Deborah Madison is well known as a chef, and queen of vegetables. In Vegetable Literacy (Ten Speed Press $40) her new cookbook, I learned she had never been much of a gardener until her mid-thirties. I have always said that a walk down the garden path is a walk into the fields of history, literature, myth and science. In the beautifully illustrated Vegetable Literacy, Madison takes us along on her journey from the kitchen into the vegetable garden, the study of botany, and back into the kitchen.
While Madison tells us about her understanding of plant families she explains that if we look as vegetables in a single plant family we can see how they can be substituted for each other. She also shows us that parts of a vegetable we don’t ordinarily eat, are edible and can be used as part of a dish. Her book is organized around twelve families beginning with the Carrot family which is huge. It is comprised of a host of Umbelliferae like angelica, anise, asafetida, caraway, carrots, celery, celery root, chervil, cilantro and coriander, cumin, dill, hennel, hemlock, lovage, osha, parsley, parsley root, parsnips, Queen Anne’s Lace.
Several of these vegetables or herbs are biennials, which means they don’t flower and produce seed until their second year. That’s why we may not see a carrot flower and realize how similar it is to Queen Anne’s Lace, sometimes called the wild carrot. If you pull up the root a Queen Anne’s flower you will notice that it smells very carroty. She points out that every herb in this family goes well with carrots – and that the carrot’s feathery foliage is edible, adding a bit of color and flavor and even extra vitamins.
For each plant family, Deborah Madison gives advice about using the whole plant, good companions, and some kitchen wisdom.
Other chapters in the book include the cabbage family, the cucurbit family and the grass (grains) family. Once considered poisonous, tomatoes belong to the poisonous nightshade family. This family includes the herb belladonna or deadly nightshade, the beautiful poisonous datura flower, and potatoes, eggplant and peppers. We all know the stories about how tomatoes were feared for a long time because it was clear they were in the nightshade family, and therefore would probably kill you if you ate them.
Needless to say the nightshade family is a large one, with a long history, and many popular dishes in the kitchen. Potatoes are such a basic staple that we talk about a ‘meat and potatoes’ diet, for a basic and comforting diet. There are so many types of potato that nowadays farmers markets offer an array of exotic potatoes from old favorites for mashing, to small fingerlings or purple potatoes.
At this time of the year peppers and tomatoes are abundant. I was attracted by Madison’s recipe for Torpedo Onion and Sweet Pepper Tian. Torpedo onions are a sweet non-storage onion with a red skin and elongated shape. I did not have any of those so I substituted my own newly harvested red onions. I had my own garlic and ripe tomatoes and farmers market red peppers. I thought it delicious, and my guests seemed pleased, but if I were to do it again I would serve it on pasta, not polenta.
While the Solanaceae (nightshade) family is large, the edible morning glory family is very small. Only the sweet potato is edible. You can even eat the foliage, which is not true of any of the other potato varieties. In fact, sweet potato foliage is rich in vitamins A, C, and B. We all know that the orange fleshed varieties of sweet potato are an excellent source of beta-carotene as well.
Most of us are familiar with candied yams or sweet potatoes for Sunday dinner or holidays, but Madison suggests a host of other companions from other sweets like oranges to a variety of different spices like cinnamon, ginger and cardamom, herbs like cilantro, rosemary and thyme, as well as surprises like bourbon and white miso.
Because the dish was so pretty, as well as delicious, I include the recipe here. Enjoy the book and the recipe. I enjoyed the new ways of looking at the connections between the vegetables in my garden.
1-1/2 lb small torpedo onions
2 red bell peppers
1 yellow bell pepper
2 medium ripe tomatoes
olive oil as needed
5-6 thyme sprigs
6 cloves garlic peeled and halved
salt and freshly ground pepper
Aged sherry, red wine, or balsamic vinegar, a teasoon or more as needed.
Preheat oven to 325 degrees.
Quarter the onions. Halve the peppers crosswise and lengthwise, remove seeds and veins and cut into pieces about ½ inch wide. Cut tomatoes into sixths.
Oil an 8×10 gratin dish. Scatter thyme, add vegetables in an attractive easy way. It may look like a lot but they will cook down. Drizzel well with olive oil.
Cover and bake for 90 minutes. The vegetables should be soft. Carefully pour out collected liquid into a small pan. Add a teaspoon of vinegar. Bring to a boil and reduce until syrupy. Pour over vegetables. Serve warm or at room temperature over polenta, pasta or grilled bread.