Deborah Madison’s vegetarian cuisine

Madison recommends browning vegetables to flavor soups and stews.

Deborah Madison (photo credit: YAKIR LEVY)
Deborah Madison
(photo credit: YAKIR LEVY)
Deborah Madison is well known for her delicious vegetarian cooking. We have admired her work for years and were delighted to attend her presentation of her latest book, In My Kitchen: A Collection of New and Favorite Vegetarian Recipes.
“Today,” says Madison, “it’s easier than ever to make good vegetarian meals. We have a host of new ingredients that we didn’t have when I started cooking, like Asian ingredients, coconut oil, coconut milk, and more diversity in produce, grains and beans.”
We loved Madison’s potato and chickpea stew with sautéed spinach (see recipe), which came with a tasty red pepper romesco sauce. The sauce, which is enriched with toasted hazelnuts, is wonderful on simple foods, too, said Madison (see recipe).
“It’s good with potatoes, and also with grilled leeks, with scallions, with all kinds of vegetables,” she says.
Madison recommends browning vegetables to flavor soups and stews.
“One excellent way of getting the best out of sweet vegetables like peppers, onions, carrots, winter squash, sweet potatoes or beets is to embrace caramelizing,” she notes.
“The sugars... in these vegetables are drawn out with heat, and in a hot pan with little or no liquid, they’ll start to brown, or caramelize, as they come out. This caramelizing can be a great source of flavor and depth in a dish because as the sugars caramelize, they take on a slight bitterness that helps temper and add complexity to the sweetness of these vegetables,” she says.
“Once you’ve got that nice brown surface,” she writes, “you can use a technique that’s used with meat, namely, deglazing with wine or water or stock to lift those concentrated bits of flavor from the pan and spread them throughout the dish.”
Deglazing adds flavor to her hearty lentil minestrone with kale (see recipe).
Fats enhance vegetable dishes in two ways.
“Fat both carries other flavors and is a source of flavor,” she says. “Heating oil with garlic and rosemary creates a fragrant atmosphere that extends to the whole of the dish. But oils with distinct flavors of their own, such as roasted peanut oil, dark sesame oil, a really good olive or walnut oil, contribute their flavors to a dish. A vegetarian stir-fry that lacks that tasty bit of chicken... is ever so much better when finished with a fragrant roasted peanut oil – along with some roasted peanuts. A few drops of dark sesame oil or chili oil added to a bowl of miso soup make it spring to life; a spoonful – even a teaspoon – of cream can unite diverse flavors in a soup.”
Madison loves gardening and learning about plants, and encourages everyone to grow something, even if it’s just a pot of chives.
“Since I started to garden, my excitement about cooking has reignited,” she writes. “I have access to all kinds of edibles I can’t find at the store.... My herbs are so flavorful and so readily available.... The taste of truly fresh food that you’ve grown and picked yourself, whether it’s the makings of an entire dish or a single tomato or a few zucchini, is nothing like anything the supermarket labels farm-fresh.”
A food blogger asked Madison: “Are you a vegetarian?” Her reply left us with food for thought: “No, I’m not. Because I lived in a Buddhist community and we started Greens [a vegetarian restaurant in San Francisco] and I was the chef, I’ve always been slotted as a vegetarian. I do prefer to eat that way....
But I also am of a generation where I would never go to someone’s house for dinner and say ‘Oh, I don’t eat that – sorry.’ I can’t do that. I just couldn’t ask people to jump through those hoops for me.”
Faye Levy is the author of the award-winning book Faye Levy’s International Vegetable Cookbook.
Potato and chickpea stew with sautéed spinach
In late summer, Deborah Madison makes this vegan stew with tomatoes from the garden; when they are not available, she uses diced tomatoes from a jar. Instead of chickpeas, you can use white or pink beans. She recommends seasoning this stew with saffron or smoked paprika, but not both as “one tends to cancel out the other” and you don’t want to lose the taste of the expensive saffron.
Serves 4
■ 2 Tbsp. olive oil
■ 1 large onion, finely diced
■ 2 generous pinches saffron or 1 rounded tsp. smoked paprika
■ 2 large sweet red peppers, stemmed, seeded and finely diced
■ 1 large sweet yellow pepper, stemmed, seeded and cut into strips a scant 2.5 cm. wide
■ 450 gr. fingerling potatoes, scrubbed and halved lengthwise, or round yellow potatoes, scrubbed and quartered
■ 2 large cloves garlic, thinly sliced
■ Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
■ 1 heaping tsp. sweet or hot (unsmoked) paprika
■ 3 Tbsp. chopped parsley
■ ½ cup dry sherry
■ 1½ cups fresh or canned diced tomatoes, plus their juices
■ 1½ cups or more cooked chickpeas or other beans
■ 1 to 2 cups liquid (use a combination of chickpea or bean broth plus tomato juice or water)
■ 1 bunch spinach (about 350 gr.), stems removed, leaves carefully washed
■ Best olive oil, for finishing the spinach and serving
■ Romesco sauce, to serve (optional; see next recipe)
Warm a wide skillet or Dutch oven and then add the oil. When it’s hot, add onion, saffron threads (but not smoked paprika at this point), diced and sliced peppers, and potatoes. Cook over medium heat, turning vegetables every now and then with a wide rubber scraper, until potatoes are tender-firm, 20 to 25 minutes. Cover pan so that moisture collects and drops onto vegetables, keeping them from burning. Add garlic. Season with 1 teaspoon of salt and plenty of pepper.
Once potatoes have begun to soften, remove lid, add sweet or hot paprika (plus smoked paprika, if using), the parsley and sherry. Cook until juices in pan have reduced and are thick and syrupy.
Add tomatoes and chickpeas and enough of the liquid (tomato juice plus broth or water) to cover. Cover and cook over low heat until potatoes are completely tender, 10 to 20 minutes more. Taste for salt and pepper and add more if needed.
Drop the wet spinach into pan (if it’s dry, add a little water to pan) and cook, turning the leaves until wilted and tender, for several minutes. Press out excess moisture, toss with good olive oil and season with salt.
Serve stew in bowls, with the spinach divided among them. If you have romesco sauce, add a dollop. If not, add a little more of your best olive oil to each bowl and serve.
Romesco sauce
Madison became enthusiastic about this red pepper and hazelnut sauce after encountering it on a trip to Spain.
“It’s rich, dynamic and a bit zesty, with good sherry vinegar and plenty of garlic.” It also happens to be vegan and has protein and phytonutrients. Her favorite uses are to spread the sauce on garlic-rubbed toast. She also likes it on roasted potatoes or cauliflower. “Really, it’s good on just about everything.” If you don’t have hazelnuts, substitute toasted almonds.
Makes 1½ cups
■ 1 slice country-style white bread
■ Olive oil to fry the bread
■ Sea salt
■ ½ cup hazelnuts, toasted and skins rubbed off as much as is easily possible
■ 3 cloves garlic
■ 1½ tsp. ground red chili or pepper flakes
■ 1 Tbsp. tomato paste, plus a bit more as needed
■ 1 Tbsp. chopped parsley
■ 1 tsp. regular or smoked paprika
■ 2 sweet red peppers, roasted, peeled and seeded (these can be jarred)
■ ¼ cup sherry vinegar
■ ½ cup best olive oil
Fry bread in olive oil until golden and crisp. When cool, grind it with hazelnuts and garlic in food processor until fairly fine. Add ground chili, tomato paste, parsley, paprika and roasted peppers, and process until smooth. With machine running, gradually pour in vinegar and then olive oil. Taste and make sure the sauce has plenty of piquancy and enough salt. If you feel it needs more tomato paste, add no more than a teaspoon at a time.
Hearty lentil minestrone with kale
Soak the lentils briefly for a fuller flavor and shorter cooking time, recommends Madison. She cooks the pasta separately and adds some to each serving – “otherwise it will swell as it drinks up all the liquid.” All greens pair well with lentils, she writes, so use spinach or any greens that appeal.
Serves 6
■ 1½ cups dark green lentils
■ 2 Tbsp. olive oil for the pot, plus your best olive oil to finish
■ 1 large onion, finely diced (about 2 cups)
■ 1 heaping Tbsp. nutritional yeast (optional)
■ 2 bay leaves
■ 6 sprigs fresh thyme or ½ tsp. dried
■ 3 Tbsp. (or more) chopped parsley
■ 1 cup diced carrots
■ 1 cup finely diced celery ribs plus ¼ cup finely chopped pale celery leaves (for garnish)
■ 2 Tbsp. tomato paste
■ 2 plump garlic cloves, finely minced or mashed in a mortar with 1 tsp. salt
■ ½ cup white wine or water
■ Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
■ 1 Tbsp. smooth mustard
■ 1 Tbsp. sherry vinegar or red wine vinegar
■ 3 to 4 cups stemmed, chopped kale leaves
■ 1 cup interesting dried pasta shapes or 2 cups cooked whole grain, such as spelt
■ Parmigiano-Reggiano, for grating
Cover lentils with warm water and set them aside to soak while you prepare the vegetables.
Warm the oil in a heated soup pot, then add onion, nutritional yeast, bay leaves, thyme, carrot, celery ribs and parsley, and stir. Cook over medium heat, occasionally stirring, until onions are well wilted, about 10 minutes.
Add tomato paste, smash it against bottom of pot and cook until a glaze has formed there. Add garlic and wine, scrape up glaze from bottom and cook until wine is mostly reduced.
Pour water off lentils. Add them to pot along with 2 teaspoons salt and 7 cups water. Bring to a boil. Lower heat to a simmer and cook, covered, until lentils are soft, about 30 minutes. When soup is done, stir in mustard and vinegar, taste for salt and season with pepper. Add kale and cook until tender, about 7 minutes.
Cook pasta in salted water just before serving. Ladle soup into bowls, add a few spoonfuls of pasta to each one, and drizzle with your favorite olive oil. Grate some cheese over each serving and garnish with celery leaves.
Lime-cumin vinaigrette
Madison makes this vinaigrette for salads of romaine with cucumbers and radishes, or of shredded greens with citrus fruits, avocado and pistachios.
Makes enough for 3 or 4 servings
■ 1 small clove garlic
■ Sea salt
■Grated zest of 2 limes
■ 3 Tbsp. lime juice
■ 2 green onions, including 2.5 cm. or so of the greens, finely sliced
■ 1 Tbsp. finely diced jalapeño pepper (optional)
■ ½ tsp. cumin seeds
■ ½ tsp. coriander seeds
■ ¼ tsp. dry mustard
■ ¼ tsp. sweet paprika
■ 4 Tbsp. olive oil
■ 2 Tbsp. finely chopped cilantro (fresh coriander) 
Pound garlic in a mortar with ½ teaspoon salt until smooth, about half a minute or so. Add lime zest, juice, green onions and chile. Set aside.
Toast cumin and coriander seeds in a dry skillet until aromatic, then turn them out on a plate to cool briefly. Grind them to a powder in a spice grinder. Add them, along with rest of spices, to mortar and then whisk in the oil and add the cilantro. Taste a bit of the greens you’ll be using in the salad to be sure the balance is right.