3 Highlights from Michael Ruhlman’s review of Deborah Madison’s new cookbook
Ms. Madison is not a vegetarian, and meat figures in more than one of her other cookbooks. But it was Ms. Madison—as a founder of the San Francisco restaurant Greens, which opened in 1979—who gave America its first taste of delicious menus of food that deliberately did not include any meat or fish. Having cooked for two years at Chez Panisse, probably the first American restaurant to focus on seasonal, local ingredients, and having later been a student (and cook) for many years at the San Francisco Zen Center, of which Greens was a part, Ms. Madison created arguably the first vegetarian restaurant to appeal to everyone.
I recently emailed Ruth Reichl, who I knew had written about California’s restaurant scene in the 1970s and ’80s, asking what she recalled of Greens when it opened. “It was a very big deal,” she responded. “The only vegetarian restaurants at the time were horrible macrobiotic places, and along comes this beautiful place on the water with such delicious food. James Beard and Chuck Williams were both fans, as I recall. Marion Cunningham too.”
I was thrilled to see that her brief discussion on knives, originally subtitled “Your Most Important Tool,” is now called: “Your Other Most Important Tool.”
What does she now recognize as your most important tool? “Your hands.” Thank you, chef.
Then she wrote a book to figure out what understanding such botanical connections could mean to a cook: “Vegetable Literacy: Cooking and Gardening With Twelve Families From the Edible Plant Kingdom” (2013). “When we look closely at the plants we eat and begin to discern their similarities,” she writes in the introduction to this substantial and lovely volume, “that intelligence comes with us into the kitchen and articulates our cooking in a new way.” She considers lily (including onions), grass, mint, knotweed (including rhubarb), legume and morning glory (sweet potatoes), among other groups of foods.
I loved her chapter on the alluring and dangerous nightshade family: belladonna (deadly nightshade), eggplants, husk tomatoes, peppers and chiles, potatoes, tomatoes, tobacco. The alkaloids in these plants can be toxic, yet it’s hard to imagine a kitchen without peppers, tomatoes and potatoes. Ms. Madison gives us history, botanical facts and, ultimately, recipes. And guess what? These related ingredients—eggplants and tomatoes and potatoes and peppers—pair fabulously well for countless dishes.
It is astonishing (and delightful) to learn that the cabbage family, which she calls “the sometimes difficult crucifers,” includes such diverse plants as arugula, bok choy, cauliflower, collards, horseradish and wasabi, tatsoi and turnips. And not a poisonous plant among them.
You are in good hands here.