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Zox Kitchen

Zox Kitchen: January 2, 2014

Vegetable Literacy

And A Recipe Or Two  

Deborah Madison has published another terrific cookbook, Vegetable Literacy. Madison’s background as a chef and celebrated author took root while growing up on a farm in upstate New York, and then in a walnut orchard in Davis, CA. This introduced her to plants and cooking with the additional influence of her father, who was a gardener and botanist.

Her cooking career took flight at the restaurant temple of West Coast cooking, Chez Panisse. Madison was also a student for 18 years at the San Francisco Zen Center, where she became the center’s chef. Subsequently, the seasoned chef was one of the founders of the restaurant Greens at Fort Mason, which is where I first encountered her food and her ardent support of the slow food movement, and the Seed Savers Exchange.   

Vegetable Literacy, published by Ten Speed Press, includes 300 recipes. This extraordinary volume opens our eyes to connections and relationships between 12 edible plant families including vegetables, spices and herbs not revealed before. For example, the Knotweed family includes buckwheat, sorrel and rhubarb. Knowing the relationship between these ingredients informs our use of them. For example, adding rhubarb to buckwheat pancakes becomes a logical connection by knowing that the two share a phylogenetic family and a natural affinity.

In summary, Deborah Madison has opened our eyes to natural connections that taste well together. Here’s one of her green pea recipes in the legume family that is tastier than ever if we can eat them fresh. But flash frozen works almost as well.

Peas With Baked Ricotta And Bread Crumbs

By Deborah Madison


2 to 3 tablespoons fresh bread crumbs

4 teaspoons butter

2 large shallots or 1/2 small onion, finely diced (about 1/3 cup)

5 small sage leaves, minced (about 1 1/2 teaspoons)

1 1/2 pounds Pod peas, shucked (about 1 cup)

Grated zest of 1 lemon

Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

Chunk of Parmesan cheese, for grating


Heat the oven to 375 degrees. Lightly oil a small baking dish; a round Spanish earthenware dish about 6 inches across is perfect for this amount. If your ricotta is wet and milky, drain it first by putting it in a colander and pressing out the excess liquid. Pack the ricotta into the dish, drizzle a little olive oil over the surface, and bake 20 minutes or until the cheese has begun to set and brown on top.

Cover the surface with the breadcrumbs and continue to bake until the bread crumbs are browned and crisp, another 10 minutes. (The amount of time it takes for ricotta cheese to bake until set can vary tremendously, so it may well take longer than the times given here, especially if it wasn’t drained.)

When the cheese is finished baking, heat the butter in a small skillet over medium heat. When the butter foams, add the shallots and sage and cook until softened, about 3 minutes. Add the peas, ½ cup water, and the lemon zest. Simmer until the peas are bright green and tender; the time will vary, but it should be 3 to 5 minutes. Whatever you do, don’t let them turn gray. Season with salt and a little freshly ground pepper, not too much.

Divide the ricotta between 2 plates. Spoon the peas over the cheese. Grate some Parmesan over all and enjoy while warm. An alternative  with  Pasta: Cook 1 cup or so pasta shells in boiling, salted water. Drain and toss them with the peas, cooked as above, and then with the ricotta. The peas nestle in the pasta, like little green pearls.