Deborah Madison, one of the vanguards of vegetarian cuisine in America, dined on lamb the night before her interview. “I had a friend over last night who works very hard. I had some lamb from a local rancher, so we ate lamb,” says the author of “The New Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone.” “But I also have a garden and a refrigerator full of vegetables.”
It’s those vegetables for which Madison is known. She won her first James Beard Award in 1998 after “Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone,” an exhaustive collection of plant-based recipes that became a bestseller. The recent edition offers more than 1,600 recipes, many new. Madison, 68, began cooking at the San Francisco Zen Center in the 1960s and then joined restaurateur Alice Waters at Chez Panisse in 1977. Shortly after, she opened Greens in San Francisco, one of the first restaurants to elevate vegetarian cooking as a genuine cuisine. Her many books include “Vegetable Literacy,” published last year. She is working on a memoir.
Q. When did you become interested in vegetarian cooking?
A. I’ve never been a gung ho vegetarian. When I lived at the Zen Center in San Francisco I didn’t care about being a vegetarian, I just wanted to cook, so I just jumped into cooking.
Q. How has vegetarian cooking changed over the years?
A. My problem with the whole “vegetarian” word is that I’ve always read it as a way of pushing stuff away. I came to this in the late ’60s and ’70s when it was a big cultural shift if you decided to be vegetarian. You couldn’t sit down at the table with somebody else. You can now order the vegetarian dish at a restaurant without declaring yourself a vegetarian. It’s opened up and that’s what I’m mostly interested in.
Q. You describe yourself as an “honest omnivore.” What does that mean?
A. I have never been able to be a person who gets invited out to dinner and says, “I don’t eat something” and expect that people will jump through hoops. I know people are very polite about it. But I’m old enough that I accept what’s there. I do know that no animal really wants to die for you. That’s final and that’s not going to change. I keep that in mind. As a culture, we don’t always have a sense of grace or gratitude about closing that circle.
Q. Why is there so much interest in vegetables right now?
A. We know so much more about plants than we used to, about what they provide for us, which is a whole lot, including protein plus nutrients that aren’t found in meats. And the alarm about how meat is raised is getting through to people. Meat is easy to cook. It’s filling, it’s satisfying, it’s tasty. But plants are amazing. We have so many more varieties that are well grown and lovely, whether they’re heirlooms or new varieties. Chefs know they’re fun stuff to cook with. There is this interest and curiosity.
Q. How did you approach updating a book that is beloved by so many people?
A. I wanted to do it for a long time. Our foods have changed so much. There are dishes like tartines that we didn’t know about when the book came out. And a lot of different oils, coconut butter, ghee, smoked paprika, smoked salt that also weren’t very well known. Spaghetti made out of ancient wheat, Israeli couscous — all kinds of foods we didn’t have access to.
Q. Could you give an example of a new recipe that would not have appeared in the original edition?
A. I have a recipe for savory millet grits made as a timbale. They’re so much better than whole millet because they cook more evenly. Millet seems to be an important grain for some people because it doesn’t cause inflammation. More tempeh dishes for sure. More fermented soy. I tried to adapt some recipes to the slow cooker. And I did the same for the pressure cooker.
Q. How about an example of something you took out of the first book?
A. There’s this recipe for a sizzling risotto gratin that’s very rich. As far as I knew no one had ever eaten it. When I was speaking somewhere and said I’m just going to take it out of the book, two women raised their hands and said, “That’s the dish we always make for each other for our birthdays.” That was such a touching story. I left it in.
Interview was condensed and edited. Michael Floreak can be reached at email@example.com.