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April 24, 2013 at 6:00 AM

Deborah Madison on ‘Vegetable Literacy’

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Consider the carrot with a botanist’s eye instead of a cook’s. Suddenly, the lacy flowers of the overwintered vegetables connect it to cumin and dill, to parsley and parsnips, and a garden full of other unexpected relatives.

That’s what led noted author Deborah Madison to her new cookbook, “Vegetable Literacy,” a gorgeous exploration of the major families of vegetables and their connections. The founding chef of San Francisco’s lauded “Greens” Restaurant (and a “beginning gardener”) became fascinated by the relationships between whole plants — leaves, flowers, and roots — illustrating, for instance, why broccoli stems and leaves are as edible as the florets, or how beet leaves and spinach can easily be substituted for chard. On the way, her explorations led Madison to recipes like Radish Top Soup with Lemon and Yogurt, and Carrot Almond Cake with Ricotta Cream.

“I feel if you have some understanding of plant families and the relationships among the members, you can walk into a kitchen and feel more confident,” she said by phone before her upcoming trip to Seattle.

Madison, who left California for New Mexico many years back, will discuss Vegetable Literacy at the Book Larder (4252 Fremont Avenue N.) from 6:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. Monday, April 29, and at a fund-raiser for the non-profit City Fruit organization from 6 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. Tuesday, April 30, at Santoro’s Books, 7405 Greenwood Avenue N., among other local appearances. Her complete schedule is online over here.

You don’t have to start gardening to appreciate whole vegetables (though even “a pot of chervil” is easy and fun, she noted), and you don’t have to be a vegetarian (she’s not one herself, though she eats a lot of vegetarian foods.)

“For me writing this book was really about learning to look and see — and when you start to look, lots of things start to pop into view.”

Here’s an edited, condensed version of our conversation, and one of her favorite recipes from the creative assortment in the new book:

Q: This book seems very different than what you’ve done before.

A: “What I was really interested in was the botany part of it, ‘Let’s look at plants in a different way.’ They’re not just pretty plants on a shelf and randomly arranged, but they share characteristics. What might they be, and how are they related?”

Q: If people don’t garden, how can they see vegetables the way you’re describing them?

A: “I think a lot of my observations first came from visiting other people’s farms and gardens … If all you can see is the supermarket, it’s hard to imagine. It’s a little bit like the butcher counter, we see parts and pieces, we don’t see the whole.
“Even at the farmers market we don’t always see the whole plant, but sometimes we do. I tell a story about the woman who said ‘I meant to bring the whole plant,’ ” talking about her eggplant — she wanted to show people how beautiful it was. And the English actually did use them as ornamentals before they used them as edibles.”

Q: I saw that your father was a botanist?

A: “Yes, my father and my brother. I was really not interested in any of that until I was older — my husband always said, ‘How could you escape it, when you have a dad walking around with you mumbling Latin words, picking up things and dropping them and they grow?’ — and my brother is a farmer as well as a botanist.
“I’ve always grown herbs. But to actually grow vegetables was a different thing. … It’s something I’m new to. I consider myself a beginning gardener.”

Q: What are your own gardening aspirations?

A: “I haven’t thought in terms of big aspirations. I’d love to be the kind of gardener that’s got a nice little acre going, and just patches and patches of edible food, but I don’t think that’s me… New Mexico is a hard place to grow things in a lot of ways. It’s not just a lack of water, but the soil is very clayey, or it’s very sandy, or there isn’t any — and it’s extremely windy and arid, and it’s the desert, we’re at 7,000 feet. Even though you can get nice tomatoes, because of those chilly nights the skins get very tough and it’s really different from a California tomato. It’s interesting to see what those differences are between places that we don’t think about very much unless we do grow things.”

Q: Do you have any favorite recipes from the book?

A: “One of the things I found that’s an advantage (in using whole plants) is you often get things other people don’t. For instance, when cilantro goes to seed and it starts to make its little coriander seeds, there’s a point where those are green and they’re just wonderful. I have a few dishes where I slipped those green coriander seeds in, and you bite into them, and there’s this burst of ‘Whoa! What was that?!’ … I have certain things I really did like a lot. There’s a dish for fresh peas with roasted ricotta, and it’s very simple. … There’s this ‘damaged goods gratin’ of tomatoes and eggplants and chard, that was a result of a hailstorm that just pockmarked and shredded everything. (For a farmer), they can’t sell that. But hey — it’s my garden, I can cook it if I want.”

Q: Tell us about some of the plant families.

A: “I love the asteraceae family, I think it was the exciting one for me in many ways. Asteraceae means little star … I had written an article once about Jerusalem artichokes and their flowers. I didn’t know about asteraceae, but I called them little stars. There’s something about the articulation of their petals, and that they were so high up, I just thought of them as little stars — and guess what, they are in that family.
“And then my dad, at the end of his life, his mind wasn’t very clear. I had gone to visit him, and I brought a calendar of Italian engravings of plant families, thinking that he would like it. He wasn’t into it particularly, until we got into, I think, August, and the family group was asteraceae. He looked at it — here it shows these hairy roots and thorns and prickles — and he finally said, ‘You know, it looks like some rough stuff from out of doors.’ I thought that is so true. All those vegetables are a little difficult … he really nailed it.”

Q: You’ve talked for decades about eating more vegetarian dishes. What do you think about how that’s gone from an outlying notion to a mainstream way of eating?

A: “Vegetables are getting their due in a way, and it seems lots of people are talking about them and how great they are and that it makes sense to eat them — and it need not be complicated, they can be straightforward and simple and you can save complications for parties and whatnot. I do feel like this is all very familiar. It’s kind of what I do. But it’s nice. It doesn’t have to be about being a vegetarian or making a lifestyle decision of anything like that, it’s just ‘hey, it’s probably a good idea to eat more vegetables. Let’s do it, and here’s how.”

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