I was thrilled for the opportunity to have Isa answer all my burning questions. Check out her thoughts on cashews, the kale ceiling, and the best vegan brunch recipes for impressing your guests. (I pulled photos from Vegan Brunch, courtesy of Isa’s Flickr photostream).
Me: With four published cookbooks and more offerings already in available for preordering, how has your process of writing and creating recipes changes?
Isa: I think about this a lot. Vegan With A Vengeance
was really a culmination of things I had cooked since I began cooking in the 80s until then. It was kind of a food memoir, really. When it came time to make those recipes into a cookbook it was just a matter of getting them into a legible format, having them tested and telling their stories. When I open it now it brings back lots of great memories but I also realize how much I’ve changed and how much my cooking has changed. Recipe writing is really…well, I want to say art, but I guess I mean skill. To get the directions to be clear, to do things as simply as possible and to not bore people to tears. With VwaV I had no idea, I was just writing and I think that was part of the appeal, but now I look at some of the recipes and think of rearranging or simplifying things. I think by Veganomicon
I got better at it but I feel like in Brunch I’ve got it down. My recipes have changed a bunch too because I now do this full time and can just sit around creating recipes, wandering farmer’s markets, watching cooking shows, reading other cookbooks. So yeah, I’m the luckiest girl in the world. I feel like my palate has really matured, too. I don’t have the tastebuds of a 14 year old boy anymore, and I kind of had that with some of my earlier recipes.
How has the process of publishing changed with each project?
Isa: I’m just as procrastinating and deadline missing as ever! It’s actually gotten a little more difficult because when I did VwaV no one cared. Now everyone has an opinion. I’m much more comfortable with a zine mentality but what can you do? Write zines, I suppose.
I often volunteer at tabling events and always sell out of Veganomicon (half of the people at my work own a copy. The biscotti recipes have their own fan club.) Your recipes have a very broad appeal and seem to be influenced by many different cuisines. Have you always cooked this way? How has your diet and recipe repertoire evolved?
Isa: Well, thanks! I think that Veganomicon is the result of not one but two completely obsessed foodies. (Not entirely comfortable with that word but can’t find another one to use.) So the double author thing definitely helps for variety, because there are things that Terry would never make that I would and vice versa. Our styles complement each other, but aren’t exactly the same, so we really lucked out in this partnership. I kind of talked about this in the last question, but my palate has changed so much in the past 10 some odd years. I feel like veganism really awakens your tastebuds. I’m much more in tune with the nuances of a brussel sprout now. My repertoire is always evolving. I hope the day never comes when I say I’ve tried everything.
I spent last weekend pouring through Vegan Brunch and whipping up a dozen different recipes. The amazing flavours have to yet to leave my mind. So, thank you, I seem to treat brunch with the same reverance that you do. With that in mind, what brunch recipe would you recommend to impress that special someone on the morning after a lovely slumber party?
Isa: I say it in the book, but most people will be pleased with scrambled tofu, some homefries and a stack of pancakes. Unfortunately, a cookbook can’t have only 3 recipes! This is a tough question. OK, when you say that special someone I assume you mean you’ve been doing it all night? In that case you’re gonna want something hearty. I really love the scrambled tempeh. It’s got greens in it, too. I can’t be the only person who craves greens the morning after. Oh, but you need something sweet, too. The banana rabanada (Brazilian french toast) is pretty fool proof and yummy.
What contribution to the veg movement are you most proud of?
Isa: I’ve been told I mainstreamed vegan cooking, so if that’s true, or if I got it a little closer, then I am really proud of that. I shattered the kale ceiling.
Now with cupcakes, cookies and brunch taken care of, are there more recipe themes you plan to tackle? Are theme books harder to write than traditional cookbooks?
Isa: Theme books are so much easier because there’s a template. A general cookbook, like VwaV or Veganomicon is so open that it’s easy to flounder. With cupcakes it’s like, hmm, let’s think of anything we can and make it into a cupcake. Margaritas? Sure! Smores? No prob! But sometimes with things like dinner you’re just like “tofu and mashed potatoes AGAIN?”
In creating the recipes for Vegan Brunch did you discover any tips or techniques that you would like to pass on? I was very impressed with the texture and flavour of your omelets-how did you come up with the idea to use chickpea flour?
Isa: The omelets were kind of 10 years in the making so they are a fun one too talk about. I think they started with that vacuum packed silken tofu, but something about the taste wasn’t right. I was also using plain old flour. They were holding together and looking kind of cool but they tasted kind of beany and the texture was rubbery. As I kept trying to refine the recipe, I would just kind of go through each problem and try to eliminate it. The rubbery texture was easily fixed by using a gluten free flour. I use chickpea flour in eggy tasting things (like crepes or french toast) so it was a natural choice. After experimenting a bunch with different kinds of tofu for the base, I landed on the fresh silken tofu and it just all clicked. As far as general tips to pass on, I think just learn the basics. Sauteeing, grilling, roasting…try it all. Learn how ingredients will act and you’ll be a pro in the kitchen.
With such a large repertoire of recipes, what do you tend to make for yourself at the end of a busy day? or for a special occasion?
Isa: I’m very simple when cooking for myself. A grain, a bean and a veggie. Sometimes a sauce. I love the diversity of rice and beans and am coming up with endless variations on that theme. I love simple roasted veggies with olive oil, garlic, salt and pepper. If your produce is good and seasonal, and in Portland it always is, then your food will be good, too. (Provided you don’t burn it or something.) For special occasions I kind of do the same thing, but might get a little more elaborate. Roasted veggies, toasted nuts and dried fruit. Grilled tofu, tempeh or seitan. A pesto out of whatever is fresh and yummy.
Currently, what is your favourite ingredient to play with in the kitchen.
Isa: Probably cashews. There’s a lack of creaminess in vegan cooking and I think cashews really pick up the slack there. I’ve been doing savory cream sauces and fillings, plsu sweet things like ice cream and raw cheesecakes.
What do you consider your greatest culinary feat?
Isa: I think I was the only one with the guts to make a gravy out of smoked almonds.
What is one tip you would share with someone new to vegan living?
Isa: I always say that your tastebuds will catch up with your ethics. Follow your heart. I think that’s the best advice. Come to veganism at your pace and on your terms