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Sabbath at the Spectrum Café: Deborah Madison


In addition to unique vegetarian food stories, “Sabbath at the Spectrum Café” will feature chefs and cookbook authors friendly to plant-based diets.

If the dewy tips or strangely twisted roots of a vegetable have ever caught your attention in a bustling market, it’s possible the question “What do I do with this?” has skipped across your mind. For these and other occasions, Deborah Madison, food writer, cooking teacher and founding chef of Greens, a landmark all-vegetarian restaurant in San Francisco, Calif., is like a friend in the kitchen.

“Produce inspires,” says the author of 11 cookbooks (including “Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone”), in an interview with Spectrum. “Plants always come first.” Madison’s elegantly simple recipes are reliably good, and her writing, featured in the Los Angeles Times, the Huffington Post and Gourmet, gracefully expresses her enthusiasm for sustainable agriculture and biodiversity.

While an expert on preparing produce, Madison says that she is a “beginning gardener.” The fresh perspective from growing her own garden helped lead to her most recent book, “Vegetable Literacy.” The text introduces readers to 12 distinct tribes: the 12 vegetable families, and the surprising connections and bonds within each. Delicate green tendrils featured on the cover beckon readers to join Madison and others in a common feast.

“There is something really wonderful about sharing the same food,” reflects Madison. To her, dining together represents “what community is about: sharing experiences with other people.”

Food builds communities, from school gardens to potlucks, and Madison is excited about the creative ways that people are engaging with the farm-to-table process. “It’s not just about getting enough to eat,” states Madison, “It’s also about food with nutrition in it.” “We have to take responsibility for making good food a priority,” she adds, “and by ‘good’ I mean not only taste, but also nutritional value, and more.”

For Madison, this means trips to the local farmers market, as well as growing her own food. The farmers market “doesn’t have everything I want, and some things are more expensive, but that’s where I choose to spend my money,” she says, though she notes that spending more of one’s budget on food is a personal decision.

It’s about being “interested in food,” Madison emphasizes. “We just have to get involved.”

Turning the pages of “Vegetable Literacy,” this seems like a welcome call to action. Madison’s friendly, empathetic writing guides readers through carefully paced introductions to the 12 vegetable families, and reveals the members’ family lore. For example, in “The Carrot Family: Some Basic Kitchen Vegetables and a Passel of Herbs,” Madison notes that orange carrots didn’t come about until the sixteenth century, pale fennel offers nutrients such as Vitamin C and potassium, and parsley can happily grow between the bricks on a path.

Sprinkled amidst the 300-plus recipes are exquisite photos of the finished dishes and the vegetables that star in them. Encountering “First-of-the-Season Fingerling Potatoes with Fines Herbs,” for instance, is a bit like the joy of moving a tomato plant leaf and finding its vine-tugging-ripe fruit nestled beneath. (“Tomatoes make everything better in summer,” Madison notes.)

Despite her love of fresh, seasonal vegetables, Madison isn’t fond of the word “vegetarian”; it generally “excludes rather than includes,” she says. However, since opening Greens in 1979, Madison notes that much about vegetarianism has changed. It no longer sets one apart as much, and while it was once considered a lifestyle issue requiring defense, ordering a vegetarian dish from a menu or serving vegetarian food at a party nowadays doesn’t attract the “funny looks” it once did.

Madison herself follows a plant-based diet, which has also changed over time. As the author of “This Can’t Be Tofu!” (Broadway Books, 2000), featuring ways to enjoy tofu on its own merits, these days Madison infrequently eats soy products. “I’ve never thought (soy) was a panacea; there’s no food like that,” she says. “I still enjoy and eat it,” she adds, though she prefers soy products that are minimally processed, organic and not genetically modified, to benefit one’s own health and that of the environment.

Madison’s latest project is revising her James Beard Award-winning classic, “Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone.” “I love that book,” says Madison, who wants the new edition to be what people know and love, but also useful to the many readers whose copies are worn out. Updates will include about 100 new recipes, new information and sundry revisions—such as taking out all references to canola oil (“I’ve never like it or believed in it,” Madison states).

Through her writing and food advocacy, Madison has been a friend in the kitchen and a champion of sharing truly good food. “I always want everyone at same table,” says Madison. “Vegetable Literacy” is a book worth bringing to it.

Deborah Madison is an author, chef and cooking teacher. She has also served on the boards of the Slow Food International Biodiversity Committee, the Seed Savers Exchange and the Southwest Grassfed Livestock Alliance, and is actively involved in issues of biodiversity, gardening and sustainable agriculture.

Recipe reprinted with permission from Vegetable Literacy by Deborah Madison, copyright © 2013. Published by Ten Speed Press, a division of Random House, Inc.

Photography credit: Christopher Hirsheimer and Melissa Hamilton © 2013
“Vegetable Literacy” is available at

A Light Seasonal Menu for Spectrum
Recipes taken from “Vegetable Literacy” and curated by Deborah Madison

-A Fine Dice of Chioggia Beets and Red Endive with Meyer Lemon and Shallot Vinaigrette
-Boiled Potatoes with Creamy Sorrel Sauce
-Carrot Almond Cake with Ricotta Cream (see recipe below) 

This week’s recipe for Carrot Almond Cake with 
Ricotta Cream (pictured) comes from Deborah Madison’s “Vegetable Literacy.” She writes, “This carrot cake is redolent of almonds and lemon. If you use yellow carrots, it’s exceptionally pretty. I serve it with the best ricotta cheese I can find mixed with sour cream, lemon zest, and honey.” Madison adds, “This cake tends to gain moisture as it sits, well wrapped, at room temperature.”

Carrot Almond Cake with Ricotta Cream
Makes: one 9-inch cake 

4 tablespoons butter, plus more for the pan
11/2 cups finely ground almonds, preferably blanched
Finely grated zest of 2 lemons
3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons organic granulated sugar
11/4 cups unbleached cake flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
4 large eggs (5 or 6 smaller farm eggs)
1/4 teaspoon almond extract
Scant 2 cups grated carrots, preferably yellow 

Ricotta cream
1 cup ricotta cheese
1 cup sour cream
2 tablespoons honey
Grated zest of 1 lemon
Confectioners’ sugar, for dusting 


Heat the oven to 375°F. Melt the 4 tablespoons butter and set it aside to cool.

Pulse the almonds with the lemon zest and 2 tablespoons of the granulated sugar in a food processor. Butter a 9-inch springform pan and then dust the sides with some of the almond mixture. Sift together the flour, baking powder, and salt.

Using an electric mixer, beat together the eggs and the remaining 3/4 cup sugar on high speed until pale, foamy, and thick, about 5 minutes. Reduce the speed to low and add the remaining ground almond mixture, the almond extract, and finally the flour mixture, incorporating it just until well mixed. Pour the cooled butter over the batter and then quickly fold it in, followed by the carrots.

Scrape the batter into the prepared pan, smooth the top, and put the cake in the center of the oven. Lower the heat to 350°F and bake the cake until it is springy to the touch in the center, lightly browned, and beginning to pull away from the pan sides, 40 to 45 minutes. Let cool completely in its pan, then release the spring and slide the cake onto a platter.

To make the ricotta cream, work together the ricotta, sour cream, honey, and zest by hand or with a mixer until smooth. Taste and add more of any of the ingredients, if needed. The cream will thin out as it sits, forming a nice sauce for the cake.

Just before serving, dust the cake with the confectioners’ sugar. Serve the sauce alongside.

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