Cookbook review: Vegetable Literacy by Deborah Madison

Deborah Madison, a leading authority on vegetarian cooking, teaches home cooks how to coax delicious flavors out of vegetables by understanding their relationships to each other.

Christopher Hirsheimer and Melissa Hamilton © 2013
Peas with baked ricotta and bread crumbs from "Vegetable Literacy," by Deborah Madison.
'Vegetable Literacy,' by Deborah Madison (Ten Speed Press, 416 pp., March 2013)

The phrase, "eat your vegetables," has long been used by stern-looking parents desperate to make their offspring eat something besides pasta and chicken fingers. To children everywhere, "vegetables" has meant mushy, bland tasting things that stand in the way of dessert. Unfortunately, many people carry the disdain for leafy, root-y edibles far into adulthood.

Vegetable Literacy by Deborah Madison may be the cookbook to change all of that.

"Vegetable Literacy," breaks new ground because it focuses on the relationships between the veggies that grow in your garden. Madison's theory is that if you understand these relationships, you'll find new freedom in the kitchen to mix and match flavors in away that allows zucchini, peas, squash, and so much more to harmonize their flavors instead of being treated like tolerated guests on your dinner plate.

"When we look closely at the plants we eat and begin to discern their similarities, that intelligence comes with us into the kitchen and articulates our cooking in a new way," writes Madison in the introduction to "Vegetable Literacy." "Suddenly our raw materials make sense.... Bringing plants' features into view can free us as cooks, make us unafraid to use some amaranth that's going full guns in the garden in the place of spinach, which has bolted and dried up. They are, after all, related."

The author's first clue that the world of vegetable relationships was a trove waiting to be revealed to home cooks came in the form of a second-year carrot gone to seed. The lacy umbel of its flower reminded of her parsley, fennel, cilantro, and even the wildflower Queen Anne's lace. After a little investigation, it turned out they are all members of the same plant family, and its edible members share culinary characteristics.

Madison, a leading authority on vegetarian cooking, has a wealth of knowledge and insight on how to cook vegetables in a way that tames their bitterness. Rutabagas, for instance, are a root vegetable that, in Madison's words, get "relegated to a lowly spot at knee level" in the grocery store. This tough, winter root  shaped like a fat turnip is adored by equally hardy Scandinavians and northern Europeans when paired with butter and cream. Rutabagas are actually part of the large and unruly cabbage family – full of characters ranging from the fiery to the bland – which Madison says most "nonvegetable eaters approach with dread."

Her recommendation: peel away its thick skin, boil it to bring out its innate sweetness, and treat it lavishly. Smooth it with butter and cream; enhance its mild flavor with nutmeg, parsley, thyme, caraway, rosemary, and bay leaves. Add some smokiness in the form of smoked bacon, smoked salt, or smoked paprika. Or pair it with its sweeter cousins: potatoes, turnips, carrots, and apples.

And that is just one vegetable's treatment. Madison offers up more than 300 recipes to perceive vegetables in new ways.

Once you understand their relationships, which vegetables needs coaxing from what flavors, you'll transform a riot of awkward shapes into a symphony of tastes that delight. Essentially, instead of approaching vegetables with a whip and chair like a lion tamer, you become a conductor with a carrot as your baton.

With Madison's long career in restaurants, farmers' markets, and the slow food movement, following her through "Vegetable Literacy" is a bit like trailing her through the vegetable patch, listening as she stoops to discover some new sprout poking beneath a sheltering leaf and sharing what she has learned over the years as her own garden and wisdom has matured.

Even if you cook vegetables only once a week, you'll learn something from this family tree encyclopedia told in Madison's warm tone, sprinkled with funny stories. And she isn't above disdaining vegetables either. After a beautiful purple carrot turned to brown when cooked and thereby produced a mud-colored soup, down the drain it went. Madison knows our relationship to vegetables is tricky, and she aims to ease our comfort as best she can.

With spring peeking around the corner, a recipe using spring peas is hard to resist (even if you swear you don't like peas, give these a chance!). This recipe for peas with baked ricotta and bread crumbs will make a lovely light supper for two – and maybe win over a new vegetable lover in the process.

Peas with Baked Ricotta 
and Bread Crumbs
From "Vegetable Literacy" by Deborah Madison

Olive oil

1 cup high-quality ricotta cheese, such as hand-dipped 
full-fat ricotta

2 to 3 tablespoons fresh bread crumbs

4 teaspoons butter

2 large shallots or 1/2 small onion, finely diced (about 1/3 cup)

5 small sage leaves, minced (about 1-1/2 teaspoons)

1-1/2 pounds pod peas, shucked (about 1 cup)

Grated zest of 1 lemon

Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

Chunk of Parmesan cheese, for grating

Heat the oven to 375 degree F. Lightly oil a small baking dish; a round Spanish earthenware dish about 6 inches across is perfect for this amount.

If your ricotta is wet and milky, drain it first by putting it in a colander and pressing out the excess liquid. Pack the ricotta into the dish, drizzle a little olive oil over the surface, and bake 20 minutes or until the cheese has begun to set and brown on top. Cover the surface with the bread crumbs and continue to bake until the bread crumbs are browned and crisp, another 10 minutes. (The amount of time it takes for ricotta cheese to bake until set can vary tremendously, so it may well take longer than the times given here, especially if it wasn’t drained.)

When the cheese is finished baking, heat the butter in a small skillet over medium heat. When the butter foams, add the shallots and sage and cook until softened, about 3 minutes. Add the peas, 1/2 cup water, and the lemon zest. Simmer until the peas are bright green and tender; the time will vary, but it should be 3 to 5 minutes. Whatever you do, don’t let them turn gray. Season with salt and a little freshly ground pepper, not too much.

Divide the ricotta between 2 plates. Spoon the peas over the cheese. Grate some Parmesan over all and enjoy while warm.

With Pasta: Cook 1 cup or so pasta shells in boiling, salted water. Drain and toss them with the peas, cooked as above, and then with the ricotta. The peas nestle in the pasta, like little green pearls.

Reprinted with permission from Vegetable Literacy by Deborah Madison, copyright © 2013. Published by Ten Speed Press, a division of Random House, Inc.

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