Book Report: ‘Vegetable Literacy,’ by Deborah Madison


Kale and Potato Mash With Romesco Sauce. Tableware from Crate and Barrel. (Deb Lindsey/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)
April 9, 2013

Who’s your favorite expert on cooking vegetables? For so many of us, it has long been Deborah Madison, she of “The Greens Cookbook,” “Local Flavors,” the landmark “Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone” and more. As a gardener, former farmers market manager and chef (with cooking chops honed at Chez Panisse and Greens), Madison knows her produce and what to do with it. In her latest book, “ Vegetable Literacy ” (Ten Speed Press; $40), she aims to bring us closer to her level of knowledge by helping us think about the subject in a new way. It’s a must-have book for anyone interested in plant-based cooking.

The book’s subtitle is “Cooking and Gardening With Twelve Families From the Edible Plant Kingdom, With Over 300 Deliciously Simple Recipes.” Indeed, her mission is to illuminate the connections among vegetables from the same family, to show how they can be treated in similar ways in the kitchen, used interchangeably and sometimes together. Mustard and horseradish make natural companions for kale and cabbage because, well, they’re all part of the brassica family — or, using an older term, they’re all crucifers.

Virtually every page of “Vegetable Literacy” contains a nugget of helpful or just plain interesting information. (I’d call it trivia, except in Madison’s lyrical telling, nothing seems trivial.) Examples: Crucifers are called that because of their cross-shaped flowers. Some European brassicas are referred to as cole crops, which helps explain the terms coleslaw, colcannon, collard and kohlrabi. (Kale, too, perhaps?) Birds can’t feel the heat from chili peppers. One reason to scrub, not peel, carrots is that you’ll rob them of some flavor, not to mention nutrition. Gathering places for farmers were called grange halls because farmers originally were known as grangers, or grain growers. Groats are the whole berries of grains, and grits are their cut-up versions, and that includes not just corn grits but even steel-cut oats.

Madison paves the path to literacy with delicious recipes, illustrated by “Canal House” queens Christopher Hirsheimer and Melissa Hamilton and their trademark style of luscious-meets-rustic photography. Plenty of cooks will skip all the botanical and gardening information, as fascinating as it is, and merely get to work envisioning and making their next meal.

Success awaits. To spoon into Peas With Baked Ricotta and Bread Crumbs is to marvel at a match made in heaven. To bite into Carrot Almond Cake is to wonder: Why didn’t I think of that?

Because you’re not vegetable-literate yet, that’s why. But you’re getting there.

Madison will answer reader questions on Wednesday’s Free Range chat at noon: live.washingtonpost.com.

Joe Yonan is the Food and Travel editor of The Washington Post and the author of "Eat Your Vegetables: Bold Recipes for the Single Cook." He writes the Food section's Weeknight Vegetarian column.
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