Daughter of a botany professor at the University of California at Davis, Deborah Madison spent her earliest years on a dairy farm in upstate New York. She began cooking vegetarian as a student at the San Francisco Zen Center in the late 1960s and went on to open the famous vegetarian restaurant Greens in 1979. Her first cookbook (with Edward Espe Brown) was The Greens Cookbook: Extraordinary Vegetarian Cuisine (Bantam Books, 1987). Among her other books are the best-selling Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone (Broadway, 1997) and Vegetable Soups from Deborah Madison’s Kitchen (Broadway, 2006). Her books have twice been awarded the IACP Cookbook of the Year award, she is the recipient of four James Beard awards, and she appears in Who’s Who in American Food and Wine (2005). Madison lives in Galisteo, New Mexico.
What was the food like when you were a student at the Zen Center?
Very spartan and strange, with a strong macrobiotic twist. People were rebelling against TV dinners, but they didn’t know how to cook well. We ate a fair amount of tofu, because it’s a good source of protein and easy to prepare. When I began working in the kitchen there, I saw that if we were to eat together, I’d have to make vegetarian food more familiar and appealing.
I feel physically a lot better if I have some meat.
Why aren’t you vegetarian?
I feel physically a lot better if I have some meat. I was sickly for a long time. I’ve never been a rigid vegetarian. I care about how food is grown and raised more than anything else. I don’t go to the supermarket and buy industrial meat. But a friend of mine raises incredible chickens, and we have one once in a while and I make stock. Everything gets used, and it makes my soup a lot tastier. Being part of the local food chain in the West means eating beef, supporting ranchers who are doing it right—not those with the slaughterhouse-feedlot mentality. It’s always very difficult to realize something will die and suffer on your behalf. But things suffer for all kinds of reasons, not just food.
How did you start writing cookbooks?
I was invited to write The Greens Cookbook. And I really felt the job was to reflect the food we made at Greens—restaurant food that is more complicated than the food you make at home. I was really trying to invent a new vegetarian cuisine, to take it away from poorly cooked stodgy brown grain-centered dishes to food that is bright, sophisticated, delicious, and pretty.
Then I went around the country on a big book tour in 1986, and I realized all of the foods we’re used to having in San Francisco you couldn’t get anywhere. Fennel and celery root were unheard of. And arugula? Forget it. Then I moved to Flagstaff, Arizona, a small town where people had families and children and not a lot of time to cook. And they weren’t food-obsessed like in San Francisco. So when it came to writing my next book, The Savory Way (Bantam, 1990, reissue edition), I wanted to write a book with more down-to-earth recipes, that didn’t take so much time and that used limited ingredients. Every ingredient in that book, even rosewater, I was able to find where I lived.
The Savory Way has a Middle Eastern influence. Where did that come from?
When I was in Arizona, I met someone who had been living in Turkey and she cooked dishes for me. I loved those flavors so much, those of all of the Middle East really: yogurt and dill and cumin and things that sizzle, and the use of legumes. The cuisines of the eastern Mediterranean really have a lot of interesting flavors and textures. Also a Lebanese man opened up a market and restaurant in my town, and I was able to go eat Lebanese food all the time.
What inspired your book Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone?
I was teaching a weeklong class in vegetarian cooking at the Esalen Institute in California, a really basic class—bread, salad dressing, pasta, gratins. As I was driving home, I was thinking, it’s really too bad there is no Joy of Cooking for vegetarians. At that time, if you were interested in, say, soy, you had to make do with a pamphlet in the health-food store. The title of the book was intended to convey that this is not a political tract, just a book about good food anyone can enjoy—it just happens to be without meat.
Is there a recipe of yours that people say is their favorite?
Yes, the black bean chili from The Greens Cookbook. That is used and copied a lot. I’ve seen the recipe appear in restaurants. That was very exciting then because smoky chipotle was a brand-new ingredient when I opened Greens; it was not everywhere in supermarkets like it is now.
Do you feel your cookbooks have dated in any way?
Yes, photos get dated really fast. And there are recipes in The Greens Cookbook that I look back on and wonder why I made certain choices—for example, why I used two vinegars together. In the ‘80s at Greens, we cooked much more richly. Vegetarian cooks were excited to discover reduced cream sauces after all the spartan food they’d been eating. People nowadays aren’t looking for reduced cream. Those recipes are good, but I’m not sure that’s how we cook these days.
As the author of a book on tofu, what dishes do you recommend to convert tofu haters?
Something where it’s disguised a little bit. In This Can’t Be Tofu! (Broadway, 2000), there’s a recipe where the tofu is finely diced and mixed with mushrooms as a tortellini filling. Or you can combine the tofu with something people are used to eating, like shrimp. Some people have a hard time with the texture of tofu. But they may like it if you slice it thin and jazz it up with a coating of breadcrumbs or Parmesan or both.
I think one of the things vegetarians miss most is bacon. I know you dislike fake bacon, so what ingredients can vegetarians substitute to get that smoky flavor?
Chipotles offer a smoky flavor, but then you also get the heat. Spanish smoked paprika, the sweet kind, doesn’t have that heat. I have a dish—eggs over smoky potatoes—in my book Vegetarian Suppers (Broadway, 2005) that uses smoked paprika and is very good. Some farmers make smoked dried tomatoes.
What cookbooks do you recommend?
I love Spice: Flavors of the Eastern Mediterranean, by Ana Sortun (Regan Books, 2006). I haven’t bought cookbooks for a long time. Let me see. The Zuni Cafe Cookbook (by Judy Rodgers; W. W. Norton, 2002)—Judy is an amazing cook. Any books by Clifford Wright. I also like The Splendid Table, by Lynne Rossetto Kasper (Morrow Cookbooks, 1992). I find her recipes constantly interesting and a little bit surprising and very authentic. She has a salad with slivered apples and sorrel and basil. So surprising. I wouldn’t think to put those things together. But it really works and is delicious.
What would your last meal be?
I’m not sure, but it would definitely include a really good burgundy. And some quince—maybe a cream tart with quince for dessert.
What is your next book about?
It’s a book of desserts—really unfussy desserts, with a big emphasis on fruit.
Photograph of Deborah Madison by Patrick McFarlin