Vegetarian Trailblazer: Chef Deborah Madison

Cookbook author and fresh-foods pioneer talks about pairing wine with vegetarian food, plus shares her tasty stuffed pepper recipe
Nov 10, 2009

Deborah Madison, 64, is an icon in the movement for fresh, locally grown produce, and a pioneer in bringing vegetarian cuisine to the sophisticated table. Madison grew up in a walnut orchard in Davis, Calif., where her father was a professor of botany at the University of California. After graduating from Davis herself, Madison moved to the San Francisco Zen Center, where she remained a student for 18 years, working her way up through the kitchen. In 1979, she became founding chef at Greens Restaurant, which was one of the Zen Center's first ventures into the commercial world. Since that time, Madison has authored 11 books, including The Greens Cookbook, The Savory Way, Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, Local Flavors: Cooking and Eating from America's Farmers' Markets, and her latest, co-authored with her husband, artist Patrick McFarlin, What We Eat When We Eat Alone: Stories and 100 Recipes.

Wine Spectator: When did you first become interested in wine?
Deborah Madison: We always had wine in our house growing up, probably not terribly good wine, but it was always on the table, as was olive oil. I went from college to being a Zen student, so I didn't nose around wine for a long time. I lived in the Zen monastery, and wine drinking wasn't really compatible with the monastic way of life. When I started working at Chez Panisse in 1977, customers would often send one amazing wine or another to the kitchen for a taste, so I got to taste great wines. I had no idea that wine, or food for that matter, could be so extraordinary.

WS: Can you speak about your culinary training and style?
DM: My only real experience, outside of being a self-taught cook, was my year and a half in the kitchen at Chez Panisse. As a young person, I already had a collection of cookbooks. When I moved into the San Francisco Zen Center in 1969, I volunteered to cook because I thought it would be interesting. We were vegetarians and those were the hippie days. People were trying to look at more wholesome foods than what our parents were eating. It was the era of TV dinners and packaged foods, which actually seems fairly innocent compared to what we have now. But we had these cupboards full of rye berries and oat groats, and people didn't really know what to do with them. The food model for vegetarian dishes was not very sophisticated. We wanted to cook wholesome food, but we also wanted it to be good.

WS: So how did you learn to make wholesome food taste good and appeal to sophisticated palates?
DM: I went to dinner at Chez Panisse. Alice [Waters] invited me to dinner. It was so extraordinary and so exactly what I thought food should be, that I decided I just had to be there. I went to work in the kitchen, so I'd finish morning meditation at the Zen Center and then take the bus to Berkeley. At the time, unbeknownst to me, the powers that be at the Zen Center were discussing the idea of opening an upscale vegetarian restaurant. So I was being trained, without realizing it, in the kitchen at Chez Panisse. When we opened Greens, there wasn't much of a model for a high-end fancy vegetarian restaurant. I was definitely thrown into the deep end of the pool, riding the first seat on the roller coaster. When we opened Greens, it was always "What if we did this? Or rolled that up and did this?" It was highly experimental, and breathtaking. Bit by bit, we built a base for a vegetarian cuisine.

WS: What about wine at Greens?
DM: We had a wine-tasting panel, but I didn't get involved with that because I was overwhelmed in the kitchen. Ed Brown, who was washing dishes in the kitchen, was on the wine-tasting panel, and making wine suggestions. He wrote the wine notes for The Greens Cookbook. Dick Graff [founder of Chalone Vineyards] was a friend of the Zen Center, and he'd bring in wines and we'd try them.

WS: Can you talk about pairing wines with vegetarian food?
DM: Vegetables can be difficult because so many of them have a lot of sugars in them, especially those summery vegetables, so I generally wouldn't pair wines with much sweetness to them. Certain wines seem to come up a lot for me. I love serving Oregon Pinots, but I shy away from the bigger, bolder ones. I love the flavors of Puglia, so I love serving Zinfandels with those southern Italian flavors. I love rosés and rosatos, especially with summer foods. I find I don't serve a lot of Cabernet Sauvignon with vegetarian foods, as I think they're generally too big. Sauvignon Blancs are great because they have that lovely fruity, aromatic quality without being sweet. And I love sparkling wines with vegetarian foods, like a fried egg sandwich with a glass of sparkling wine. New Mexico makes a great sparkling wine, Gruet, that's always in our fridge. A few more pairings I like are Arneis with asparagus and mushrooms, or lemony risotto croquets, and Chardonnay with a fresh corn omelet.

WS: Do you have a favorite or particularly memorable pairing?
DM: One night I made a porcini mushroom tart and I brought it over to my neighbor's house, and he was just opening a Bandol rosé. It was a perfect summer evening pairing.

WS: Do you have a take on the issues of health and wine?
DM: I think we get so wrapped up in the technical stuff. I get very impatient with the health and diet thing. If you enjoy it, drink it. Wine is a lovely, complex, interesting beverage. It opens doors in your mind, so why not drink it? We never talk about pleasure as being good for your health, but I think it's very important.

WS: What role does wine play in your new book?
DM: In particular, I remember the interesting spectrum of responses I got from women [while gathering material]. Things like, "I don't have wine if I'm alone," or "I always open a good bottle of wine when my husband is gone." One half-French woman said, "I have a glass of wine or an aperitif while I'm getting dinner together, whether I'm alone or with my husband." People were all over the map. Someone said, "I love a glass of wine and Seinfeld."

Yellow Peppers Stuffed with Quinoa, Corn and Feta

Recipe adapted from Vegetarian Suppers from Deborah Madison's Kitchen (Broadway Books, 2005)

Sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
1 cup quinoa, rinsed well several times
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 bunch of scallions, including 2 inches of the greens, thinly sliced into rounds
2 jalapeño chiles, finely diced, seeded if desired
1 garlic clove, peeled and finely chopped
1 teaspoon ground cumin
2 cups, more or less, fresh or frozen corn kernels (from 3 ears corn)
1 bunch of spinach, leaves only, or 1/2 pound spinach leaves
1/2 cup chopped cilantro
1/4 pound feta cheese, cut into small cubes
2 large red onions, peeled and thinly sliced into rounds
1/2 cup Riesling or other aromatic white wine
4 yellow and/or orange bell peppers

1. Bring 2 cups of water to a boil. Add 1/2 teaspoon salt, then the quinoa. Give it a stir, then cover and simmer over low heat until the grains are tender and reveal their spiraled germ, about 15 minutes.

2. Warm half the oil in a wide skillet. Add the scallions and chiles, cook over medium heat for about 2 minutes, then add the garlic, cumin, corn and spinach, along with 2 tablespoons water. When the spinach is wilted, add the cilantro, quinoa and feta. Toss everything together, taste for salt, and season with pepper.

3. Heat a tablespoon of oil over medium heat in a wide skillet. When hot, add the onions and sauté, stirring frequently, until they start to brown around the edges, after several minutes. Pour in the wine and deglaze the pan, giving the onions a stir as you do so. Season with salt and pepper and distribute in a baking dish (or two) large enough to hold the peppers.

4. Slice the peppers in half lengthwise without removing the tops or stems, then cut out the membranes and seeds. Simmer them in salted water until tender to the touch of a knife but not overly soft, 4 to 5 minutes, and remove. Fill them with the quinoa mixture and set them in the baking dish(es).

5. Preheat the oven to 400° F. Drizzle the rest of the oil over the peppers and bake the peppers until heated through, 20 to 30 minutes, then switch the heat to broil and brown the tops. Serve hot, warm or at room temperature. Serves 4.

Cooking Pairings People

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