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Aug 29, 2014
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By the Book: Deborah Madison’s Chard, Ricotta and Saffron Cakes

March 4th 05:03pm, 2014



Deborah Madison is one of my cookbook goddesses. When I began reading her books years ago – first The Greens Cookbook and later The Savory Way – I fell in love with her thoughts on veggie, not even realizing she was a culinary figure of national import. I was drawn toward the simplicity yet utter perfection of her recipes. And Madison’s newest (and 11th cookbook), Vegetable Literacy follows in this vein with 300 mainly meat-less recipes.

In Vegetable Literacy, Madison explores how vegetables within the same plant family can be used interchangeably in cooking. The 12 chapters include a discussion of vegetable, flower and herb relatives from such families as carrots, nightshades, cucurbits (squashes, melon and gourds) and grasses. It’s a different way of looking at edible plants, but a helpful resource for any cook, especially one who tends a vegetable plot and seeks to use that bounty to prepare tasty dishes.

Yellow Post-It notes currently mark some two dozen recipes in this cookbook that I want to try, like roasted parsnips with horseradish cream; shredded radicchio with walnut vinaigrette, hard-cooked eggs and toasted bread crumbs; and salsify, Jerusalem artichoke and burdock soup with truffle salt. But for this column, I had to choose one. Since I was cooking on a Sunday morning, brunch was on my mind, which made chard, ricotta and saffron cakes an easy choice.




Madison noted in the introduction to the recipe that spinach could be substituted for the chard. I took that route because it was easier (and less expensive) to buy 12 cups worth of spinach than chard. I saved the trimmed leaves and plan to use them in another cooking project, perhaps in meatloaf or maybe just in my next vegetable stock. And, after letting the spinach drain, I saved that flavorful, deep-green veggie water for cooking, too.




The recipe calls for a couple pinches of saffron thread, which, after soaking in boiling water, are added to the batter. Saffron is king among spices, and if you don’t stock it in your pantry, it will be the most expensive ingredient you purchase for this dish. Is it worth it? While saffron is warm, fragrant and intensely flavorful, those elements didn’t shine in these finished cakes. Tumeric is a spice that some home cooks resort to as a saffron substitute, especially to achieve a golden color, but really, I wouldn’t bother with either in this instance.




The batter is dropped by the spoonful in a hot skillet. Madison points out that you can make the cakes as small or large as you desire. Make both; there’s enough batter to cook tiny ones suitable for snacking, medium-sized ones for brunch or lunch, and larger sized ones that can be a main dish for dinner rounded out with salad or soup.




The spinach did shine in this dish, but there are some minor changes I would make: add a couple of three-finger pinches of sea salt, another quarter-cup of grated Parmesan, a few grinds of peppercorn. But that’s simply seasoning to taste, and I think Madison would be more than pleased if you took license to experiment in the kitchen.


Chard, Ricotta and Saffron Cakes
12 servings

10 to 12 cups trimmed chard leaves
2 pinches saffron threads
1 cup white, whole-wheat pastry flour
1 tsp. sea salt
1½ tsp. baking powder
1 cup ricotta cheese
1/3 cup or more grated Parmesan cheese
¾ cup milk
2 eggs
3 Tbsp. olive oil or ghee, plus extra for frying
Thick yogurt or sour cream, to finish
Micro greens or slivered basil leaves, to finish

• Wash the chard, drain and put in a pot with the water clinging to the leaves. Cover and cook over high heat until wilted. You want the chard to be tender but not overcooked, so keep an eye on it and taste it frequently. Add a few splashes of water if the pot threatens to dry out. When the chard is done, put it in a colander to cool and drain.
• Cover the saffron threads with 2 tablespoons boiling water and set aside.
• Combine the flour, salt and baking powder in a bowl. In a second, larger bowl, mix together the ricotta, Parmesan, milk and eggs until blended. Add the oil and the saffron, then whisk in the flour mixture. Returning to the chard, squeeze out as much water as possible, then chop it finely and stir it into the batter.
• Heat a few tablespoons olive oil or ghee in a skillet over medium heat. Drop the batter by the spoonful into the hot pan, making small or larger cakes as you wish. The batter is quite thick, and it will not behave like a pancake. You need to give it plenty of time in the pan to cook through. Cook until golden on the bottom, then turn the cakes once, resisting the urge to pat them down, and cook until the second side is also well colored, maybe 3 minutes per side, or longer.
• Serve each cake with a tiny spoonful of sour cream and a finish of diced beets and beet thinnings.

Reprinted with permission from 10 Speed Press

Who is your cookbook god or goddess and why? Tell us about it in the comments section below for a chance to win a copy of Vegetable Literacy. We’ll announce the winner in next week’s By the Book column.

And now, we’d like to congratulate Madeleine, whose comment on last week’s By the Book column has won a copy of Le Petit Paris: French Finger Food. Madeleine, keep an eye out for an email from the Sauce crew.



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13 Responses to “By the Book: Deborah Madison’s Chard, Ricotta and Saffron Cakes”

  1. Katie Says:
    March 4th, 2014 at 9:44 pm

    Thomas Keller is my cookbook God! Not only is his good amazingly creative and delicious, but the photos are works of art. They also take me back to our travels to his restaurants. Memories!

  2. Stephanie Says:
    March 5th, 2014 at 11:52 am

    Definitely Rick Moonen. Eating seafood that only comes from sustainable sources is really important to me, but so often recipes call for fish that are unsustainable and it can be hard to find a proper substitute. He is a huge advocate for using only sustainable seafood, so I know I can use any of his recipes without question. The recipes are easy to follow, include a wide range of preparations, and most importantly, are delicious!

  3. Martha Says:
    March 11th, 2014 at 9:20 am

    Najmieh Batmanglij. She brings traditional Persian cooking to life!

  4. Claire Mendez Says:
    March 11th, 2014 at 10:06 am

    Yotam Ottolenghi. All of his books are so beautiful and the recipes are not only delicious, but are well written and produce an end product that looks almost as awesome as the photos!

  5. Joe Says:
    March 11th, 2014 at 10:17 am

    Michael Ruhlman makes great cookbooks that address fundamentals of cooking instead of just giving straight recipes. It’s wonderful to understand why something works rather than just following instructions and replicating dishes.

  6. Bryony Says:
    March 11th, 2014 at 10:17 am

    Jamie Oliver! I tried hard to not like him – because he was everywhere, difficult to avoid and he seemed just so.. annoying— but after buying his first cookbook for a bargain price I was sold. I now have every single one of his cookbooks and I use them often. They are my go-to’s from dinner parties to potlucks. The recipes are clear, the photos gorgeous and the food delicious.

  7. Beth Parada Says:
    March 11th, 2014 at 10:39 am

    Deborah Madison is my cookbook goddess! Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone changed the way I cook, the way I eat, and the way I think about food. It’s the cookbook that finally got me to do things like cook my own beans (instead of always using canned) and make my own vegetable stock, and it helped me get comfortable with improvising with recipes.

  8. Linda Says:
    March 11th, 2014 at 10:54 am

    Mark Bittman. If I could only have one cookbook it would be How To Cook Everything Vegetarian.

  9. barb hughes Says:
    March 11th, 2014 at 11:25 am

    Lisa Lillien I.e., Hungry Girl because I’m on Weight Watchers and her recipes work so well with their program & she is such a hoot! First saw her on Dr. Oz before I stayed WW.

  10. Michele pusateri Says:
    March 11th, 2014 at 12:14 pm

    Molly katzen, moosewood rocks

  11. Tuco Says:
    March 11th, 2014 at 1:36 pm

    Thomas Keller- He treats each ingredient with the respect and reverence that they deserve. He food is well thought out and every detail is examined and executed.

  12. Chris Tighe Says:
    March 11th, 2014 at 4:04 pm

    I love cookbooks that are literate as well as having great recipes, so my favorite cookbook writer is Nigel Slater. His books on cooking from his London backyard garden, Tender, Ripe and Notes from the Larder are beautiful. They are books to not just cook from but to lay in bed reading and dreaming about.

  13. Christine Seeger Says:
    March 11th, 2014 at 7:09 pm

    The reason I Clicked on this link is because Deborah Madison is my cookbook goddess. I’d love this book because she is so creative, informative, and insightful. As a vegetarian for over 20 years I’ve done my fair share of finding and preparing ingredients. Her book, Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone was integral in my learning how to shop and store new veggies and fruits. It truly is for everyone. I also bought her soup book a few years ago and it expanded even further what I can do. I have family members who rave about my cooking and enjoy what I’ve learned from Deborah. Regardless if I win or not, I’m making the recipe above ASAP

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