A friend bought me a copy of Deborah Madison's Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone about a decade ago, and handed it to me with this pronouncement: "This is the cookbook," she said, "that I'd take with me if I were running out of a burning building." I quickly stuffed the thick volume with bookmarks labeled make this. Madison celebrates vegetables in a way that's appealing to vegetarians and omnivores alike, waltzing from the basics (how to sauté spinach) to more advanced tips (how to convert hot soup recipes to delicious cold versions), plus offering recipes for both simple meals and fancier dishes for entertaining.
Before Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, Madison cooked at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, and then opened San Francisco's Greens restaurant in 1979. These days, she lives in New Mexico, and has published 11 cookbooks, including this year's revised edition, The New Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone.
And it turns out that Madison is, like many of our favorite cookbook authors, an avid cookbook collector. She sent me a photo (below) of part of her collection with this description: "Below is half my library—the other half is mostly botany books, plant books, and food history. Plus I've tons of books that I don't have room for here stashed away in the back storage shed."
I asked Deborah Madison a bit more about her collection and the cookbooks she loves. Here's what she had to say.
Where do you keep your cookbooks?
Most of my cookbooks are in my office library, but I rotate a few into my kitchen when I'm really having fun cooking from and exploring a particular book. So my kitchen collection is small (about 8 books, including my own) and it's ever-changing.
What do you look for in a cookbook? What do you use cookbooks for?
I look for many things, though not all at the same time necessarily. Good writing. Personal experience of the author with a subject. A cultural profile. Recipes that stand out from the usual. I love to cook from cookbooks, especially recipes that I don't understand intuitively just to use my mind in a different way. I'm not a bedside cookbook reader and I don't use recipes off the web because there's usually not the information that makes a recipe stand out in some way. They seem so abbreviated. Also, I don't buy cookbooks much anymore. Mostly I just go in the kitchen and cook, often not using any recipe at all. But when I do use a recipe, I want it to be an adventure into the unfamiliar.
What was the first cookbook that really inspired you?
I don't remember the name, but it was French and it had pictures and one was of an apricot tart that was burned where the fruit stood up. I loved the honesty of that image and it made me feel that I could cook, too. I've always wish I still had that book. After that my father gave me Mastering the Art of French Cooking Vol 1 for my birthday. Then there was a very long period when I didn't think about cooking or cookbooks since I was in college and studying hard.
What are your favorite cookbooks for vegetable-based cooking?
Ottolenghi's Plenty. Clifford Wright's Mediterranean Vegetables and A Mediterranean Feast. Mediterranean Grains and Greens by Paula Wolfert—that's a fantastic book—one of my favorites.
But I don't cook only from books that are about vegetable-based cooking. I read and use everything. I can usually find a nugget of goodness just about anywhere.
What newer cookbooks do you love and why?
I've really enjoyed Plenty, which isn't so new now, but it's just so beguiling still—the flavors, the combinations. I also love Jerusalem and Ottolenghi for the same reasons.
Aglaia Kremezi has a new book on Greek vegetable dishes coming out that I've seen the galleys of. It looks terrific and that I suspect I'll be using it a lot. Nigel Slater's two beautiful volumes of Tender are irresistible—and so beautiful. And because he gardens as well as cooks, I'm immediately attracted to that.
The Canal House books I love—they always look just so appealing—the recipes, photos, and design. Also my friend David Tanis's books—I know his cooking so when I look at his cookbooks I can just taste how good the recipes are.
What lesser-known cookbook authors do you think home cooks should know about?
Kitty Morse's books on Moroccan cooking, such as The Scent of Orange Blossoms, are very good. Ana Sortun's book Spice is a must have if you gravitate towards spice and seasoning. Also Lindsey Shere's Chez Panisse Desserts—she writes so well about fruit and other ingredients, and of course the recipes are the best.
Some of the books that have come out the past few years on wild foods and foraging are probably sadly overlooked. I especially like The Wild Table by Connie Green and Sarah Scott because the recipes are so truly useable and graspable, even though they also include foraged material.