For many of us, our experience with vegetables centers on buying them at the grocery store or farmers market. And as fresh-from-the-field as those might be, they are already removed from branches, vines or roots and often trimmed of leaves, stems or flowers – in a way, disembodied. You might never know that the leaves of sweet potatoes are heart-shaped, or that carrots are umbellifers with glorious flowers.
So where’s the whole vegetable story? Deborah Madison’s new book, “Vegetable Literacy,” helps fill us in. It’s an in-depth taxonomy, a reference guide/cookbook and a window into the wonders of growing a garden, from seeds to flowers. The book is as eye-opening as discovering how delicious vegetables taste; the revelation here is that there’s so much more to know than where they come from and how to cook them.
The book is divided into families of vegetables and herbs, such as “The Cabbage Family: The Sometimes Difficult Crucifers” and “The Goosefoot and Amaranth Families: Edible Weeds, Leaves, and Seeds.” They’re largely grouped together by characteristics of morphology. “The stems of a great many of the plants [from the mint family] tend to be square with leaves growing opposite one another,” for example, including anise, hyssop, basil, lavender, oregano, marjoram, shiso, rosemary, sage, chia seeds, savory and thyme, as well as mint.
Who knew artichokes, chamomile, chicories and tarragon all were considered in the same family, the sunflowers? Madison points out that their botanical relationships also inform flavor combinations. After the introduction of each vegetable is a compilation of “good companions.” For Jerusalem artichokes, she lists its plant-cousins radicchio, cardoons, artichokes and sunflower sprouts and seeds, along with other ingredients according to her palate – walnuts, Gruyere and bay among them.
Madison worked at Chez Panisse and opened Greens restaurant in San Francisco and has written a dozen cookbooks, including “Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone,” widely considered the primer on vegetarian cooking, even though she’s a self-described vegetable fan, not a vegetarian. “Vegetable Literacy” includes recipes that are both approachable and intriguing: romanesco with black rice and green herb sauce; eggplant gratin in Parmesan custard; leek and fennel soup with garlic scapes and chives; beluga lentil salad with purslane and green coriander buds. There are more than 300 in all.
I couldn’t resist the photograph of cauliflower with saffron, pepper flakes, plenty of parsley and pasta. (All of the photographs including the stunner on the cover were taken by Christopher Hirsheimer and Melissa Hamilton of Canal House Cooks.) Most of the recipes are very easy -- in general, easier than those from “Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone” -- great for weeknight dinner, with ingredients you’re likely to have in your kitchen.
Because they’re so simple, the recipes will depend on the quality of your ingredients. And though they might not all be show-stoppers, the recipes I tried I’ll revisit regularly: cauliflower and pasta; kale and Brussels sprouts salad with sesame dressing; and chard, ricotta and saffron cakes.
Next I’ll try vegetables for dessert, a carrot almond cake with ricotta cream.
Chard and ricotta cakes with saffron
10 to 12 cups trimmed chard leaves
2 pinches saffron threads
1 cup white whole-wheat pastry flour
1 teaspoon sea salt
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 cup ricotta cheese
½ cup or more grated Parmesan cheese
¾ cup milk
3 tablespoons olive oil or ghee, plus extra for frying
Thick yogurt or sour cream, to finish
Micro greens or slivered basil leaves
1. Wash the chard, drain and put it in a pot with the water clinging to the leaves. Cover and cook over high heat until wilted. You want the chard to be tender but not overcooked, so keep an eye on it and taste it frequently. Add a few splashes of water if the pot threatens to dry out. When the chard is done, put it in a colander to cool and drain.
2. Cover the saffron threads with 2 tablespoons boiling water and set aside.
3. Combine the flour, salt and baking powder in a bowl. In a second larger bowl, mix together the ricotta, parmesan, milk and eggs until blended. Add the oil and the saffron, then whisk in the flour mixture. Returning to the chard, squeeze out as much water as possible, then chop it finely and stir it into the batter.
4. Heat a few teaspoons olive oil or ghee in a skillet over medium heat. Drop the batter by the spoonful into the hot pan, making small or larger cakes as you wish. The batter is quite thick and it will not behave like a pancake. You need to give it plenty of time in the pan to cook through. Cook until golden on the bottom, then turn the cakes once, resisting any urge to pat them down, and cook until the second side also well colored, maybe 3 minutes per side, or longer.
5. Serve each cake with a tiny spoonful of sour cream and a finish of microgreens or slivered basil leaves.