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Between the Rows: "Vegetable literacy"

LDeborah Madison is well known as a chef and queen of vegetables. In “Vegetable Literacy” (Ten Speed Press $40), her new cookbook, I learned she had never been much of a gardener until her mid-thirties. I have always said that a walk down the garden path is a walk into the fields of history, literature, myth and science. In the beautifully illustrated “Vegetable Literacy,” Madison takes us along on her journey from the kitchen into the vegetable garden, the study of botany and back into the kitchen.

While Madison tells us about her understanding of plant families she explains that if we look as vegetables in a single plant family, we can see how they can be substituted for each other. She also shows us that parts of a vegetable we don’t ordinarily eat are edible and can be used as part of a dish. Her book is organized around 12 families beginning with the carrot family, which is huge. It is composed of a host of Umbelliferae like angelica, anise, asafetida, caraway, carrots, celery, celery root, chervil, cilantro and coriander, cumin, dill, hennel, hemlock, lovage, osha, parsley, parsley root, parsnips, Queen Anne’s Lace.

Several of these vegetables or herbs are biennials, which means they don’t flower and produce seed until their second year. That’s why we may not see a carrot flower and realize how similar it is to Queen Anne’s Lace, sometimes called the wild carrot. If you pull up the root of a Queen Anne’s flower, you will notice that it smells very carroty. She points out that every herb in this family goes well with carrots and that the carrot’s feathery foliage is edible, adding a bit of color and flavor and even extra vitamins.

For each plant family, Madison gives advice about using the whole plant, good companions and some kitchen wisdom.

Other chapters in the book include the cabbage family, the cucurbit family and the grass (grains) family. Once considered poisonous, tomatoes belong to the poisonous nightshade family. This family includes the herb belladonna or deadly nightshade, the beautiful poisonous datura flower, along with potatoes, eggplants and peppers. We all know the stories about how tomatoes were feared for a long time because it was clear they were in the nightshade family and therefore might kill you if you ate them.

Needless to say, the nightshade family is a large one with a long history and many popular dishes in the kitchen. Potatoes are such a basic staple that we talk about a “meat and potatoes” diet to describe a basic and comforting diet. There are so many types of potatoes that, nowadays, farmers markets offer an array of exotic potatoes, from old favorites for mashing to small fingerlings or purple potatoes.

At this time of the year, peppers and tomatoes are abundant. I was attracted by Madison’s recipe for Torpedo Onion and Sweet Pepper Tian. Torpedo onions are a sweet, non-storage onion with a red skin and elongated shape. I did not have any of those so I substituted my own newly harvested red onions. I had my own garlic and ripe tomatoes and farmers market red peppers. I thought it delicious and my guests seemed pleased. But, if I were to do it again, I would serve it on pasta, not polenta.

While the Solanaceae (nightshade) family is large, the edible morning glory family is very small. Only the sweet potato is edible. You can even eat the foliage, which is not true of any of the other potato varieties. In fact, sweet potato foliage is rich in vitamins A, C and B. We all know that the orange fleshed varieties of sweet potato are an excellent source of beta-carotene as well.

Because the dish was so pretty, as well as delicious, I include the recipe here. Enjoy the book and the recipe. I enjoyed the new ways of looking at the connections between the vegetables in my garden.

Torpedo Onion and Sweet Pepper Tian

11∕2 lb small torpedo onions

2 red bell peppers

1 yellow bell pepper

2 medium ripe tomatoes

olive oil as needed

5-6 thyme sprigs

6 cloves garlic peeled and halved

salt and freshly ground pepper

Aged sherry, red wine, or balsamic vinegar, a teasoon or more as needed.

Preheat oven to 325 degrees.

Quarter the onions. Halve the peppers crosswise and lengthwise, remove seeds and veins and cut into pieces about a half-inch wide. Cut tomatoes into sixths.

Oil an 8x10 gratin dish. Scatter thyme, add vegetables in an attractive easy way. It may look like a lot but they will cook down. Drizzel well with olive oil.

Cover and bake for 90 minutes. The vegetables should be soft. Carefully pour out collected liquid into a small pan. Add a teaspoon of vinegar. Bring to a boil and reduce until syrupy. Pour over vegetables. Serve warm or at room temperature over polenta, pasta or grilled bread.

Readers can leave comments at Pat Leuchtman’s Web site: www.commonweeder.com. Leuchtman has been writing and gardening in Heath at End of the Road Farm since 1980.

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