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Meet the Guru

Queen of Greens

Best-selling cookbook author and vegetarian chef Deborah Madison shares tips for preparing plant-based foods.

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Quick Takes

How do you start your day?
l read for a while, have tea and something light to eat, then hike to my yoga class.

What’s your favorite way to unwind?
To come into the house from my studio or from working in the garden, open a bottle of wine, talk with my husband over a glass, and start cooking. I love the physical act of cooking at the end of the day.

What is your favorite simple
weeknight meal?

My favorite weeknight meal is a big bunch of broccoli raab or a mess of mixed greens sautéed and served over a sturdy piece of whole-grain bread that I’ve toasted and rubbed with garlic and olive oil. I like to shave some good cheese over it, like an aged Gouda or Parmesan. It’s really satisfying and not heavy for an evening meal.

Even the most die-hard meat eater would leave Deborah Madison’s table satisfied. That’s because this celebrated vegetarian chef and best-selling cookbook author’s food isn’t for vegetarians only. Her seminal book, Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, now available in its 10th anniversary edition, actually serves as a sort of primer on plant-based foods and how to work with them. “I really saw it more as Vegetables (and other plant foods) for Everyone rather than Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone,” says Madison, “but that didn’t make a very good title.” Madison’s acclaim is well-deserved: she got her start as a macrobiotic cook at the San Francisco Zen Center in the 1970s, cooked at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, and later became the founding chef at the famous San Francisco vegetarian restaurant The Greens. Besides her best-selling Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, Madison has gone on to pen such titles as Vegetable Soups from Deborah Madison’s Kitchen, Vegetarian Suppers from Deborah Madison’s Kitchen, and Local Flavors: Cooking and Eating from America’s Farmers’ Markets.

What inspired you to write Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone?
After teaching a class that covered everything vegetarian, I found myself wishing there was a vegetarian Joy of Cooking, where everything was under one cover. When I realized there wasn’t such a book, I knew I’d have to write it.

InVegetarian Cooking for Everyone, you write about intuitive cooking. How would you define this?
Once you know the flavors of foods and how they behave in the kitchen, you can start to cook without a recipe, or you can work easily around one but not follow it specifically. Maybe a dish calls for Brussels sprouts, but you don’t have them. But if you know that cabbage and broccoli share some of the same characteristics that Brussels sprouts do, you can just go boldly ahead and intuit something that will work.

How can people get more nutritional foods into their diets, but still savor and enjoy their dining experience?
The nutritional foods that people are encouraged to eat are unprocessed, fresh, and preferably local and seasonal in the case of vegetables and fruits. And that’s when they’re going to taste best. But it does help to have some idea as to what to do with these foods if they’re new to you.

Explain why and how eating locally benefits us.
Eating locally benefits us in many ways. It preserves the beauty of our landscape, and a thriving local food system gives our communities more security, as we are less dependent on food traveling thousands of miles to get to us. In terms of nutrition, local food is truly fresh food. Carrots are amazing; zucchini are shiny; beets glow. This is food that’s alive and full of flavor.

What drives you to accomplish everything you do?
I continue to write about food, farming, and cooking because it’s such an important part of our humanity, and we’re in such danger of losing ourselves to a world of utter disconnection and blind consumerism. With that, we lose our human culture, our true agriculture, and I care greatly about that.

What is some cooking advice that everyone should know?
Taste as you cook. Taste every part-don’t wait until the end. And if you’re following a recipe, read it through first so you can see where it’s taking you, and you can get the most out of it. And most important, have fun. You’re feeding yourselves and others, and that’s an honor and a pleasure.