but with mustard overtones, while those fond of cucumbers are introduced to cucamelons, which have the crisp and crunchy texture of cucumbers with a citrusy tang to their flavor. For each variety, the book includes directions for both growing and eating, making it appealing to gardeners and gourmands alike. 

The new crop of cookbooks includes “Canal House: Cook Something: Recipes to Rely On,” by Christopher Hirsheimer and Melissa Hamilton. Books by these two James Beard Award–winning cooks have previously showcased smart, practical dishes they’ve created in between recipe development and photography for leading magazines and successful cookbooks. Even though Hirsheimer is a co-founder of Saveur, and Hamilton a legendary test kitchen director, their approach to the preparation of meals is both practical and inspiring: they’re home cooks writing for other home cooks. From a lifetime of cooking dinner, they’ve edited their experience down to a series of lessons designed for mastering a key ingredient or technique, moving from the simple to the complex, from soft-boiling an egg to whipping up a souffle — all accompanied by step-by-step photographs.

Although it’s not new this year, I did want to mention a 2018 James Beard Foundation Book Award winner I finally got around to: “The Sioux Chef’s Indigenous Kitchen,” by Oglala Lakota chef Sean Sherman, with Beth Dooley. I first became aware of Sherman when we pheasant-hunted in South Dakota, where he’d become a local hero. Born on the Pine Ridge, South Dakota, Indian Reservation, he had extensive knowledge of a diet rich in government commodity staples: canned fruits and meats, powdered milk, blocks of yellow cheese. He eventually became a professional chef in Minneapolis and, after spending time in Mexico, with its strong ties to indigenous culinary traditions, realized he had little knowledge of his own Native American food ways. After extensive research into the subject, he started The Sioux Chef, a catering business featuring authentic indigenous foods of North America and using recipes that eschewed ingredients brought here by European colonials like wheat flour, dairy and cane sugar. Dinner prepared by Sherman might include game spiced with a sprig of cedar, salads of sorrel or dandelion, chokecherry and blueberries in puddings or compotes, seaweed or maple syrup for flavorings. You won’t make every recipe in Sherman’s book, but then, who’s made every recipe in any cookbook? What you will do is discover a fascinating portrait of contemporary Native American cooking, with some recipes you’ll want to try because they seem fresh and contemporary, as well as healthy.