Vegetable love: A review of Deborah Madison’s classic vegetarian cookbook

By Stephanie Woodard

Originally published in Yoga + Joyful Living in March/April 2008.
Deborah Madison’s epic work, Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone (Broadway Books, 1997), took seven years to write. It was time well spent. Her labor of love — which produced an inspired, encyclopedic 742-page collection of 1,400-some recipes, along with primers on cooking techniques, menu planning, food and wine pairings and much more — has never gone out of print. A 10th-anniversary edition, with a new introduction by the author, arrived in bookstores at the end of 2007. “People tell me the book taught them to cook,” Madison reports. “They say, ‘you live in our kitchen.’ It’s humbling.”

Each of the recipes features clear instructions and a constellation of well-chosen ingredients that originated from around the world and are now part of the American food canon. Quinoa is tossed with pine nuts and dried fruit, sesame noodles pair up with asparagus tips, curry enhances parsnips. Garden-variety vegetarians can enjoy all the dishes in the book, and vegans can prepare most of them. Madison notes that the volume is also for anyone who wants to enhance both health and eating pleasure by consuming more plant foods.

Madison got her start as a vegetarian cook in the late Sixties while preparing meals at the San Francisco Zen Center, where she was a student. She honed her expertise in the kitchen of Alice Waters’ legendary Chez Panisse restaurant and, in 1979, was the inaugural chef when the Zen Center opened its own dining establishment, Greens. For the next five years, Madison moved plant foods from the “sides” to the center of the plate and took vegetarian cookery from the counterculture to the mainstream. After leaving Greens, Madison served as head monk of the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, in Carmel Valley, California, and by 1990 had moved to Santa Fe.

A longtime proponent of locally sourced organic foodstuffs, Madison has supported the founding of greenmarkets nationwide, encouraged the preservation of heritage crops and livestock, written nine acclaimed cookbooks and contributed to numerous others. She may have devoted seven years to writing her Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, but you can spend many more than that exploring its riches.

Either of these light, satisfying dishes can be the focal point of an easy spring meal. I like the soup with a hunk of whole-wheat bread and some cheddar. As spring moves into summer, the fluffy gratin is a wonderful presentation for whatever veggies are freshest in the market; I pair it with a mixed-greens salad, dressed with the piquant, slightly sweet vinaigrette, below. And if you serve Madison’s dishes to guests, be prepared, as they will invariably demand copies of the recipes.

Bright Green Spinach and Pea Soup
2 tablespoons olive oil, butter, or a mixture
2 bunches scallions, including half of the greens, coarsely chopped
1 small onion, thinly sliced
3 carrots, thinly sliced
1 celery rib, thinly sliced
1 tablespoon chopped marjoram or basil, or 1 teaspoon dried
Salt and freshly milled pepper
10 parsley sprigs, chopped
1 large bunch spinach, stems removed
1 cup peas, fresh or frozen
Lemon juice to taste
For garnish: crème fraîche, small toasted croutons, and calendula petals

Warm the oil in a soup pot and add the scallions, onion, carrots, celery, herbs, 1 teaspoon salt and ½ cup water. Cover and stew for 5 minutes, then add 5½ cups water and bring to a boil. Lower the heat and simmer, uncovered, for 20 minutes. Add the spinach and peas. Poke the spinach leaves into the soup and cook until they turn bright green, 2 to 3 minutes. Remove from the heat and blend the soup in batches until perfectly smooth. Taste for salt, season with pepper, and stir in enough lemon juice, starting with ½ teaspoon, to bring up the flavors. Serve immediately with a swirl of crème fraîche, the croutons, and the blossoms floating on top.

Vegetable Gratin-Soufflé
Butter for the dish
3 cups vegetables, cut into 1-inch pieces
½ cup fresh breadcrumbs
3 tablespoons butter
1 cup milk
½ small onion or 2 large shallots, finely diced
½ cup Gruyère
2 eggs, separated
Salt and freshly milled pepper
Pinch grated nutmeg

Preheat the oven to 375° and lightly butter an 8-by-10-inch gratin dish. Steam or parboil the vegetables until barely tender when pierced with a knife. Drain, rinse under cold water, then finely chop them.

Lightly brown the breadcrumbs in 2 tablespoons butter in a small saucepan, then stir in the milk. When it’s hot to the touch, turn off the heat. Meanwhile, cook the onion in the remaining butter in a small skillet over medium heat until translucent, about 3 minutes. Combine the onion, vegetables, and breadcrumb mixture in a bowl, then stir in the cheese and egg yolks. Season with salt and pepper to taste, as well as the nutmeg. Beat the whites until stiff, then fold them into the mixture. Pour into the prepared dish and bake until puffed and browned, about 25 minutes. Serve immediately.

Orange Vinaigrette
1 teaspoon finely grated or minced orange zest
¼ cup fresh orange juice
2 teaspoons white wine vinegar or balsamic vinegar
Salt and freshly milled pepper
3 tablespoons light olive or sunflower seed oil
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
2 drops orange oil or 1 teaspoon orange flower water, optional

Combine the orange zest and juice, vinegar, and 1/8 teaspoon salt in a small bowl, and let stand for 15 minutes. Whisk in the oils and season them with a little pepper. Add the orange oil, then taste for salt and adjust the vinegar and oil if needed.

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