La Cocina Que Canta

One of my favorite food writing jobs was contributing to Rancho La Puerta’s blog and app. Every month, I would go down to their cooking school, La Cocina Que Canta, and participate in a hands-on class taught by a renowned cooking teacher, restaurateur, or cookbook author. One month it was Deborah Madison and it was memorable. For one thing, it was pouring rain, so the usual routine of participants first going to the magnificent garden just outside of the cooking school and picking the produce before returning to cook had to be scratched. But that was okay because the plan for that day was to make soup.

The kitchen

So, 15 of us sat around a long table and Madison led us through what you could call the soup-making journey—10 basic steps that most soups require, a concept she developed for her book Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, a book she’s just updated and reissued. See, while recipes are wonderful, being liberated from them to make delicious soups through inspiration and basic knowledge is something any cook or chef aspires to. Of course, we had seven of her recipes on hand to guide us in the kitchen that rainy day—from Red Lentil Soup with Lime and Spinach to Quinoa, Potato and Spinach Soup with Feta Cheese (recipe below).

New Vegetarian Cookbook

Not familiar with Madison? You should be. A chef, writer, and clearly talented cooking teacher, she was among the first contemporary chefs to develop the farm-to-table menu style now so popular among restaurants across the country. With Greens restaurant in San Francisco, where she was the founding chef in 1979, Madison established a career that has led to more than a dozen cookbooks (which have earned awards from IACP and the James Beard Foundation among others) and writing assignments from Saveur, Cooking Light, Gourmet, Food & Wine, Fine Cooking, and Garden Design.

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While she admitted she doesn’t spend time thinking about the connection between words and food, Madison believes that food is bigger than a recipe and has everything to do with what we are. For her food is a lens through which anyone can view his or her life.

“It has nothing to do with being interested in food, or a good cook, or a lousy one, or a foodie or any of that,” she told me that day. “It has to do with everything we are, starting with nurture or the lack thereof.”

Given her enthusiasm for the bounty of the garden and farm, it makes sense that Madison’s starting point is the contemplative space of her home garden in New Mexico, and the community scene of the local farmers market. In fact, Madison spent time as a market manager and is a big fan of the Santa Fe Farmers Market. “It’s about running into friends, some of whom are the farmers, exchanging greetings and news, maybe sharing a recipe idea for some new squash or other produce, sometimes planning an impromptu dinner.”

One of her books, Local Flavors, gives advice on how to shop at a farmers market, but she also offered some tips for those just venturing away from the grocery store and into the open air:

  • First of all, shopping at a farmers market for the first time is an adventure, and adventures are good for us to have, so go with an open mind and don’t worry.
  • Always make a pass through the market and take a look at what’s there, the prices, the quality, what appeals to you, before you buy. That way you get the lay of the land. As you shop more and more at a market, you may find you have favorite vendors that you always return to—I know I do —but even so, I like to take a look around first just to see what’s there.
  • Do accept tastes and ask questions about foods that may be unfamiliar.  And just because you took a taste of something, it doesn’t mean you have to buy. You’re sampling and informing yourself.
  • If you feel very unsure about what the food you see at the farmers market, for you might well see different varieties than what’s in the supermarket, start with those vegetables and fruits that are familiar, that you already use—carrots, onions, garlic, apples, strawberries. Then maybe choose one food that’s new to you—a white eggplant, a different variety of cabbage, an exotic fruit.

Once you have that produce back home—and maybe it’s a soup kind of day like ours was—Madison has suggestions that include making your own quick vegetable stock from the trimmings you would ordinarily immediately toss into the compost pile, tasting the soup not just for more salt but perhaps acid to create balance (it turns out a little lemon juice can go a long way to creating that “aha” flavor moment), and to just make plenty.

“Soup generally gets better as it sits,” Madison said. “It can make an instant homemade meal when you’ve got a big pot on hand, and, if you give a little thought to the garnishes and textures, you can turn one pot into many soups.”

That’s the über cooking teacher offering practical guidance. But now that we’re into cool, even cold, weather when soups become more than just a flavorful meal but, in their heartiness, are embracing and nurturing, it’s worth thinking about the connections Madison draws between food and our inner lives.

“Perhaps that’s where the magic lies,” she proposed. “Food is really about our larger, deeper lives, and we all have those, whether we’re close to our deeper selves or not.”

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Quinoa, Potato and Spinach Soup with Feta Cheese
From Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone by Deborah Madison
Serves 6

“This grain-based soup is light, delicious, pretty, fresh, and very simple to make. And with the quinoa, it’s highly nutritious. What more could one ask of a recipe?” DM

Ingredients
3/4 cup quinoa, rinsed
1 small bunch spinach, stems removed, leaves washed and chopped
8 ounces Yukon Gold or other potato, diced in 1/4-inch cubes
1 jalapeño chile, seeded and finely diced
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 teaspoon ground, toasted cumin seed
1 teaspoon salt, to taste, and freshly ground pepper
4 ounces feta cheese, finely diced in small cubes
3 scallions, thinly sliced in rounds, including a few of the greens
1/3 cup chopped cilantro
1 hard-cooked egg, diced (optional)

1. Simmer the quinoa in 7 cups water for 10 minutes. When the quinoa is done, drain it, reserving the water, which you’ll use in the soup.
2. While the quinoa is cooking, cut the vegetables and set them aside.
3. Heat the oil in a 3-quart saucepan with the garlic and chile, cook for about 30 seconds, without browning the garlic, then add the cumin, salt and potatoes. Measure the quinoa cooking liquid plus water, if needed, to make 6 cups. Add it to the vegetables, bring to a boil, then add the quinoa and simmer, partially covered, until the potatoes are tender, about 15 minutes, then turn off the heat. Taste for salt and season the soup with pepper. Add the cheese, then stir in the spinach and the scallions. As soon as the spinach is wilted, serve the soup, garnished with the cilantro and hard-cooked egg, if using.

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