Coming up with new ways to make vegetables the main course wasn’t always easy for Deborah Madison. | Charles Amundson/Shutterstock
In an excerpt from “An Onion in My Pocket,” chef Deborah Madison creates a four-course vegetarian menu at a time when vegetarian fine dining was still a foreign concept to many
Deborah Madison is the author of nearly a dozen books on vegetarian cooking. Although not a vegetarian herself, since the publication of her first book in 1987, The Greens Cookbook, Madison has had significant influence on the way Americans eat and cook with vegetables.
In her new memoir, An Onion in My Pocket, Madison traces her path to the forefront of the vegetarian movement of the ’80s and ’90s. That path includes growing up San Francisco’s counterculture and decades spent as an ordained Buddhist priest, but perhaps the first clear indication that vegetables would play a major role in Madison’s career trajectory came when Madison took on the job as chef at Greens Restaurant. The vegetarian restaurant opened in 1979 as a part of the San Francisco Zen Center. There, Madison was tasked with creating a vegetarian fine-dining menu that would appeal to even non-vegetarians at a time when the nut loaf was considered by some to be the pinnacle of vegetarian cuisine. In this excerpt from An Onion in My Pocket, Madison explains how she made it work. — Monica Burton
Dinner was the meal that transformed Greens from a noisy, busy lunch place to a more tranquil restaurant. Tablecloths were laid out. Chunks of Swedish crystal held candles, and the dining room atmosphere turned quietly festive, a place where diners could take time with their meals while enjoying the unfolding evening sky and the eventual end of the day.
This is where I immediately took up the Chez Panisse style of offering a set menu rather than an à la carte approach. Now Greens offers a limited choice dinner menu, which I imagine makes it much easier to accommodate today’s more choosy eaters. But then we really didn’t have requests to cater to the special preferences of vegans and others. I’m not sure that there were vegans then. But that’s not what influenced my decision to go for a set menu. I simply felt it would work well for us because it would help introduce the concept of a somewhat formal four-course vegetarian dinner, which was still a foreign notion to a great many people.
How do you put together a menu for a meal that is meant to go on for a while, without the anchor of meat? This was the question I faced every weekend and how to answer it was a challenge for me, for us. I imagined it might be even more baffling for our customers, to have things all twisted about, to have what were usually appetizers suddenly become main courses. Some form of crepe? A vegetable ragout with polenta? Today this is hardly as problematic as it was then. Good vegetarian food — and Greens itself — has been around long enough that the meatless menu is not as mysterious as it once was. But in 1980 such possibilities were new, and people were unaccustomed to the idea of eating this way, without meat at the center of the plate.
There was another reason for the set menu. By being able to concentrate on a single menu and a particular progression of dishes, rather than having to produce a whole range of foods, I was hoping that we might be able to undertake somewhat more challenging fare, which we did. And having an ever-changing dinner menu was a way to accommodate all the new ideas that I had been putting in my notebooks, but it made for some dicey afternoons and evenings.
Most of the dishes we made none of us had ever cooked before, or even tasted before. We put our heads together and tried to figure them out before we started cooking. Of course getting that food from an idea to the table was a group effort. I could never have done any of it without the amazing staff I had. Jane Hirshfield, the poet, was then working with me. She was the most faithful and trusting right (and left) hand one could have. I’d ask Jane to make something I had only a vague idea about, and she would pleasantly say, “Okay,” and charge ahead without showing any worry or fear. I think she actually believed that things would work, and her assumption gave me the belief, or at least the hope, that they would, too. I wonder if she would have been so accepting had she known how thin the ice beneath us actually was.
Usually our untried dishes worked. But I held my breath a lot, hoped a lot, and I was continually anxious and always vaguely amazed when people let us know how much they liked the food. The best moment was when a guest would come into the kitchen and tell us, “The food was so good that we completely forgot there wasn’t any meat.” That was the highest compliment.
I’d never forgotten the good bread and butter that started the first meal I ate at Chez Panisse in 1977. Why not begin a meal with the best promise possible, good bread? (Remember, people ate bread then.) Those giant fougasse that Alice and I had bought in France impressed me with their bold shapes, and I thought we could make smaller ones suitable for two-tops or four-tops and just put them, still warm from the oven as they invariably were, right on the tables for people to break apart. A few slashes of the knife followed by a series of tugs, and an oval slab of rustic dough flavored with olive oil assumed the shape of a ladder or a tree. Sea salt and rosemary or sage were rolled into the surfaces and when the breads came out of the oven, they were brushed with olive oil. Their crusty perforations invited customers to pull off a rung or break off a branch. The crumbs scattering over the tablecloths said, “Relax and enjoy yourself; you don’t have to worry about keeping that tablecloth pristine.”
While we always had the bread, another thing I liked to do was present a table with roasted, salted almonds twisted into a package of parchment paper. This was an idea I gleaned from a few sentences in Elizabeth David’s book Spices, Salts and Aromatics in the English Kitchen, about a Somalian cook she had in Egypt, who twisted roasted almonds in paper to stave off nibblers. We could have put the almonds in a dish, but there was something about the rustle of that paper parcel being opened that warmed up the big dining room, especially early in the evening, before it filled. And of course, everybody likes a present, even roasted almonds.
First courses and soups weren’t a problem; we were pretty competent there. Salads made with the beautiful lettuce and herbs from Green Gulch were something we could count on to please. And from my time with Lindsey Shere at Chez Panisse, I was confident about making desserts to fill out the offerings from the Tassajara Bread Bakery. It was what to put in the center of the plate that I had to wrap my head around.
As I mentioned, our customers were not necessarily vegetarians. People came to Greens for the view, its growing reputation, maybe curiosity about what vegetarian food was like, but not because they were true believers. A lot of women came to lunch, then when we opened for dinner, they dragged along their husbands, who were probably looking forward to a steak, not to a meatless meal, on Friday or Saturday night. We had a good wine list, but I imagined the husbands would prefer to pair a Chalone pinot noir with a piece of beef over whatever we could offer. I tried to imagine some tired man dully anticipating a plate with a big hole in the middle where the meat would have been, should have been. He was the customer I worried about, and I thought constantly about what might fill that hole in the center of the plate. This was my big concern, what I lay awake thinking about.
I knew that it had to be something that caught the eye and proclaimed without wavering, “Here I am! I’m what’s for dinner! No need to look elsewhere!”
Of course, the “it” dish also had to be sufficiently familiar that the diner felt at ease. But it also had to have physical stature. It couldn’t be some shapeless thing like a plate of pasta or a stir fry or a vegetable ragout. It had to have substance and form, be something you could point to, look at, focus on. As one gets used to not eating meat, this problem pretty much tapers off and finally goes away, invariably returning on special occasions when, once again, the answer to “What’s for dinner?” has to be more than the name of a vegetable.
The most difficult kind of dish to present, and this was generally true whether there was meat present or not, was a stew, or ragout, which was too bad because these were dishes that I felt I had something of a gift for. Sadly, lunch favorites, like the Zuni Stew or Corn, Bean, and Pumpkin Stew, never made the dinner cut, and a dal, as appealingly as it can be made and garnished, didn’t either. Not then, anyway. A mushroom ragout, I found, did work, though, if it were paired with something that had a clear shape, like triangles of grilled polenta, a square of puff pastry, or a timbale of risotto. But the stew also had to have a very good and well-crafted sauce, and wild mushrooms helped enough that they became almost mandatory.
Years later, after having left Greens, I was visiting Calgary’s Blackfoot Farmers’ Market, researching my book Local Flavors. That chilly fall evening I ate at the River Café, a rustic building that sits on an island in the middle of a river. There the chef presented me with a vegetarian stew, which worked perfectly in her fine-dining restaurant although I think she made only the one serving since it wasn’t on the menu. The stew was based on winter root vegetables, but this handsome dish also contained black lentils and a potato puree and it was all circled with a rich, deeply flavored red wine sauce. The flavors were harmonious and complex. There were different textures to go to so that the dish was interesting to eat. It was also gorgeous to look at and extremely satisfying in every way. It was a perfect vegetarian entree. In fact, I was so impressed that I came up with my own version of it in Local Flavors. That was the kind of stew that worked at Greens, but you can see how many elements have to be there for it to really grab the diner.
Mostly I looked for dishes that could be folded, stacked, layered, or otherwise given shape. Tart-based and crepe-based dishes were shoo-ins when it came to form and they still are. Crust always helps provide definition and many things can fill a tart shell besides the classic quiche filling that had introduced the idea of a savory pie in the first place. Some possibilities were chard and saffron; roasted eggplant and tomato; artichokes, mushrooms, leeks with lemon, and goat cheese (new then); winter squash with Roquefort; goat cheese thinned with cream and seasoned with fresh thyme. A tart made into a single serving with the help of special small tart pans really stood out. It was far more special than a wedge, even if everything else about it was the same.
Crepes had the dual advantage of being familiar and being endlessly versatile. Personally, I don’t think crepes ever really lose their appeal; I still make them and people always like them. Plus there are a great many things you can do with crepes. At Greens we made them using different flours — wheat, corn, buckwheat, masa harina — and filled them with an assortment of good things, then folded, rolled, or stacked them. Today I season a crepe batter with saffron and herbs and serve it in place of bread. I also use quinoa, spelt, and other flours that have since entered the culture in the batter. The Many-Layered Crepe Cake, inspired by a Marcella Hazan recipe, not only was one of the most delicious entrees we served, but, when cut, its eight exposed layers told the diner that a lot of care had gone into her entree, and surely that counted for something.
Timbales — those vegetable and herb-saturated custards paired with sauces — also made good entrees with their solid yet tender textures and attractive shapes. The basic idea came from Julia Child’s Art of French Cooking, but we expanded on it, changing the size and shapes of our timbales so that they could transcend their original role as a small garnish to a meat dish and assume their position as a main course. Roulades, or rolled soufflés, were light and pretty to serve with their spiraled interiors showing the layers of filling. Being egg based they went especially well with spinach, chard, sorrel, and mushrooms, or sauces based on these vegetables, such as the sorrel-mushroom sauce in The Greens Cookbook. Filo pastries assumed the form of spanakopita but not the flavor as the fillings changed to include vegetables other than spinach (such as artichokes), plus nuts (like hazelnuts), and cheeses other than feta.
We were careful about serving pasta as a main dish. A main dish had to have some volume so that it lasted for a while, but a large portion of pasta could become tiresome to eat — and it could chill down before it was finished if people were eating slowly, as they generally were when enjoying dinner and conversation in a restaurant. Yet there were many intriguing pasta recipes to explore, especially filled or layered ones. If we did serve pasta as a main course, we made our own dough, formed it into crescent-shaped agnolotti, and filled them with things such as herb-flecked ricotta, butternut squash with toasted pecans and sage — not common then — or a mixture of roasted eggplant and pine nuts. We might feature wild mushrooms in a lasagna. Simpler pasta dishes appeared as smaller first courses, where they could be eaten more quickly, without being too filling.
Cheese and Nut Loaf was the kind of seventies vegetarian dish that I dreaded meeting up with. I didn’t see any need to offer meat substitutes when vegetables could be so stellar on their own, but when a senior student brought in a recipe that her sister had sent her with the promise that this was a truly fantastic dish, I felt obligated to try it. We did and unfortunately people loved it. There was no big mystery as to why they liked it so much, despite the funky name. Nut Loaf was insanely rich with roasted cashew nuts, pecans, a miscellany of grated cheeses, cottage cheese, eggs, mushrooms, and finally, a little bit of brown rice to give all this fat something to cling to. It was dense, chewy, and good in an obvious sort of way, the way sausage, bacon, and meatloaf are good. Once we put it on the menu as a lunch special it was hard to get rid of. We served it just like meatloaf with tangy tomato sauce; turned it into a meatloaf sandwich, grilling it first over mesquite; and we used it to stuff peppers and cabbage. It made a few appearances on the dinner menu but I always found it embarrassing to serve. Still, people loved it.
In general, the dishes that had the best possibilities of succeeding were those usually served as first or second courses, or as (amplified) garnishes to the main dish in more classic cuisines. If I just shifted everything a notch and eliminated the meaty center, I could usually solve my main dish problem. Even a vegetable gratin worked if I made it in an individual dish and slid it onto a bed of wilted greens or perhaps a salad that benefited from being wilted by the heat.
At that time I had a tendency to cook richly, using plenty of butter, eggs, and cream when it made sense. I was unsure about bringing vegetarian food into a mainstream venue, and I knew that we could always make something good when we relied on cream or buttery crusts, and that customers would like them. Fat was easy to fall back on in this way. Also this was 1979 and the early 1980s, an era of cream, butter, and cheese — not just at Greens, but in restaurants everywhere. Our dinners were rich, celebratory splurges, not substitutes for home cooking. I can’t tell you how many people have told me they were proposed to at Greens, or got married there.
Think of this: When we first opened we had only one vegan customer, whom we nicknamed “Non-Dairy Jerry.” Jerry made a big deal about not having cheese in his meal and as he was the only one, we could easily accommodate his wishes. We could even give him a name. Today I suspect there are plenty of vegan, gluten-free, raw, grain-free, and other special eaters. But it is also true that now people find lighter dishes as appealing as the rich dishes that we offered then, even far more so than when we first got started and vegetarian food was pretty much a novelty and eating out was special, not just a way to find sustenance.
Excerpted from AN ONION IN MY POCKET: My Life with Vegetables by Deborah Madison. Copyright © 2020 by Deborah Madison. Excerpted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.