Review: Vegetarian Suppers from Deborah Madison’s Kitchen, by Deborah Madison, of course

Now that you’ve all recovered from yesterday’s shocking revelations, I thought I’d write about another much-loved book, which I happened to cook from last night (the mushroom, burghul and nut burgers, if you are interested, and very nice they are, too).

This is one of those books that I’ll forget about for a while, and then pull off the shelf and cook from for three weeks straight.  It has that happy combination of nice, easy, recipes like garlicky beans and braised greens on sourdough toast (which turns out to be far more of a comfort food than I had ever imagined possible) or potato skillet pie, and more elaborate ones like beetroot ragout with goats cheese soufflé (which I love for showing me how to make soufflé) or festiva rice pilaf (full of spices, nuts, dried berries and colourful vegetables) which take half the evening to make, but are entirely worth it.  Reading it, I realise I’m about to enter one of those ‘cook everything from this book’ phases, because I keep turning to page after page and going, “cooked that, cooked that, haven’t cooked that, why haven’t I cooked that?” in a manner suggestive of future meal planning.

The book starts with ‘a dozen ideas for making supper good, enjoyable and altogether possible’, a section which lays out Madison’s food and cooking philosophy – one which looks very similar to mine, though with less emphasis on the need to feed everyone in the world.  She likes organic, local and seasonal food but isn’t dictatorial about it, she’s big on useful leftovers and not going to huge amounts of effort every evening, and also on making food look appetising and beautiful.  She’s also of the opinion that cooking is fun, we should do it more often because it’s also quite easy and you end up with food you like at the end.  And for goodness’ sake, don’t be pedantic about measurements.

I can live with that.

Also, she suggests likely accompaniments – bread, rice, braised lentils, appropriate choices of wines, sometimes even ideas for soups or desserts.  But I find that the majority of these recipes are just fine as a main meal requiring nothing else.

Her first chapter is one of savory pies and gratins, and I keep being surprised by how few of these I’ve tried.  Her Feta and Ricotta skillet pie was quite lovely with a big tomato salad in summer, though my favourite so far is probably her potato and summer vegetable stovetop ‘pie’, which simply layers sliced and briefly sautéed potatoes in a pan with garlic, basil, mint, onion, zucchini, capsicums and tomatoes, and then lets it cook gently until everything is done.  She includes three eggplant and tomato gratins – one vegan, one with saffron custard and one with mozzarella.  I’ve not tried the saffron one yet, but can vouch for the others, and for the sweet potato gratin.

She then moves on to stews and braises and the aforementioned beetroot ragout with soufflé. Have I mentioned how exciting soufflé is?  It rises so spectacularly, and you get to feel like a real chef!  Other recipes include braised green vegetables with semolina gratin, porcini and mushroom ragout, and an asparagus and mushroom ragout which I really will have to try this year, once we get to the beginning of asparagus season.

I do not feel moved to comment on her pasta with vegetables section because I know so many things to do with pasta and vegetables that I don’t tend to follow recipes that much.  But her section on crêpes and fritters is heaps of fun, and her shredded root vegetable ragout with a wild rice pancake was a fabulous way to welcome autumn this year.  Oh, and I can’t go past her zucchini skillet cakes which made me so very happy and even included a vegan option.

I’m wary of tofu and tempeh, so I’ve only tried one recipe in this section, a red sweet potato curry with tofu, bok choy and shallots.  This was the first curry I ever made and the first one I ever liked, too – mushroom soy sauce is a fascinating condiment and one I need to do more with.  But there are recipes for vegan migas, tofu and mushroom sautée and seared tofu with two sauces, as well as star anise-glazed tempeh with stir-fried peppers, and actually that one almost sells me on the idea of cooking with tempeh.  Incidentally, this entire section of the book is vegan.  Other sections tend to be less so – often the main ragout is vegan, but Madison can’t resist adding a soufflé or some crepes or dumplings which aren’t.  And she does love her dairy – I think you could avoid eggs easily enough in this book, but dairy might be a bit more difficult.  Plenty of gluten-free options, however.

I’ve made the corn omelet in her eggs section, though I used smoked tofu instead of smoked mozzarella, and I have to say, this was another occasion on which I as impressed with tofu.  And of course the eggs section is where you find the lovely, lovely soufflés!

There is a hearty winter suppers section, from which I seem to have made virtually everything, and a section on light meals for warm nights, which includes a selection of mezze that I find particularly useful.  Basically, she suggests a whole list of basic mezze from the garden or fridge (fresh, crisp vegetables, feta or marinated capsicum or olives or baked ricotta), some leftovers that make useful mezze, two easy sauces for dips or spreads, and five fast recipes, as well as two new ones.  This makes me happy, because one of my ways of dealing with ridiculously hot weather is to make one new salad or marinated thing each day and bring out things from the fridge or garden to supplement them along with some bread, and she has a few ideas I hadn’t thought of, and a few more that I just like.  There’s also just something about the names of the recipes in this section that makes me feel content – they all seem to imply warm evenings which are not too hot but which you can enjoy while sitting out on the porch, nibbling at whatever you’ve just cooked.  Nice.  And I really need to clean and tidy my porch area.

My favourite section is probably the last one, Supper Sandwiches, which is variations on a theme of veggies on toast, with cheese.  What’s not to like?  They are fast, comforting, easy and healthy, whether they are asparagus and leeks on toast, roasted portobello sandwiches or the aforementioned garlicky beans and greens.

Two things stand out for me from this book.  The first is that it makes everyday vegetarian cooking seem viable and possible.  There’s enough variety in there that it accounts for tired nights and rushed nights but also nights when you have people around who you want to impress.  The second thing I really like is the flavours, most of which you can smell from the page (no, I haven’t been dropping things all over this cookbook, but some lists of ingredients are very evocative, I find).  Some are ones which are very familiar to me.  More are semi-familiar but just push things in a direction that I wouldn’t necessarily have thought of.  And some are quite different to my normal style of cooking but still work.

Actually, there’s a third thing that stands out for me from this book, and that’s that every single recipe I’ve tried from it has worked and has been really, really delicious.  Madison has a real talent, I think, for creating and enhancing flavour and for using ingredients as they want to be used.

And now I want veggies on toast for supper after choir, which is sad, because I’ve sent Andrew off on a mission to get veggies to go with our homemade pasta and peperonata pesto.  Life is hard…

You can buy Vegetarian Suppers from Deborah Madison’s Kitchen from The Book Depository or from Amazon.

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