What a Few Professionals Have Learned from Deborah Madison

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Last night, Deborah Madison—the vegetable whisperer who brought us Vegetable Literacy and Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, among other cookbooks—was inducted into the James Beard Foundation’s Cookbook Hall of Fame. Her work is expansive, her recipes elegant, her writing romantic, and her support of farmers unswerving, which is to say, her influence isn’t singular.

So we asked food luminaries—from Mollie Katzen to Amanda Cohen—to put into words what Deborah has taught them. No surprise, their answers run the gamut.

“My copy of Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone is a mess. It has a cracked spine, torn cover, notes scrawled inside in pen, pencil, even highlighter. It’s littered with Post-its, and dozens of folded corners marking recipes. It’s like every good thing you live with, or wear, or read and re-read. It shows the marks of your life upon it. And it shows how much you love it.”

—Heidi Swanson, cookbook author and founder of 101 Cookbooks

“I’ve never met Deborah Madison, but I feel like I know her. When I was growing up, Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone was one of those books I swore by and I absorbed it into my chef DNA. I don’t think anyone cooking vegetables seriously today would be anywhere if Deborah hadn’t drawn the roadmap for us all those years ago.

—Amanda Cohen, cookbook author and chef-owner of Dirt Candy

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“The first cookbook I ever made a recipe out of was The Savory Way. I was in high school and had to ask my mom what penne was, but the dish turned out well, and it became my go-to when dinner duty fell to me.

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When I moved to California, it was the only cookbook I packed with me, and it served as a reminder of home, a source of many meals, and a wink and a nudge towards my future career in food publishing. While I no longer need to look up penne in the dictionary, I haven’t stopped learning from Deborah’s brilliant work, and her recipes continue to be staples in my family’s kitchen.”

—Aaron Wehner, publisher of Clarkson Potter, Ten Speed Press, and Harmony Books

I learned from Deborah Madison how to let the farmers market inspire me. It must have been some twist of fate that I found Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone at a stoop sale one morning many years ago, when I was in fact walking home from the farmers market. I think I’d even picked up a celery root or a rutabaga, a vegetable that looked interesting but I wasn’t sure what to do with it.

Her book had all the answers, and from then on, I stopped going to the farmers market with much of a shopping list. I’d pick up whatever looked fresh and fun, and then, in the kitchen, I’d go straight to her book to learn more about it and to figure out how to cook it. I’ve since come to appreciate her for much more than just recipes—now I realize that she’s a scholar, activist, botanist, and in many ways also a creative genius, and we’re all lucky that she’s supportive of the food and farmer community.”

—Lukas Volger, cookbook author

“Deborah was the first person who ever served me a cake made with olive oil. It was back in the 90s, and I thought it was revolutionary and fantastic. Of course it’s been done a bunch since, but I’d never heard of such a thing at the time. It was a pot-luck dinner where she and Martha Rose Shulman and Annie Somerville all cooked for one another for an article someone was writing for Health magazine. We were all equal parts excited and nervous, and it all turned out wonderful.”

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—Mollie Katzen, cookbook author

“Of course, I knew of Deborah Madison long before I met her. She was the founding chef at the famed San Francisco vegetarian restaurant Greens and wrote a cookbook based on what they served and what was in Deborah’s inventive mind. The first time I met her in person was at her adobe house set inside a pretty walled garden in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The house had all of Deborah’s warmth and charm, with the kitchen at its heart. Her husband Patrick’s beautiful paintings hung on the walls in the living room.

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I had come to do a story for a magazine where I was the food editor. This was a choice assignment. Everything Deborah cooked and everything we ate was beautiful and delicious. But the thing I remember most clearly (though it was many years ago) was watching her roll out pastry into a large circle, slide it on to a baking sheet, and arrange plums macerated in vanilla sugar in its center. She folded over the edges, pleating the pastry to hold in the plums and their juices—free form. A sprinkle of sugar, then into the oven until the plums were bubbling and the crust was crisp and golden. That’s Deborah’s way with food—elegant, earthy.

I will never forget watching her fold in the edges of that galette. Every time I make one now, I think of her and send my thanks.”

—Christopher Hirsheimer, Canal House

“Deborah Madison has been a mentor to me from afar. Her books show a level of research and passion that I both value and wish to emulate. She dives deep into a subject and leaves no stone unturned to encourage the reader and help them be both more educated on a subject and feel accomplished as a cook. As a writer, that is no easy accomplishment and her dedication shows in each of her books. It was an honor to have her write the foreword to my cookbook, Roots. To me, and most food writers, she is an icon in the food writing world.”

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—Diane Morgan, cookbook author and teacher

“I met Deborah in 1996, when she was on book tour and I was her L.A. food stylist and media escort. We became friends that first day, when I ‘rescued’ her from her noisy hotel and brought her to my home to stay. (Bonding over shared passions and a good roast chicken made me bold.) Deborah gets a little annoyed with me when I also refer to her as a mentor, but how could it be otherwise?

Five of the many things I’ve learned from Deborah:

  1. In late summer or early fall, Concord Grape Pie is well worth the effort. The American native grape is tart, earthy, and sweet, and tastes nothing like Manischewitz wine!
  2. To keep colors and textures bright in long-simmered soups and stews, cook items like greens and noodles separately and add them to the soup pot a few minutes before serving (e.g. Lentil Minestrone, Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone). Corollary: After 19 years, V.C.F.E. is still the best wedding/shower presents around.
  3. Use ghee for more than Indian cooking.
  4. From Vegetable Literacy: Foods in the same plant family are compatible. (Don’t you wish all families got along so well?) Knowing that makes you a freer shopper and cook, who can throw things together into a harmonious whole.
  5. Be generous to fellow (and upcoming) writers in your field. More is better for growing your niche specialty into a movement.”

Amelia Saltsman, cookbook author and teacher

Tell us: What has Deborah taught you?

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