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.”