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It’s spring in Galisteo on the outskirts of Santa Fe, and the vegetable whisperer Deborah Madison is busy tending her home garden under the wide, blue New Mexican sky. It’s been a warm winter, she said, and then a foot of snow fell in late April.

Despite chilly temperatures in the 50s. the chef, teacher and cookbook writer has spent the day sowing seeds and caring for her tender, young lettuces and herbs, including some poor tarragon shoots pressed back into the ground by the snow.

“The garden supplies what I like to eat, but I still go to the farmers market,” Madison said in a phone interview in early May. “There are some foods I don’t really attempt to grow.”

The queen of the seasonal, vegetable-driven plate has recently returned from a two-week book tour for her 14th tome, “In My Kitchen” (Ten Speed Press, $32.50), offering more than 100 recipes spanning old favorites — often updated to suit modern times — plus a few brand new inventions. It is being touted as her most personal cookbook yet, a buzzword that Madison grudgingly endorses.

“All my books are personal … but this book has a lot more narrative,” she explained. “I liked writing it because it does reflect how we cook … maybe we have a recipe that we know pretty well, but then we find a way to make it way better.”

In the book’s introduction, Madison shares her professional cooking journey, which began at the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center of Carmel and Green Gulch Farm of Muir Beach and came to fruition at the famed Chez Panisse in Berkeley and Greens Restaurant in San Francisco.

She also reflects on how much vegetarian cooking has changed through the decades — it’s gotten more interesting and less stodgy, easier to pull off in less time — thanks to our current access to interesting ingredients like freekeh and smoked paprika, heirloom beans and real balsamic vinegar.

“We change as our culture changes, and I found I have been cooking in a more straightforward, less complicated fashion,” she writes in the cookbook. “One that is, for the most part, no less delicious.”

Although Madison has championed vegetarian cooking ever since she joined the San Francisco Zen Center in the late ’70s — she taught herself to cook by whipping up dinners for 60 — she bristles like an artichoke at being labeled a “vegetarian.”

“I’ve always been an omnivore, partly because I started during an age when people were more polite, and you didn’t ask your hostess to jump through hoops. That’s hard,” she said. “Now it’s not so hard, but still, I prefer to keep an open mind.”

As the opening chef at Greens, an offshoot of the San Francisco Zen Center, Madison made it her mission to transform vegetarian fare from “clunky and boring and unappealing” to “pretty and surprising and bright.”

Most of the guests at Greens were not necessarily vegetarians but simply curious about how the restaurant could be so good, she said. And when guests told her they didn’t notice the lack of meat, that was the highest compliment.

“The problem with having meat at the center of the plate is that it tends to push off the vegetables and replace them,” she said. “It really is difficult for people who are primarily meat cooks to cross that divide … it’s a labor-intensive way of cooking.”

While we have looked to cultures like Italy and India in the past for veggie-centric inspiration, Madison noted that American chefs are now starting to make their own traditions, and that’s exciting. And, if you happen to live in California, it simply makes sense.

“In a Mediterranean area like California, things grow beautifully,” she said. “I lived in Rome for a year, and it was quite something to go to the market.”

One of the recipes in the book came from a neighbor of hers in Rome, who used to make a simple Pasta with Gorgonzola for her husband for lunch. The dish is a blend of butter and cream with Gorgonzola and Parmigiano-Reggiano.

“It’s so fabulous.” she said. “And it’s so delicious and easy.”

At this time of year, when the summer squash are just coming into the markets, Madison likes to slice the different varieties and steam them until tender, then arrange them on a platter with olive oil, a grating of Parmesan cheese and a sprinkle of pine nuts, basil and herb blossoms. That’s a nice, light treatment, especially if the rest of the meal is substantial.

The dish on the cookbook’s cover — Golden Beets with Mâche, Pickled Shallots and Purple Orach — is one of her recent inventions, along with a hearty recipe for Black-Eyed Peas with Yogurt-Tahini Sauce and Three Green Herbs.

“I love that dish, and I always think … let’s have that for dinner tonight,” she said. “I always have a can of black-eyed peas on hand, just in case.”

When she cooks other people’s recipes, she likes to try ones that don’t make any sense to her. A case in point: a recipe for a Quinoa Chowder by Peruvian chef Felipe Rojas-Lombardi from 1991 that she tweaked to make her own. The result — Quinoa Soup with Spinach, Corn, Feta and Cilantro — is “perfect for the times when we want nourishment but not heaviness.”

“I always improvise in the kitchen,” she added. “I find it so hard to follow a recipe, even my own.”

If you have a bit more time for prep, Madison suggested making a batch of her Caramelized Onions with Vinegar and Cloves, which she uses to dress up a simple egg dish.

“That’s not a big deal to make if you’re fast in the kitchen like me,” she said. “Once you have the onions, you can use them to make a lovely frittata.”

For more ambitious cooks, she recommended her recipe for Masa Crepes with Chard, Black Beans, Avocado and Pickled Onions. The dish melds the flavors of chard, cilantro and chiles, a combination that is one of her “unabashed favorites.”

“Sometimes you need a special dish for an occasion,” she said. “It has a lot of beautiful textures and colors.”

Also, Madison believes that crepes are one of those foods that never go out of style because they are universally loved by people. And they are easy, once you’ve made them a few times.

“Nothing is hard, but you have to choose what you like to eat and practice it and make it a bunch of times,” she said. “It has to get into your muscle memory.”

The cookbook also highlights a handful of sweet finales, including an Olive Oil, Almond and Blood Orange Cake that she made when she worked as the pastry chef at Café Escalero in Santa Fe. She suggests serving it with her recipe for Rhubarb-Raspberry Compote, which gets a touch of spice from black pepper.

Despite the late winter storm that swept through her garden, Madison was excited that her apple trees have fruit on them, and the gardener who grew up in Davis was looking forward to harvesting her own, fresh fruit this fall.

Meanwhile, California farmers like her brother, Mike Madison of Yolo Bulbs in Winters, have not been so lucky. Their planting season has been delayed by record rains that left many fields too soggy to sow.

“That’s a hardship, and there goes your income too,” Madison said. “As Gary Snyder used to say … nature bats last.”

The following recipes are from “In My Kitchen” by Deborah Madison. “Beets and mâche are a perfect match, to my taste, but young arugula leaves are also very good, being nutty and spicy in contrast to the mild sweetness of the beets,” she writes. “For weeks in the early spring, my yard is covered with purple orach (mountain spinach) sprouts, which taste like spinach and look wonderful.”

Golden Beets with Mâche

Serves 4 to 6

3 large golden beets

2 large shallots

3 tablespoons apple cider or champagne vinegar

— Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

4 tablespoons best olive oil

4 or more good handfuls of mâche or arugula greens, washed and dried

— Purple orach thinnings, if possible, washed and dried

— Yogurt, Cumin and Green Herb Sauce (see recipe below)

Cut the stems off about an inch from the tops of the beets, then steam them over simmering water until tender but not too soft when pierced with a knife. Remove them, rinse under cool water, and slip off the skins with your hands. Cut the beets into 10 to 12 wedges each and set aside in a bowl in the refrigerator.

Peel the shallots and then slice them crosswise a scant 1/4-inch thick. Separate the rings and put them in a bowl with the vinegar and 1/4 teaspoon of salt. Let stand for 5 minutes or so to color and soften, then whisk in the olive oil. Spoon a tablespoon of two of the dressing over the beets and toss. Taste for acid and salt, adding more vinegar or salt if needed. Season with pepper.

Dress the greens with the remaining dressing and heap them on individual plates. Tuck the beets in and around the greens. If using the yogurt sauce, spoon some close to the clusters of beets.

Yogurt, Cumin and Green Herb Sauce

Makes 1 cup

1 plump garlic clove, pounded to a paste with 1/4 teaspoon sea salt

3/4 cup thick yogurt

1/4 cup sour cream

1/2 teaspoon ground, roasted cumin

— About 1 cup herbs with stems removed: equal amounts dill, basil and cilantro

— Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

— Best olive oil

— Sumac or red pepper flakes

After you’ve pounded the garlic to a paste with the salt, put it in a bowl with the yogurt and sour cream. Stir in the cumin. Chop the herbs finely and stir them into the yogurt–sour cream mixture. Taste and add more of any particular herb if you want more if its flavor. Season with more salt, if needed, and freshly ground pepper.

Scrape the sauce into a bowl and drizzle a little olive oil over it just before serving, then sprinkle with sumac or pepper flakes.

“One of my longtime favorite ways with summer squash is to fry them slowly in olive oil until golden and soft, then toss them with herbs and their blossoms,” Madison writes. “But I also like this much lighter way of preparing them.”

Summer Squashes with Herb Blossoms, Basil, Pine Nuts and Parmigiano-Reggiano

Serves 4

1 pound or more mixed summer squash

— Best olive oil

— Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

— Parmigiano-Reggiano (or ricotta, mozzarella, feta)

1/4 cup pine nuts, toasted in a dry skillet until golden

— Herb blossoms, if available

10 large green or opal basil leaves, torn into pieces

Slice the different summer squash lengthwise or crosswise (depending on their shape and what looks prettiest), then steam them or simmer in salted water until tender. When the squash is done, arrange it on a platter, cut sides facing up. Drizzle olive oil over it and season with salt and pepper. Grate a veil of Parmigiano-Reggiano over the squash or slice it thinly. Add the pine nuts, blossoms and basil and serve.

“Rhubarb keeps producing pretty much all summer, so strawberries aren’t the only fruit you might pair with it,” she writes. “Personally, I prefer raspberries … I use organic frozen raspberries, put the broken pieces in with the rhubarb while it’s cooking for flavor, then add a cup of the whole berries once it’s done but still hot.”

Rhubarb-Raspberry Compote

Serves 4 or more

1 pound or more, red rhubarb, the ends trimmed

1/2 cup maple sugar or organic white sugar

— Zest and juice of 1 orange

2 cloves

1 cup whole raspberries, fresh or frozen, plus broken or smashed fruit

— Black pepper, freshly ground

Slice the rhubarb stalks on the diagonal 1/2-inch thick or a little thick, and put them in a bowl with the sugar, orange zest and juice. Toss well and let stand for a good hour or more. (This draws out the juices, but skip this step and just go ahead and cook it if that works better for your schedule.)

Slide the macerated rhubarb into a shallow pan and set it over medium-high heat. Once the juice has come out and begins to boil, add the cloves, lower the heat and simmer gently until the rhubarb is tender. If you have little broken pieces of frozen raspberries or somewhat smashed fresh ones, add them now.

Once the rhubarb is tender but hopefully still holding its shape, turn off the heat and fold in the raspberries. Chill, then add a bit of ground pepper over the top. It should keep well, refrigerated, for about a week.

“The cake is moist, rich, and complex with the flavors of robust olive oil, blood orange, and crackling sugared almonds,” she writes. “If blood oranges aren’t available, use navel oranges or


Olive Oil, Almond and Blood Orange Cake

Makes one 9-inch cake

1 cup all-purpose flour or, if available, Sonoran wheat flour

1 cup almond meal or finely grated almonds

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon sea salt

2 egg whites

1 cup sugar

2 large eggs plus the 2 yolks from above

— Finely grated zest of 2 blood oranges

1/2 cup blood orange juice

1/2 cup Greek or other full-bodied olive oil, such as Spanish Arbequina

1/4 teaspoon almond extract

1/3 cup sliced almonds tossed with 1 tablespoon sugar

— Powdered sugar, to serve (optional)

Put a rack in the center of the oven, then heat the oven to 350 degrees. Rub a 9-inch springform pan with butter, then dust the sides and bottom well with flour or sugar. Cut a 9-inch circle of parchment and lay it in the pan.

Combine the flour, ground almonds, baking powder and salt in a bowl with a whisk.

Whisk the egg whites in an electric mixer until foamy, then add 1⁄4 cup of the sugar and whisk at higher speed until the whites are shiny and firm but not dry or stiff. Scrape the whites into a bowl.

Without rinsing the mixing bowl, add the whole eggs, the 2 yolks, the remaining sugar and the orange zest. Return it to the machine and, using the whisk attachment, beat the eggs with the sugar and orange zest on medium-high speed until pale and thick, several minutes. Turn the speed to low and add the olive oil, followed by the juice and almond extract.

With the machine still on low, add the flour mixture by the heaping spoonful until all is incorporated. Remove the bowl, then run a wide rubber scraper around the bowl, making sure all the dry ingredients have been combined. Fold the beaten egg whites into the batter, pour it into the prepared pan, and sprinkle the almond-sugar mixture over the surface, making a ring of nuts in the center.

Bake on the center rack until firm, browned, and pulling away from the sides of the pan, 50 to 60 minutes. A cake tester should come out clean. Let the cake cool in the pan, then run a knife around the sides. Transfer to a cake plate. Dust with powdered sugar, if desired, before serving.

Staff writer Diane Peterson can be reached at 521-5287 or diane.peterson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @dianepete56.

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