a few key wisdoms, from deborah madison’s ‘in my kitchen’ cookbook

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.”

Deborah Madison 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 the June 5, 2107 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

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 butter 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 certain number of beans. You don’t know what’s coming, and what I do instead of bringing a bottle of wine when I go to people’s houses, is I bring beans. One is more beautiful than the next and they’re in those sort of glassine packages so you can see them.

The person looks at you like you’re crazy, and then they get excited because they’ve never seen anything like that. I love to spread the word about beans.

A. [Laughter.] Good for you.

Q. You love black-eyed peas, and have this simple dish in the book—black-eyed peas over rice—but then again, grains have evolved, too, and it’s over black rice in the book.

A. I love that recipe. Black-eyed peas are a kind of a favorite pea; I love cowpeas. It’s one the only canned foods I have to have on hand. If I am home alone and I just need to eat something, I reach for some black-eyed peas.

I always start them with sort of Southern spices. I can’t seem to help myself. I put in green pepper and celery and bay leaf and thyme and allspice—things like that. But cowpeas are actually a Mediterranean plant, and if you travel in Greece and the eastern Mediterranean you see them a lot.

So I thought, gee, wouldn’t these be good with a yogurt sauce that has a lot of cilantro in it and maybe some parsley and some dill, and just garnish it with these herbs, too—including the little balls of coriander that are green before they turn brown. They are so delicious. I’m looking at the picture now, and I think I see a few of those in there. They are one of my favorite ingredients.

So that’s a nice little dish, and the black rice really sets off the beige quality of the peas, which other people might find boring. Then they become exciting and you have the sauce and the greens and you’re home free.

Q. Black rice: I eye it all the time in the food co-op, and keep saying, “Margaret, bring home black rice; you’ve been eating brown rice every day for like 40 years.” [Laughter.] “Wake up your life, girl.” Is it similar to cook? Is there any mystery to it?

A. It’s also called forbidden rice because it was the provenance of the royalty in China, for the emperor’s family only. To me it’s kind of similar in flavor and chewiness and quality to brown rice.

But honestly my husband doesn’t like brown rice and I don’t want to eat a lot of white rice, so I thought: black rice, there’s an exotic-looking thing, and it’s good. I like it very much. I don’t always cook it; I travel among different kinds of rices and grains. I do like it. Go ahead and live wildly and get yourself some. [Laughter.]

Q. Take a walk on the wild side.

A. It takes awhile to absorb the water; it’s not a fast-cooking rice.

Q. No, that’s OK. You were just talking about the yogurt sauce, and that’s another thing that’s always in your books (and in this one in particular).

Because it’s called “In My Kitchen,” we’re imagining these are dishes you have at home, so I am projecting about what I eat at home. And what I leave out when cooking for myself is the sauce—I don’t take that extra step. It makes these dishes even more special, and that’s what woke me up looking at the pictures were the little dressings.

Like a beautiful sweet potato that was grilled or charred, halved, and it had this miso on it, this drizzle. These sauces make all the difference.

A. And they can change a dish, too, so much. If you put one kind of sauce on a sweet potato—that miso sauce is good on everything, and in fact I’m making that tonight for dinner with sweet potatoes.

Q. I think it’s miso-ginger. [The sweet potato and miso dressing recipe ran in “The New York Times” at this link.]

A. It’s very lively and very nice, and it’s very nice. It’s wonderful on tofu, on rice—it just goes on all kinds of things. But if you were to do sweet potatoes with that yogurt, cumin and green sauce, that herb sauce we were just talking about, or with a salsa verde, they would be very different dishes.

Q. But I think taking that little extra amount of time and forethought to have the ingredients and to assemble that little sauce or dressing makes all the difference. That was the thing I thought—besides buying that black rice next time—I thought, ”Margaret, you’re also going to get your sauce thing together.” [Laughter.]

And miso is in the book, too, but not in any heavy-handed way. No miso soup, right?

A. I didn’t put any miso soups in here; I have done that before. I do like using miso in soups where it is a little unexpected. In other words, it’s not something where you are going to say, oh, that’s a miso soup.

I think in my tofu book I did a soup with red peppers and tomatoes and onions and it was very summery and very sweet, and just a spoonful of miso just ties all those flavors together and grounds them. It has a kind of umami quality that I think is really nice used in a subtle way.

Q. So the ingredients have definitely grown and evolved; the palate has widened. The recipes have, too, haven’t they? As the book’s subtitle says, it’s “a collection of new and favorite vegetarian recipes.” Some are ones you have known for a long time, you’ve known their components and you have tweaked them. Like there is this Chard and Saffron Flan [in an Almond Crust With Spring Greens, recipe at the bottom of the page; photo top of page and bottom].

A. I love that. That was based on a tart I’ve made for many many many many years, but I decided that I really didn’t need that extra bit of caloric input from the crust. So I decided to take it out and make it a flan, but I wanted a little something around the edge, because the crust kind of protects it and give s a nice contrast. So I ground and toasted some almonds and put them around the edge of the baking dish, and then baked the custard. It doesn’t really come across as an almond crust, but it does kind of protect the custard so it doesn’t get too hot and bubbly around the edge, and gives a little contrast in flavor and texture.

But I wanted to keep the quality I liked in that, which is the texture, and the texture is something you get from cream—or at least half-and-half, or at least whole milk. [Laughter.] And eggs. It’s just so divine, that texture. And in fact when we were making this book, the pictures for this book, the crew for this book (who is very young) couldn’t stop eating it. They said, “This is so amazing.” And I said, “Haven’t you ever had cream before?” [Laughter.]

That’s really what makes the texture stunning. I wouldn’t abandon the crust; I like the crust. If I were making the tart that might be an appetizer, not as dinner, I would put the crust in.

Q. I think there was a line in the headnote of that recipe, where you talk about the recipe that came before, and how you tweaked it, and then you say: “A somewhat different dish, but one whose flavors I would recognize blindfolded.”

A. [Laughter.] I think as cooks we do recognize our own flavors.

Q. The power of taste, right? And the memory.

A. I think I cook with a certain number of herbs in a certain way. I have things I like, and I think at a certain point you’re comfortable with that and you don’t necessarily have to be different for the sake of being different.

Q. There is another beautiful salad in the book that has citrus. Tell us about that salad.

A. I love that salad; it’s so beautiful. For about five months we have a lot of citrus in our markets, and we don’t have a lot of other fruit that’s really fresh.

A friend told me, “I remember this dressing you used to make with cumin and lime and olive oil.” And I thought I like that, too. That went on a salad that was very crunchy, with Romaine lettuce, and it went with black-bean enchiladas or something.

But I thought this would be wonderful on citrus, and add some big, plump pistachio nuts and some radicchio maybe—I had a little bit, and I sliced it very thin, and put it over the top. In the end this is a salad that has so many flavor dimensions as well as colors and shapes—and oh, yes, there is some avocado in it, too.

Q. Citrus and avocado and this dressing, with the cumin and the lime and the vinaigrette. Wow.

A. That’s good—it makes me look forward to winter.

Q. And you slice them delicately, the citrus—It was just beautiful the way it was presented, such a feast visually as well.

A. Well you know that goes back to that first chapter we were talking about: a few things I’ve learned. One is to have a sharp knife. Then you can do things like slice your oranges beautifully without making them all ragged and weird. It just helps so much. You don’t need a lot of knives, but you do need to have a good sharp knife that you’re using.

Q. Indeed. I want to ask you so many things, but what are you growing? What do you hope comes to harvest and is bountiful?

A. I recently have decided to take the tack of considering what likes to grow. [Laughter.]

Q. Good good good good.

A. Having grown out almost everything in “Vegetable Literacy,” it was really a struggle. All the Chenopods—the chard, the mountain spinach, the beets—they do love to grow. I’m harvesting chard and cooking that now.

Egyptian onions—we can use those as scallions; they’re really quite beautiful. Carrots from last year I am still digging up, and new ones are coming up. I am a little late getting my garden in because I was on book tour, and then we had a huge snow.

I’m trying to do more with native plants as ornamentals. I’m wanting to take this whole business of the drought seriously; we do live in a dry place. I have a whole box of them yet to be put in the ground. [Laughter.]

I think I am not going to deal with tomatoes this year, because I have used the same beautiful place for the last two years, and I don’t really have a good spot for them.

Speaking of beans, I have some beans that I am sprouting and they will probably go in tomorrow.

Q. I just put mine in yesterday.

A. Oh, good. It sounds like we have similar weather in a way, except that yours in more wet.

Q. And it’s unpredictable, and definitely changing.

A. It’s cool one day, and hot the next day; hard to tell exactly what’s going on.

more from deborah madison

enter to win ‘in my kitchen’

I’LL BUY A COPY of “In My Kitchen” by Deborah Madison for one lucky reader. All you have to do to enter is answer this question in the comments box at the very bottom of the page (keep scrolling below the last reader comment):

Any new-to-you ingredients making their way into your garden, pantry or kitchen in recent years? I did finally buy that black rice I mentioned in the interview, and am planning a proper examination of the vinegar selection at the food coop based on Deborah’s inspiration.

No answer, or feeling shy? Just say “count me in” and I will, but an answer’s even better. I’ll pick a random winner after entries close on Tuesday night at midnight, June 13, 2017. Good luck to all. U.S. and Canada only.

prefer the podcast version of the show?

MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its seventh year in March 2016. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the June 5, 2017 show right here. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).



chard and saffron flan

From “In My Kitchen” copyright Deborah Madison


  • 1 pound chard (enough leaves to make 8 cups, minus the stems)
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 hefty spring onion, quartered lengthwise and diced into small pieces (enough to make about a cup),
  • or 1 medium onion, finely diced
  • 1 plump garlic clove, pounded in a mortar
  • or finely minced Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
  • 2 large eggs
  • A big pinch of saffron threads soaked in 1 tablespoon near-boiling water
  • 1-1⁄2 cups cream or 3⁄4 cup half-and-half
  • mixed with 3⁄4 cup ricotta
  • Grated zest of 1 lemon
  • 1⁄4 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano Butter
  • About 1⁄2 cup almonds, ground or finely chopped almonds
  • 3 tablespoons pine nuts or slivered almonds

for the spring greens:

  • Several handfuls of greens and herbs
  • Sea salt
  • Olive oil
  • Lemon juice or vinegar


Heat the oven to 375°F. Tear or chop the chard into pieces, then wash and drain the pieces, but do not dry them. Heat the oil over medium-high heat in a wide skillet and add the onion. Move it around the pan to cook for about a minute, then add the chard with the water clinging to its leaves. Sprinkle over 1⁄2 teaspoon of salt and cook, turning the leaves occasionally, until they’re soft, about 8 to 10 minutes for later-season chard, which can be tough, less for more tender leaves. Turn off the heat. Taste for salt and season with pepper.

Beat the eggs in a bowl, then stir in the saffron water (plus threads), cream, lemon zest, and grated Parmigiano-Reggiano. Stir in the chard and season with pepper.

To finish, butter a 4-cup gratin dish, then dust the bottom and sides of the dish with the finely chopped almonds. Pour in the filling and scatter the pine nuts or almonds over the surface. Bake until the flan is golden and set, about 30 minutes.

to make the salad:

Tear the herbs into large pieces and keep the more salady greens larger. Toss them with salt, just enough olive oil to coat lightly, and a few drops of lemon juice or vinegar to sharpen the flavors.

Put the dressed spring greens on individual plates and spoon the flan carefully over or next to them. The heat of the flan will wilt them a bit and bring out their aromas.

(Photos courtesy of “In My Kitchen” from Ten Speed Press, except ‘Christmas Lima’ beans by Margaret Roach. Disclosure: Purchases from Amazon affiliate links yield a small commission.)

  1. Mackie74 says:

    New follower [first day!]…must have been hiding under my So Cal rock…or gave up trying to placate my neighbors by no longer planting the tomatoes in with the roses.

    Three things came into my life this winter/spring that prompted me to wander the internet finding your site: the loss of a backyard maple tree, a semi-dwarf red Valencia orange bought on a whim at a Nursery closing to be planted in my front yard, and learning to make Haloumi cheese.

    One Garden gate closes another opens; throw in Deborah Madison who has inspired generations of cooks; now I can’t wait to explore your site more deeply.

    Thank you!

  2. Rachel says:

    My husband is a cook and we love to try new ingredients. Recently I received some broccoli leaf to try. I have planted red and cabbage for the first time which is growing beautifully and I hear is fabulous cooked. Previously I have only had it raw.

  3. christine lowry says:

    I would be absolutely thrilled to receive a copy of this book, as I cook for not only two vegetarians, but also two paleo and gluten-free loved ones! Love your Blog, Miss Margaret!!

  4. Joyce Fowler says:

    I would love to win a copy of this interesting book. Brussels Sprouts is a new vegetable for me and I like it. Also use balsamic vinegar and olive oil now to make a good salad dressing. Do not buy prepared salad dressings in bottle anymore. So much cheaper and better to make own.

  5. Mary Ann Baclawski says:

    Every year I try to grow at least one new thing in my garden. This year it’s celtuce and tomatilla for the first time.

  6. Jody McGowan says:

    Hi Margaret,

    I love listening to your podcasts, and particularly enjoyed this one — Deborah Madison has such an effervescent personality! She makes me want to get right in the kitchen and prepare some beautiful salads!

    I am trying a bunch of new greens in my garden, along with rhubarb, and am working to place vegetables in with my small shrubs and perennials. Now, if only the rabbits would go find another garden :-)

    Thanks for your wonderful site and all the information you provide!

  7. margaret says:

    Wow, what a response! Thank you all for sharing my enthusiasm for Deborah Madison’s work. And the winner (who has been notified by email) is Colette.

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