« May 31, 2013

Vegetable Literacy

Know your plants, people
Review by Claudia Alarcón

Vegetable Literacy

by Deborah Madison
Ten Speed Press, 416 pp., $40

Although Deborah Madison has written a wealth of compelling books and is widely considered the foremost authority on vegetarian cuisine, the botany geek in me thinks this may be her best, and most complete, work to date. Combining her extensive knowledge of cooking, gardening, and botany, Madison looks at edible plants from a new perspective: Rather than considering them as merely cooking ingredients, she treats them, first and foremost, as plants. In a unique format for a cookbook, she groups them in chapters dedicated to their botanical families instead of the usual A-to-Z approach. She explains that, because of their shared botanical characteristics, plants within the same family can be used interchangeably in cooking and in fact complement each other's flavors. Think of how well carrots go with dill, or how tomatoes and eggplant pair up in recipes the world over. While this is not entirely new to me – I'm a cook and a gardener, as well – Madison's in-depth study of these relationships has brought new insights (who knew that artichokes, lettuce, sunflowers, and calendula all belong to the daisy family?) followed by a desire to try new recipes in the kitchen and seek more varieties for the garden. Within each family chapter, each vegetable gets its own treatment with recipes, growing tips, recommended varieties, bits of kitchen wisdom, and preferred culinary companions. As usual, Madison's recipes are simple yet elegant, suited for everyday suppers and fancy dinners alike. As a curious and frugal cook, I love her root-to-seed approach to cooking from the garden, with useful tips on using all edible parts of the plant, from carrot greens to artichoke stems. After experimenting on my own, I can't wait to try her recipe for radish top soup. This is an excellent reference book that I will revisit again and again, both for gardening and cooking advice.