First Published in Vegetarian Women Online Magazine
Priscilla Feral, president of the international advocacy group Friends of Animals, has been inspiring change in the lives of ordinary people for more than three decades. And now we know Priscilla’s got an extraordinary flair for cooking -- and the equally important talent of explaining how to pull off great meals using simple language and methods. It’s the perfect fit: vegan cuisine, which uses no environmentally costly animal-based products, is the most basic yet attractive way to teach respect and caring for all the earth’s inhabitants.
On the eve of the release of a second cookbook -- the diverse collection of sumptuous recipes that is The Best of Vegan Cooking -- Priscilla sat down to answer a few questions about food, developing recipes, personal health and the artistic pleasure and joy food brings to human culture.
What inspired your love of cooking?
A fondness for good food which was stimulated by both grandmothers, with whom I shared loads of time, both of them preparing food -- shucking corn, and picking lima beans from the garden to make succotash, canning fruit, and making bread in a functional, child-sized oven. And we had tea parties with nice china. They conveyed, in strong measure, both artistic expression through cooking and taking delight in feeding people as an expression of love.
Is there a running theme in your new cookbook, The Best of Vegan Cooking?
High-quality vegan food with some Italian influence. I hope people will buy the cookbook and try making a risotto, perhaps for the first time. The chapter on risottos is a tribute to Italian cooking and my daughter took the photo on the back cover on our recent trip to Italy.
The new book also features recipes from chefs I met, either directly or indirectly, during the creation of the book. I met Trish Sebben-Krupka at an event at the Viking Cooking School in northern New Jersey hosted by a group called Community Green. I was immediately impressed by Trish, whose cooking demonstrations reach so many, knowing and showing an engrossed audience everything from how to make a flax-seed egg to the meaning of using seasonal organics and avoiding genetic modification. Such a chef -- and Trish is outstanding -- has a really broad reach, and the ripples outward are innumerable.
How do you develop your own recipes? What's your process?
In the case of Cauliflower Risotto (everyone loved this dish at a solstice party I arranged, so it’s on my mind), I saw a risotto recipe on the Internet and then just began experimenting -- first changing it to make it vegan, and then coming up with ways to add new zest until I decided it was perfect. Garlic, Vidalia onion, white wine, olive oil, light vegetable stock. No cheese, of course. Voilà! Sometimes I work out an idea for a recipe after eating something wonderful in a restaurant. Typically, pasta recipes are created that way. I go home and try to replicate what I had, after sometimes asking about the ingredients used if I can't identify all of them. Chances are, Bob will have forgotten to pick up one of the ingredients, so creative exploration starts there.
When developing a recipe, what are the factors you take into consideration? Are you thinking, "Will this recipe have broad appeal?" or do you work mainly to satisfy your own palate?
Everything I'm working on is something I happen to crave. I love soups. Sometimes I'm eager to make a dish that can be pulled off in less than 30 minutes, as that has wide appeal. One needs working people's food, as most of us don't have personal chefs, excess time, or budgets to eat in restaurants all the time.
Is there a recipe you especially love in the new cookbook?
Several, actually: A real gem is Baby Artichokes Provençal Style, developed by cookbook author and New York Times’ columnist Mark Bittman. There’s the Cauliflower Risotto, of course, and the Asparagus and Spring Pea Risotto. There’s Trish’s versatile Grilled Corn and Black-Eyed Pea Salad, and the gorgeous Blueberry-Pomegranate Sorbet on the cover -- I'm enthusiastic overall.
What ingredients could you not live without?
Pasta, tomatoes, shallots, Vidalia onions, garlic, olive oil, basil, ginger, broccoli, potatoes and most any fruit.
In your many years of preparing food and developing recipes, what are some of the most important culinary lessons you've learned?
Know what wonderful food looks like. Enjoy the beauty of food. Presentation is as important as the cooking.
What do you think is the best way to make vegan cuisine appealing to a wide audience?
My first cooking teacher said if you can read a recipe, you can cook. That's right. So do it: Make it a point to attend a cooking demonstration, pick up a cookbook, read recipes, learn how to select nice, fresh ingredients and cook. Serving people wonderful food can get them hooked. Then, back it up with the logic and ethics behind what you’re offering. Let people see it’s no sacrifice to commit to a plant-based diet. It's both sensible and sensual.
Any secrets for preparing healthy, delicious meals that are easy and don't require lots of time?
Lay out all of your ingredients on the counter before you get started. Have several timers to use so that everything is completed around the same time, and make it a group project to help chop vegetables and clean up. Concentrate when you're measuring and cooking, though; lots of chatter can be distracting and disastrous.
What do you think is the most important goal when writing a cookbook?
The key is an emphasis on writing a reliable, easy-to-follow recipe that also reads well. For my first cookbook (Dining With Friends: The Art of North American Vegan Cuisine), a person with a doctorate contributed a recipe that couldn't be produced as written. Like advocacy theory, this has to actually work for real people. I also think about young adults who need to learn how to cook, and are often unfamiliar with ingredients and techniques. But the book has to work for all ages -- anyone who wants to be a competent cook -- or to present a really attractive form of advancing the ideas most important to them. So The Best of Vegan Cooking is designed to work -- for cooks, and vegan cooks.
Vegan cookbooks these days seem to follow trends. Cupcakes and dessert themes come to mind. Are there any vegan cooking trends that might have been overdone? Alternatively, are there some trends vegans would be wise to adopt?
Let’s agree not to include the word "skinny" and words that rhyme with witch! I think it’s time to respect each other and the importance of vegan cooking as much more than a diet or fashion trend. I’d like to see a focus on high-quality food that sustains good health. And the environmental awareness, respect for habitat that’s often been overlooked but is such a big part of vegan cooking -- I’d like people to understand that this will never be boring, will never go out of style.
Are there more cookbooks in the works?
Yikes! I’m not sure. There are certainly more recipes.
The Best of Vegan Cooking is available through www.friendsofanimals.org and internationally at www.amazon.com.