Note: Due to technical difficulties, my website went down right after I posted this blog. Now that my site is back up, I invite you to leave a comment to be entered to win a copy of Vegetable Literacy. If you were quick to enter and previously left a comment, it’s still there and you’re still in the running. The contest closes this Friday, August 9th, and more details are below!

Deborah Madison has a new and important book, Vegetable Literacy (June 2013, Ten Speed Press). The woman who moved vegetables from side-dish afterthoughts and ugh, the “healthy foods” column to the delectable center of the plate is taking us deeper into vegetal relationships. Think of this as a cook’s version of botany written in kitchen language that helps us make smarter choices from the garden and market. She had me at cotyledons. I always wondered why every beautiful bunch of market radishes had two faded round leaves among the lush green tops. Those are the remains of the first embryonic leaves, a telling detail about a plant’s journey.

Deborah and I first met in 1996 when she was on book tour for The Vegetarian Table: America (Chronicle) and I was her L.A. food stylist. We recently caught up electronically for this illuminating conversation. But first…

Thanks to Ten Speed Press, I have a copy of Vegetable Literacy to give away to one lucky reader. Here’s what to do to enter the contest:

  1. Leave a comment on this post answering this question: What is your favorite vegetable and why?
  2. Comments will close at 11:59 pm Pacific Daylight Time on Friday, August 9, 2013. The winner will be chosen at random (using and will be posted to my blog on Tuesday, August 13, 2013.
  3. The giveaway is open to U.S. readers.
  4. One entry/comment per person, please.

In Vegetable Literacy, you give readers hundreds of ideas and tools. Tell us about one of your own take-aways from this project.

One thing that has changed me comes under the heading of “using the whole plant.” I found that as a result of having grown something myself from seed, I became so much more curious about what, in fact, I could eat from my efforts—often parts, forms and stages of vegetables that you don’t see in supermarkets or even farmers markets—broccoli leaves, radish greens, bolting chard leaves, kale that has flowered (though I saw a lot of that in Portland this spring). The garden really provoked my own curiosity and taught me to see things in a fresh and different way. It taught me about seeing stages, relationships, insects, and sun and shade and what happens in either condition. Seeing in general.

Is there a vegetable you just don’t care for?

Just yesterday I was grilling King Oyster mushrooms and found myself thinking, I don’t really love mushrooms! Flavor, yes. Texture? Not always. Sometimes I feel like I’m expected to love all vegetables with equal enthusiasm, but in fact, I don’t. We’re not talking about a violent dislike as much as, “I’m not so crazy about ….” But I try to include them in my books anyway because others like them.

What else would readers be surprised to learn about you?

People often don’t invite me to their homes for a meal because they say they are intimidated. Well, I get intimidated too! Many of my friends who are not food professionals are really good cooks, and I get a little nervous cooking for them. Plus, like anyone, I make mistakes—things don’t always come out right. There are bad days in the kitchen along with the good.


There is a lot to worry about when it comes to food and eating habits in America—from obesity and fast food to the Farm Bill. Is there some good news in all that muck? What keeps you from jumping off a cliff?

Good question, and one I wrestle with daily. But I just came from the farmers’ market where I bought beautiful, well-grown produce that made me reaffirm my belief in the value of small, passionate, skillful farmers to make a difference (not that it had wavered). When I visited a garden in West Oakland started by City Slicker Farms, I came away with such a hopeful feeling that I was surprised. It was very uplifting. There are still lots of us pushing for the right to know about GMOs and all of that, and so many people taking on growing something of their own to eat—that’s all encouraging.

But it’s generally pretty grim, and frankly, I do get discouraged. And I’m experiencing global warming for real here in Santa Fe and trying to figure out how not to be undone by it when I see my beans withering in the heat or tomatoes not setting fruit. I’m trying to find a positive way to wrap my head around this and figure out some positive gardening solutions instead of just getting discouraged.

Do you have one main wish for American cooks?

To really know their ingredients—their names, their stories and histories—and to take pleasure in that knowledge.

Photo by Christopher Hirsheimer and Melissa Hamilton

I can’t wait to make the Ivory Carrot Soup and the Carrot Soup with Tangled Collard Greens in Coconut Butter and Dukkah, pictured above. What cooking technique, ingredient, or subject would you like to delve into?

I would choose one Asian cuisine and really work on getting to know it well. And there’s a host of Asian greens and other vegetables I would love to learn more about, both to cook and to grow.

You write in Vegetable Literacy that after years of travel, you are happy to travel no farther than your garden, that growing food has been its own sort of journey. When wanderlust strikes again, where would you like to go?

Portland, Oregon. I long for moisture, and the farmers’ markets there are stupendous. Absolutely gorgeous food. But I am still traveling—Mexico and Italy this summer. I had hoped to go to Iceland, too, but that’s on hold for a while. Ironically, because of the book, I’m not home much this summer and because of the drought, I’m not planting a garden. You have to be home to garden, drought or not.

That’s a life lesson right there: you have to be present to make a difference. Speaking of focus, first you gave us The Greens Cookbook, then Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, Local Flavors, and now Vegetable Literacy. Among your many cookbooks, these stand out as seminal, defining works that have changed the way America thinks about vegetables. What’s next?

I have some thoughts but they’re still baby thoughts, so I have to take good care of them and not talk about them. In the meantime, I’m bringing Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone up to date with new recipes, ingredients and information that’s new since the book was first written.

Nice to know about VCE, since it’s my go-to wedding shower gift! Any pet peeves you’d like to get off your chest?

The infantile “veggie” word. To me, it’s baby talk and doesn’t do vegetables justice.

Amen to that.


For a chance to win a copy of Deborah Madison’s beautiful Vegetable Literacy, don’t forget to post your answer below no later than 11:59 PDT, August 9: What is your favorite vegetable and why?