Deborah Madison has been a trusty friend in my kitchen for more than 30 years, though I just met her in person last summer.
Under her guidance I discovered baked polenta (“The Greens Cookbook”), mastered Indian dahl (“Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone”) and learned to love tofu (“This Can’t Be Tofu”).
Her books have helped me figure out how to satisfy a vegan niece and lactose-free nephew at our Thanksgiving table. Her Penne With Roasted Peppers, Saffron and Basil Cream (“Savory Way”) is a recipe I can make by heart, and often do. Patient, practical and often witty, Madison is the cookbook author I turn to when I’m stumped.
As Madison’s work has evolved, so has my cooking. Her recipes are now shorter, the methods more straightforward and the flavors are bolder, cleaner and sparked with surprise. She swirls miso into butter, tahini into sweet potato purée, and turns parsnips into cardamom-spiked custard, all with delicious aplomb.
Planting culinary seeds
Madison recently published her 11th book, “Vegetable Literacy,” a comprehensive and whimsical guide to the kingdom of edible plants that journeys out of the kitchen and into the garden. The term “literacy” implies the full understanding of a subject.
I asked Madison about the title during a recent phone interview from her home in Santa Fe, N.M. “I wanted to get beyond a vegetable’s prettiness and charms,” she said. “To understand its place in the garden helps to predict how it will relate to other foods on the plate.”
She organized the book into 12 botanical families, each with details of the individual vegetable, recipes, suggestions for seasoning and substitutions.
“Getting to know the plant families made it clear that, like human families, they share characteristics. This understanding gives a cook confidence and freedom,” she said. “For example, knowing that dill, chervil, cumin, parsley, coriander, anise, lovage and caraway come from the umbellifer family explains why they’re such good matches for another family member, carrots.”
The theory played out deliciously when I tossed blanched carrots with her pesto of caraway seeds, garlic, parsley and olive oil, splashed with fresh lemon.
Madison also encourages cooks to use the whole plant, especially the stems, tops and ribs that we so often throw away. “Radish leaves are delicious,” she writes in the note for a simple sauté.
“My father was a botanist,” Madison said. “He had 10 green thumbs and maybe something must have rubbed off on me. He’d pluck a discarded plant from the neighbor’s garbage, plunk it in the ground and it would grow right away. I’m not a good gardener and I make a lot of mistakes. But gardening makes me a more attentive cook.”
Prose for peas
In addition to offering more than 300 recipes, “Vegetable Literacy” is a terrific read. No plant escapes Madison’s curious eye, and she renders each vegetable in lively detail. Of potatoes, she writes, “If you’ve ever opened a forgotten bag of potatoes, you know the surprise of being greeted by a viperous nest of pale roots looking for a place to grow, so it isn’t surprising that potatoes are obliging in the garden. Their eyes open and sprout; they put out their leaves and eventually charming clusters of flowers.”
The book includes wilder and lesser-known vegetables — salsify, lambs quarters, amaranth, parsley root, to name a few. Burdock, a long, twisted brown root sold at farmers markets and co-ops, was a mystery to me until I followed Madison’s advice to sauté it with onion and celery to make a winsome brown rice pilaf. Her recipe for Cauliflower With Saffron, Pepper Flakes, Plenty of Parsley and Pasta was a spicy, golden hit.
“Much of this was learned through trial and error, and observation, all in the garden,” Madison writes in her book.
In my hurly-burly cooking, I often forget to stop and consider the plants I am working with, to wonder how they came to my pot.
“There are things the garden reveals that I revel in,” she continues. And in her warm, casual prose, she ticks them off as though we’re sitting together on the back stoop.
“The odd praying mantis, hummingbirds sitting on their tiny nests … pollinators at work … we know what the weather is really doing when we look at our plants because it’s suddenly about them, not just us, and they can tell us a great deal. … [The garden] is a lively universe of a patch of earth that stitches us to the world at large.”
Madison’s Spring Garden Hodgepodge of Radishes, Leeks, and Peas, Depending … recipe is a brilliant toss-up of spring crops sautéed with a little butter, a squirt of lemon, a hit of tarragon — that’s it. Like all the recipes in this book, it’s a compelling reason to tend a garden.
Madison has not steered me wrong for more than three decades, so I’m heading out to plant more herbs and several packs of peas and greens.
Beth Dooley is the author of “The Northern Heartland Kitchen.”