‘WHAT GOES WITH WHAT?’ gardeners often ask, hungry for perfect perennial pairings, or the fodder of harmonious annual containers. Cooks putting together a menu are really asking what goes with what, too. In her latest reference-and-cookbook “Vegetable Literacy,” Deborah Madison asks—and answers—the question at multiple levels, including the intriguing taxonomic one, as in: Who’s a botanical cousin to whom (and how can that inform our cooking)? Get Madison’s recipe for one of my favorite pastas—with cauliflower and red pepper flakes—and maybe win one of two extra copies of this thoughtful work, just out this week, that I bought to share.
Each chapter of this newest book by Madison, author of “Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone,” is named for one of a dozen plant families—the carrot family, for sample, or Umbelliferae, with ingredients from cilantro to cumin, celery to fennel, parsley and parsnips and more. We gardeners probably know the Brassicaceae (the cabbage family) and the Solanaceae (tomatoes and such) and of course the legumes or Fabaceae (peas and beans). But we don’t really talk about what cousins of sunflowers we eat (the family Asteraceae or Compositae), for instance. (Jerusalem artichokes, lettuce, artichokes, tarragon, and chicories are examples.)
Learn to cook, and how to connect the botanical dots in the process. Why? “Because the garden is the other side of the kitchen,” Madison says. It’s an informative exercise—and can help with “aha’s” about substitutions, such as related spinach for chard or beet greens. It’s fun, too—and who needed another cookbook organized from appetizers through dessert?
Food crop by food crop within each family, including a wide range of herbs, Madison reveals tidbits of history and growth habits, selected named varieties, which parts are edible (often more than you think—including the tender leaves wrapping the curd of cauliflower, or the foliage of sweet potatoes), their nutritional benefits, and what other ingredients go well with it. And then comes the delicious part: a series of recipes using the subject as its main ingredient.
In every one, her love and respect for the vegetables themselves comes through: nothing is fussy, or complicated–no flavors are masked or gussied up as if to trick you into eating your veggies. They’re the star of recipes such as Braised Fennel Wedges with Saffron and Tomato, or Chickpea and Tomato Soup with Garlic-Rubbed Bread and Beet Greens, or Butternut Squash Soup with Coconut Milk, Miso and Lime. I’m intrigued by the many dressings and sauces, too, such as a Creamy Sorrel Sauce that can be frozen for offseason use.
And of course there’s the pasta the way I like it most: with cauliflower and red pepper flakes and cheese. Following the inspiration of my favorite local restaurant, I roast the florets first (Madison steams in her version, below), but the sweet-and-spicy combination is great either way:
cauliflower with saffron, pepper flakes,
plenty of parsley, and pasta
(From “Vegetable Literacy,” copyright Deborah Madison)
- 1 cauliflower (about 11/2 pounds), broken into small florets, the core diced
- 2 tablespoons olive oil, plus more for tossing the pasta
- 1 onion, finely diced
- 2 pinches of saffron threads
- 1 large clove garlic, minced
- Scant 1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
- 4 tablespoons finely chopped parsley
- Sea salt
- 8 ounces pasta shells, snails or other shapes
- Grated aged cheese or crumbled feta cheese (optional)
Steam the cauliflower florets and core over boiling water for about 3 minutes. Taste a piece. It should be on the verge of tenderness and not quite fully cooked. Set it aside.
Bring a large pot of water to a boil for the pasta.
Heat the oil in a wide skillet over medium heat. Add the onion and saffron and cook, stirring frequently, until the onion is soft, 6 minutes or so. The steam will activate the saffron so that it stains and flavors the onion. Add the garlic, pepper flakes, and a few pinches of the parsley, give them a stir, and then add the cauliflower. Toss the cauliflower to coat it with the seasonings, add 1/2 cup water, and cook over medium heat until the cauliflower is tender, just a few minutes. Season with salt, toss with half of the remaining parsley, and keep warm.
While the cauliflower is cooking, cook the pasta in the boiling water seasoned with salt until al dente. Drain, transfer to a warmed bowl, and toss with a few tablespoons of oil and the remaining parsley. Taste for salt, then spoon the cauliflower over the pasta, wiggle some of it into the pasta crevices, grate the cheese on top, and serve.
With Shrimp: When wild Gulf shrimp are in season, take advantage of their sweet goodness. Peel 1 pound shrimp, then sauté them over high heat in olive oil until pink and firm, after 5 minutes or so. Toss them with chopped garlic and parsley and divide them among the individual pasta plates or heap them over the top of the communal dish. Omit the cheese.
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how to win ‘vegetable literacy’
TO WIN ONE OF TWO copies of “Vegetable Literacy” that I have purchased to share with you, simply comment below, answering the question:
Reflecting on your vegetable garden (or the way you shop for vegetables), is there a plant family you suppose you have a special love for?
I’m crazy about the legumes—those peas and beans—and I guess the brassicas come next in my garden and kitchen.
No answer, or feeling shy? No worry—just say “count me in” or the equivalent, and I will.
I select two winners at random after entries close at midnight Tuesday, March 19. Good luck to all.
(Note: Purchases from Amazon links yield a small commission that I use to buy more books for future giveaways. Photos and recipe copyright Deborah Madison, from “Vegetable Literary,” Ten Speed Press 2013.)