Savvy Cookbooks: Vegetable Literacy

Vegetable Literacy

I was thrilled to receive Deborah Madison’s newest cookbook, Vegetable Literacy, from Ten Speed Press for review.  It is a gorgeous book, and one I’ve had my eye on since I first heard about it.  Gardening and cooking in one book? Yes, please!

Madison divides the chapters by plant families. Her argument for this is that related vegetable and herbs usually compliment and enhance each other. It seems logical, especially once you see what falls into each family.  Carrots and dill are related, for instance, which explains why they go so well together!

Each chapter is further broken down by plant. She talks of the vegetables’ flavor and cooking properties, how they grow and what their nutritional benefits are. The nutrition facts are interesting, but begin to wear by the third chapter.  They’re useful when you’re looking up individual vegetables, but overwhelming when you’re just reading through the book. I do love that she talks about individual heirloom varieties, like my beloved Paris Market and Dragon carrots. She obviously can’t cover them all (have you seen the Seed Savers Exchange catalog?), but it is nice to see some heirlooms getting a shout-out.

Madison’s descriptions and gardening stories not only encouraged my “grow all the basils!” habit, but also inspired me to try something new in the garden this year — maybe anise hyssop, pineapple sage or lemon thyme.

Arugula Mushroom Salad3 The plant sections end with notes on which unexpected parts of the plants are edible (carrot tops! cauliflower cores! kohlrabi leaves!) and a list of good companion ingredients, such as certain oils, cheeses, herbs or nuts. Recipes starring the vegetable-of-the-section follow, though I’ve found that some of the best recipes are in the plant intros, like the roasted carrots with butter, shallots and herbs on page 11, or the crisped Jerusalem artichokes on page 62. That recipe even has me willing to give Jerusalem artichokes another shot, though I didn’t like them the first two times I tried them. Maybe this recipe will be the magic one that changes my mind?

But before I get to trying Jerusalem artichokes again, I couldn’t resist trying the wilted arugula and seared mushroom salad with manchego cheese from page 171.

Arugula Mushroom Salad2


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Don’t Forget the Lentils

Zucchini Lentils title

In the rush and tumble of summer, I somehow forgot about this lentil salad entirely.  The photos have been sitting on my desktop, waiting patiently for me to come back to them.

Lentils are just that kind of food.  They aren’t flashy and demanding with a short season or shelf life like berries. No, lentils are confident in their nutritional qualities and in their ability to take on any flavor, and can sit back with their feet up, waiting for you to remember their existence.

In the brief lull between blueberries and raspberries this week, I came out of my must-preserve-everything-now mindset and settled down to sort through my recipe notebooks, where I came across this salad.  I first made it at the beginning of June, when zucchinis were just starting to pop up at the farmers’ market, when they were still a novelty after months of root vegetables and salad greens.

Now, of course, we can’t eat them quickly enough. So go ahead and make this salad; the lentils have been waiting for you.

Lentil Zucchini Salad

Prep Time: 20 minutes

Cook Time: 40 minutes

Yield: 4-6 servings

Lentil Zucchini Salad

This lentil and zucchini salad is excellent when topped with your choice of pesto (I used garlic scape, but basil or arugula would be great as well) and crumbled queso fresco. If you don't have queso fresco, try substituting feta or grated Parmesan.


  • 3/4 cups fresh herb stalks, a mixture of rosemary, oregano, thyme and sage
  • 1 1/2 cups black lentils
  • 3 cups water
  • 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 large zucchini, chopped
  • 2 teaspoons ground cumin
  • 1 teaspoon ground chili power
  • Salt and pepper, to taste
  • Pesto, for serving
  • Queso fresco, for serving


  1. Tie the herbs together with cooking twine. Your bundle should be about 1" in diameter.
  2. Cover the lentils and the herbs with the water in a medium stockpot. Simmer the lentils over medium heat until most of the water is absorbed, about 20 minutes.
  3. In the meantime, heat the olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the zucchini and mix with a wooden spoon to coat with the hot oil. Season with the cumin and chili powder. Cook, stirring often, until the zucchini is softened, about 8 minutes.
  4. Fish the herbs out of the pot of lentils, and toss the lentils with the cooked zucchini. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
  5. Dish the lentils into bowls and top with pesto and crumbled feta cheese.