James Beard Award winner Anna Thomas wrote her first cookbook as a film student at UCLA in the early 1970s. An unexpected bestseller, The Vegetarian Epicure is widely credited as the book that launched the Western movement of pleasurable vegetarian cuisine. Last month, Thomas published her fifth collection of recipes, Vegan Vegetarian Omnivore: Dinner for Everyone at the Table. We chatted with the author and filmmaker to get her take on designing crowd-pleasing meals and much, much more.
On The Vegetarian Epicure….
There wasn’t much around, even books, for vegetarians at the time. I wrote this book in my youthful enthusiasm, and it was all about food that I loved to eat. That approach to vegetarian cooking hadn’t happened before. It was sort of grim. [Vegetarianism] was [based on] duty and “it’s good for you” and some kind of self-denial.
I wasn’t about self-denial. And I didn’t want anything that was a substitute for something else. I wasn’t interested in mock chicken cutlets. I didn’t want to be mocking anything! I wanted everything to be the best version of itself. And I think a lot of people were very happy to see that.
On communal eating…
It’s very, very important what we put on the table, but something else is more important, and that’s who is at the table. We can’t give up on gathering our friends and family, our comrades, and sitting down together to share a meal. People see that as a detail of civilized life. I see it as the foundation of civilization. We have to be able to sit down together and break bread.
On plant-based foods…
There are a million foods that we all eat. You go to the bar and have your guacamole and chips, and it’s not the vegan guacamole and chips, it’s just the guacamole and chips that everybody eats! People tend to put [vegan food] in this food ghetto where it’s a thing that is a substitute or a lesser version of something else. And of course it’s not. It’s really the food that everybody eats, and then there are a number of people who eat other things as well.
Because we grow up in a meat-centric food culture, the tendency is to start with our old ideas of meat in the middle and something else around it, and find ways to substitute or adjust. But the minute you’re substituting or taking something away, you’re compromising. And I thought, “We’re doing this backwards!” How about we start with the food everyone eats and create a beautiful meal.
Thanksgiving seems to be a time when this type of problem reaches critical mass, and I think that’s so sad. I think we should be able to have dinner party, not a breakdown. So I designed a menu that really works for me when I have lots of different kinds of people over for Thanksgiving. It’s a beautiful meal based around this wonderful polenta torta with roasted squash and caramelized onions and roasted and stewed vegetables around it. It was a fantastic meal, but you could also have turkey with it, and everything went with everything. People could choose how they designed their meal on their plate.
I hate the sight of my vegan friends picking their way around the edge of the plate carefully. I don’t think anyone should feel sidelined at the table. That’s not fair! But at the same time, I don’t want to make anybody feel guilty. I’m not going to tell people you must eat this, or you should eat that. Everybody’s going to figure that out for themselves.
When they come to my table, I want everybody to feel welcomed and honored and we can all sit down together. It’s only that way that we’re going to get anywhere in the world.
On designing a flexible meal…
When people say, “I don’t know what to do, I’m going to have these people over!” I say, well, make this soup. It’s a beautiful robust vegetable soup that’s like a meal in a bowl. You can drop a beautiful toasted cheese crouton on top, or a spoonful of cannellini beans, or you can add seafood and make it a seafood stew. You can make a huge batch of this and divide it between two pots and easily make everybody at your table happy. And it seems easy then, and suddenly it seems okay to invite people over again and make a meal again.
On Vegan Vegetarian Omnivore…
It’s the first book I’ve written that expands outside of vegetarian food, but it also happens to be the book that has the most really great vegan recipes. I think it’s a really great vegan cookbook that also happens to have a pork and pine nut meatball recipe in it.
On her upcoming book signing…
Bring those dog-eared copies of The Vegetarian Epicure! I’m always so happy to see those. Somebody brought one once that was being held together by rubber bands. It had completely fallen apart. It was my favorite one.
Anna Thomas will be speaking and signing at Powell’s City of Books at 4 p.m. Sunday, May 15. Her latest book, Vegan Vegetarian Omnivore, is available at Powell’s and many other retailers.
Carrot and Walnut Cake
The fresh crop of walnuts in the fall is a good excuse to bake this moist, dense, and spicy cake. I’ve tried many carrot cakes and find most of them too heavy and oily. This one delivers all the flavor and feels just right.
2 1/3 cups (9 1/2 oz.) unbleached all-purpose flour
1 Tbs. baking powder
1 tsp. baking soda
3/4 tsp. sea salt
2 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp. ground nutmeg
1/2 tsp. ground cloves
1 cup fresh orange juice
1 1/2 tsp. grated orange zest
1/2 cup canola oil
3/4 cup (5 1/2 oz.) granulated sugar
1/2 cup (3 oz.) dark brown sugar
2 tsp. vanilla extract
1 cup (4 1/2 oz.) finely chopped walnuts
1/4 cup (1 1/2 oz.) candied ginger, finely chopped
2 cups (8 oz.) grated carrots
1/2 cup (2 1/2 oz.) raisins
1 cup powdered sugar
1 tsp. vodka
3–4 tsp. strained orange juice
1/4 tsp. almond extract
Sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves. In another bowl, whisk together the orange juice, zest, canola oil, sugars, and vanilla extract. Add the dry ingredients to the wet mixture in 2 or 3 batches, beating with an electric mixer until just combined. Stir in the finely chopped walnuts, ginger, grated carrots, and raisins. Preheat the oven to 350°.
Oil two round cake pans and line the bottoms with oiled parchment. Spoon the batter evenly into the pans and bake the cakes for 40 to 45 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Cool the cakes before removing them from the pans.
Combine the powdered sugar in a bowl with the vodka, 3 teaspoons orange juice, and the almond extract. Stir until the sugar is dissolved. If the mixture is more a paste than a sauce, add more orange juice. You should have a smooth glaze that pours slowly from a spoon. This amount is sufficient to glaze 1 cake generously or to make light swirls over 2 cakes. Drizzle the glaze over the cakes, letting it drip down the sides. Allow the glaze to dry before covering the cakes.
My favorite way to finish these cakes is with that citrusy sugar glaze. But the cakes can also be dusted with powdered sugar or garnished with a spoonful of crème fraîche. Or you can make your favorite frosting and put together a layer cake.
Even though this moist cake keeps well for several days if covered tightly with plastic wrap, you will have a hard time keeping it that long.
Makes 2 small cakes or 1 layer cake, enough for 12 servings
Recipes and images from Vegan Vegetarian Omnivore by Anna Thomas. Copyright © 2016 by Independent Productions, Inc. With permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.