Several months ago I attended the Eat Write Retreat event for food writers and bloggers, which took place in Washington, D.C. It was a weekend filled with discussions and a chance to meet some very interesting people in the food industry. Cookbook author Michael Natkin was one of those people. He talked about the process of writing Herbivoracious, an incredibly vibrant cookbook full of interesting and ethnically-diverse vegetarian recipes that are simple to make but uniquely set apart from any other vegetarian cookbook I’d seen before.
I read the book cover to cover and became so inspired to cook more vegetarian meals than ever before. I also knew that I had a ton of questions about how Michael came to write this book since I found his recipes to be globally-inspired and have several that feature super healthy recipes from Middle Eastern cuisine.
Michael Natkin, author of Herbivoracious
I also knew that I wanted to tell you about the book and let you have a chance to get a free copy for yourself. Check out the giveaway details at the end of this post, right after my interview with Michael Natkin, which I think you’ll find interesting and inspiring at the same time…
MHK: You have a very interesting background experience with food. Can you tell us more about your time at the Green Gulch Farm and how it influenced your early years of cooking?
NATKIN: Green Gulch is an amazing place! It is a farm run by the San Francisco Zen Center, in a secluded valley by the beach in Marin County. I lived there for a few months when I was taking time off from college, approximately 3 centuries ago. The farm grows beautiful organic vegetables, and at first I would work in the fields. When they found out I had an interest in cooking, I moved into the kitchen. I’d get up at 4 AM, do the first round of meditation then go in and prepare breakfast for the monks. We’d make three simple meals a day using the incredible produce, and on the weekends we’d do an enormous brunch for the larger community. I fell in love with working in a professional kitchen and that passion has never left me.
MHK:How did you come up with these delicious, simple yet quite unique vegetarian recipes? Did you find inspiration in any unlikely places?
NATKIN: For me, the food itself is endless inspiration. Whether it is learning about a spice I’ve never tried before, experimenting with molecular gastronomy, eating at an amazing restaurant, or just the plain simple thrill of tasting a dish and thinking: HECK YEAH, I just find food endlessly fascinating. And I love to share that excitement with anyone around me who makes the mistake of showing the slightest passing interest.
MHK: Your book promises to give omnivores a variety of vegetarian recipes that will basically make them forget there isn’t any meat in the dish. Why do you feel so strongly about the satisfaction of vegetarian meals can provide?
NATKIN: When people think of vegetarian food, the first image they have in their mind is usually some sad, gray, notionally “healthy” lentil loaf, or the dreaded plate of steamed vegetables. I don’t build vegetarian meals by removing the meat and then trying to fill the hole in the middle of the plate. I start with all of the amazing vegetables, grains and dairy products in the world and design dishes from the ground up to be filling, hearty, and exciting. I make sure to incorporate a balance of sweet, salty, sour, bitter and umami flavors and use a variety of techniques and flavor profiles to keep things interesting.
MHK: You call some of your recipes in this book “deeptracks”, or authentic versions of lesser-known traditional foods from around the world that were always vegetarian or can be made vegetarian without losing their essence, many of which I cannot wait to try. Why did you choose these over say, fusion foods?
NATKIN: To me, culinary fusion is a real tightrope walk. It *can* be amazing, but so often it is just misguided. I remember a cafe in Seattle (long gone) that used to serve things like “yam sandwich with pesto, sundried tomatoes and Thai spiced hummus“. Ugh. If I do venture into fusion, I try to create a storyline in my head that leads to good culinary sense, like “what would a Japanese grandmother make if she moved to Mississippi?” But more often than not, I start with those “deep tracks” you are talking about. For example, I imagine many of your Middle Eastern readers are familiar with ful medames. But to most of my audience, that dish isn’t among the few Middle Eastern dishes they know. So I get excited to share it with them – especially the version that migrated to Ethiopia, which is among my favorites – the fava beans are mashed up and spiced with berbere, and served with a crusty Italian bread to mop them up. Fantastic. Similarly, if I’m going to teach a Thai dish, it won’t be pad Thai, it will be Khao Soi – a spicy noodle soup from Chiang Mai with an incredible chili and coconut milk broth.
MHK: What would you say to anyone who is skeptical about vegetarian cooking, whether it is due to time planning for the meals, selecting great produce, achieving great flavor, etc.?
NATKIN: Ultimately, vegetarian food is just food. If you have been basing meals around meat your whole life, there clearly is a learning curve to familiarize yourself with new ingredients and methods for putting vegetables and grains in the center of the plate. But it is nothing unmanageable. My thing isn’t to convince anyone to go meatless. I just think that if you decide to eat even one meatless meal a week, you deserve to have it be delicious!
MHK: Is there anything else you’d like to share with us about your blog and other culinary work?
NATKIN: I sure appreciate you taking the time to interview me, and I hope your readers find it interesting. My blog is located at http://herbivoracious.com, and my cookbook is available on Amazon here.
Michael Natkin is the author of the immensely popular and award-winning vegetarian blog www.Herbivoracious.com. He is known among foodies, vegetarians, and fellow-bloggers for a cutting-edge, light and healthy, beautiful-on-the-plate style of vegetarian cooking. His blog and his recipes have been mentioned nearly a dozen times in the New York Times Diner’s Journal and he has been listed for four consecutive years on Saveur’s “Sites We Love.” He’s known in the blogging community as a crack photographer, and his photos are regularly featured on TasteSpotting, FoodGawker, and other sites. He lives in Seattle with his wife and two daughters.
About the Giveaway
Michael’s publisher, The Harvard Common Press, is giving away one copy of his cookbook, Herbivoracious.
To enter, please read our Official Giveaway Guidelines page first then add a relevant comment answering the question below in order to be entered. Entering indicates you have read the guidelines. Giveaway ends at 12:01 am on August 23, 2012.
Regardless of whether or not you are a vegetarian, what is it about a vegetarian recipe that would prompt you to actually get all the ingredients together to make it?