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These days, it is difficult to know what is good for you and what is not. What with GMOs, pesticides, growth hormones and the alleged health issues associated with a diet heavy in saturated fats, it is difficult to determine what the correct choice might be. Add the cost of food plus the cost of healthcare if the wrong foods cause illness and well, you just might want to subsist on bread and water alone.
All said, in my own household we now limit meat products to two days a week. And while we do consume dairy, our goal is a self-imposed 80% rule: meats (including poultry and fish) 80% of the time and plant-based products plus dairy 80% of the time. We are not trying to be vegetarians, but rather trying to strike a balance between healthy eating and pleasure.
This leads to the the topic today which is an interview with Seattle-based foodie and cookbook author, Michael Natkin.
An Interview with Michael Natkin – Foodie and author of Herbivoracious
1. What inspired you to start Herbivoracious, the web site? Can you tell us about the site including its focus, it’s purpose and it’s evolution over time?
Honestly, I started the blog out of pure frustration. I want to be a restaurant chef, and I’ve taken steps in that direction, but 5 years ago wasn’t the right time in my life to quit my day job and make that leap (now the day job has been jettisoned and I’m further down the road). I have young kids and a wife with chronic fatigue syndrome, so it just didn’t work. I also have this unstoppable passion for food, and needed to find a way to share and connect with the larger culinary community. Food blogs were just starting to become popular, and I thought that “hey, at least this is something I can do.”
I didn’t know it at the time, but the blog would go on to become a huge part of my life. I work on it every day, creating, photographing and sharing new vegetarian recipes. My mission, both on the blog, in the book, and in my future career, is to show that great vegetarian food is just great food – when we follow the principles of good cooking, food can be pleasurable, great for you, and great for the planet.
2. What made you decide to become a vegetarian?
For me, it was purely a personal choice. My mom was dying from breast cancer, and wanted to try a macrobiotic diet so I learned how to cook in that style for her. As soon as I tried going meat-free, I knew it was for me. I literally went from eating at McDonalds on a daily basis to vegetarian overnight. But I don’t believe in preaching. I don’t tell anyone else what to eat. My assumption is that many people have realized that eating more vegetarian meals is good for them and makes them feel better, not to mention it makes for a more sustainable food supply and is kinder to animals. So I focus on providing recipes that are delicious, satisfying and beautiful, and leave the politics out of it. By the way, I’ve written a longer post on this topic and it has generated an incredibly lively comment thread. I’d love to hear your reader’s thoughts here: Why I’m a Vegetarian Dammit.
3. What recommendations do you have for someone wanting to migrate to a plant-based diet?
The main thing is, don’t do it overnight. (Ok, I know I did, but I still don’t recommend it. I was young!) Give yourself time to adapt and learn new recipes. Start by doing meatless dinners one day a week and expand from there. In my cookbook, I’ve provided lots of meal planning suggestions and specific menus that will help you get started.
One thing you might find enjoyable is to pick a cuisine that you like to eat, whether it is Mexican, Italian, or Vietnamese, follow some of my recipes, learn more about it, get some of the ingredients, and build up a repertoire of meals that you and your family can rely on. It isn’t hard at all to upgrade your “Tuesday Taco Night” to be meatless and include fresh, local ingredients.
4. I know that having access to fresh fruits and vegetables makes a plant-based diet easier and more pleasing to the palate. Do you have a garden where you grow your own produce? If not, where do you purchase your fresh items?
I don’t seem to have much of an interest in gardening beyond a few simple herbs. I wouldn’t be surprised if that changes some day, but right now life is too busy for me to make it a priority.
I love to shop at our local farmer’s markets. Seattle is lucky to have one every day of the week in various neighborhoods, several of which are year-round. And when I can’t make it to the farmer’s market, I hit our local co-op groceries or Whole Foods. I very rarely shop at the more generic grocery chains with their aisles and aisles of junky, prepackaged foods. I also love to hit markets that specialize in particular cuisines, like the phenomenal Asian grocers in our International District, and shops like ChefShop.com and World Spice Merchants that carry life-altering ingredients curated with passion.
5. Is organic food worth the extra cost?
That’s an excellent question with many dimensions, and I don’t have all of the answers. A few things to think about: organic certification is expensive, so some small farmers forego it, but actually adhere to organic standards or better. So at a farmer’s market, look the vendor in the eye and ask about their pest management practices. Also, in the bigger picture, local might be more important than organic.
If you can’t afford to buy all organic, there are lists available of which produce items have the most dangerous pesticide residues and which ones are more-or-less safe even if grown conventionally. I think this whole issue points out why it is important to personally engage with questions around your food supply.
6. What is your opinion of genetically modified food ? Do you feel there is any place for GMOs in the modern diet?
I haven’t studied this issue deeply, but I strongly believe that government should allow and require labeling of GMO products so that consumers can make their own choices.
7. What, in your opinion, are the most important things a newbie-vegetarian can do to embrace the lifestyle?
I think we covered this one above.
8. Have you personally given any thought to prepping, per se and if so, what have you done to plan for long term food storage the food that you and your family prefers to eat?
Honestly, I haven’t spent a lot of time on this. Although my wife will tell you, the way I stockpile ingredients, we’d have at least a month’s supply of calories on hand at any given moment. My basement pantry is full to the brim with different kinds of rice and grains, beans, and high quality canned products. Although I haven’t delved into it yet, I’d like to learn a lot more about food preservation – for preparation, yes, but also for flavor!
People are doing such wonderful things with home canning, pickling and other kinds of preservation these days, I feel it is only a matter of time before I get into it.
9. What about your book? Can you summarize what it is about and how the recipes were developed?
I’d be glad to! I’ve always loved cookbooks, so when Harvard Common Press reached out to me a couple of years ago to write one, I was beyond thrilled. The book is called Herbivoracious: A Flavor Revolution with 150 Vibrant and Original Vegetarian Recipes .
There is a focus on hearty main dishes that you can build a meal around. There are over 80 color photos, which I took myself using the skills I’ve developed on the blog. There is a section in the front introducing ingredients that might be less familiar or where I can offer you additional tips on how to buy and use them, and another one where I talk about the kitchen equipment that I’ve found stands the test of time.
Throughout the book, in the headnotes and boxes, I’ve got hundreds of tips that will help you go beyond the recipes to understanding the techniques and thought processes behind them, so you will become a better cook while making meals your family will love.
10. Do you have a favorite recipe that you would like to share with my readers? (And by the way, everyone should memorize your recipe for a homemade vinaigrette. It is a travesty to purchase the bottled
Absolutely! I love sushi, but rolling it by hand is challenging and certainly not something most folks will do for a weeknight supper. Enter chirashi (scattered) sushi. You just make vinegared sushi rice and then add an array of toppings that suit your mood and your guests. It is particularly great if you have kids or picky eaters, because they can select just the toppings they want.
Here is the recipe:
Chirashi (“scattered”) sushi is presented in a bowl instead of rolled up in nori sheets, so it is a lot simpler to make. Don’t be intimidated by the list of toppings below. This is a fairly elaborate version, but you can absolutely simplify it. You could make this with nothing but avocado and fried tofu, and it would still be delicious.
My strategy is to get the rice cooking and then simply make as many toppings as I have time for. Feel free to substitute others that fit into the Japanese palette. Pickled daikon, sweet omelet (tamago), a few tempura green beans, or asparagus would all be very welcome.
FOR THE SUSHI RICE
2 cups Japanese rice
6 tablespoons rice vinegar
3 tablespoons sugar
4 teaspoons kosher salt
FOR THE COOKED TOPPINGS
1 medium or 2 small Japanese eggplants
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
1/3 cup water
1 cup beech mushrooms or other small button mushroom
8 shiitake mushroom caps
1 pound extra-firm tofu, cut into eight 1 1/2 x 3 x 1/2-inch pieces
TO SERVE THE SUSHI
1 tablespoon rice vinegar
1 handful kaiware radish sprouts
4 shiso leaves
Half a ripe avocado, thinly sliced
2 teaspoons umeboshi plum paste (or 4 pickled umeboshi plums, pitted and mashed)
1. For the sushi rice: Cook the rice using a rice cooker or according to package directions. Whisk together the rice vinegar, sugar, and salt.
2. When the rice is done, turn it out into a large, shallow wooden bowl (such as a salad bowl) and sprinkle on the vinegar mixture. With one hand, fan the rice with a magazine or something similar; at the same time, with your other hand, gently cut and fold the rice with a paddle. Do not stir the rice or it will become mushy. Keep cutting and fanning until the liquid is absorbed and the rice has nearly cooled down to room temperature, about 5 minutes.
3. For the cooked toppings: Cut the eggplant in half lengthwise. If using medium eggplant, cut it again in half lengthwise. Score the skin side of each eggplant in a fine diamond pattern, making cuts about 1/4 inch apart.
4. Heat a large skillet over medium-high heat and add 1 tablespoon of the oil. Add the eggplant, flesh side down, and cook until starting to brown, about 3 minutes. Flip and cook for 2 minutes. Add water; cover the pan and continue cooking until thoroughly tender, about 3 to 5 minutes more. Remove the eggplant and season with salt.
5. Wipe out the skillet, add 1 tablespoon of the oil, and increase the heat to high. Stir-fry the beech mushrooms for 1 minute, then transfer them to a plate with a slotted spoon. Repeat with the shiitake mushrooms caps (adding a bit more oil if needed), cooking for about 2 minutes.
6. Return the skillet to high heat, add the remaining 1 tablespoon of oil, and cook the tofu in a single layer until golden brown, about 2 minutes on each side. Remove and season with salt.
7. To serve: Peel the cucumber, then use the peeler to shave it into long, thin sheets, avoiding the seeds. Toss the cucumber with the rice vinegar and a pinch of salt.
8. Divide the sushi rice among four bowls. Carefully arrange portions of the eggplant, beech mushrooms, shiitakes, cucumber, sprouts, shiso, avocado, ginger, and plum paste around the rice. Finish with the wasabi, making sure that it’s visible so that it isn’t eaten accidentally all at once.
11. Do you have anything else you would like to share with Backdoor Survival?
Thanks for taking the time to speak with me, and may all your meals be delicious! I’d always love to hear from you at michael [at] herbivoracious.com, and if you enjoyed this interview, you can sign up for my free newsletter here: Herbivoracious Email Updates
The Final Word
If (or shall I say when) the food crisis deepens, we all will be dependent upon grains, legumes and garden vegetables and fruits for sustenance. Whether you choose a plant based diet or not, it is good to be aware of the options for cooking without meats. If you like to cook, you are in luck. Michaels book is gorgeous and full of mouthwatering photos of the various recipes. (And just a thought, check your local library for a copy.)
One thing for sure – I am going t make Michael’s “Sushi in a Bowl” using rice and the freeze-dried veggies I have accumulated as part of my food storage program.
Enjoy your next adventure through common sense and thoughtful preparation!
Herbivoracious: If you are even thinking about incorporating more plant based foods in your diet, take a look at this book. I can personally vouch for the recipes which are highly adaptable, visually gorgeous, and good to eat. To quote Michael:
“It seems that everyone I meet, even dedicated carnivores, recognizes the value of eating more plant-based meals.”
Bargain Bin: If you browse Michael’s website, you will see that he is also a huge fan of cast iron skillets. He also loves his spatula, the LamsonSharp Chef’s Slotted Turner. Now I want one too!
Lodge Logic 12-Inch Pre-Seasoned Skillet: This purchase changed the way I cook. I se my cast iron cookware for everything from salmon, to bacon and eggs, to biscuits. Don’t forget the Lodge Set of 2 Pan Scrapers, a must have for cleaning those food bits from your cast iron cookware.
Lodge Logic Pre-Seasoned 15 Inch Cast-Iron Skillet: Similar to the 12” skillet only bigger. Actually, quite huge (and yes, I finally have one!).
Lodge Dutch Oven/Camp Stove: I originally purchased this Dutch oven because it was so darn cute. But over time, I have learned to love it for its versatility. Remember, a camp stove is designed so that you can bake with it by arranging charcoal on top of the lid as well as underneath the Dutch Oven itself.
Ove’ Gloves Hot Surface Handler: I cannot say enough about these hand and arm protectors. I have permanent scars from hitting my arm on the rack of my oven. I can only imagine what I would look like if I did not use these with my cast iron cookware. Forget the colorful silicon hot pads. These are 1000 times better!
Four Silicone Brushes: I call these”mop thingies”. Great for layering a nice thin coat of oil on your cast iron pans.
Lodge 5-Quart Double Dutch Oven and Casserole with Skillet Cover: This is another cool piece. This Dutch Oven does not have legs and is designed for indoor use – but it can be used outdoors too. Just don’t forget the Ove Gloves.
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