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.
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.) 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.
In this approach, the vegetable becomes golden, aromatic and lively in the mouth. Serve it with or without the pasta.
When sweet gulf shrimp are in season, you’ll want to add them to the recipe and omit the cheese.
Cauliflower With Saffron, Pepper Flakes, Plenty of Parsley and Pasta
1 head cauliflower, broken into small florets, the core diced (about 6 cups)
8 ounces dried small pasta shells, snails or other shapes
2 tablespoons olive oil, plus more for tossing the pasta
1 small onion, finely diced
2 pinches saffron threads
1 large clove garlic, minced
Scant 1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
1/4 cup finely chopped, lightly packed flat-leaf parsley
1/2 cup water
Grated aged cheese or crumbled feta cheese (optional)
Bring a wide pot of water to a boil over high heat. (The pot should be large enough and deep enough for cooking the pasta.) Place the cauliflower florets and diced core in a heatproof colander and place it over the pot; cover and steam for about 3 minutes. To test for doneness, taste a piece; it should be on the verge of tenderness but not quite fully cooked. Uncover and transfer the colander to the sink to drain.
If needed, let the water return to a boil, then add a generous pinch of salt and the pasta. Cook just until al dente.
Meanwhile, heat the oil in a wide skillet over medium heat. Add the onion and saffron; cook for about 6 minutes, stirring frequently, until the onion has softened. The heat will activate the saffron so that it colors and flavors the onion. Stir in the garlic, the crushed red pepper flakes and a few pinches of the parsley, then add the steamed cauliflower. Toss to coat it evenly, then add the water and cook (over medium heat) until the cauliflower is tender, just a few minutes.
Season with salt, toss with half of the remaining parsley, and keep warm.
While the cauliflower is cooking, drain the pasta and transfer it to a warmed bowl. Toss with a few tablespoons of oil and the remaining parsley. Taste for salt, then spoon the cauliflower over the pasta, wiggle some of it into the pasta crevices, sprinkle the cheese on top (to taste) and serve.
Variation: Peel and devein 1 pound of gulf shrimp, then saute them over high heat in olive oil until pink and firm, after 5 minutes or so. Toss them with chopped garlic and parsley, then divide them among the individual pasta plates or heap them over the top of the communal dish. Omit the cheese.
Nutrition information: 310 calories, 8g fat, 1g saturated fat, 0mg cholesterol, 115mg sodium, 51g carbohydrates, 6g dietary fiber, 5g sugar, 9g protein.
Green and white, sprightly and clean, this is a rustic dish that can practically be a meal. Reserve the spinach crowns to use in another dish; or steam them, dress them with olive oil and pile them over the rice. If you prefer brown rice, try brown basmati. Forbidden black rice is another delicious alternative.
Rice With Spinach, Lemon, Feta and Pistachios
1 cup long-grain white rice
2 large bunches (2 pounds) spinach
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 large clove garlic, cut into slivers
Grated zest of 2 lemons (2 tablespoons)
1 heaping tablespoon chopped dill or marjoram
2 ounces or more feta cheese, crumbled
1/3 cup raw unsalted pistachio nuts, lightly toasted
Freshly ground black pepper
Crushed red pepper flakes
Bring 2 cups of water to a boil in a medium saucepan over high heat. Add the rice and 1/2 teaspoon of salt; stir well. Once the water returns to a boil, reduce the heat to low, cover and cook until the liquid is absorbed, 15 to 20 minutes. Remove from the heat.
Meanwhile, discard any tough spinach stems. Plunge the leaves into plenty of cold water and wash them well – twice if need be – then dry.
Combine the oil and garlic in a large skillet over medium-high heat; once the garlic begins to turn pale gold and flavor the oil, discard the garlic, then add the spinach and a few pinches of salt. Cook until the spinach has wilted, which will happen rather quickly; then turn off the heat. When the spinach is cool enough to handle, chop it and transfer it a mixing bowl, along with the lemon zest and dill. Toss to incorporate.
Uncover the rice and use a fork to fluff it, then transfer the rice to the mixing bowl and toss to incorporate. Taste, and add salt as needed. Add the feta and pistachios and toss again. Season with black pepper and a few pinches of the crushed red pepper flakes.
Serve immediately, or let cool a bit.
Nutrition information: 350 calories, 12g fat, 4g saturated fat, 15mg cholesterol, 410mg sodium, 49g carbohydrates, 7g dietary fiber, 3g sugar, 14g protein.
Adapted from “Vegetable Literacy: Cooking and Gardening With Twelve Families From the Edible Plant Kingdom, With Over 300 Deliciously Simple Recipes,” by Deborah Madison (Ten Speed Press, 2013).
A lunch or light supper dish that’s a favorite of cookbook author Deborah Madison.
To add a little heft but keep things meatless, cook a cup of small pasta shells in boiling salted water, then drain them and add to the peas.
Adapted from Madison’s “Vegetable Literacy: Cooking and Gardening With Twelve Families From the Edible Plant Kingdom, With Over 300 Deliciously Simple Recipes” (Ten Speed Press, 2013).
Peas With Baked Ricotta and Bread Crumbs
1 cup top-quality ricotta cheese, such as hand-dipped whole-milk ricotta
2 to 3 tablespoons plain fresh bread crumbs
4 teaspoons unsalted 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 peas in their pods, shucked (about 1 cup; may substitute 1 cup freshly shucked peas)
1/2 cup water
Grated zest of 1 lemon
Freshly ground black pepper
Chunk of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, for a grated garnish
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Grease a small baking dish with a little oil.
If the ricotta is wet and milky, drain it first by putting it in a colander and pressing out any excess liquid. Pack the ricotta into the baking dish and drizzle a little oil over the surface; bake for 20 to 30 minutes, until the cheese has begun to set and brown on top.
Cover the surface with the bread crumbs and bake for 10 minutes, until the bread crumbs are browned and crisp and the cheese has set. (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 the cheese was not drained.)
When the cheese has set, melt the butter in a small skillet over medium heat until the butter foams. Add the shallots and sage and cook for about 3 minutes, until softened, then stir in the peas, water and lemon zest. Cook until the peas are bright green and tender; the time will vary, but it should take 3 to 5 minutes. Do not overcook. Season with salt and a little pepper.
Divide the ricotta between individual plates, then spoon the peas over the baked cheese. Grate the Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese over the top. Serve warm.
Nutrition per serving: 450 calories, 24 g protein, 36 g carbohydrates, 25 g fat, 15 g saturated fat, 85 mg cholesterol, 270 mg sodium, 9 g dietary fiber, 14 g sugar.
This carrot cake is redolent of almonds and lemon, without the usual cup or so of oil that many American carrot cake recipes call for. If you use yellow carrots, it’s exceptionally pretty.
Carrot Almond Cake With Ricotta Cream
Makes one 9-inch cake (8 to 10 servings)
For the cake:
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, plus more as needed
1 1/2 cups finely ground blanched almonds or slivered almonds (skinned) (may substitute almond flour)
Finely grated zest of 2 lemons
3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons organic granulated sugar
1 1/4 cups unbleached cake flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
4 large eggs
1/4 teaspoon almond extract
Scant 2 cups grated carrots, preferably yellow
For the ricotta cream:
1 cup whole-milk ricotta cheese
1 cup regular or low-fat sour cream
2 tablespoons honey
Grated zest of 1 lemon
Confectioners’ sugar, for dusting
For the cake: Position a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat to 375 degrees. Melt the 4 tablespoons of butter and let it cool.
Combine the ground almonds, lemon zest and 2 tablespoons of the granulated sugar in a food processor. Pulse until well incorporated. Grease a 9-inch springform pan with a little butter, then dust the sides with some of the almond-zest mixture, shaking out any excess.
Sift together the flour, baking powder and salt.
Combine the eggs and the remaining 3/4 cup of granulated sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer or hand-held electric mixer. Beat on low, then high speed until pale, foamy and thick, about 5 minutes. Reduce the speed to low; add the remaining almond-zest mixture, the almond extract and the flour mixture, beating until well incorporated. Pour the cooled butter over the batter and quickly fold it in, followed by the carrots.
Scrape the batter into the pan, smoothing the surface. Reduce the heat to 350 degrees; bake the cake until it is springy to the touch in the center, lightly browned and beginning to pull away from the pan sides, about 40 minutes. Let it cool completely in its pan, then release the springform and slide the cake onto a platter.
For the ricotta cream: Work together the ricotta, sour cream, honey and zest by hand or with a mixer on low speed, until smooth. Taste, and add more of any of the ingredients as needed. The cream will thin out as it sits, forming a nice sauce for the cake.
Just before serving, dust the cake with the confectioners’ sugar. Serve the sauce alongside.
Nutrition per serving (based on 10, using low-fat sour cream and half the ricotta cream): 350 calories, 10 g protein, 40 g carbohydrates, 18 g fat, 6 g saturated fat, 105 mg cholesterol, 220 mg sodium, 3 g dietary fiber, 22 g sugar.
The potatoes and kale cook in the same pot, which saves a step.
Serve with lightly fried fish fillets or on its own, with plenty of the sauce.
Kale and Potato Mash With Romesco Sauce
Makes about 3 cups of potato-kale mash and 2 cups of sauce (4 to 6 servings)
For the sauce:
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, preferably Spanish
1 thin but sturdy slice of country bread
1/2 cup almonds or hazelnuts, or a mixture, toasted, the hazelnuts peeled
3 cloves garlic
1 1/2 teaspoons New Mexican or other ground red chili pepper
4 (about 12 ounces total) roma tomatoes, fresh, grilled or pan-roasted
1 tablespoon chopped parsley
1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves (may substitute a few pinches of dried thyme)
1 teaspoon sweet or smoked paprika
2 jarred roasted red bell peppers, seeded
1/4 cup sherry vinegar
For the mash:
2 large (a scant pound) russet potatoes, peeled
8 ounces yellow-fleshed potatoes (such as German Butterball or Yukon Gold), scrubbed
1 large bunch (10 to 12 ounces) kale, any variety, stemmed, leaves chopped
2 tablespoons olive oil
Freshly ground black pepper
Chopped parsley, for garnish (optional)
For the sauce: Warm 2 tablespoons of the oil in a small skillet over medium heat. Add the bread, turning it to coat both sides. Toast just until golden and crisp, then tear into chunks and transfer to a food processor, along with the nuts; puree until fairly smooth. Add the garlic, chili powder, tomatoes, parsley, thyme, a scant teaspoon of the sea salt, the paprika and the roasted peppers; puree until fairly smooth.
With the machine running, gradually add the vinegar, then the remaining 1/2 cup of oil. Taste for piquancy and salt. Transfer to a container, cover and refrigerate for up to 1 week.
For the mash: Cut the potatoes into similar-size chunks. Put them in a saucepan and cover with cold water. Bring to a boil over high heat and add a generous pinch of salt, then reduce the heat to medium or medium-low (barely bubbling); cook uncovered until the potatoes are firm-tender when pierced with a knife. Add the kale and cook for about 8 minutes or until the potatoes are tender enough to mash and the kale has wilted.
Drain, reserving 1/3 cup of the cooking water, then transfer the potatoes and kale to a mixing bowl. Add the reserved cooking water and the oil; mash to a chunky texture. Taste for salt and season with pepper.
Transfer to a warmed serving bowl, with sauce spooned over the top or served alongside. Sprinkle generously with parsley, if desired, and serve.