As you know if you’ve been reading over the past few months, almost all of my recent cooking has been from Robin Robertson’s newest cookbook, 1,000 Vegan Recipes. Though I’m not a vegan, I recognize that vegan food represents a diet upgrade for me: I don’t like eggs, so the only non-vegan part of my diet is dairy, and I’m pretty well convinced that dairy does not do a body good. Thus far, I’ve found my foray into vegan cooking to be surprisingly effortless; much of that is owing to the diversity, if not the sheer number, of recipes in Robin’s cookbook.
Besides 1,000 Vegan Recipes, Robin has also written Vegan Planet and several other vegan and vegetarian cookbooks, so she certainly knows a thing or two about meatless meals. To find out more about her cooking philosophy (and to figure out how to start making vegan buffalo wings), I asked Robin a few questions.
Matt: 1,000 Vegan Recipes is the first vegan cookbook I ever purchased; what made me buy it was that as I was leafing through it, I saw loads of substantial meals that looked simple to prepare and didn’t rely on soy for the protein component. Do you think about nutrition when you create a new recipe, or are you just trying to make the best-tasting or most authentic meal possible?
Robin: When I develop a new recipe, I consider many factors, including taste, texture, and visual appeal, because if something doesn’t taste good or please the eye, no one will want to eat it, no matter how healthy it is. In terms of ethnic recipes, I try to balance authenticity with ease of preparation for the typical American home cook who may not have access to exotic ingredients or lots of time to spend in the kitchen. Nutritionally, I try to include lots of fresh produce and whole grains and I try not to use too much oil, but I do stress in the book that people who want to use even less oil can easily do so.
M: I like that when you talk about nutrition, you go right to “fresh produce and whole grains” rather than focusing on protein, carbs, and fat. But from a runner’s perspective, one has to at least pay attention to these, and protein is the big concern for a lot of people when they talk about vegan or vegetarian food for athletes. Soy is an easy way to get it, and even though most of your recipes don’t use soy products, there are plenty that do. (With 1,000 of them, I suppose this isn’t surprising.) What’s your feeling about cooking with soy; is it a last resort or have others been too quick to demonize it recently?
R: I love soy and I use tofu and soy milk regularly in my own cooking, although I don’t think one should eat a steady diet of any one ingredient. For those who may be allergic to soy, I provide alternate ingredient suggestions. If you look beyond that faction trying to demonize soy, you will find lots of sound level-headed nutritional and medical evidence to the contrary. Read The China Study by T. Colin Campbell, or read what Dr. Joel Fuhrman, Dr. Neal Barnard, or John Robbins have to say about the benefits of soy. Susan Havala and other nutrition experts, such as Dr. Mark Messina and Virginia Messina have written with great clarity on the subject as well.
M: I find that many of the best vegan and vegetarian meals are so good because they come from cultures that have historically eaten very few animal products, so there’s no need to adapt them. But every once in a while, it’s fun to have a vegan or vegetarian version of a favorite non-vegan or non-vegetarian meal. Is there a process that you go through when you sit down to come up with such an adaptation? For example, if you wanted to come up with a recipe for vegan buffalo chicken wings, how would you go about choosing what ingredients to use and how best to prepare it?
R: Most of the vegan recipes I’ve adapted from non-vegan classics have to do with mentally matching up taste, texture, and appearance. Once I do that, there are usually obvious choices of how to best prepare the dish. Sometimes seitan works best, other times beans, tofu, or even mushrooms can be used quite successfully. (For vegan Buffalo wings, I’d go with seitan.)
M: Were you a non-vegan cook before you became a vegan cook? What made you want to start doing strictly vegan recipes? Ethical reasons, health reasons, a new challenge?
R: I was a restaurant chef for years in mainstream restaurants. I went vegan for ethical reasons soon after I quit the restaurant business. I always loved animals and it never made sense to me that we should kill them and eat them. Once I quit cooking animal parts for a living, I was able to be true to myself and become vegan. Soon after, I began to help others go vegan through cooking classes and my writing, especially through my cookbooks, including Vegan Planet and 1,000 Vegan Recipes.
M: You’ve certainly helped me branch into vegan food! Even as a vegetarian, I thought vegan food had to be bland, or full of weird, processed substitute meats before I found your book. So now that you inspire so many vegan cooks, where do you turn for cooking inspiration?
R: Being a food professional for more than 25 years, my brain is tuned in for inspiration all the time. Traveling and eating in restaurants can be the most inspiring, but often it’s the ingredients themselves that inspire me. After a trip to the farmer’s market, I spread all the gorgeous produce on the counter in my kitchen and it’s like opening a treasure chest. The hardest part is deciding what to cook first.
You can read more of Robin’s writing and find some of her recipes at her blog, Vegan Planet.
Mac and Chard from 1,000 Vegan Recipes
To go along with the interview, I made Robin’s Mac and Chard, a vegan mac n’ cheese made without the use of soy or nutritional yeast, two ingredients that tend to turn non-vegans off. The cheese is replaced by a silky-smooth sauce made from dijon mustard, cashews, and pureed vegetables—not only does it look just like cheese sauce; it’s delicious and healthy too.
Here’s the recipe from 1,000 Vegan Recipes, by (of course) Robin Robertson and published by Wiley. (The grocery store didn’t have chard when I went; I used collard greens instead.)
Ingredients (makes 4 to 6 servings):
- 12 ounces elbow macaroni
- 1 medium bunch rainbow chard, tough stems removed and chopped
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- 1/2 chopped yellow onion
- 1 garlic clove, chopped
- 1 medium Yukon Gold potato, peeled and cut into quarter-inch slices
- salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 2 cups vegetable broth, homemade or store bought
- 1/2 teaspoon turmeric
- 3/4 teaspoon sweet paprika
- 1/2 cup unsalted roasted cashews
- 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
- 1 teaspoon dijon mustard
- 1/2 cup dry bread crumbs
1. In a pot of boiling, salted water, cook the macaroni over medium-high heat until al dente, about 8 minutes. Drain well and set aside.
2. Steam the chard until tender, about 5 minutes. Set aside to cool. When cool enough to handle, squeeze any remaining moisture from the chard and set chard aside. Lightly oil a 9 x 13-inch baking dish and set aside. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
3. In a large saucepan, heat 2 tablespoons of the oil over medium heat. Add the onion, garlic, and potato. Season with salt and pepper to taste, cover, and cook until the vegetables are softened, about 10 minutes. Add 1 cup of the broth, the turmeric, and 1/2 teaspoon of the paprika and continue cooking, uncovered, until the vegetables are very soft. Remove from the heat and set aside.
4. Grind the cashews in a high-speed blender until ground to a fine powder. Add the onion and potato mixture, the remaining broth, lemon juice, mustard, and salt and pepper to taste and blend until smooth. Taste, adjusting seasonings if necessary.
5. Combine the sauce with the cooked macaroni and steamed chard and transfer to the prepared casserole. Sprinkle with the bread crumbs and the remaining 1/4 teaspoon paprika and drizzle with the remaining 1 tablespoon of oil. Bake until hot and golden brown on top, about 30 minutes. Serve immediately.