Chef, cooking instructor, and cookbook author Deborah Madison recently turned to writing about her life and experiences with food in a memoir entitled An Onion in my Pocket. The title refers to having such a deep connection with food, it’s not unusual to show up at Spanish class with an onion in your pocket left over from making pizza with a friend, or to have your carry-on “luggage” be berries or rhubarb you’re taking home to enjoy. Deborah grew up in California in a non-foodie family, then spent her adult years cooking — she was the founding chef at the Greens restaurant in San Francisco — and writing 14 cookbooks, and for the last 30 years has made her home in Galisteo, near Santa Fe. (Don’t miss the bonus recipes Deborah shared with us below the interview!)
Your memoir, An Onion in my Pocket, explains cooking was a career you fell into rather than planning due to a passion for food. Has that changed over the years? Did you find the passion for food?
When I was growing up, I never thought much about cooking or eating. But I did find a passion for food once I went to work at Chez Panisse. Now, in the pandemic, I am responsible for cooking dinner and often breakfast and it’s fine with me to do that. I cook a lot from my own books, which is fun because I didn’t get to do that much when I was writing so many cookbooks. I use other people’s cookbooks, too. I also take requests from my husband, Patrick, about what he’d like to eat. I’m happy to cook for him, whatever he requests. And he adores fennel, which many people don’t. I love fennel! I braise it and cook it with lots of vegetables. And it’s easy!
CF: Your book Local Flavors features farmers markets from around the country. As the former manager of the Santa Fe market, you may be biased, but do you have a favorite farmers market? What makes that one a cut above the others?
DM: I love the market in Madison, Wisconsin, the Dane County Farmers Market. It’s huge and it goes around the capitol, so it feels like it is blessed by the state. I love the produce, the way it is displayed, and the signs. I’m all for small markets as well as large ones. A market doesn’t have to be large . . . you don’t need 18 sources of zucchini. I love the market at Socorro, too. I usually shop at the Santa Fe market because it is big and permanent and has a lot of growers. With COVID, this year we went to El Dorado, which is just 15 minutes away from where we live in Galisteo, and a lot of the farmers from Santa Fe come there.
CF: Most of your cookbooks are focused on vegetables and vegetarian cooking, which makes sense when you explain in your memoir that for 20 years you cooked for Zen Buddhists as well as running the Greens restaurant. However, you don’t consider yourself a vegetarian and don’t like putting labels on how you eat. That said, what are the types of food you find yourself most drawn to and why?
DM: I am most drawn to vegetables, but I still don’t like the label “vegetarian.” In the old days, it would separate you from other people. I think that’s still true of any food label you put on yourself, whether it is vegetarian, vegan, or gluten-free. It means it’s hard to all sit down together for a meal without jumping through hoops. I didn’t want people to jump through hoops for me.
I consider my books to be focused on the vegetable side of the plate. If you want to put it in the center, I tell you how. If you want to put vegetables on the side, you can do that, too. A woman from Atlanta commented to me after a cooking class, “I didn’t know vegetarian food could be so good!” I told her, you don’t have to call it vegetarian, it’s just vegetables and good food.
CF: One of your books — one that happens to be on my bookshelf — is What We Eat When We Eat Alone, which asks people to share their go-to foods for when they aren’t eating with others. What do you eat when you’re alone?
DM: Before this call, I just rushed into the house and made a quesadilla for lunch, which is my go-to meal, with a tortilla, cheese, tomato, avocado, and salsa. I also like a vegetable sauté. For lunch, I really don’t want to take the time to cook something, so I don’t. I like dessert for dinner, like pie or apple crisp. This book wasn’t meant to be about healthful food. When we were on food trips in Europe, Patrick, who is an artist, was the only one who wasn’t really known. That was his opener to people, asking these chefs and cookbook authors what they ate when they were alone. He designed the book, illustrated it, and did a lot of the writing, too. We talked to anybody and everybody, and it was so much fun. People said the darndest things. Their stories fell into chapters by themselves. But this isn’t a typical book of mine, even though my name is on the cover.
CF: I grew up in the era of home economics classes, something that isn’t often taught anymore, and unfortunately many young people haven’t experienced cooking with grandparents or parents at home to learn cooking skills or a love for cooking. What message do you have for people who never learned to cook and are intimidated by getting into the kitchen?
DM: I think it’s true that a lot of people are growing up without many cooking skills — I didn’t learn at my grandmother’s or mother’s side. I think they should probably take a cooking class and there are all kinds of classes out there, something that starts with the basics or whatever is suitable for them. I think you can learn, and it doesn’t have to be fancy. It can be very straightforward food with little tricks here and there. For somebody who isn’t confident in the kitchen, they should start with things that are basic and essential rather than exotic.
And I always tell people, “Ask yourself, what do you want to eat? Do you love gratins, do you love pasta, do you hate this or love that? Find a recipe and concentrate on what you love, then you’ll learn, and you’ll go on from there.”
CF: The last chapter of your memoir is entitled “Nourishment,” and by that you didn’t mean nutritional meals, but, as you said in the chapter, “foods that nourished with kindness, thoughtfulness, care, simplicity, and generosity.” What is a meal that, as you asked, “had the power to change how we saw the world and how we walked in it?”
DM: A New Mexico meal that made it into the chapter was part of a feast day celebration at the Pojoaque Pueblo. It was a cold day spent watching the dances, then we were invited to join a meal at the home of the governor of the pueblo. The New Mexico menu was made up of food grown by a farmer friend, with chile and posole and enchiladas, and a bison from a nearby pueblo. We were part of a large group of people, warming up after the cold day, eating small portions of foods served in handmade bowls, visiting quietly with those near us. As I said in the chapter, “. . . the kindness with which we were served transformed cold into warmth, the mundane into the beautiful. Body and soul were deeply nourished. We were grateful.”
Recipes from Deborah Madison
Seasonal Fruit Desserts from Orchard, Farm and Market:
Chocolate Bark with Cardamom and Sea Salt, Apricots and Pistachios
Makes a 10-by-6-inch slab.
This salty-sweet chocolate bark is terrific to have on hand when you’re doing a lot of winter entertaining, for shards of broken bark put on the table with a bowl of tangerines, a plate of dates, some nuts to crack, or a few cookies make a dessert truly special. A great variety of spice, nuts, and fruits can go into a chocolate bark — candied ginger, tangerine zest, diced prunes, apricots, toasted pecan, almonds, salted cashews, black pepper, anise seed, or cinnamon to name but a few.
We now know that a bit of salt makes all the sweet things, like chocolate and caramel and even fruit, dance! You don’t really need measurements as you’ll see the first time you make bark. The chocolate I buy happens to come in 4.4 ounce blocks, so I’m using that, but whatever is convenient to you.
4.4 ounces (more or less) 70% chocolate, chopped into chunks
1/2 teaspoon decorticated cardamom seeds, toasted in a dry skillet until fragrant
3 tablespoons dried apricots, cut into small pieces
2 – 3 tablespoons salted green pistachios or toasted pecans, some left whole, some cut into large pieces
Fleur de sel (finishing salt)
- Line a large flat dish with a piece of tinfoil or parchment about 10 by 8 inches.
- Put the chocolate in a bowl set it over a pan of simmering water with the cardamom seeds. When the chocolate has melted, stir in half the fruit and pistachios. Spread the mixture over the foil in a thin sheet, then press the remaining fruits and nuts lightly into the warm chocolate. Sprinkle lightly with the Maldon salt.
- Refrigerate until the chocolate is well set, at least and hour. To serve break the bark into pieces and pile them on a small plate or dish.Store any extra bark in a covered in container or a waxed paper bag and refrigerate. It will keep well for a few weeks, if it lasts that long.
Braised Turnips with Thyme from Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone
This can be served as a side vegetable or as a little stew over toast. Rutabagas can replace the turnips or be used with them, but be sure to par-boil them separately for they take longer to cook than turnips.
12 ounces turnips
1 tablespoon butter
1 onion, finely chopped
3 small cloves garlic, halved
1 carrot, diced
4 sprigs thyme or 1/4 teaspoon dried
2 tablespoon chopped parsley
2 teaspoons flour
1 teaspoon prepared mustard
Optional: 1/4 cup cream or creme fraiche
If using mature winter turnips, peel them thickly and par-boil them for 1 minute in salted water. Tender salad turnips can be scrubbed and left whole.
Melt the butter and add the onion, garlic, carrot and thyme. Cook gently 3 to 4 minutes then add the turnips. Toss them in the onions, add 1/2 teaspoon salt and sprinkle with the flour. Cover the pan and cook over low heat 4 minutes then add 1 cup water and 1 tablespoon parsley. Simmer until the turnips are tender, about 15 minutes, then gently stir with a rubber scraper. Taste for salt and pepper, add the mustard and cream, if using and simmer a minute or 2 more, then serve.
Shelling Peas with Roasted Ricotta and Bread Crumbs From Vegetable Literacy
Serves two for a light supper, with a salad.
Faced with a cup of just-shucked peas my mind runs in a million directions. Should I simmer them with soft butter lettuce leaves? Pair them with pasta? Flatter their delicacy with new sage leaves and their blossoms, fresh mint, lemon (or even all three)? Basil is lovely with peas, too. I could add them to that meager handful of fava beans that are waiting for company or use them make a frothy, brilliant green soup. After scanning the sea of possibilities, I end up cooking them with minced shallot, sage, and lemon, then spooning them over baked ricotta with crispy breadcrumbs. I would have liked to have put the ricotta on toasted ciabatta and spooned the peas over, but lacking bread, it was just the ricotta and the peas and maybe it was pretty perfect just like that. A light supper for two.
1 pound pod peas, shucked, 1 cup or a little more
1 cup ricotta
4 teaspoons sweet organic butter
2 large shallots, or 1/2 small garden onion, finely diced (about 1/3 cup)
Five small sage leaves, minced (about 1 ½ teaspoons)
Finely grated zest of one lemon
2 to 3 tablespoons breadcrumbs
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
A chunk of Parmesan cheese for grating
Heat the oven to 375 F. If your ricotta is wet and milky, drain it first by putting it in a colander and pressing out the excess liquid. (Also, bake the ricotta on a sheet pan to catch any drips.) Lightly oil a small baking dish — a round Spanish earthenware dish about 6 inches across is perfect for this amount. Roughly smooth the ricotta into the dish, drizzle a little oil over the surface, and put it in the oven. After 15 minutes, or whenever the cheese is beginning to set and brown on top, cover the surface with breadcrumbs and bake another ten minutes or until the breadcrumbs are browned and crisp.
While the cheese is baking, warm the butter in a small skillet. Add the onion and sage and cook over medium-low heat to soften, about 3 minutes. Add the peas, ½ cup water, and lemon zest. Simmer until the peas are bright green and tender, time will vary, but about five minutes. Whatever you do, don’t let them turn grey on you. Season with salt and a little freshly ground pepper, not too much.
When the ricotta is done, divide it between two plates. Spoon the peas over the cheese. If you like, grate some Parmesan over all and serve.
Peas and Fresh Ricotta with Pasta Shells
My husband, who was hungrier than I, wanted his peas with pasta, so I cooked some shells, broke up his share of the ricotta over them and tossed all with the peas. The peas nestled in the pasta, like pearls in an oyster. Both ways were more than acceptable, and I even have enough peas left on the vines to repeat.
Interview by Cheryl Fallstead • Photos courtesy
Originally published in Neighbors magazine | 2021