Her books and recipes will make you a better cook, whether you eat meat or don't.

By Ellen Morrissey
February 27, 2019
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Credit: Erin Scott

Once a week, I cook a big pot of black beans flavored with chipotle and tomatoes-sometimes from a bag of dried beans, but far more often from a few cans-to serve in tacos or quesadillas or over bowls of steamed rice. When I can't get to it, my husband does. Neither of us needs to refer to the original recipe. We've committed it to memory, along with many others, since we first started cooking our way through the recipes of Deborah Madison almost two decades ago.

You can learn a lot by reading any of Madison's 14 cookbooks. A celebrated chef, writer, gardener, and teacher, she is widely considered the authority on vegetarian cooking, but she's actually an authority on cooking of all kinds. Few people are aware of the fact that she's not a vegetarian herself. That fact may help explain the universal appeal of her best-known book: "Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone." There's not an eater alive who could not find something delicious to cook within its 742 pages. Embedded among more than 1,400 recipes (yes, you read that number right) is a crazy amount of kitchen wisdom and know-how.

By the time Madison wrote this magnum opus, she had a solid foundation in good food and cooking. She was raised on a dairy farm in upstate New York and in a walnut orchard in Davis, California. After years as a student and then chef at San Francisco's Zen Center, she was the founding chef of Greens Restaurant (she co-authored "The Greens Cookbook" with Edward Espe Brown in 1987). She cooked at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, and opened Café Escalara in Santa Fe with chef David Tanis, another Chez Panisse alum. "Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone" was published in 1997, revised and reissued in 2014, and inducted into the James Beard Foundation's Cookbook Hall of Fame in 2016.

Heeding the advice found in the thousands of headnotes, tips, sidebars, substitution suggestions, and ingredient glossaries in Madison's books will quite simply make you a better cook. Take those weekly black beans. Just a teaspoon of canned chipotle renders the beans rich, smoky, and almost meaty, as if they were simmered for hours with bacon. I've picked up countless other lessons like this since I first brought Vegetarian Cooking home: that green beans have an affinity for black olives, for example, and cooked grains taste better if you toast them before adding water, and that serving a bowl of romesco sauce with toasted baguette slices is one sure way to kick off a delicious dinner party.

Making Madison's basic vegetable stock taught me to build deep, rich flavor without meat. First, you cook vegetable and herbs over high heat until they're very well browned, then simmer them in water for a half hour (unlike meaty broths, the flavor of vegetable stock won't improve over hours at a low, slow boil). I learned which vegetables are always good to include in stocks (scallions and mushrooms, surprisingly), which to use for specific dishes (like beet stems and peels for beet risotto), and which to avoid altogether (broccoli, cabbage, and other cruciferous greens).

Beyond the basics, there's a simplicity about Madison's meatless recipes that belies their sophistication, a recurring less-is-more approach that allows each ingredient to shine. Loads of recent cookbooks and restaurant menus announce themselves as "vegetable forward." Madison's recipes fit that description, of course, but I prefer to think of them as "flavor forward." It's almost beside the point whether they are vegan- or vegetarian-friendly.

In 2018, Madison announced that after 30 years, she's finished writing cookbooks (a memoir is apparently in the works). I'm deeply grateful for the thousands of recipes she developed over the course of her career, for sharing her wealth of knowledge and spectacular palate. I have a particular soft spot for the red lentil soup with lime on page 226 of Vegetarian Cooking. When I first cooked it, during a cold snap in the spring of 2000 or so, my then-boyfriend (now husband) said it tasted like "love in a bowl." Take that, Engagement Chicken!

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