This is a cookbook that assumes two things about you, that you like vegetables for the sake of their being vegetables and that you already know how to cook. If you fit into one (or more) of these categories, you will be grateful for Vegetable Literacy the next time you stare into your crisper drawer and wonder if there's a secret to combining ingredients to create the best flavor. There is, and this book reveals it.
Like to cook with fresh herbs? See our DIY Video: Herbs.
Vegetables and herbs belong to a dozen distinct families, including some that sound familiar—the carrot family and the cabbage family, for instance—and others that sound like the names of the neighbors down the block with whom your parents played bridge: the Goosefoots, and the Curcubits. Author Deborah Madison explains that the members of a family have complementary flavors and can be substituted for one another in recipes. After you understand who's related to whom, she turns you loose to use what you have on hand to create your own personal version of the more than 400 recipes in the book.
The other day my own crisper drawer harbored some time-sensitive kale and lettuces (that's Goosefoots to you) and I had a bit of one kind of green lentil sitting on a shelf in the pantry alongside a second type of green lentil, so I decided to test the book's recipe for "Green Lentil Soup with Plenty of Leaves, Herbs, and Spices" (p. 358).
Photographs by Michelle Slatalla.
Above: "You can use any kind of leafy green here," Ms. Madison writes, and I took her at her word. In addition to the lentils and greens, the ingredients list called for a "Big Handful" of chopped cilantro and a "Smaller Handful" of chopped dill—music to my ears, because when is the last time my refrigerator hasn't contained a surfeit of both?
The recipe is your basic soup recipe: soak lentils while you saute in oil the flavor base (onion, herbs, greens, and spices). Add liquid—here Ms. Madison makes the first suggestion that might confuse a beginning cook: she neutrally recommends using either "water" or "stock."
Not to sound bossy. But. Use stock. I do not care if you use vegetable stock or chicken stock, but please do not expect "water" to carry this soup. The sort of soup that you can make with water is a four-hour soup, made with either chicken or beef short rib preferably, in which you will be slowly simmering meat on the bone for a long, long time. This is not that soup. (Take out a pencil and make a note in the margin of p. 358 to remind yourself to always use stock.)
Above: This is a quick soup, speeded up by Ms. Madison's suggestion that you soak your lentils in hot water for 15 minutes or so before you add them to the soup broth. The recipe also calls for red pepper flakes, cumin, and coriander. As with most other recipes, it is best to double the amount of each.
Above: A pleasurable aspect of the book is Ms. Madison's reassurance that the ingredients you already have on hand are fine. "Any type of lentil can be used here, with the exception of red lentils," she writes, and I took her at her word with no adverse results.
Above: "I've made countless lentil soups with greens, usually without a recipe and just improvising with what's around, and the combination, whatever it is, always seems to work," Ms. Madison.
If you make this soup, I highly recommend that you extend that philosophy to include meat—for instance, some crispy pancetta cubes sprinkled on top of the bowl when you serve the soup will add considerably to the taste. I had spicy sausage on hand, so I took it out of the casing, crisped it up on top of the stove, and stirred it into the soup at the end.
Above: The second instruction that might lead a beginner astray is Ms. Madison's evenhanded suggestion that before serving, "you can serve it as it is, or you can puree it and end up with a deep, dark green soup. Or puree a cup or two to give it a smooth background."
You must puree at least half the soup unless you want to serve something that looks like dark water with leaves floating in it. Perhaps Ms. Madison did not want to alienate readers who don't own an immersion blender, standard blender, or food processor? In any case, you should own one of the three. Puree half the soup to create a rich, creamy backdrop for the lentils and leaves; add your meat bits, and serve.
Above: A hardcover copy of Vegetable Literacy is $21.74 at Amazon. If you are at the stage of your adventure of learning to cook where you want a book that will teach you how to coax the most flavor out of a simple vegetable, then Alice Waters is still your woman. But if you are looking for ways to rekindle your romance with the standard suppertime dishes you serve in rotation, this book will offer you insights. As my husband said, tucking into a bowl of lentil and lettuce soup, "This is really unusual—and good."