This cookbook is one of our all-time favorites. In fact, it’s on the list of 13 Healthyish Cookbooks That Changed the Way We Eat.
I purchased my copy of Deborah Madison’s Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone in 1999, which I know for a fact because my Amazon order history goes back that far. I was recently married and had just moved into the house in Brooklyn where we still live. I had been a line cook for about a year and was already in the habit of reading cookbooks in bed. I bought Authentic Mexican by Rick Bayless around then, and have very distinct memories of making posole, margaritas, and horchata for the first time, in the kitchen that was very new to me then and has since occupied thousands of hours of my time and efforts. (I got The French Laundry Cookbook, too. The photos were amazing, but even then, I knew the recipes were ridiculous and pointless to attempt at home.)
I still turn to Bayless when I want to cook from his canon, and I have held onto French Laundry for sentimental reasons, but Vegetarian Cooking is in another league. It’s the one I keep on a bookshelf within arm’s reach of my office desk at work—if I need information on a green or grain, chile, or variety of corn, I pull it down. This happens more than you might think. There are cooking habits I adopted instantly and still preach as gospel today because I was sure everything Madison put in her 742-page tome was The Truth: Remove the rubber bands around bunches of asparagus before storing them so that the stalks don’t get slimy and bruised. Cook quinoa in an excess of salted boiling water, then drain it (I had never even heard of quinoa, let alone cooked it). Delicious salads can be made entirely of herbs, dressed with a little lemon juice.
Her book taught me big important things and little crucial things, like how and why to shop at farmers’ markets, that produce could occupy the center of any plate, to soak grains before cooking them, and to be on the lookout for all the different types of eggplant varieties, and that the very fresh ones didn’t even need to be salted. By including so many variations on every dish along with sidebars on flavor pairings, she taught me that finding substitutions for ingredients I didn’t have on hand was the sign of a confident, resourceful cook and not a cop-out.
Madison’s recipe instructions are succinct but thorough, detailed but never flowery; as far as I am concerned, her book is proof that plain language is the richest. Despite being surrounded by lavishly designed and beautifully photographed cookbooks these days, I’ve never once wished hers had more pictures. I’ve used Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone as reference and reassurance, and bandied it about as proof to my younger colleagues that when it comes to information, books are way better than the goddamned internet. (I like to do this while hollering and carrying on, because I have an old lady rep to protect.)
Madison issued an update to this book in 2014 (pictured above), and I was excited about it. But I didn’t buy it. Instead, I showed off the sun-bleached spine on my personal copy, the sauce splatters on page 189 (Peanut Dressing with Thai Basil), and the dog-eared corner of page 703 (Polenta Pound Cake). I’m satisfied with the idea that good information doesn’t get old, and that most health trends can be traced back to advice that Madison and other experts have been handing out for a long time. I absorb a lot of “content” on a daily basis, and I truthfully won’t remember half of it next week. It’s been 18 years since I placed that Amazon order, and it’s the weighty stuff that holds up. I’m still married, and I still love cooking in my kitchen, and this book is still a treasure trove. It’s squash season, after all, and baked kabocha (page 439) with chile butter (page 52) sounds like my kind of dinner.
Buy the original Vegetarian Cooking For Everyone or the updated classic.