This month we’re excited to feature Deborah Madison, author of the new cookbook Vegetable Literacy. By exploring the relationships between vegetables, herbs and edible flowers — from the garden to the kitchen — she’s changing the way we think about plants and the way we cook with them at home. Here, we ask Deborah how she became interested in botany, how growing her own food has changed her cooking, and what she eats when she’s at home alone.
Tell us about your background and how you became interested in vegetarian cooking.
I grew up in Northern California, in Davis. Meat was not very important in my mother’s kitchen, but we weren’t vegetarians. We just didn’t have a lot of meat. When I lived in a Buddhist community in the 1970s and 1980s and we decided to be vegetarian, it wasn’t really an issue for me. I just wanted to cook. I cooked in that community in different capacities for about 18 years, including starting Greens restaurant in San Francisco. But outside of that time, I’ve never considered myself a vegetarian — more of a 90 percent-er. I wanted to be able to work on improving conditions for animals, not just ignoring them. And I didn’t want to spend a lifetime answering the question, “Do you get enough protein?” But I must say, I am happiest eating a plant-based diet.
What led to your deeper interest in botany and the relationships between plants? How has it changed your cooking?
My father was a botanist, and my brother is one (and he’s a farmer), so I guess some of the plant world rubbed off on me. Plus, I’m always interested in looking behind things to see what the larger order is, and plants are no exception. Once you get their relationships into view, your world opens up. At least mine did. What was random becomes more ordered and you can start to think in bigger ways about what you’re cooking and, if you garden, what’s in your garden, and how you put the two together. There are, for example, some delicious wild greens that are related to spinach and chard and provide pretty much the same flavor you’d expect from their cultivated relatives, so you have a clue already how to use them.
How would you describe your food or cooking philosophy?
Plants are amazing creatures, so knowing that, I tend to treat them with respect and I try not waste them. I like to use the whole plant, not just the best parts, which are what you find in the supermarket. And I never ever call them veggies. It’s so demeaning. Vegetables are extraordinary in terms of what they give us nutritionally, their flavors and beauty, their ability to survive and adapt and change when they have to.
What’s the most important thing people should know about a plant-based diet?
That it’s good! Also, to open your eyes to what is available. Try new things. Eat widely from different plants, for they all offer something different, but eat from where you live, not the whole world. Enjoy the many possibilities plant foods offer, and don’t feel you have to turn plants into meat-like foods or stick with your usual idea of a menu, though you can if you want to. A plant-based diet opens doors.
What are some unfamiliar plants you’d encourage people to try, and how should they prepare them?
Wild spinach (lamb’s quarters) and amaranth greens are two that come to mind. But I’d also try to encourage people to eat what is already familiar by showing them how to make the most of it. Members of the cabbage family are often shunned, misunderstood, and perceived as odoriferous, but that has to do with cooking techniques rather than inherent qualities. I’d also encourage people to consider unfamiliar varieties of familiar plants — different shapes and colors of beets, yellow and white carrots as well as orange, more herbs for sure, most of which are in the mint family or the carrot family. And I urge people to consider using the stems and leaves and flowers of plants. Radish leaves make a great soup; broccolis stems are delicate and gorgeous; cauliflower cores are likewise delicate and succulent; arugula blooms can go right into a salad. There are lots of parts of common plants that we ignore altogether.
What are some of your best tips or techniques for cooking vegetables that people may not know about?
It really depends on the vegetable. Steaming, then searing beets instead of roasting them; searing radicchio as well as enjoying it raw. Slicing Brussels sprouts instead of cooking them in larger pieces. Combining raw and cooked vegetables. Using the carrot tops, radish leaves, cauliflower cores, etc. Not overcooking cabbage. Using the sprouts that emerge from collards and broccoli plants.
Your book Vegetable Literacy focuses not just on cooking, but on gardening and botany. How has gardening and learning about the relationships between plants influenced your approach to cooking?
If nothing else, it makes everything you do in the kitchen just that much more fun. If you have a garden, you’ll find yourself asking all kinds of questions: Can you eat your thinnings? What about chard that has bolted? Or carrot tops? And you might be amused by the names of some groups, like the goosefoots or the knotweeds, and enjoy finding out why those names appear in the first place. And people always light up when they find out that certain foods are related. “Really?” they say. “Daisies and lettuce?” Knowing who’s related to whom can make cooking much more intuitive. Plus, it’s just more interesting when you can expand your own knowledge and pull more of the world into view.
What advice do you have for beginning gardeners?
Begin with something that you know will work where you live, in your soil, and that’s easy to grow, like radishes, chard and lettuce — quick-growing plants that are likely to survive. It’s good to start with a success. Check with your local nursery if you don’t know your freeze dates or have any idea about what your local challenges are. The personnel are often very helpful, offering classes as well as experience. And it’s fine to begin with starts rather than seeds, but some things do very well from seed (like those already mentioned). And do put in some herbs because they’re so much fun to cook with. And remember that the plants you eat can also be ornamental and attractive. Like a sage plant. Golden chard. Purple kohlrabi.
Do you cook at home? What’s your go-to meal to cook for family and friends? What about when you’re alone?
Of course I cook at home! All the time. But it’s hard for me to say a go-to meal because I’m always cooking different foods — plus, it depends on whom I’m cooking for and whether I’m testing recipes or not, and most often, I am. I love vegetable braises and sautés. The occasional souffle. Roasted sweet potatoes when it’s cold. I’d be delighted with a big platter of freshly picked and cooked asparagus with good butter or olive oil and some flaky Maldon sea salt for dinner.
Who or what inspires you in the kitchen?
Usually it’s gorgeous produce that inspires me, or the not-so-gorgeous produce from my garden. Anything I can harvest has a huge thrill component for me — it doesn’t matter if a mouse nibbled on it first or it’s an odd shape. Also a particular cook will inspire me, like Yotam Ottelenghi, or a friend who tells me what she’s cooking, or a dish I’ve had in a restaurant that I really enjoyed and want to make at home.
What ingredient do you look forward to most in your garden every year? How do you eat it?
I can’t choose one! They’re all special to me. I love the black-eyed peas, which I eat as shelling beans. Shishito peppers, which I sear in a hot pan and serve as an appetizer. Eggplant. Lettuces earlier on. Salsify in the fall. And, of course, tomatoes.
What’s your most prized kitchen possession?
Dishes. Especially a set of six green soup bowls in their own platter by potter Sandy Simon. I’m not so driven by equipment — my kitchen is very small, for one — but I do love platters and dishes.