Deborah Madison on ‘New Vegetarian Cooking’: ‘I want to make it resonate’


Tangerine Pudding Cakes With Raspberry Coulis. (Deb Lindsey/For The Washington Post)
Joe Yonan
Food and Dining Editor May 23

When Deborah Madison wrote “Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone,” who knew that the title would end up being so close to prophetic? The book has more than 400,000 copies in print, which isn’t literally everyone, of course. But when I think of all the photocopied and e-mailed recipes I’ve seen, the dog-eared, sauce-splattered editions on the shelves of libraries and home cooks and restaurant chefs, 400,000 suddenly seems like a conservative estimate of the book’s impact.

I wasn’t vegetarian when I first started cooking from the book, shortly after its 1997 publication. But I was certainly interested in vegetables. Madison opened up a universe of possibilities for cooking them, and a streamlined, elegant, modern sensibility that made many of the vegetarian cookbooks that came before hers seem fusty by comparison. Madison has continued to write interesting, beloved books since, including last year’s “Vegetable Literacy,” but this year she decided to return to her magnum opus and update it. “The New Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone” (Ten Speed Press, 2014) is an even fresher, honed version of her formidable vision, including an easier-to-read design, 200 more recipes (bringing the total to more than 1,600), and a new introduction. Out: soy milk and deep-frying. In: coconut oil and the slow-cooker.

Joe Yonan is the Food and Dining 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. View Archive

“I really want to make it resonate more in the times that we live in,” she told me when I called her at her Santa Fe home to talk about the new book. “There’s a whole new generation of young people who are looking for this kind of information.” Edited excerpts of our conversation follow.

How does the book reflect some of the biggest changes in vegetarian cooking over the past two decades?

There’s just been kind of an explosion of ingredients. Today you have almond milk, hemp, rice, coconut — all these non-dairy beverages. There are lots more possibilities for smoky flavors. Back then, if you were a vegetarian and you were trying to work smoke in and you didn’t want to use liquid smoke, your only choice was chipotle, so everything was hot. Now we have smoked paprika and smoked salt, even smoked tea. Ghee has suddenly become popular. It’s not a new ingredient, just new to many of us. Or coconut oil, people are nuts about that. I love it, too. Dairy has gotten so much better. We have access to grains we didn’t then: einkorn, farro, spelt. We have red and black quinoa.

Certain things I took out. I’ve never been a fan of canola oil, and I am less and less — same with soy oil, same with corn oil. I thought, I’m just leaving them out, even if they’re organic or supposedly GMO-free. So many times those oils are rancid, and there are better fats to choose from anyway.

And I always wanted to label the recipes that happen to be vegan, because so many people use this book because they’re cooking for somebody else — a child, a spouse or a family member — so why not make it easy? I didn’t try to turn things into vegan recipes; I just labeled things that just happened to be. Romesco sauce just happened to be vegan.

Are there things that haven’t changed much, and you don’t think they will? What are the constants?

It was a very interesting process to redo a book rather than write a new one. You want to rewrite everything, of course, and throw it away and start over, but in fact I have to recognize that a lot of people know this book and have their favorites, so those old recipes are there. The point wasn’t to write a whole new book, it was to bring things up to date. There are certain American recipes and foods that are constants, for instance, but we can still make them better. Cornbread, that’s a constant, but now maybe you can find freshly milled cornmeal from your farmer’s market, or use really great buttermilk and make it even better.

I enjoyed tracking some of the changes between editions. In the original, knives were “your most important tool,” for instance, but in the new one it became your hands, and knives moved to second place.

Thanks for noticing that. Hands are not new, but your hands tell you so much. Knives are pretty great, too. I gave a talk at Google, and one young woman said, “Is there anything you would tell me as a new cook?” I said, “Yes, get a really sharp knife and give yourself lots of room to work.” These things are basic and fundamental, and I guess they still have to be said.

And you dropped deep frying from the glossary of basic cooking methods. Why?

I realized there is no deep frying in the book. I just don’t deep fry. I think a lot of people try to avoid it.

I did want to take out certain recipes that were possibly not appropriate, because they were maybe too complicated, or too rich. One was a risotto gratin, and it’s really good and really rich, and it’s basically risotto that’s baked with lots of butter, and it gets nice and crusty, but I thought, nobody has ever said they make that, and maybe it should go. Then I was giving a talk about that book, and two women said, “You can’t take that out, because we always make it for each other’s birthdays.” Sometimes food is a celebration, so that’s important to remember.

I had a lot of stir-fries in the first book. But I’m not really a stir-fry person, so I went back and looked at the chapter again and pared it way down, and added a group of recipes that are simple sautes; they may use turmeric or chiles or lime, but they don’t require a wok. They’re a little more casual to make. It’s what I tend to do, when all else fails, and I don’t have an idea or much time. That’s what I like to eat.

You’ve also lost some enthusiasm for soy products, particularly tofu and soy milk.

In the ’90s, we behaved like tofu was going to save us. I knew people who just pureed it every morning and ate it plain. Why? Now we know that not so much tofu is better and that fermented forms are best. I left it in because I do think it’s a good food — we have it a couple times a month, and you can make it pretty interesting. But in the book I added more with tempeh and miso sauces and toppings.

I’ve grown pretty enamored of tempeh. But it’s a tough sell for some people.

It sure is for my husband. But I did learn to make tempeh from scratch — like tofu that you make, it’s so delicious, so delicate, and not like what you buy in the store. But this is not a book about how to make tofu and tempeh; other people have done that extremely well. That’s not my job. But making it increased my appreciation for it.

I’m happy that people don’t seem to harass you for not being totally vegetarian, something you’re very upfront about. In fact, I noticed that there was just one review on Amazon complaining about that, and dozens of other reviewers jumped to your defense to say that, of course, it doesn’t matter.

I did have 20 years of hands-on experience, so it’s not like I’m jumping on the bandwagon and discovering my inner vegetarian. I’m doing a book signing this weekend in Santa Fe, at a butcher shop, with Joseph Shuldiner, who wrote “Pure Vegan.” He sent it to me and I thought, “You can’t possibly be vegan, this is way too much fun.” We’re both coming from the same point of view. We’re not interested in fundamental lifestyles of vegetarianism and veganism. We’re interested in integrity, which is the same as the person who started the butcher shop. The meat is local, it’s grass-fed, it’s from here. And we admire that. It’s not about saying no to this or no to that. It can be if you want, or it can be that you simply want to eat some vegetables.

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