Henry Homeyer: A gardener’s cookbook

By Henry Homeyer
©2019 Telegraph Publishing LLC

I can’t wait till spring. Don’t get me wrong: I love winter. But I look forward to trying a recipe I just found for pea, leek and sorrel soup while reading Deborah Madison’s fabulous cookbook: Vegetable Literacy (10-Speed Press, 2013, $40). And sorrel, a leafy perennial, is one of my first vegetables ready for eating in the spring.

I have grown sorrel for many years but have never found a good use for it. Yes, it has an interesting lemony taste, but it cooks down to almost nothing – even more so than spinach. And I have added it to salads, but it never made tickled my taste buds enough to remember to pick some regularly.

Ms. Madison’s recipe is simple: chop 5 ounces of leeks and cook with butter and a cup of water for 10 minutes. Add 1.5 cups of peas (fresh or frozen) and 3 cups of water. Simmer till peas are cooked, then turn off the heat and stir in the sorrel leaves but not stems. Then puree the soup in a blender until very smooth and add a little cream or yogurt on top. Simple and easy.

One of the great things about Vegetable Literacy is that Deborah Madison is a very knowledgeable gardener as well as a great cook. She not only includes tips about how to grow veggies (plant lettuce under the shade of big plants like tomatoes in the heat of summer), she generally lists names of good varieties and what makes each special. And she includes nutrition tips, as well (cooked carrots have more nutritional value than raw ones, for example).

Brussels sprouts are a favorite of mine, but avoided by many. Deborah Madison’s theory is that they are often overcooked and mushy. Her solution is to cut them into 3 or 4 pieces so that the center is cooked, but the outer leaves are not overdone, a common problem. She likes to pair them with bacon, smoked paprika, roasted peanuts walnuts or chestnuts. I never would have thought of those pairings, having just used butter or seasoned rice wine vinegar (something I use often of brassicas in place of butter).

I have never grown Belgian endive nor known how to use it, but she explains both. Europe, she notes, grows 70,000 acres of it annually, but we grow only 400 acres. It is quite a complicated procedure that can take a full year from seed to table. A related, but much easier plant is radicchio, which I plan to grow this year. She notes that you can get seeds from www.gourmetseeds.com, a company I don’t know, but looks good on-line. It is also available from Johnny’s Selected Seeds in Maine where I buy many of my seeds, and Fedco, a seed cooperative I like.

Sorrel in late April, it is a perennial.

I love cauliflower, but rarely grow it because it’s so fussy. It won’t produce a head if it is too hot or too cold, too wet or too dry. This book taught me that you can also eat the stem, which is delicious peeled and then sliced or diced and steamed. The leaves are also edible and tasty. That’s a bonus for a plant that, unlike its cousin broccoli, only produces one set of florets. She also notes that cauliflower is loaded with vitamins and nutrients that contain cancer-fighting compounds that are not diminished by steaming (but are by boiling).

In the chapter of squashes, Deborah Madison notes that winter squash “have been found effective in the remediation of chemically contaminated soils, the plants pulling up all sorts of unwanted contaminants, thus this is another vegetable where you are better off to choose organic over conventional.” Or grow your own where no sprays are used.

Tomatoes, for me, are the queens of the garden: juicy, flavorful, sweet and delicious. Deborah Madison also explains that in addition to vitamins, tomatoes are rich in lycopene. Lycopene is an antioxidant “that quite possibly protects against different cancers and lowers the risk of heart disease, of eye diseases such as cataracts and macular degeneration, and more.” She goes on to say, “The good news is that these benefits are not undone when a tomato is cooked.” Given how many I grow and eat annually, I should live to be 100!

Cauliflower comes in purple too. The leaves and stems are edible.

We all know parsley, and most of us grow it. But Vegetable Literacy reminded me that a lesser known cousin of parsley is parsley root, a different species. It is an intense flavor, and great to add to soups. Not sold by most seed companies, I found it at Johnny’s Selected Seeds with the name Arat. They say it takes 14 to 30 days to germinate, and should be planted directly in soil outdoors.

This lovely book with fabulous photos is organized by plant families. Deborah Madison explains in the beginning that she believes plants in the same family go well together in recipes. Thus in the carrot family we also find parsley, fennel, cilantro and anise – and all cook well together. She has divided all her ingredients into 12 plant families according to their taxonomic grouping.

Deborah Madison has written about a dozen cookbooks, most with a vegetarian bent. This one is not strictly vegetarian, but most recipes are. She writes with ease and clarity that makes reading this cookbook a joy. I look forward to trying many of her recipes.

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Filed Under: Community and Arts LifeHenry Homeyer's Notes from the Garden

About the Author: Henry Homeyer is a lifetime organic gardener living in Cornish Flat, N.H. He is the author of four gardening books including The Vermont Gardener's Companion. You may reach him by e-mail at henry.homeyer@comcast.net or by snail mail at PO Box 364, Cornish Flat, N.H. 03746. Please include a SASE if you wish an answer to a question by mail.

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  1. Janice Atwood says:

    And speaking of cooking AND gardening. Starting on New Year’s day, I save all my egg shells and let them dry in an open container. Then when it’s time to plant tomatoes, I crush the shells to small bits and put a handful under each plant. Great free calcium !!

  2. Liisa Kissel says:

    Thank you Henry. Brussels sprouts are also great with nutmeg. Fresh ground is best, but it’s hard to find whole nutmeg in stores.