making romesco sauce and more, with deborah madison

"Vegetable Literacy" author Deborah Madison

DESPITE THAT 1940s Harry Truman-ism, “If you can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen,” that’s exactly where harvest time sends us, especially if we grow our own edibles. Who better to ask for inspiration now than Deborah Madison—often called the Julia Child of vegetarian cooking? Listen to our conversation (my newest podcast) about her latest book, “Vegetable Literacy.” Along the way you’ll get wisdom on her must-have garden herbs; a recipe for her versatile, rich-in-a-good-way Romesco sauce; and even Deborah’s unexpected secret weapon for gopher control. Madison’s massive 1997 volume “Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone” (Amazon link) is probably on your shelf, or should be, and this year she published her 10th cookbook–another comprehensive, beautiful must-have. It’s arranged not in the usual manner (appetizer to dessert) but taxonomically, by plant family.  (Remember my story about it, and her recipe for cauliflower pasta with red pepper flakes and more?)

prefer the podcast?

FROM HER SUN-BAKED, drought-weary kitchen New Mexico garden, Deborah Madison was the guest on the latest edition of my weekly public-radio show and podcast. Listen anywhere, anytime: Locally, in my Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) region, “A Way to Garden” airs on Robin Hood Radio’s three stations on Monday at 8:30 AM Eastern, with a rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. It is available free on iTunes, the Stitcher app, or streaming from RobinHoodRadio.com or via its RSS feed. The July 22, 2013 show can be streamed here now. Robin Hood is the smallest NPR station in the nation; our garden show marked the start of its fourth year in March, and is syndicated via PRX.

“This is the worst gardening year I’ve ever seen,” says Deborah. “It’s the third year of serious drought.” Things like lilacs formed buds, but they dried instead of opening, she says, “and the gophers have been devastating.” The animals have moved into everyone’s gardens because of the relative moisture of cultivated areas, but on that score, at least, Madison got lucky (or should I say ingenious, and also brave): “The two giant gopher snakes I caught a month ago in the lane are finally getting the population under control,” she says of the reptiles she made feel right at home. She hopes they start a family in her backyard.

"Vegetable Literacy" by Deborah Madison

MADISON DIDN’T plant her first plant until she was 35, but does have a botanical provenance, anyhow. Both her father and brother became botanists, so Latin was certainly always in the background. “Vegetable Literacy”
(Amazon affiliate link) came to her when she let some carrots flower and then noticed how their umbel flowers looked like others: cilantro, dill, lovage. Thus, thanks to a carrot, her formal exploration began. Despite the expression “please don’t eat the daisies,” Madison admits she has a “special fondness” for members of the daisy family, or Asteraceae—perhaps one you don’t think of right away when you look at your vegetable garden. Most of us can probably name the brassicas, or the legumes…but the edible daisies? Jerusalem artichokes, globe artichokes, lettuce, cardoons, chicories, the root vegetables salsify, burdock and scorzonera, and even tarragon figure in there taxonomically—and all are Madison favorites. (Read more on Madison’s blog about her love of the Asteraceae.)

HERBS she wouldn’t be without—or as she says, “small things with a lot of punch,” meaning you only need a little to make a big flavor difference, include these lovelies:

  • Shiso, or Perilla—add slivers to a salad, or serve it with beets, she recommends.
  • Epazote—“a stinky, strange herb,” she says, and “a bean herb”—meaning often cooked with beans, but also good with cheese, such as in a queso fundido (a sort of dip of melted cheese).
  • Lovage—“I’m crazy about it—and the gophers love it, too.”
  • Salad burnet—“An absolutely exquisite-looking herb.”
  • And if your cilantro is going by?–“The green coriander buds were my big discovery last year–divine!” says Madison. “They’re a little wild, and something in between cilantro and coriander; lovely in a salad, faro or wild rice.”

SPEAKING OF FLAVOR, I asked Deborah to share her recipe for Romesco sauce because the members of the Solanaceae—nightshades such as tomatoes and peppers—are coming on in our gardens right now.

deborah madison’s romesco sauce

A SPANISH SAUCE that has been interpreted by many cooks. It’s “not just a garnish,” Deborah says—but great on crostini, on roast vegetables or potatoes, stirred into a soup, served with beans. You name it. (My suggestion: Make enough to freeze some for winter use.)


  • ½ cup plus 2 Tbsp. olive oil
  • 1 slice country bread
  • ½ cup almonds, hazelnuts or a mix, toasted (if using hazelnuts, peel them)
  • 3 cloves garlic
  • 1½ teaspoons New Mexican or other ground red chili powder
  • 4 ‘Roma’ tomatoes, fresh, grilled or pan roasted
  • 1 Tbsp. chopped parsley
  • 1 tsp. fresh thyme leaves, or a few pinches dried
  • Sea salt
  • 1 tsp. sweet or smoked paprika
  • 2 red bell peppers, roasted, peeled and seeded
  • ¼ cup sherry vinegar


  • Warm 2 Tbsp. of the olive oil in a small skillet. Add the bread, turn it immediately so that both sides are moistened with oil, then fry until golden and crisp.
  • Grind the toasted bread with the toasted nuts in a food processor until fairly fine.
  • Add the garlic, chile powder, tomatoes, parsley, thyme, scant teaspoon of salt, paprika and roasted peppers, and process until smooth.
  • With the processor running, gradually pour in the vinegar, and the remaining ½ cup of oil. Adjust salt and spices to taste.

(Recipe taken from “Vegetable Literacy,” copyright 2013 by Deborah Madison.)

how to win ‘vegetable literacy’

Deborah MadisonI’VE BOUGHT TWO EXTRA COPIES of “Vegetable Literacy” by Deborah Madison (Amazon affiliate link) to share with you. All you have to do to enter: Comment in the box at the end of the page, answering the question: What plants do you turn to time and again for that “punch” that Madison enjoys from shiso and lovage and the like? My answer (I know, b-o-r-i-n-g): Italian, or flat-leaf, parsley. I love adding leaflets to my salad greens; it tastes so full of greenness and health. No answer, or feeling shy? Just say, “count me in” and I will. I’ll choose two winners at random after entries close at midnight Thursday, Aug. 1. Good luck to all!

  1. Carol H. says:

    I’m just now reading this… how wonderful to find a recipe for Romesco sauce! My husband brings back a few jars whenever he gets to Spain. (not often enough) But I thought that making it required Romesco Peppers? (Which I have never been able to find seeds for.) Is this because such a pepper doesn’t exist?

    Have never seen New Mexican Red Chili Powder. Does this go by some other name?

  2. Patty Birch says:

    Love cilantro. It seems to be a love it or hate it herb, but 3 out of 4 in the family enjoys it added to salsas ( of course, duh,), but also salads and soups or sandwiches. Helps that it grows well here on the CA central coast.

  3. K Desby says:

    Thyme–the only herb that grows reliably & in large quantities in a pot on my tiny porch. Snails always get to the basil & the parsley goes to seed almost right away. But hope springs eternal–I’m trying to grow some sage along with the thyme.

  4. Danielle Diakoff-King says:

    I Love Savory. Seems to be getting more and more rare to find it dried or even seeds for that matter. People think it tastes just like thyme. But it most certainly does not. Savory chicken tenders my mom used to make… just OO, salt pepper and savory maybe a squeeze of lemon and brown them up in the cast iron pan. Superb.

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