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Souper Book. Buy it, esp. if you have no other Madison books
on February 17, 2006
`Vegetable Soups from Deborah Madison's Kitchen' is a title loaded with significance, for a book by the foremost writer on vegetarian cooking techniques, Deborah Madison. The first implication, which reading the book bears out, is that this is all about vegetarian, but not necessarily vegan soup recipes. As in all her books, Ms. Madison makes liberal use of milk products and eggs, with no apologies for that fact. The second implication is that Madison is turning her name, or more exactly `Deborah Madison's Kitchen' into a brand name, in much the same way as Mark Bittman has turned his `How to Cook Everything' and Rachael Ray has turned '30 Minute Meals' into a brand, with the hopes that brand recognition rather than the quality of the book's contents will get you to buy this book.
On the one hand, I can state categorically that this is the one of the best books I have seen on soups at all, let alone its being the very best book I have seen on vegetarian soups. I will begin by exploring why this is true and later consider how much of this book is original rather than simply being a copy from Madison's earlier excellent books.
The other vegetarian soup book I have reviewed is Paulette Mitchell's `...a beautiful bowl of soup' which is aimed at giving us a collection of `the best vegetarian recipes'. This book is very, very good, and I gave it a high rating compared to the dozen or so other soup books I have reviewed, but Madison's book is better. Both books are excellent at giving good general advice on soup cookery, but Madison's book is superior, in that she goes far beyond Mitchell in repeating her excellent doctrine of creating stocks and broths to enhance the primary ingredients from which the soups will ultimately be made. Madison did, not invent this principle I'm sure. You see it in hundreds of recipes for serious soup recipes, such as when one uses the liqueur collected from steaming open clams as the basis of a clam chowder or using corn cobs to create a corny broth for a corn soup. Madison has generalized this principle and enhanced it with lots of advice on what stock ingredients go best with what. She certainly covers all the obvious stuff such as mirepoix components, fennel, mushrooms, celeriac, and the like. But she also suggests that many nuts, not just chestnuts, are excellent soup and stock ingredients. Madison also does a great job of selling vegetable stocks for being easy and quick to make and, with the right ingredients, almost as bracing as their carnivorous cousins.
While Madison states that many of these recipes are original, there are also a whole lot of recipe types that look very familiar to me. For example, there are lots of bean soups, dried split pea soup, fresh pea soup, squash soup, chestnut soup, cabbage and kale soups, corn soup, cream and roasted tomato soups, and a bean and pasta soup (the old Italian pasta fagiole chestnut!). Like Mitchell, Madison gives lots of variations on some of the more popular types of soups. On the whole, it seems, however, that Madison's soup recipes are just a bit more interesting, with just a bit deeper insight into the interplay of tastes and textures. Comparing the chestnut soup recipes from the two books, Mitchell gives us a pretty ordinary chestnut soup, while Madison gives us a much more interesting variation, adding both fennel and lentils for a bit of sweetness and body. This is very similar to my favorite chestnut soup recipe from Daniel Boulud, who adds apples (great seasonal match, of course) to his recipe for sweetness.
Another very nice feature of Madison's book is that it is organized by ingredient, consistency, and by season. With almost 500 cookbooks, and at least 12 soup cookbooks from which to choose, I find the books organized by season are more interesting sources to find a suitable soup than those organized by ingredient or consistency (most of the time).
I cannot overlook the fact that Ms. Madison has used photographs of some very original pottery to enhance the presentation of her soups. The contribution of her ceramic artist friends is so great, she dedicates the book to these two artisans.
The greatest caution against buying this book is the fact that so much of its general material has appeared in earlier Madison books, most especially the great `Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone', which for me ranks as one of the five very best cookbooks I have ever read, let alone the all time best general vegetarian cookbook. Much of the advice on stockmaking and Madison's ten (10) steps for making soup come from the 50-page chapter on stocks and soups in this book. The new book, however, does include many soup recipes which are not in the earlier book, and where there is overlap of principle ingredient, the new book's recipe is generally more elaborate and more interesting for entertaining.
In all, if you own all of Deborah Madison's earlier books, you will encounter a lot of redundancy. If, on the other hand, you own no Madison books, and you happen to be fond of soups, I cannot recommend this book more strongly. It may not have the great number of recipes as James Peterson's `Splendid Soups', but it is by far the best source for those who wish to be better at ad libbing soup making. This may be comparable to Louis Armstrong's lessons on how to improvise with a coronet.