For over three decades, Deborah Madison has been at the vanguard of the vegetarian cooking movement, authoring classic books on the subject and emboldening millions of readers to cook simple, elegant, plant-based food.
This groundbreaking new cookbook is Madison’s crowning achievement: a celebration of the diversity of the plant kingdom, and an exploration of the fascinating relationships between vegetables, edible flowers, herbs, and familiar wild plants within the same botanical families.
Destined to become the new standard reference for cooking vegetables, Vegetable Literacy shows cooks that, because of their shared characteristics, vegetables within the same family can be used interchangeably in cooking. It presents an entirely new way of looking at vegetables, drawing on Madison’s deep knowledge of cooking, gardening, and botany. For example, knowing that dill, chervil, cumin, parsley, coriander, anise, lovage, and caraway come from the umbellifer family makes it clear why they’re such good matches for carrots, also a member of that family. With more than 300 classic and exquisitely simple recipes, Madison brings this wealth of information together in dishes that highlight a world of complementary flavors. Griddled Artichokes with Tarragon Mayonnaise, Tomato Soup and Cilantro with Black Quinoa, Tuscan Kale Salad with Slivered Brussels Sprouts and Sesame Dressing, Kohlrabi Slaw with Frizzy Mustard Greens, and Fresh Peas with Sage on Baked Ricotta showcase combinations that are simultaneously familiar and revelatory.
Inspiring improvisation in the kitchen and curiosity in the garden, Vegetable Literacy—an unparalleled look at culinary vegetables and plants—will forever change the way we eat and cook.
PETALUMA, Calif. — Marty Jacobson and his wife, Janet Brown, were working in two very different arenas: He was in advertising and she in sales, but they both really wanted to do something different.
“We started by growing heirloom tomatoes,” Jacobson said. “We bought some seeds and grew some amazing tomatoes. We were encouraged to sell them and went to a local market and the owner, Randy Salinas, encouraged us to grow more. We grew heirlooms because there was a big opportunity in the market.”
Allstar Organics took off.
The business also has two acres of aromatic plants and antique roses at their home in Lagunitas, Marin County, 10 acres of dozens of varieties of certified organic, specialty and heirloom crops grown on their production field in Nicasio, halfway between San Francisco and Point Reyes Station, and 27 acres of mixed specialty crops in Petaluma.
Allstar is a warm weather farm with distinct seasons, and a highly mineralized, clay-based soil. Its soil enrichment program includes a diverse cover cropping system, microbiological drenches and aged nutritional mulches. As a result, the vegetables acquire vivid color, distinctive texture and intense fragrances and flavors.
“It’s been 20 years since we began fooling around and got some acreage in Nicasio for colder weather crops,” he said. “San Francisco’s Ferry Plaza Farmers’ Market gave us an opportunity to be seen and pick up restaurants (as customers).”
"We have a diverse planting plan. Our customers all buy different things". The couple grows over an acre of garlic for a special customer, and sell tomatoes to groceries and markets.
“Unique crops include a striped cherry tomato mix and caldot, a Spanish onion that sends up shoots the size of small leeks, and is the best onion we ever tasted,” he said. “We also grow hard-neck garlic, green garlic and we grow rainbow chard but only sell to one client.”
Allstar Organics also grows cucumbers, spring onions, red onions, scallions, pea tips, yellow peas, snow peas, English peas, snap peas, dragon beans and Romano beans, purple beans and green beans.
The soil in each location is different. The sandy soil in Petaluma is high in nutrients and drains and warms early, and the clay-based soils in Marin perform better in warmer weather. Both result in healthy plants and high yields.
“Nicasio is a cold weather field,” Jacobson said. “We learned how to grow onions, green garlic and fava beans. We get three crops from the fava beans: tender fava leaves, baby fava beans, and large, mature fava beans. When we are done with harvesting, we chop it and turn it under for a cover crop.”
Heirloom tomatoes are our signature crop. We grow a blend of purple, striped, large red, and red-gold tomatoes, a specialized cherry tomato, peppers, 10 different summer squashes and zucchini, cucumbers, and a wide variety of vegetables following the seasons.
“We are zigging when others are zagging,” Jacobson said.
“We are attempting to be inventive in order to be economically viable. We have balance and are dedicated to local agriculture.”
Edible San Francisco | February 2006
Forget Indiana Jones. Lewis and Clark? Could’ve been the name of a department store. If it’s adventurous explorers you’re after, you need to see Brown and Jacobson. The tomatoes, squash, melons and pumpkins the couple grow on just under 11 acres of farmland in Marin County are the fruits of true daring.
At sites in Lagunitas and Nicasio, Janet Brown and Marty Jacobson oversee Allstar Organics, which grows close to 200 varieties of 13 different crops. The unusual part? Each year Brown and Jacobson plant dozens of varieties they won’t have ever eaten, seen or smelled before they emerge from the ground in the heat of Summer.
“I know it sounds incredible,” Brown says. “We did pole beans for the first time this year, and we hadn’t realized that bean vines flower. In the Spring we just said, ‘Oh my god! Of course!’ The blossoms were gorgeous, just beautiful.”
The Prescott Fond Blanc melons they grew last year, they’d never tasted. The Padrone peppers from Spain, they’d never seen. But they – and their customers – were thrilled to see what would happen.
Because farming blind is not just an adventure, it is also their marketing strategy.
“We’re a small farm. To position ourselves in the arena we want to play in, we can’t be copying what everybody else does, because they’re bigger. So they can grow more, and charge less,” Jacobson explains. “All we have is our ingenuity, and our quality. And great clay soil.”
Brown and Jacobson grow almost entirely heirloom varieties that are at least 60 years old. They use no artificial pesticides or fertilizers, and their farm is certified by Marin Certified Organic Agriculture. The high mineral content of their land means richer cover crops in the Winter, and more vegetables in the fall after those cover crops are tilled back into the earth in the Spring. The end result: exquisitely tasty, exotically beautiful veggies.
Last November, their stand at the Ferry Building was still loaded up with late season tomatoes, with squashes of every size moving in on one side of the tent. Passersby were drawn in by the unusual shapes and colors, the spindly shapes of the long squash stems and the lovely bumps and knobs of the unexpected tomatoes. The Japanese Truffle looked like a dainty pink heart, with its pointed end and rosy flesh. The red Calabash slicer had so many fine striations, its cross sections looked like lacy doilies. The red, green and gold tomato looked like a tie-dyed sphere.
“We want to provide food that’s on the nexus of beautiful, delicious and highly nutritious,” Brown says. “So people can buy our stuff who want ornamentals, who want heirlooms, and who want something delicious to cook.”
When the harvest is over, the cover crops are in the fields, and it is cold and rainy out, as it is now, the couple combs through seed catalogues looking for still more new and unfamiliar heirlooms to try, new tastes, colors, species to bring to Bay Area markets and restaurants. They also review the catalogues with area chefs, such as Rick Hackett at MarketBar and Charles Phan at The Slanted Door. Phan picked out some Japanese varieties for them to try last year – including a pepper and the round, petite but buttery Kamo eggplant – and ended up buying Jacobson out of both. This year Hackett wants Allstar to try some South American peppers recommended to him by his Peruvian sous chef. In this way, Jacobson offers a sort of haute couture for vegetables – the highest level in tailored farming.
“Marty’s open to growing a lot of things,” Hackett says. “So it’s a joy working with him. But as a consequence, there’s a learning curve, both for him and for me.”
Hackett requested Padrone peppers last year, a Galician variety that Spaniards like to deep fry and eat with just a little salt sprinkled on top. Jacobson accidentally let them grow too long, and promised “to pick the field better” the next year.
“There’s always a risk that the varieties won’t work out, we’ll end up with a lot of stuff we can’t sell,” Jacobson says. “But we take that chance because that’s what we have to do.”
While both are savvy veterans of corporate marketing jobs, fiscal success is hardly their only goal. They are both strong believers in locally grown, organic and nutritious food. While Jacobson spends the week on the farm, Brown works four days a week at the Center for Ecoliteracy, an educational center for sustainability. She serves as the program officer for food systems and is a vocal campaigner for better lunches for school children.
Brown grew up in an Italian-American household in Long Beach. Her grandparents in Italy had a five-acre homestead with orchards, grapevines, and chickens. Her mother gardened and shopped almost daily for fresh ingredients. Even with her gardening heritage, Brown says she stumbled when she first moved to the Bay Area.
“My first garden was just about the most pathetic garden you’ve ever seen. I put everything in the wrong places, the wrong soil, I made every conceivable possible mistake on the planet,” she said. “Every good gardener has got to go through that, to make lots and lots of mistakes. I’ve probably made 100 mistakes for every one thing I know.”
“Even if you are ill-informed, if you have the slightest impulse to garden, don’t stop” Brown says. “You will be a really good gardener but you mustn’t stop.”
Thanks to her persistence, Brown ultimately extended her own garden into a two-and-a-half acre hillside terrace beside their home in Lagunitas, where she learned how to grow over 40 varieties of tomatoes, and around 100 varieties of roses.
Two years ago, the deFranchi dairy invited them to lease out an eight acre plot up the road in Nicasio. Brown and Jacobson accepted, and plunged into peppers and eggplants, squash, pumpkins and melons.
“We were just astonished by the wonder of melons, how fast they provide fruit, and how much, from just one seed,” Brown says. “Without any of the usual trouble of having to grow and to nurse a fruit tree for five years, without having to be an accomplished pruner, without any of the skills to orcharding. You just put a seed in the ground, and you have several melons within a few months.”
These days Brown is exploring the art of distillery, making essential oils and hydrosols – water-based extractions – of her own herbs and evergreens with a still on the farm. She sells six types under the brand name Landscape: antique rose, lavender, rosemary, Douglas fir, California coastal sage, and California bay laurel.
During the harvest season, from September to November, Jacobson estimates they work about 120 days without a day off. Monday through Thursday Jacobson tends the fields, then Friday he picks for the weekend markets. The couple spend Saturdays at their Ferry Building Market stand, and Sundays at the farmer’s market in Marin.
On those weekends, it’s not at all unusual to overhear conversations like the one between Brown and a customer, looking for her favorite sweet Winter squash. Her description captivated the farmer. “Asian dumpling squash?” he asked, to be sure of the name. “Never heard of it! But I’ll grow it next year!”
Every Saturday of the year, the San Francisco Ferry Building is alive with a magnificent farmers’ market. Camped in with the veggie, fruit, meat, fish, bread, flowers, food and coffee vendors is CUESA, the organization that manages the market. At their tent with seating for 100, CUESA produces and leads a weekly educational outreach focusing on sustainable foods allowing farmers to showcase their products and chefs to conduct cooking classes using the products of the market.
One gorgeous San Francisco summer day, I’m at the market as usual and find myself captivated by Janet Brown’s CUESA presentation on hydrosols and essential oils. Janet is demonstrating how herbs and flowers grown on her farm, AllStar Organics, are made into value added products that have positive impacts on personal wellbeing.
Learning more about this process requires a full day visit to Janet and partner, Marty Jacobson’s farm locations in Petaluma and Nicasio, plus their workshop and field in Lagunitas...all three north across the Golden Gate Bridge. For the past 20 years, they have poured over seed catalogs to find unique, commercially viable, heirloom varieties of specialty produce.
“20 years ago, we were just starting out. We began growing heirloom tomatoes at a time when nobody heard of heirlooms and we hadn’t seen any before. It was a great experiment. We ordered seed from around the world. As the different varieties matured, we weren’t sure if they were going to stay green or if the yellow ones were going to turn red or stay yellow.”
Recalling the stress of that first year, Marty added: “When we went to introduce our product to the local grocery store, they weren’t familiar with heirlooms so they passed.”
Janet was and is, a die-hard Martha Stewart fan because of Martha’s focus on gardens, the home made and the hand crafted. That same month, Martha Stewart’s magazine showcased heirloom tomatoes on the cover.
“We went back to the grocer and showed him the cover and he purchased our crazy tomatoes and pinned the magazine cover up next to the display. We’ve been refining our business to stay ahead of the market ever since.”
Today, they’re known for providing unique and delicious organic vegetables to local grocery stores including Good Earth in Fairfax, Whole Foods/Blythdale in Mill Valley and Woodlands Market in Kentfield. They grow a mix of delicious heirloom tomatoes including Red and Yellow Brandywine, Mortgage Lifter, Cherokee Purple, and Big Rainbow.
Their research on the most delectable varieties of Asian Kabocha (Japanese for squash) led them to heirlooms Hokkaido and Tetsukabuto. They always sell out of squash. They also produce yellow snow peas, rainbow chard and shishito peppers, exclusively for the famous Slanted Door. Other well known Bay Area restaurants they supply include Michael Mina’s Bourbon Steak, Seven Hills, Marla Bakery, Market Bar Cafe, Marin County’s Picco, and Oakland’s Bocanova.
In their quest to discover hard-to-find produce, onions are their latest love, including the coveted Calcot onion. Calcot is considered a delicacy in Spain. Thousands flock to enjoy the tender and sweet, blanched onion stems at annual festivals called Calcotada. Streets are blocked off for grills and long communal tables seat those trying the charred Calcot. Grilled and rolled to steam in newspaper, then served on a red clay roof tile, the Calcot’s high sugar content ensures a fragrant, caramelized treasure...succulent, sweet, not biting.
“There is a natural alliance between independent, local or regional grocers and small-scale, organic, local farms. This connection provides an important edge for the grocers by offering customers exceptional produce that is fresher and organically grown, heirloom varieties that are unique and nutritious, and foods that are connected, culturally, economically and geographically, to the land and communities around them.”
“...and when a grocery chain like Whole Foods dedicates stores to purchasing local rather than importing food that undercuts the local farm economy, it’s a serious change....a quantum leap for a farm like us.”
The second half of our day was spent in Janet’s workshop where her failure to sell rose bouquets to the upscale floral market, gave birth to producing hydrosols and essential oils. A friend suggested she could distill rose water from her organic rose petals so she commissioned a custom still and began distilling...
Rose water is soothing, calming and sublimely scented.
After rose water, Janet started experimenting with other plants growing on the farm, studying their medicinal benefits through history. This led to producing five different essential oils and eight hydrosols, the vapors captured while making essential oils. Instead of discarding these precious droplets, Janet bottles them to be sold along with the essential oils.
One would think that growing unique produce for the local markets, coupled with producing medicinal, natural products, would be enough...but apparently not for Janet and Marty. A couple of years ago, they started another experiment: drying herbs and formulating herb blends for the value-added market.
In true Janet style, dried herb production grew out of a harvesting mistake that resulted in 22 pounds of Thai basil instead of the two pounds she had intended. Determined not to waste 20 pounds of Thai basil, she initially developed a primitive, improvised process for drying the herb. After 10 years and multiple changes to the process, today they have a professional dehydration room complete with a digitally controlled propane ceiling furnace and industrial dehumidifiers.
Another element of Allstar’s diverse program has been its relationship with award-winning, local, artisan cheese-maker, Cowgirl Creamery. Allstar grows and dries proprietary blends of herbs for two of their seasonal cheeses. A blend of dried sweet and hot pepper flakes for their Devil’s Gulch winter cheese and a blend of Thai Basil, Chamomile, and field flowers, for their Pierce Point spring cheese, are unique ingredients coating the outside of these delicious products.
Creatively combining what’s at hand with what’s possible in the vein of Martha Stewart, Allstar then began importing coarse, light grey French sea salt to blend with their dried, hand-finished herbs...but first, the inherent moisture in the salt had to be eliminated. Cowgirl Creamery gifted Allstar with a grand, old, brick-lined pizza oven and a unique line of herb-infused salts and herbal sugars was born.
Tasting these delights capped the day. I could taste the rich herb freshness in each blend...a result of the loving craft put into its creation.
As Marty puts it: “Passion combined with dogged tenacity is our recipe for success.”
Of course continual research and sharp instincts for the market contribute....and as Marty adds: “We have been very lucky.”
To view additional photography for this story, click here.
Photography © Julie Ann Fineman
A little book about diversity, adversity, tenaciousness, extraordinary devotion & FOOD!
Marin Agricultural Land Trust (MALT) and the Marin County Community Development Agency launched Marin Farm Families—Stories & Recipes at the Marin County Fair and at the Point Reyes Farmers’ Market in July.
The book includes profiles of 22 people whose lives revolve around the rhythms and tempos of Marin agriculture. Some are ranchers with thousands of acres of land and a legacy spanning three or four generations; some are first generation growers leasing land and making their own history, one day at a time.
Recipes include those created by food professionals like Gerald Gass of McEvoy Ranch and Amy Nathan Weber of Star Route Farms, as well as plain and fancy treasures from the kitchens of Marin's farming families. The ingredients sometimes come straight from the field, like David Little's “Pouch Potatoes,” or from the pantry, like “Mamma Grossi’s Bread Soup.”
Marin Farm Families was conceived as a creative footnote to the Marin Countywide Plan, to showcase the importance of agriculture to the County, and to support the efforts of Marin agricultural organizations, including Marin Agricultural Land Trust and others who work in partnership with farming families on issues of conservation, marketing, education, and natural resource restoration.
“The Marin Countywide Plan builds on a long legacy of creative collaboration between agricultural and environmental interests,” notes Alex Hinds, who is the Director of the Marin County Community Development Agency. “This book carries that tradition one step farther by celebrating the farm families themselves.”
The book can be purchased at: Pt. Reyes Books, Cowgirl Creamery, and Toby’s Feed Barn in Pt. Reyes Station; Bellwether and Drakes Bay Oysters in Inverness; Point Reyes National Seashore Visitor Center in Olema; United Markets, Whole Foods, and Border's Books in San Rafael; Comforts Restaurant in San Anselmo; and Woodland Market in Kentfield. - Elizabeth Ptak