Deborah Madison reflects on vegetarian cooking then and now

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Erin Scott

Deborah Madison’s 10 vegetable-focused cookbooks have helped define modern vegetarian home cooking for many readers. After a career that’s spanned nearly 40 years, what does one of the world’s most noted vegetable-focused cooks make in her own home? The answers can be found among the 100 recipes, many with accompanying stories, in Madison’s newest book, “In My Kitchen: A Collection of New and Favorite Recipes.”

Madison started her food career in Northern California in the 1970s, ground zero for the movement toward local, vegetable-based eating. She cooked vegetarian food at the San Francisco Zen Center and worked with Alice Waters in the early days of Chez Panisse. She also opened her own restaurant, Greens, one of the first farm-driven restaurants in San Francisco. For the book, Madison looked both at dishes that she cooks regularly and recipes she created years ago that were worth revisiting. Madison and her husband, Patrick McFarlin, live in northern New Mexico.

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Q. What sparked your interest in vegetarian cooking?

A. I wasn’t interested in it in particular. I was a Zen student and cooked for our community. At some point, we decided to be vegetarian. I hadn’t really grown up in a very meat-centric household. It didn’t matter to me, I just wanted to cook. I actually find the vegetarian label sometimes uncomfortable. Because, first of all, I’m not a strict vegetarian. Some of my recipes are vegan. Some are gluten-free. That doesn’t mean I am.

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Q. How has vegetarian cooking changed from when you started?

A. Having a vegetarian restaurant in the 1980s was a leap of faith. It was a different era altogether. I was so nervous about food being substantial and feeling interesting to eat and filling and good to look at. We used a lot of cheese. That seemed to be one of the answers at Greens. I discovered in writing this book one of my favorite recipes, an eggplant gratin with a saffron custard. When I originally made it, I put in Gruyere cheese. I thought, why? The food was complicated because we didn’t have a vegetarian audience. We had people who were used to having meat in the center of the plate. I think today, vegetarian food is simple.

Q. Is it no longer as important to have something substantial at the center of the plate?

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A. I think it’s fine to have just lighter things together. If I’m having company over, I’ll make the masa crepe with chard dish from the book. I’ll go to a little trouble for a vegetarian recipe to give it a focus. But a lot of friends I have over appreciate having something that is vegetarian and isn’t necessarily elaborate. What I do is make a succession of little dishes or have a really ample table beforehand for nibbling on lots of good things. I’ll have a soup course. I happen to love to make a cheese soufflé. I think they’re delicious and people love to eat them and they’re under the misconception that they’re really difficult to make, and they’re not. Then you can have other kinds of things on the plate as well if you want. There are just so many ways you can put it together.

Q. How did you choose recipes for this book?

A. There are a lot of recipes in here that should be somewhat familiar to people, but with some changes. A lot of them are made more simply. We have new ingredients that we didn’t have. A lot of these are real favorites that I do cook and return to. Some of them were recipes I discovered in my own work that no one ever commented on and were kind of hidden away, like the warm feta cheese with toasted sesame seeds. That was in one of my books, but it was much more complicated. This is so fast and so quick. If you buy feta cheese and people drop by, you have an hors d’oeuvre in a minute. I did discover that there are certain things that I cook the same way all the time. There’s a green bean salad with sun gold tomatoes with herbs, capers, and olives. Honestly, I think I cooked them the same way every time I cooked them last summer. I just like them.

Q. Is simplicity where vegetarian cooking is headed?

A. It’s definitely where my interests are headed because I’m busy doing other things. But I want people to cook. I want people to feel inspired. At the same time, I don’t want to make skimpy, silly food. I grew up with good food — with cream — and rich food. I like it and it’s how I eat. Also, I’m mindful of calories. The chard and saffron flan recipe, that’s something that I used to make at Greens as a tart with a crust. Here I eliminated the crust. I dust the bowl with almonds, just to give it a little texture. I didn’t want to really sacrifice the good things that are in that tart like the eggs and the cream. To me, it tastes really good. I don’t eat rich all the time, but when I do, I do.

Interview was condensed and edited. Michael Floreak can be reached at michaelfloreak@gmail.com



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