I SMILED as I first opened Deborah Madison’s latest cookbook to the table of contents, and saw that the introductory section was modestly titled, “A Few Things I’ve Learned About Vegetarian Cooking.” Oh, to know those same “few” things as Madison, the vegetarian chef and teacher and author who is often rightly referred to as a culinary icon and is also a champion of farmers, owing to her longtime activism in their behalf.

The latest book also feels very personal, and no wonder: It’s called “In My Kitchen,” and includes her “new and favorite vegetarian recipes.”

learned these “few” things along the way in her life adventure that so far includes stints cooking at Chez Panisse and then at the restaurant called Greens, one of the first in the Bay Area to feature a farm-inspired cuisine. She has authored 14 cookbooks, including “The New Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone” and “Vegetable Literacy,” earning four James Beard Awards and many other honors in the process.

Deborah generously agreed to share some of those few key things she’s learned, and a recipe. Read along as you listen to our chat on the June 5, 2017 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below (or at this link).

Plus: enter to win a copy of “In My Kitchen” by commenting in the box at the bottom of the page.

q&a on the ‘in my kitchen’ cookbook, with deborah madison


Q. I don’t mean to tease you about the “few” thing, but it would be like my saying I had a “few” plants over here. [Laughter.]

A. Right. [Laughter.]

Q. I just have a few, Deborah.

A. I just have a few, too. But really they do boil down to just a few essential things, and that’s just what these are about.

Q. Of course. [Laughter.] Speaking of plants, I probably should have said in the introduction that you are also a gardener, despite the rigors of attempting that in New Mexico, where you live.

A. Yes, I am a little discouraged at the moment, but we’ll see what happens.

Q. Gardeners need infinite patience and stick-to-itiveness.

A. We do.

Q. Speaking of what one might purchase, or grow, let’s start by talking about ingredients, which is where the book begins. I love conjuring visuals of you while reading in “In My Kitchen,” where you write about shopping for just the right ripe avocado, or melon, but most of all: how ingredients have evolved in the time you have been doing this, been creating recipes and cooking vegetarian.

A. They’ve just changed enormously, starting with vegetables themselves really. Seed Savers Exchange, which did so much to introduce heirlooms and the whole idea of heirlooms started about the same time I started cooking. That was at a time when there was just so little choice in the markets. It didn’t matter what market you went to—supermarket, farmers’ market (though there were barely any farmers’ markets then).

A couple of kinds of lettuce, two kinds of potatoes. “New” potatoes were the little red ones, which weren’t new at all.

Q. [Laughter.]

A. And you know now we have just so many wonderful vegetables to choose from, and I know that differs from place to place. The Bay Area, where I grew up and spent my first cooking years, is incredibly rich in variety, because everything grows. Here, not quite so much, but other places are even less. But I think on the whole we have so much more in the way of produce—and that’s just one ingredient.

Q. Even the salad on the cover of “In My Kitchen.” Some of those ingredients, which now seem almost familiar (you can tell us what’s in the salad), they weren’t everyday things at all.

A. No, golden beets, which are featured in this, certainly weren’t everyday. Orach, or mountain spinach: I did see it, it made an appearance in a grocery store last year, but it just doesn’t hold up; it’s very delicate. But it’s easy to grow.

Mache—we didn’t know about mache for so many years. There are fresh herbs and a yogurt sauce and pickled shallots, but it’s mainly the golden beets, the mache and the red orach that stand out and those are all fairly contemporary vegetables. Even though they have very old pasts they are new to us.

Q. What about things like oils and vinegars—those have really changed.

A. Oh, they have. Again, it has to do with just having so much more to work with, so much more to choose from. Olive oil was kind of something you got that was usually rancid…

Q. [Laughter.]

A. …and you didn’t know whether to get something called light, or virgin, or extra-virgin. Now it’s made differently and pressed all at once. I think people understand that you don’t keep it around forever, and dark glass is essential, because light and oxygen are the enemies of all oils. So we see more oils packed in dark glass, whether it’s olive or another kind.

I would like to think we understand and appreciate how precious oils are, and that’s why they are expensive. We have a lot of California olive oils now, which I think are fantastic. My brother makes olive oil…

Q. Oh, I didn’t know that.

A. …and friends from my past do. I just came back from San Francisco and was gifted with all kinds of olive oils. They’re all wonderful and fresh and delicious. We’re getting to develop a sense of varietals, which I think is good, too.

But vinegars: Vinegars have been around for a long time, and we have had different kinds of vinegars. I love vinegar in the kitchen, and think it can do so much. I’ve seen my favorite vinegar, a red-wine vinegar aged in oak, that used to be around—and now I don’t see it any more. Things come and go, just like farmers and all of us come and go. But there is always something good to try and replace it with. So I am as likely to pick up vinegar when I travel as much as oils.

Q. What I love in the book is seeing some places that you use vinegar that I don’t even think to use it. Not only are you picking the right vinegar–you have a palate for the range of them, and are a connoisseur of vinegars, I guess—but then you use them, for example, in one place on caramelized onions.

A. That is so good. I caramelize onions, and they are very sweet—onions have a lot of sugar, which is why they caramelize. They do get a little balance and flavor as they get darker. But then I take them out of the pan and I add a knob of better and a little vinegar—maybe a good strong sherry vinegar. Stand back because those fumes are powerful, and like chiles they will make you cough.

And then it just reduces very quickly. This is not a beurre blanc where you have to stand over it and be very careful; this is just, hey, we’re just reducing some vinegar with some butter and slide the pan back and forth and in a minute you have a sauce. You pour it over your onions or your onion frittata [above], and it just wakes them up; it gives a little zing to that otherwise predominant sweetness. [Get the recipe for the Caramelized Onion Frittata With Sherry Vinegar from the Taste website.]

Q. And the flavor of smoke comes up in the book.

A. Yes, and that’s another ingredient. When I first started cooking, and I wanted to introduce smoke as a flavor I also had to introduce it with chiles. Chipotle chiles were what we had. I learned about them from Mark Miller; these weren’t common. You went to the Mission District and you hunted around and you found a can and did things with them.

Now we have smoked paprika, and smoked salt—we have smoke without the heat, and that’s really nice. Smoke can give so much depth to something, even if it’s just a little hit in the form of smoked salt spread over something.

Q. And of course both of us have a thing for beans; we both love beans. I’m a little bit addicted to beans, I’m afraid. [‘Christmas Lima’ beans from Rancho Godro soaking, at Margaret’s, above.]

A. [Laughter.]

Q. And that was like a monotone decades ago.

A. At Greens, which opened in 1979, this black bean chili was on the menu and became very popular. I was thinking why do we use black beans, but they were the only exotic bean we had. We could have used pintos. I don’t think Anasazi beans had come on the market yet.

It was black turtle beans that were the exotic bean. But now, we have all kinds of wonderful heirloom beans brought to us by people like Steve Sando and Rancho Gordo, or Seed Savers Exchange again—they grow out a lot of different beans. They are all shapes and sizes and colors. If you do a bean tasting, which takes a little arranging, you will find that they don’t all taste alike.

Q. At all. And the texture is so different—the tooth, how it feels in the mouth is so different. They are spectacular. I encourage that as well. I subscribe to the…I don’t know what it’s called…but it’s the “bean of the month club” from Rancho Gordo.

A. [Laughter.] The bean club.

Q. Quarterly, you get this surprise package of a…