Buy the bookVegetable Literacy: Cooking and Gardening with Twelve Families from the Edible Plant Kingdom, with over 300 Deliciously Simple Recipes
Deborah Madison - march 12, 2013

Right now I am in love with Vegetable Literacy! It is full of new ideas and techniques to cook what I usually find in my CSA box, at the farmers’ market or growing in my own garden. 

If we pay attention to vegetable plants left in the ground to grow beyond what we would expect to see in the grocery store, she tells us, some new cues for cooking them become obvious. For example, the lacy, look-alike flowers of carrots, parsley, chervil and fennel should clue us in to the fact that all are members of the same botanical family, which means they will have complimentary flavors and most likely make good partners on the plate. In some cases related vegetables may even be interchangeable in recipes, because of similar flavors, textures or behaviors when cooked.

This knowledge is especially useful for those of us who struggle to cook from any or all of the above sources, where we are forced to cede absolute control of the ingredients. The greatest challenge of cooking with seasonal and local produce is to be flexible enough to make use of the fruits and vegetables we end up with, which may not be what we planned for, or even really want. It is, more or less, a crapshoot what we will be eating in a few days: Asparagus or snap peas? Tomatoes or eggplant? Pumpkin or sweet potato? Apples or pears? It is impossible to know with certainty exactly what will be in the CSA box, at the farmers’ market or out of the garden on a particular day in the future.

That is why being able to substitute ingredients into recipes and dishes is integral to this style of cooking. Instead of having our pick of a plethora of mediocre choices from the grocery store, we must learn to accept a more limited selection from the very best a farmer or gardener has to offer. Vegetable Literacy examines the botany behind the flavors of vegetables, giving us a new set of tools to help decide how best to use this bounty. Madison extends the experiences we already have of tasting and cooking food to include what we can observe out in the garden, on a farm or within the pages of her book.

Studying Vegetable Literacy’s photos for illustration of Madison’s observations is a treat, whether the subjects are are growing in the garden or cooked on a plate. Christopher Hirsheimer and Melissa Hamilton, the team behind the Canal House Cooking series, have pushed their usual photographic skills beyond what is delicious, to embrace different forms that food can take in the garden. Beautiful and sometimes delightfully creepy, the sinuous curves and captivating patterns of garlic scapes, dewy collards, flowering lettuce, a multitude of beans and other curiosities are a joy to look at. They also serve to remind us that the natural world prefers to shun human control and do its own thing, definitely something worth thinking about when tending a garden or shopping for food.

As is expected from the woman who brought vegetable only cooking into the culinary realm with Greens Restaurant back in 1979 and wrote the award winning and very popular masterpiece Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone in 1997, the recipes are easy to follow, succinct and always successful. What she says in the title is to be believed: they are "deliciously simple.”  

More than that, the recipes contain unexpected flavor combinations that are surprisingly delightful and suggest strategies for pairing particular ingredients together. Sweet Potatoes with White Miso Ginger Sauce and Carrot Soup with Tangled Collard Greens in Coconut Butter and Dukkah are taste revelations with spice and flavor combinations that are new to me.

To liven up salad, see the section on "How to Dress a Salad without a Dressing" which features recipes containing Limestone, Tom Thumb or Amish Deer Tongue varieties of lettuce. My favorite non-lettuce salad from the book is Golden Beets with Fava Beans and Mint. A wonderful combination of springtime pieces that I wouldn't usually think of together, it looks great and tastes like the best April day you've ever had. Plus it uses favas!

There are also new ways to incorporate whole grains and fiber into old family favorites.  Toasted Millet "Polenta" and Cabbage with Chewy Fried Potatoes, Feta and Dill have been very successful at my house. And perhaps best of all, this tired old dog from my childhood has been reinvigorated: Egg Salad with Tarragon, Parsley and Chives. It one more fantastic way to feed kids (and grown-ups) protein that is a less environmentally damaging option than most meat, especially if your eggs are pasture raised on a small farm.

With Vegetable Literacy Madison has written another masterpiece, it is a book that goes beyond teaching us how to follow a recipe and explains that observing food plants themselves can help us to intuitively cook with the vegetables we have, instead of relying on rigid recipes that require the vegetables we want. Madison’s insights inoculate us with seeds to grow our own modern versions of the knowledge our great and great-great grandmothers possessed, women who relied on little more than a family farm, garden or local market and their own know-how to sustain a family. They were the true seasonal cooks, and we can take some time to follow in their footsteps and learn from the garden, or just use the recipes inside Vegetable Literacy to cook as though we had.


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