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The Greens Cookbook

(article, Caroline Cummins)

Deborah Madison's first cookbook, The Greens Cookbook grew out of the seminal vegetarian restaurant she helped found in San Francisco in 1979. Meatless eating, the thinking at Greens went, didn't have to be boring, or sodden, or depressingly virtuous; it could be delicious, light, and elegant. The cooking at Greens was (and is) based on the Franco-Californian fusion of the late 1970s, when Bay Area cooks began unleashing traditional French techniques on local produce. The Greens Cookbook is like Escoffier for the veggie set.

Since its original publication in 1987, this delicately designed book has pushed its many readers into two camps: the worshippers and the scoffers. Perfect, some say; this is the comprehensive book for a fully vegetarian way of cooking. Hair-tearing, say others; this is the fool's guide to spending way too many hours in the kitchen. They're both right, of course. 

If you have the time, space, money, and skills to turn your home kitchen into a mini-version of Greens, this is the book to show you how. If you just want to throw together a quick salad, the book may seem deceptively simple. The solution? Read it through, absorb the guiding philosophies, and then decide how puritanical you want to be about following its dictates.

Madison and her co-author, Edward Espe Brown, start out their "Soups and Stocks" chapter by explaining their concept of stocks. A stock, they write, shouldn't be just flavored water, but water flavored to match whatever dish it's going to enhance: "Parsnip parings, cilantro, and ginger might be the basis of a stock for the Parsnip Soup with Curry Spices. The tough ends of asparagus, simmered in water, would help accentuate the flavor of Asparagus Soup." 


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They go on to explain how easy this can be (simmer a few extra or leftover items from your soup ingredients while you're getting the soup ready), but they make little of the fundamental shift in thinking that their attitude requires: Think about your entire dish, not just the random ingredients themselves. This shift is what makes The Greens Cookbook both rewarding and frustrating.

So make the special stock and then the soup that utilizes it. Or save time and effort by making the soup with a bit of commercial stock. Or make the salad but skimp on the garnish. Maybe your efforts will replicate the Greens experience; maybe not. Either way, the results will taste good. And you won't think about vegetables, or cooking, or even wine (the book includes a wine-and-vegetables pairing section) in quite the same way again.

p(bio). Caroline Cummins is the managing editor of Culinate.

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