Vegetable Literacy Author Deborah Madison Loved Vegetables Before It Was Cool


Deborah Madison lives in Galisteo, a tiny adobe village just south of Santa Fe. It was in her backyard there — an eighth of an acre of beds raised above New Mexico’s clay soil — that she noticed the similarities among vegetable blossoms and fell into studying botany.

Years before we collectively swooned over fine vegetable cookery in New York, Madison was obsessing over it at Greens, a vegetarian restaurant she founded in San Francisco back in 1979. Since then she’s worked as a chef and teacher, writing 11 cookbooks along the way. Madison’s latest, Vegetable Literacy, is perhaps the most exciting, with its clear guiding recipes and confident storytelling. (With photography by the Canal House Cooking duo, Christopher Hirsheimer and Melissa Hamilton, it may also be the most beautiful.)

Instead of organizing her 300 recipes by season — the preferred classification — Madison shows us the delights and possibilities of arranging dishes by botanical families. Botany is an old way to catalog the garden, but Madison uses it to rethink the kitchen, showing us the logic behind swapping one ingredient for the other, and pointing to unexpected connections.

Families, grouped by flower shape and other physical similarities, cover nightshades and legumes, but more nontraditional groups are in the mix, too. The carrot family stars hemlock, lovage, parsley, and caraway, among many others, while the knotweed family, a tighter group, includes buckwheat, rhubarb, and sorrel. The goosefoot-amaranth chapter will be especially helpful for those with an excess of esoteric, weedy CSA greens later this year.

It’s a really good time to be a vegetable lover in New York, but an expensive one as well. What do you think about the vegetable-focused dishes we’re seeing at high-end restaurants right now?
I ate in Napa a while ago, at Ubuntu, and there was a $20 carrot dish on the menu! I grow them, and they’re really easy to grow, so it seemed excessive to me. But hey, if you’ve got $20 to spend on a plate of carrots. . .

Are you a vegetarian? Do people ask you that a lot?
I’m a real vegetable lover, a vegetable fan, but I’m not a vegetarian. And if I eat a chicken, I’m not going to throw that carcass away. I’m going to make a stock to bring out the flavors of a vegetable dish the next day — I mean really make them blossom — and make the dish more satisfying.

Tell me how gardening changes the way you cook.
When cilantro goes to seed to make coriander, there’s a moment — just a day or so — when you can pick those little berries while they’re still fresh and green. They’re absolutely haunting and delicious. Having a garden lets you see and taste things you never could at a grocery store.

What exciting stuff is growing right now in New Mexico?
It’s still brown and cold here — about 20 degrees this morning — so anything that’s growing is exciting. The onion family is coming up, and greens like chard, spinach, and chicory from my neighbor’s greenhouse are great.

What do new gardeners tend to get wrong? Help us!
Trial and error is just such a big part of gardening. I’m not an expert gardener, so it’s taken me some time to get a sense of how much to grow. I always end up growing too many eggplants because I forget that they’re super prolific. And I find myself asking, why did I dedicate a whole bed to carrots?

What’s the most rewarding thing we can grow in New York containers and window boxes, beside herbs?
Tomatoes, even grown in containers in the city, will give you the chance to pick a tomato. And I think that chard and other greens can do well, as can lettuce. Vegetables that grow quickly, and don’t depend on developing huge root systems, are really ideal — that way you can harvest and still get more growing in a little later.