We weren't disappointed. As with Madison's other cookbooks, Vegetable Literacy is an incredibly fresh perspective on a food category we thought we knew so well. Until now.
Full disclosure: On a quick read, we misinterpreted the subtitle, Cooking and Gardening With 12 Families From the Edible Plant Kingdom, With Over 300 Deliciously Simple Recipes. Hey, it's long. And we've seen a lot of cookbook subtitle stories about family farmers and urban farming families. A good thing we read it again.
And we saw that chive and saffron crepe recipe (whole wheat or spelt flour, a generous two pinches of saffron) that is now on our weekend brunch list -- for Easter, even, if that's your holiday, though we have a feeling this recipe is religion-neutral. Get more on the book, and the recipe, after the jump.
The book, as Madison says in the Introduction, "started with a carrot that had gone on in its second year to make a beautiful lacy umbel of a flower." From there, she took notice of other produce flowers (parsley, fennel, cilantro, anise). "They are all members of the same plant family, as it turned out," Madison continues. As are each of the recipes in those 12 chapters. Our favorite? "The Sunflower Family: Some Rough Stuff From Out of Doors." Indeed.
In the "Cucurbit Family" chapter, buffalo gourd, chayotes, cucumbers, gourds, melons, pumpkins, summer and winter squash are among the "sensual squashes, melons and gourds" that we so love, as Madison describes them. In "The Grass Family" chapter, bamboo, barley, corn, einkorn, emmer, faro, frikeh, Kamut, millet, oats, rice, rye, sorghum, spelt, wheat and wild rice are connected by their grain and cereal roots. Recipes include corn simmered in coconut milk with Thai basil, savory wild rice crepe cakes, and toasted barley and burdock with dried trumpet (or other) mushrooms.
Among the late-night reading potential: "The Goosefoot and amaranth families" chapter vegetables are connected in part by shape (amaranth, beets, chard, epazote, fourwing saltbush, Good King Henry, huauzontle, lamb's quarters, magenta spreen, orach, quinoa, spinach). "I love that a collection of plants is named for the shape of a goose's foot." We do, too. More so when it involves rice with spinach, lemon, feta and pistachios (p. 221), chard-ricotta-saffron cakes (p. 234) and summer quinoa cakes with beet greens and beet salad (p. 238).
As in all of Madison's books, the beauty is in the little nuggets throughout that make you see that winter squash soup with red chile and mint recipe (p. 282), or the winter squash puree with tahini, green onions and black sesame seeds, (p. 284) in a new light.
I am deeply impressed by those farmers who grow large squash and pumpkins to take to the farmers market. Their size and weight of their harvest make moving them about a cumbersome and probably backbreaking task. And if they don't sell at the farmers market, they must be repacked and driven back to the farm and unloaded, unless the farmer has multiple trucks and one dedicated to winter squash. This is a lot of heavy lifting, and it must take a hopelessly dedicated person, one who is in love with winter squash, to commit to raising them year after year, but people do just that.
And it must take a hopelessly devoted person, and certainly one hell of a writer, to pen a cookbook as adeptly as Madison does. A deep-seeded love, and skill, for cooking that is all the more apparent in this blog-centric cookbook era. Madison comes across as so much more genuinely approachable, knowledgeable and personable than so many authors today. As if Madison could be standing in the kitchen discovering all of those vegetables for the first time again with you.
We'd love to spend the rest of the day telling you more about Vegetable Literacy. But we have 300 recipes, including these crepes, to cook through.
Chive and Saffron Crepes
From: Vegetable Literacy by Deborah Madison.
Makes: 8 crepes
Per Madison: "These green-flecked golden crepes needn't be filled, though they certainly can be. They're good just by themselves, stacked or folded in quarters, and accompanied with a mound of good ricotta cheese and a tomato salad. The batter can be made in a blender hours ahead of time."
2 pinches of saffron threads
11/2 cups milk
1 cup all-purpose, white whole wheat or spelt flour
3 tablespoons butter, melted, plus more for cooking
1/3 cup finely snipped or sliced chives
1. Cover the saffron with 1 tablespoon boiling water and set aside while you make the batter.
2. Put the eggs, milk, flour, and 1/2 teaspoon salt in a blender and whiz for 10 seconds. Stop and scrape down the sides to make sure all the flour is incorporated, then blend once more briefly. Pour the batter into a measuring cup and stir in the melted butter, saffron-water mixture, and the chives. If time allows, let the batter rest for 1 hour to relax the gluten. The batter should have the consistency of heavy cream. If the batter is too thick, you can thin it with additional milk or water.
3. Heat an 8-inch crepe pan or skillet over medium-high heat. Add a little butter and swirl it around the pan. Pour in 1/4 cup of the batter, swirl it around the pan, and return the pan to medium-high heat. When the batter starts to dry on the top, lift the crepe with your fingers and flip it over. Cook the second side briefly, just until set, then slide the crepe onto a plate. Repeat with the remaining batter, stacking the crepes as you go. The first crepe is usually a dud, so don't be alarmed. You shouldn't need to add butter to the pan for the remaining crepes.
4. Once stacked, crepes hold their heat quite well, so you could bring the stack to the set table with no further ado. Or you can fold each crepe into quarters, and when you are ready to eat, heat them in a skillet with a little butter until bubbly and hot.
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5. If you're feeling more ambitious, fold the crepes around ricotta seasoned with a little salt, pepper, and more chives. Heat the crepes in the oven or in a skillet and serve them with a tomato salad or a Fresh Tomato Relish (page 212).
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