When I think back on the years I've spent cooking in my mother's kitchen—from my pint-size days when she'd plop me on a stool to help whisk oil into a vinaigrette for salad, to the Father's Day feast we cooked after I graduated from culinary school that began with a fresh pea soup—one sauce-spattered cookbook is always in my mind's eye: Deborah Madison's Greens (Bantam Books, 1987), named for the San Francisco farm-to-table restaurant she helmed, shifted the spotlight from meat to vegetables back in the 1980s. It was one of my mother's favorites and still remains on a shelf in her pantry. With Vegetable Literacy, Madison's latest, I'm thrilled to have a book by this seasoned chef to spatter on my own.
Madison—chef, author, sustainable-eating booster—organizes her new herbivore tome by plant family. One chapter focuses on the carrot family, which includes carrots, celery, cilantro, chervil, and parsnips; another on the sunflower family, with its cardoons, chamomile, tarragon, and artichokes. These connections encourage an impromptu approach to dinner. Don't have an onion? Swap in a leek. What to pair with parsnips? Go for its cousin chervil. Madison discusses everything from botany to history to cookery, and her prose is so approachable that you'll actually look forward to cozying up in bed and reading about kohlrabi. Helpful kitchen tips ("much of the flavor and nutrition in carrots resides in the skins, so it's better to scrub...than peel") run below each vegetable's introduction; the photographs by former SAVEUR editors Christopher Hirsheimer and Melissa Hamilton are Cézanne-esque still lifes; and the recipes are simple yet often superb.
Such is the case with Madison's melon and cucumber salad with black pepper and mint, which, with its complementary cool, sweet flavors, highlights melons' relationship to the cucumber. (Both are part of the cucurbit family.) Emboldened by her teachings, I swapped in cantaloupe for Madison's honeydew. The dish took minutes to prepare and was everything I want from a great summer salad: cold and crunchy, with a floral pop from the mint. I'm looking forward to making it in my mother's kitchen, and this time, I'll be the one with the recipe.
Ten Speed Press; $26.79.