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First look: Deborah Madison’s “Vegetable Literacy”

2013 March 18


Frikeh with cucumbers, lovage, and yogurt (p. 306)

I’m a reluctant buyer of cookbooks. After a lengthy and anxiety-driven divestiture of a huge personal library, barely a year ago, I’m in no hurry to bulk up my carefully curated — and much more manageable — collection. I’ve jumped on the digital bandwagon with both feet, and in the rare instance that I do purchase a cookbook, most likely, it will be the Kindle version.

But I knew that Deborah Madison’s new book, “Vegetable Literacy,” was a perfect fit for me and my bookcase merely one page into Chapter 1: The Carrot Family. She’s not just a vegetarian cook, but also a true-blue vegetable gardener, the real deal. A seed-to-table soul sister.

It’s rare, really. There are a lot of vegetarian cookbooks out there, of course, and while the authors might claim a legitimate skill and knowledge of vegetables in the kitchen, the experienced gardener can tell when they’re faking their way through the “seed” part of their “seed-to-table” cooking. (Nigel Slater is one notable exception. He’s not a vegetarian, but he closely ties his garden to his cooking, most wonderfully in another of my bookcase-worthy favorites, “Tender.”)

So there I was, in Chapter 1, nodding happily along as Ms. Madison recounted the time when she let a carrot go to seed and bloom, observing the flower and noting its close resemblance to those of other plants in her garden. I was nodding because I was remembering my own experiences with the very same thing: carrots are easily overlooked in the garden once the greenery disappears (in my case, due to frequent bunny nibblings), and one spring, when green shoots appeared in the previous year’s carrot patch, I let them go — even though they were occupying valuable production space — just to observe in nature the behavior I had once read about.

As with all things, after one masters the fundamentals, a natural “what if…” curiosity creeps in, experimenting with this, observing that. Making connections, figuring out how it all relates (“connecting the dots,” as Ms. Madison says). It’s how we fuel our passions, scratching through the surface to discover the inner workings beneath.

And that’s one half of what I love about this book. Ms. Madison connects the dots between families of vegetables in the garden, and flavor profiles on the plate. And she does so with gentle flair and broad appeal. This book is as readable as it is usable, for arm-chair gardeners and veterans alike.


Recipe table of contents organized by vegetable family

Organized by vegetable families (rather than seasons or ingredients), Ms. Madison’s completely user-friendly recipes walk the reader through vegetable and herb flavor affinities, educating us on things growing in the home garden all the while. (A hands-on companion, as it were, to another of my bookcase-worthy food favorites, “The Flavor Bible,” which charts the flavor affinities of all foods, but includes no recipes.)

I spent this past weekend unable to put “Vegetable Literacy” down for long, thumbing through the reference portions — she’s inspired me to grow lovage this year, an herb that’s impossible to find within my normal driving radius, but one I now must try, based on her flavor descriptions alone — and trying several dishes that particularly caught my eye.


Cauliflower soup with coconut, turmeric, and lime (p. 143)

Her simple preparations appeal to me immensely. Herbs play a large role in her recipes, elevating already solid dishes into something memorable and crave-inducing.

Frikeh (or freekeh) with cucumbers, lovage, and yogurt (photo of my finished dish at top) was the first recipe I prepared. An obsessive but failed search for lovage forced me to use a substitute (parsley and celery leaves), but no matter: the result was exactly the kind of meal I love – whole grains liberally enhanced with herbs and vegetables, tied together with a simple yogurt dressing.

This recipe also provided a {lightbulb click} moment. Although photos do not accompany every dish, the ones selected are gorgeous and lush. I stared at the book’s photo of the frikeh dish for the longest time, until it finally dawned on me exactly why many dishes call for large amounts of fresh herbs, often more than one. Herbs are not simply sprinkled over a dish, but rather, they’re chopped finely and thoroughly incorporated into a dish, where every surface is herb-flecked and therefore, flavor-infused.


I immediately tried this with a simple helping of brown rice and a big heaping tablespoon of finely minced cilantro (measured after mincing, which uses more, of course), leaving the grains freckled green. Such an enormous difference it made over my usual casual sprinkling of medium-chopped herbs — a better, more vocal balance of herb to grain. Sometimes, a light hand is necessary, but knowing when to turn up the volume is the difference between a good dish and a great dish.

The curried soup (my photo above), positively glows spring sunshine from turmeric and fresh cilantro. Ready in less than a half hour (and mostly hands-off cooking, at that), it drew rave reviews, both as a soup and as leftovers served over brown rice and baked tofu the next day.


Roasted Brussels sprouts with mustard-cream vinaigrette (p. 140)

It’s a bit embarrassing to admit that it has just never occurred to me to pair mustard with Brussels sprouts. But the roasted Brussels sprouts with mustard-cream vinaigrette (my photo above) was a revelation: two bold flavors complementing and somehow tempering each other seamlessly. Absolutely addictive and beyond easy to prepare. They’re related, Brussels sprouts and mustard. Once one understands that family relationship — Brassicaceaes, both — flavor pairings become instinctive, intuitive. And they work. (And it shows that no matter how long you’ve been doing a thing, there’s always something more to learn.)


Halloumi with seared peppers, olives, and capers (p. 190)

And now, to my favorite recipe of the weekend, the one that sealed this book in my heart: halloumi with seared peppers, olives and capers. Being only March, this dish is out of season, for sure, as it calls for a good helping of tomatoes, but I couldn’t help it. I dipped into my stash of frozen bell peppers from last year’s garden, and purchased a small container of cherry tomatoes from Mexico (the least offensive of winter tomato selections). I can see endless uses for this wildly inspired combination of tomatoes, peppers — both from my beloved Nightshade family — garlic, olives, mint(!), parsley, and capers, with or without the halloumi: spooned over pasta or rice, fashioned into a sort of panzanella, piled on crusty bread like a bruschetta. For my simple lunch, though, I prepared it as called for … and could barely restrain myself from fixing a second round. I can’t wait to prepare this with ingredients pulled fresh from my garden.


Side note: no self-respecting cookbook would be complete without a few sweets. There’s a carrot-almond cake with ricotta cream that has Easter written all over it (and I still have sweet, sweet carrots happily wintering over in my garden), and a caraway seed cake that would’ve been made impromptu last night if I had only remembered earlier that my caraway seed jar was empty.

Oh, and speaking of carrots … and their blooms and their family members….

In the first chapter, as I mentioned, Ms. Madison introduces the carrot family (Umbelliferae or Apiaceae) and discusses the relationship between the lovely carrot and its close relatives, like dill, parsley, caraway, Queen Anne’s lace, cumin, and cilantro. Members of this family share certain flower characteristics, blooming into large domes with tiny petals, called umbels (use the mnemonic “umbrella” to remember this term).

The flowers of the carrot family are easy to spot, as they bloom, indeed, quite like umbrellas. Here are a few photos of Umbelliferae from my past gardens (apologies in advance for the indelicate appearance of my left paw; these top-heavy blooms bob with the slightest of breezes, and must be forcibly tamed in order to photograph):


Carrot bloom


Dill bloom


Mass of flat-leaf parsley blooms – if you look closely, you can see the individual, circular umbels

To sum up, I just love “Vegetable Literacy.” It’s a must have for vegetable lovers, and an approachable reference guide for folks learning to make the garden-to-plate connection. The reference sections are interesting and informative; the recipes are fresh, unfussy, and satisfying for vegetarians and omnivores alike.

Halloumi with Seared Red Peppers, Olives and Capers

adapted from “Vegetable Literacy” by Deborah Madison

This is one of those recipes that becomes second nature as soon as you’ve made it once. I served this over red wine vinegar and garlic sautéed croutons. I can also see this as a topping for crostini (using smaller portions of halloumi, so as to fit on a slice of bread), or spooned over chopped, hearty salad greens.


  • Large handful of halved or quartered cherry tomatoes
  • 12 Kalamata olives, pitted and halved (I used green olives – still delicious)
  • 1 large clove garlic, minced
  • 2 tablespoons capers, rinsed
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 sweet bell peppers (red, orange, or yellow), seeded and sliced into 1/2″ strips
  • 8 slices halloumi (about 8 ounces), 1/2″ thick
  • 1 tablespoon mint, chopped
  • 1 tablespoon parsley, chopped
  • sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • Crusty bread, for serving


  1. Place the tomatoes, olives, garlic and capers in a bowl. Drizzle with 4 teaspoons of olive oil and fold gently to coat. Set aside.
  2. Heat one tablespoon olive oil in a skillet over medium heat, until gently shimmering. Add the peppers and saute until soft and seared, about 5 minutes. Move them to the bowl with the tomatoes.
  3. Turn the heat to medium-high and add the remaining olive oil to the pan. When shimmering, add the cheese slices in a single layer and cook, flipping the slices until both sides are golden (1 to 2 minutes). Add the tomato mixture to the pan and saute for one minute. Remove from the heat and sprinkle the herbs, salt and pepper over the top. Serve with the bread.
Prep Time: 5 minutes       Cook time: 15 minutes       Yield: 2 generous servings; more, as a side dish


8 Responses
  1. March 18, 2013

    My copy finally arrived Friday, but I am only into the introductory sections. I have my little pad of sticky notes ready to go, though. (I roasted Brussels sprouts yesterday with a grainy mustard & maple syrup and it was excellent – I had no idea they were cousins…)
    Your write up has me very anxious for this season’s CSA & farmer’s markets.

  2. March 18, 2013

    Wow, you weren’t kidding about spending the whole weekend with this book! I’ve had my eye on that halloumi recipe too–that’s going on my menu very soon.

  3. March 18, 2013

    I am recently, as well, re-establishing my cookbook shelves with books that I actually will USE, as opposed to ones that I think are useful. It’s a big difference to learn. This book might be a good addition, as I love learning of those familial pairings that just make a dish so perfect. Some of it is instinct. Some is not.

    I’ve always wanted to try Halloumi. This might be the ticket. Beautiful photographs!

  4. March 19, 2013

    Sounds like a fabulous book and this dish is beautiful and very delicious looking!

  5. March 26, 2013

    Recently have been contemplating purchasing a Kindle but couldn’t make up my mind. After reading this post I decided “yes”. The weight of my book (all kinds) collection needs a room devoted to it. Plus the price of Kindle books is so reasonable. Ms. M’s cookbook looks like a real work of art. I love the marriage of gardening with cooking. Understanding the families and their members would be fascinating. Thanks so much for reviewing it!
    P.S. Was thinking of a Kindle Paperwhite. Any thoughts to offer?

  6. April 30, 2013

    I’ve never even heard of lovage, but now I’ll have to try to find it! There are so many farmer’s markets within my reach here in LA that it might be right under my nose.

  7. Katy permalink
    May 8, 2013

    I just found your blog and I love it: such gorgeous photos and thoughtful writing!! I’m really excited about this recipe, too. I haven’t gotten Vegetable Literacy yet, but it’s definitely on my list of books to buy.

  8. December 19, 2013

    I’ve just made a whole bunch of recipes from this book from the kale section. I couldn’t help myself as I was having a kale craving and had to start with this book first. Last week it was the kale and potato mash with Romesco sauce and also the kale and Brussels sprouts salad. Today it was the kale porcine rosemary pesto, which I plan on having over pasta tonight. So after making the pesto not too long ago, I came to my computer to search online to see if others had been cooking from this book and stumbled upon your site and just wanted to say a big HI and thank you for your review of this book. Even though I’ve had this cookbook since it was released (I have a bit of a cookbook habit myself), I haven’t explored it as much as I’d like so I’ve made it a goal of mine to cook from it some more in the upcoming year. Thank you for the inspiration and the beautiful photos. (Yes, I’ve already pre-ordered Madison’s update of Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone…. quite possibly my favorite cookbook ever. If I was being sent to a deserted island, this is the book I would pack first!)

    Happy holidays.

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