ADVERTISEMENT

Deborah Madison has a new cookbook out called "Seasonal Fruit Desserts," and I think it might be her best one yet. Of course, I think everything she does is terrific, but then I'm prejudiced. We've been friends for 25 years.

Besides working at Chez Panisse (she ran lunch service with future Zuni Cafe chef Judy Rogers), Deb had been the founding chef at a restaurant run by the San Francisco Zen Center called Greens.

Everybody knows about Greens today. It was the first fine-dining vegetarian restaurant in the country. But I was just getting interested in food then, and I'd never heard of it. And, to tell the truth, when I found out it was a vegetarian restaurant, I wasn't particularly impressed. It was the '80s, remember, and I had had my fill of nut loaf.

But one evening Deb showed me the proofs of the cookbook she was writing, and I was dumbfounded. This was not vegetarian cooking as I knew it. It was exactly the kind of food I was learning to cook from my Richard Olney and Elizabeth David books, and it just happened to be meatless. This was food I had to cook.

Apparently, I was not alone in that opinion, as "The Greens Cookbook" went on to sell roughly a gazillion copies. She's written about a dozen since, including the encyclopedic "Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone," a book every cook, vegetarian or not, should own.

"Seasonal Fruit Desserts" is kind of the opposite of that one; it's slender and tightly focused. But everything I've cooked from it has been superb. Even better, it's full of the kinds of little twists that you can adapt and make part of your own repertoire.

One perfect example is what she calls "nearly candied quince" -- basically, that fall fruit baked in a lightly sweetened wine until it turns rosy and is bathed in a sticky, concentrated syrup. I fixed it once last fall, served it with a little yogurt and, to keep my wife happy, had to make three more batches in the next couple of weeks before quince went out of season.

And as a lifelong pastry-phobe, I found her basic dough for galettes foolproof (it must be -- it's worked perfectly every time I've used it).

Though Madison has worked as a pastry chef, when it comes to sweets she has a cook's taste. I mean that in the nicest possible way -- her desserts focus on direct, clean flavors and simple presentations that highlight the beauty of the fruit rather than obscuring it with ornamentation.

This doesn't mean the dishes aren't pretty; they are gorgeous. But it's a natural beauty. There is nothing contrived about them.

Take her "broken jellied wine," for instance. It couldn't be simpler to make: Essentially you just set some sweetish wine with gelatin, cut it into chunks and spoon it into a bowl with fruit. But the gel is so soft that it kind of folds around the fruit, cradling it and setting off the color with a clear, golden glow.

It's terrific with spring fruit such as strawberries, blackberries and blueberries (lightly sweetened and with a little orange flower water, maybe? Perhaps even topped with some sliced toasted almonds?). But I'm certain I'll also be using it this summer with melons, peaches and nectarines as well.

The same is true for what she calls "Swedish cream" -- like a panna cotta made with part buttermilk. Madison suggests unmolding it, but I prefer her alternate method of simply serving it in a jelly glass, topped with lightly sugared fresh fruit.

What I like even more about these two preparations is that I am already thinking of ways to twist them.

I'm already planning to make the wine jelly with a rose, but what about steeping the wine with spices too? I love to serve fruit salads with spiced syrups, and that would be just one step further. Cinnamon seems like a natural, but maybe clove would be better, or cardamom or even whole black peppercorns. What about fresh basil or tarragon with melon? It's just a matter of finding the flavor note that will make the fruit sing.

And while Madison flavors Swedish cream with vanilla, I can see the same set of spices being used to perfume the cream. I've already tried steeping the hot cream with about a tablespoon of lightly crushed rose geranium leaves. The slight trace of perfume is perfect with berries, and I think it'll be great with peaches and nectarines too.

> Broken Jellied Wine

1 ( 1/4 -ounce) envelope unflavored gelatin

2 1/4 cups sweet or sparkling wine, divided

1/3 cup sugar

2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

1 to 1 1/2 cups fruit, cut or sliced into small pieces and lightly sugared

1. Sprinkle the gelatin over one-fourth cup wine and set aside to soften.

2. Combine the sugar with one-half cup wine in a saucepan. Bring to a boil, then lower the heat and simmer, stirring occasionally, until the sugar is dissolved. Remove from the heat and stir in the softened gelatin. Stir until it's thoroughly dissolved, then pour it into the rest of the wine, along with the lemon juice. Mix well, then pour into a bowl or a compote dish and refrigerate until set. Wine seems to take longer to set than cream or fruit juices, so plan on at least 6 hours, or even overnight for a firm set.

3. Cut the jelly into cubes, then serve it in the compote dish or in wine glasses or Champagne coupes interspersed with the sweetened fruit. Servings: 6.

Note: Adapted from Deborah Madison's "Seasonal Fruit Desserts." This works best with a wine that is naturally slightly sweet and fruity, such as Muscat or even sparkling Moscato d'Asti.

Each serving: 134 calories; 1 gram protein; 19 grams carbohydrates; 0 fiber; 0 fat; 0 cholesterol; 14 grams sugar; 2 mg. sodium.

> Swedish Cream

1 cup half-and-half

5 to 7 tablespoons sugar

1 (3-inch) piece vanilla bean, split in half lengthwise

2 cups cultured low-fat buttermilk or kefir

1 ( 1/4 -ounce) envelope unflavored gelatin

1/4 cup cold water

1. Heat the half-and-half with the sugar and the vanilla bean in a medium saucepan over high heat. Once it reaches a boil, remove from heat. Pour the buttermilk into a metal bowl and set the bowl over the half-and-half for 15 minutes to remove the chill. Meanwhile, stir the gelatin into the cold water and set aside for 5 minutes to soften.

2. Remove the bowl of buttermilk from over the half-and-half. Take the vanilla bean out and scrape the seeds back in, reserving the pod to make vanilla sugar, if desired.

3. Heat the half-and-half once again until it comes to a near boil, then remove from heat. Stir in the softened gelatin until it's completely dissolved, then whisk in the buttermilk. Pour the mixture into 6 juice glasses and refrigerate until set, about 3 hours.

Each serving: 137 calories; 5 grams protein; 18 grams carbohydrates; 0 fiber; 5 grams fat; 3 grams saturated fat; 18 mg. cholesterol; 17 grams sugar; 105 mg. sodium.

Servings: 6

Note: This recipe can also be poured into oiled 1/2 -cup ramekins and unmolded after chilling. Adapted from Deborah Madison's "Seasonal Fruit Desserts."