Wednesday, September 17, 2014
10 Questions: Foodie Edition with Nava Atlas
After I went vegetarian and began learning how to cook, it didn’t take long to discover that the cookbook offerings were pretty slim, leaning toward commune food of the 1970s and the Moosewood publications. In my early twenties, though, I happened upon a copy of Vegetariana by Nava Atlas while browsing in a bookstore and I was bewitched. With detailed, quirky illustrations she drew herself, interesting nuggets pulled from vegetarian history, and recipes that seemed to take a page or two from my grandmother’s own Eastern European kitchen (well, with more nutritious ingredients and no schmaltz), I felt like I was in the company of someone who understood me and my life. In my little apartment in Chicago, I tested out barley mushroom pilafs, stuffed eggplant, leek pie, and my first eggless tofu salad on my roommate, who was happy to play the role of taste-tester. While the cookbook wasn’t vegan, neither was I, and it was a big improvement from and dairy-and-eggs laden cookbooks I had been using prior. I always had the feeling that Nava Atlas was by my side as I was becoming a more confident and skilled home cook.
Since those early days, Nava has continued cheering on countless home cooks the world over, helping us to bring more nutritious meals into our lives, and along the way, her recipes have evolved as she has to embrace a vegan sensibility. As an early adopter of the internet. Nava has been there for people on VegKitchen.com, providing recipes that we could use for every day and for holidays, emphasizing easy-to-prepare recipes with a focus on fresh produce, as well as book reviews, videos and more. With helpful content generated since 1996 and a growing list of contributors, VegKitchen.com is a great resource for newbie and longtime cook alike. I’m happy to have this rockstar participate in my Ten Questions feature and I think you’ll enjoy it as well. With the release of her new cookbook, Plant Power, this luminary shows no sign of slowing down.
1. How did you start down this path of creating delicious food? Was a love for food nurtured into you? Did you have any special relatives or mentors who helped to instill this passion?
I grew up in a household where typical, meat-heavy Eastern European Jewish food was served. I thought it was terrible, and was a troublesome eater. From the time I was young, I disliked looking at the meat on my plate, though my mind didn’t exactly go to meat = animal. I just thought it looked gross.
To make a long story short, I announced my intention to go vegetarian when I was nearly 17. My mom was upset and told me I’d have to cook for myself, as she wasn’t about to prepare two separate meals. This was fine with me, but as this was a long time ago, food options weren’t like they are today. I shopped dusty “health food” stores for lentils and oat groats and other hippie foods, but I just loved it. I took to cooking immediately, and though my creations weren’t culinary masterworks, my family came around and soon everyone wanted what I was having.
2. What was your diet like when you were growing up? Did you have any favorite meals or meal traditions? Do you carry them over today?
See above! You must have had a very idyllic notion of my childhood when you crafted these questions, whereas I recall a lot of tears at the table, especially before I was old enough to rebel!
That being said, I do have a special place in my heart for Jewish holiday foods, as they represent the time that my close-knit extended family would gather. So I’ve take pleasure in veganizing holiday foods such as matzo ball soup for Passover, latkes for Hanukkah, rugalach for Rosh Hashanah, etc. These and others are part of my book, Vegan Holiday Kitchen. I’m so totally not religious, but these foods create a link to those dear to me, now long gone.
3. What is the best vegan meal you've ever had? Give us all the details!
This is probably the hardest question, as I’ve had so many great vegan meals in my life! I live near NYC, and I could rattle off some great restaurant fare, but what pops into my mind is a meal my husband and I had a few months ago at the home of new friends. They aren’t at all vegan or even vegetarian, but they made a concerted effort to create a great meal on our behalf. The main dish was a sweet potato and black bean casserole, which was topped with crumbled tortilla chips and vegan sour cream.
I already don’t remember the accompaniments, but it wasn’t even the specific food — from the appetizers and margaritas to that main dish to the dessert (and it was all very good) but the effort they made to create a satisfying and balanced meal as a way to welcome us as new friends. I lavished praise on their efforts and pronounced them honorary vegans!
4. If you could prepare one meal or dessert for anyone living or dead, who would it be for and
what would you create?
That is such a great question! My mind is racing … Charlotte Brontë! Louisa May Alcott! George Harrison! Eric Clapton! Albert Einstein! Mohandas Gandhi! Margaret Mead! I just realized that the only one who’s still alive is Eric Clapton. But I bet he’d love to be reunited with George Harrison, despite the fact that they both loved and lost “Layla.” Really, I’m such a nerd. And greedy. Can’t I have them all to dinner?
I’m not sure what I’d make. I’m very improvisational when it comes to preparing meals. It depends very much on the season, my mood, and if I need to test any recipes for a book or article. I always use company as guinea pigs, and would even do so to George Harrison.
5. What do you think are common mistakes in vegan cooking and how do you avoid them?
I’m not sure what common mistakes would be, as they’d vary from one individual to another. But common misconceptions, and ones I work hard to dispel, are that vegan meals are time-consuming, complicated, expensive, and involve obscure ingredients. I remind people: the basics for a plant-based diet are grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, and fruits and veggies galore. This isn’t just “vegan food” — it’s food!
6. What ingredients are you especially excited about at the moment?
By necessity, I need to be excited about whatever my hubby is bringing in from the garden. So earlier this summer it was beets. I made beet burgers for the first time, and wow, are they good. Right now it’s tomatoes. I just had a yellow tomato and Vegenaise sandwich for lunch. He also grows a lot of greens, and a few summers ago, when I had my fill of trying to be excited over the thousandth batch of chard, I got the idea to do the book Wild About Greens, which definitely helped sustain my excitement for leafy greens — AKA the healthiest foods on the planet.
7. You are restricted to one ethnic cuisine for the rest of your life. What would you like it to be?
That’s actually an easy one for me. I love Asian cuisines — Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Thai — with all the veggies, noodles, tofu, and savory sauces in a myriad of combinations. But you said one ethnic cuisine, and these are different from one another. So if I can’t do fusion, I’ll choose Korean. It’s relatively new for me among these various cuisines, so I’d have a lot to explore.
8. Who or what has been most influential to you on your vegan path? Individuals, groups, books, films, etc. included.
Raising my kids from the start as vegetarians, and all of us going vegan around the same time, was quite significant. I especially have to commend my son Evan, who was 10 at the time. Seeing the conviction with which he took up the cause meant a lot to me. He was actually the first of the four of us to declare himself.
Shortly after we went vegan, Howard Lyman (AKA “The Mad Cowboy”) gave a talk at a local venue to introduce the film Peaceable Kingdom. And even though we were already among the converted, seeing how animals are treated on factory farms was such a freak-out.
Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer is a thoughtful look at the ethical aspects of meat consumption. I highly recommend it. As for a more recent film, I like Vegucated quite a bit. Taking a global issue and narrowing it down to the personal is often quite effective. It was interesting to see how three very different individuals handled the challenge of going vegan for several weeks.
9. What issue is nearest and dearest to your heart that you would like people to know more about?
I’m also a visual artist and nonfiction writer in addition to writing cookbooks (most recently, Plant Power) and running VegKitchen, a huge vegan recipe and health site (online since 1996!). Wearing all my different hats, the theme running through my work, whether it’s serious or darkly humorous or even culinary is the idea of justice. Oppression and bias are rampant in the world, and applies to workers, the poor, women, the gender nonconforming, etc., etc. Oppression applies to animals bred for food as well. I would really like for meat-eaters to consider why they would be horrified to see dogs treated in the same manner as are pigs and sheep, for example. It makes no sense to me to treat certain animals as semi-human, and others as prey.
I’d also like people to be more aware of the impact of animal agriculture not only on climate, but on water, air, soil, etc. It’s very disturbing, and is a truth so inconvenient that even a lot of so-called environmentalists don’t want to deal with it.
10. Last, please finish this sentence. "To me, veganism is…"
Veganism is compassion towards all living beings, and respect for the earth and its resources. By that definition, it’s even more delicious!
Thank you, Nava!