Deborah Madison's 5 Inspired Essentials for Home Cooks Recipe
Deborah Madison's 5 Inspired Essentials for Home Cooks

By Dana Velden

Deborah Madison is one of the most gifted and inspired cooks I know. And generous, too. From "The Greens Cookbook" and "Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone" to "Local Flavors: Cooking and Eating from America's Farmers' Markets" and beyond, Deborah has shared thousands of recipes and her honest, deeply flavored, vegetable-centric style with millions of readers. I asked her for five basic recommendations for home cooks and a few words about her new book, "Vegetable Literacy: Cooking and Gardening with Twelve Families from the Edible Plant Kingdom, with over 300 Deliciously Simple Recipes"

Deborah's latest book is a cookbook, of course, but it's also about gardening and the exploration of an idea Deborah has been playing with for several years: that when plants are related botanically, they are also compatible in the kitchen. For example, carrots (umbellifer family) often pair deliciously with dill or cumin or coriander, which are also from the umbellifer family. At over 400 pages and with 300 recipes and images from the Canal House Cooking team, it's a beautiful, useful and inspirational book.

Speaking with Deborah Madison about food and cooking (or any topic really) is always a delight. Her energy, passion, knowledge and culinary fluency are so energizing and inspiring that as soon as we finished talking, I went straight into my kitchen (by way of the garden, of course) to see if I could rustle up a lunch from a handful of fresh oregano, a few small figs and 12 leaves of dino kale. I'm not sure if they're related botanically, but I did end up with a delicious lunch which I credit completely to her.

Deborah Madison's 5 Essentials for the Home Cook

1. You need a garden

Be it an acre of land, a window box or a few pots on the windowsill, growing at least some of your own food is a way to bring something alive into your kitchen. "It doesn't have to be much: a pot of herbs or micro greens, a tomato plant or two, potatoes," says Deborah. "I'm looking at a pot of parsley that's here in my office, she continues. It's a little scraggly right now so I wouldn't use it for tabouli, but I can snip off a few springs for a pot of soup or to add to a salad."

When you grow something, you look at it more carefully and use it differently. You also get a chance to use much more of the plant, the parts that don't always end up at the grocery store, such as broccoli leaves. Of course, for some people growing your own food is impossible, in which case the next best thing is a farmers' market or CSA. Whatever you do, bring something just harvested into your kitchen, something that's still very fresh and alive!

2. Stock up on good vinegars

Deborah loves good vinegar. "They're as important to my cooking as a good extra virgin olive oil," she says, "and like fresh herbs, they bring an important nuance and feeling to a dish." She recommends stocking an aged red wine vinegar such as one from Round Pond Vineyards in Napa. They're aged in oak, she explains, which gives them a wonderful complexity. She also likes to have an aged sherry vinegar on hand which she prefers to balsamic. Aged sherry vinegar is sweet and syrupy and will add a complex and dynamic note to your cooking. One of Pedro Ximenez aged sherry vinegars is a good choice.

A good apple cider vinegar is also important. It's inexpensive, zesty and fresh, and can be used for everyday cooking. And of course keeping lemons and limes in the pantry is also key. Deborah is not a fan of the balsamic vinegars we often find in the grocery store. "They're sugary and thin and almost unreal tasting," she says. She does have a bottle of very old balsamic that she uses for very rare and special occasions.

3. Read cookbooks for inspiration

Deborah rarely cooks from cookbooks, but she does like to turn to them for inspiration. "They push me away from my habitual choices and introduce me to new flavors and new techniques," she says. "I think that repetition in the kitchen is just fine and that it's perfectly OK to not always be adventurous but sometimes we can get a little bored. Reaching for a cookbook can introduce us to a new taste or a new combination that's refreshing and exciting." Her latest favorite? "Jerusalem" by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi.

4. Cook with a purpose

It's important to remember that when you're feeding someone, including yourself, it's an honor, Deborah says. It's about pleasure and nurture and respect. We all come to the table with different kinds of baggage -- hungers that can't be satisfied, or fear, or perhaps an illness that makes food problematic, or even good appetite and high expectations -- you name it. Cooking for any or all of these qualities is a big job, but a satisfying one.

5. Have a big bowl full of hot, soapy water at the ready

Before you start cooking, fill your sink or a bowl full of hot soapy water. As you use your tools and utensils, just drop them in the suds to either soak or be quickly washed and rinsed. This helps you stay on top of the cleaning up and helps everything to go smoothly. "I don't own a food processor or a lot of equipment," Deborah explains, "so this is how I can be perfectly happy with just a few spatulas in my kitchen, instead of cluttering it up with 20. It keeps my prep area clean and clear and that helps to keep me focused."


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