Who's your favorite expert on cooking vegetables? For so many of us, it has long been Deborah Madison, she of "The Greens Cookbook," "Local Flavors," the landmark "Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone" and more. As a gardener, former farmers market manager and chef (with cooking chops honed at Chez Panisse and Greens), Madison knows her produce and what to do with it.
In her latest book, "Vegetable Literacy" (Ten Speed Press; $40), she aims to bring us closer to her level of knowledge by helping us think about the subject in a new way. It's a must-have book for anyone interested in plant-based cooking.
The book's subtitle is "Cooking and Gardening With Twelve Families From the Edible Plant Kingdom, With Over 300 Deliciously Simple Recipes." Indeed, her mission is to illuminate the connections among vegetables from the same family, to show how they can be treated in similar ways in the kitchen, used interchangeably and sometimes together. Mustard and horseradish make natural companions for kale and cabbage because, well, they're all part of the brassica family -- or, using an older term, they're all crucifers.
Virtually every page of "Vegetable Literacy" contains a nugget of helpful or just plain interesting information. (I'd call it trivia, except in Madison's lyrical telling, nothing seems trivial.) Examples: Crucifers are called that because of their cross-shaped flowers. Some European brassicas are referred to as cole crops, which helps explain the terms coleslaw, colcannon, collard and kohlrabi. (Kale, too, perhaps?) Birds can't feel the heat from chili peppers. One reason to scrub, not peel, carrots is that you'll rob them of some flavor, not to mention nutrition. Gathering places for farmers were called grange halls because farmers originally were known as grangers, or grain growers. Groats are the whole berries of grains, and grits are their cut-up versions, and that includes not just corn grits but even steel-cut oats.
Madison paves the path to literacy with delicious recipes, illustrated by "Canal House" queens Christopher Hirsheimer and Melissa Hamilton and their trademark style of luscious-meets-rustic photography. Plenty of cooks will skip all the botanical and gardening information, as fascinating as it is, and merely get to work envisioning and making their next meal.
Success awaits. To spoon into Peas With Baked Ricotta and Bread Crumbs is to marvel at a match made in heaven. To bite into Carrot Almond Cake is to wonder: Why didn't I think of that?
Because you're not vegetable-literate yet, that's why. But you're getting there.
Peas With Baked Ricotta and Bread Crumbs
A lunch or light supper dish that's a favorite of cookbook author Deborah Madison.
To add a little heft but keep things meatless, cook a cup of small pasta shells in boiling salted water, then drain them and add to the peas.
1 cup top-quality ricotta cheese, such as hand-dipped whole-milk ricotta
2 to 3 tablespoons plain fresh bread crumbs
4 teaspoons unsalted butter
2 large shallots or 1/2 small onion, finely diced (about 1/3 cup)
5 small sage leaves, minced (about 1 1/2 teaspoons)
1 1/2 pounds peas in their pods, shucked (about 1 cup; may substitute 1 cup freshly shucked peas)
1/2 cup water
Grated zest of 1 lemon
Freshly ground black pepper
Chunk of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, for a grated garnish
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Grease a small baking dish with a little oil.
If the ricotta is wet and milky, drain it first by putting it in a colander and pressing out any excess liquid. Pack the ricotta into the baking dish and drizzle a little oil over the surface; bake for 20 to 30 minutes, until the cheese has begun to set and brown on top.
Cover the surface with the bread crumbs and bake for 10 minutes, until the bread crumbs are browned and crisp and the cheese has set. (The amount of time it takes for ricotta cheese to bake until set can vary tremendously, so it may well take longer than the times given here, especially if the cheese was not drained.)
When the cheese has set, melt the butter in a small skillet over medium heat until the butter foams. Add the shallots and sage and cook for about 3 minutes, until softened, then stir in the peas, water and lemon zest. Cook until the peas are bright green and tender; the time will vary, but it should take 3 to 5 minutes. Do not overcook. Season with salt and a little pepper.
Divide the ricotta between individual plates, then spoon the peas over the baked cheese. Grate the Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese over the top. Serve warm.
Rice With Spinach, Lemon, Feta and Pistachios
MAKE AHEAD: The rice tastes best when served right away, but it can be cooled, covered and refrigerated for up to 2 days. Bring to room temperature before serving.
1 cup long-grain white rice
2 large bunches (2 pounds) spinach
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 large clove garlic, cut into slivers
Grated zest of 2 lemons (2 tablespoons)
1 heaping tablespoon chopped dill or marjoram
2 ounces or more feta cheese, crumbled
1/3 cup raw unsalted pistachio nuts, lightly toasted (see NOTE)
Freshly ground black pepper
Crushed red pepper flakes
Bring 2 cups of water to a boil in a medium saucepan over high heat. Add the rice and 1/2 teaspoon of salt; stir well. Once the water returns to a boil, reduce the heat to low, cover and cook until the liquid is absorbed, 15 to 20 minutes. Remove from the heat.
Meanwhile, discard any tough spinach stems. Plunge the leaves into plenty of cold water and wash them well -- twice if need be -- then dry.
Combine the oil and garlic in a large skillet over medium-high heat; once the garlic begins to turn pale gold and flavor the oil, discard the garlic, then add the spinach and a few pinches of salt. Cook until the spinach has wilted, which will happen rather quickly; then turn off the heat. When the spinach is cool enough to handle, chop it and transfer it a mixing bowl, along with the lemon zest and dill. Toss to incorporate.
Uncover the rice and use a fork to fluff it, then transfer the rice to the mixing bowl and toss to incorporate. Taste, and add salt as needed. Add the feta and pistachios and toss again. Season with black pepper and a few pinches of the crushed red pepper flakes.
Serve immediately, or let cool a bit.
NOTE: Toast the pistachio nuts in a small, dry skillet over medium-low heat until fragrant and lightly browned, shaking the pan to avoid scorching. Cool completely.
350 calories, 12g fat, 4g saturated fat, 15mg cholesterol, 410mg sodium, 49g carbohydrates, 7g dietary fiber, 3g sugar, 14g protein.
-- Adapted from Madison's "Vegetable Literacy: Cooking and Gardening With Twelve Families From the Edible Plant Kingdom, With Over 300 Deliciously Simple Recipes" (Ten Speed Press, 2013).