Interview with Cookbook Virtuoso, Nava Atlas

by Elisa Rodriguez, RD, LDN

As the holidays rapidly approach, I have got to share this fantastic veg-friendly resource: Vegan Holiday Kitchen.

Here’s the book overview: Have yourself a happy vegan holiday! This exciting, inviting cookbook by veteran author Nava Atlas brilliantly fills the biggest gap in the vegan repertoire with more than 200 delectable, completely doable recipes for every festive occasion:

·       Thanksgiving and Autumn
·       Christmas and The Holiday Season
·       Jewish Holidays: Passover, Rosh Hashanah, Hanukkah
·       Easter and Spring
·       Independence Day and Summer Entertaining
·       Celebratory Brunches, Easy Appetizers and Creative Potluck dishes

It’s the perfect edition to any vegan kitchen!

Paging through this beautiful book I was delighted to see recipes clearly labeled, with simple modifications to provide gluten-, soy- and/or nut-free variations. Vibrant pages throughout contain more than 40 dazzling photos by Susan Voisin of FatFree Vegan Kitchen.

Be on the lookout for tomorrow’s post detailing how to win a free copy of this fantastic resource. In the meantime, make sure you’re on the mailing list.

I’ve been using one of Nava’s cookbooks for years, so I though what better way to learn where all this deliciousness began than from the expert herself. Atlas’s self-taught talents and innate tendency to go-against-the-norm are intriguing…

Elisa: Nava, what initially inspired you to become a vegetarian and how long have you lived a vegan lifestyle?

Nava: I grew up in a home where meat was always on the dinner plate, and for reasons I don’t quite understand, I was always turned off by it. What vegetables there were on the table were always overcooked. Back then, even the notion of being a vegetarian was pretty radical, but by the time I was 17, I’d decided to cut meat out of my diet. My parents weren’t happy at first, but I cooked for myself. Not long after, everyone wanted some of what I was having.

So that happened more years ago than I’d like to admit! My present family—husband and two sons—went vegan 9 years ago. Just as I was the first vegetarian in my family, and the youngest sibling, my younger son was the first to declare himself vegan at age 10. But instead of freaking out like my parents did, I was very proud of him!

Elisa: How has vegetarianism influenced your life over the years?

Nava: First of all, I think that my mom unintentionally put me on a path to becoming a vegetarian cookbook author when she said I’d have to cook for myself. I discovered I really enjoyed not only cooking, but shopping for all the 1970s-style “brown foods” in vogue back then—brown rice, barley, lentils, etc. Becoming vegan is so much more than about what you are eating. It’s an entire lifestyle based on not wanting to do harm to other living beings in pursuit of your own desires. It’s also an environmental statement—animal agriculture, aside from how evil it is to the creatures, contributes greatly to greenhouse gases and the pollution of water, air and soil.

It feels like a powerful way to make a difference each and every day and I’m so grateful and honored to be part of the vegan movement.

Elisa: Plant-based eating has grown in popularity recently; what specific changes have you seen over the past decade in the vegetarian world?

Nava: First of all, it has become so much more mainstream. Features in magazines, newspapers, etc., tout this as a healthy choice. It is presented as something people can ease into, or just do the best they can with, in order to live more healthfully. Bill Clinton has been an amazing spokesperson for veganism, and Oprah has done a lot on the subject as well. I see more vegan eateries everywhere, not just in large cities. Vegans are considered cool and admirable, whereas 20 years ago even vegetarians were often looked on as pathetic nut cases. Of course, the proliferation of vegan blogs and publications has been incredible as well.

Elisa: When and where did you develop your culinary experience?

Nava: As I mentioned, it began as a rebellious teen in my parents’ home. I have no formal culinary education. I was an art student, getting my BFA many years ago, and then an MA not so many years ago. My three paths — 1) publishing (I also write other kinds of books aside from cookbooks), most recently The Literary Ladies’ Guide to the Writing Life, 2) art, and 3) food have increasingly intersected in recent years and that has been very gratifying. But to answer your question more directly, I think I just developed my cooking skills by practice and having an affinity for food. It’s like another creative medium for me. And I’ve always enjoyed keeping recipes as simple as possible. I’m not in the kitchen cooking all day. I have a crazy life like everyone else and so can relate to that 6 o’clock crunch.

Elisa: What recommendations would you make for those wishing to sharpen their culinary skills in an affordable way?

Nava: Find cookbooks you like; don’t be afraid to experiment on your own; join or organize a vegetarian or vegan group (organizations or meet-ups) and exchange ideas for great meals at once-a-month potlucks.

Elisa: What inspired you to become an author and was it a challenge to originally publish your work?

Nava: I got my foot though the door at a time when there weren’t a billion people wanting to publish vegetarian (and now vegan) cookbooks. It was actually my husband who started to push me to write down recipes for dishes that I spontaneously concocted, so I could make them again. After a while I amassed a number of recipes and put them together with my artwork and design. I also incorporated my love for literature, with literary quotations about food. That book became Vegetariana (1984). It was a very quirky book but pretty successful, so it put me on this path that was somewhat unexpected. It has been a fun and low-stress “day job,” however!

Elisa: Now that you’ve created nine cookbooks plus Vegan Holiday Kitchen, what inspires your creativity for recipes like Sauerkraut, Potato, and Apple Stuffing?

I’m always trying new things, and experimenting with new flavor combinations. Being vegan is not what someone looking at it from a meat-centric perspective might expect; rather than being limiting, it opens your palate to such a wide array of adventurous choices. There are so many more kinds of fruits and veggies available than there were when I was growing up (iceberg lettuce was pretty much the only salad green!), and the proliferation of ethnic groceries and eateries has also widened the array of choices. So I keep my eyes and palate open, and there seems to be an never ending array of creative possibilities.

Elisa: Obviously your books offer a variety of tasty vegan recipes. How have non-vegans responded to your meals?

Nava: My greatest compliment is when people say “I could be a vegan if I could eat like this every day” after they’ve had a meal at my home. I keep trying to convince people that it’s not at all complicated!

Elisa: What is the main message you’d like readers to take away when creating meals from Vegan Holiday Kitchen?

Nava: The main message is that you can experience favorite holiday food traditions with some contemporary twists while still enjoying healthy, compassionate meals. Gathering around a holiday table with family and friends is an oasis of comfort in this crazy world of ours. Food is a universal language, and sharing glorious meals that do no harm to animals or the earth makes the experience all the more satisfying.

Elisa: What other books or projects do you currently have in the works?

Nava: Wild About Greens is in production and will be ready to hit the shelves in June 2012. I always say that kale is the new broccoli — so many people are crazy about kale, collards, bok choy, arugula, and the other leafy veggies that have proliferated everywhere, from the supermarket to the CSA. I’m also working on a graphic novel quite unrelated to anything I’ve ever done! I think that being vegan gives me a lot of mental energy and clarity …

Nava Atlas

Nava Atlas is the author and illustrator of nine previous books (see below) on vegetarian cooking. She has long been considered an expert in meat-free holiday fare, which is the most popular area of her website, www.VegKitchen.com. Nava also has written scores of articles on healthful cooking with natural foods, which have appeared in Vegetarian Times, VegNews, Cooking Light, and numerous other publications.

Other Books written by Nava Atlas:

Cookbooks:
·       Vegan Soups and Hearty Stews for All Seasons
·       Vegan Express
·       The Vegetarian Family Cookbook
·       The Vegetarian 5-Ingredient Gourmet
·       Pasta East to West
·       Great American Vegetarian
·       Vegetarian Express
·       Vegetarian Celebrations
·       Vegetariana

Visual Nonfiction:
·       The Literary Ladies’ Guide to the Writing Life
·       Secret Recipes for the Modern Wife
·       Expect the Unexpected When You’re Expecting!

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Amanda Cracroft November 15, 2011 at 10:47 AM

This was an awesome interview!! I really enjoyed hearing why and how she came to where she is today! What an inspiration! I’m really looking forward to her book next year, Wild About Greens!! (and I’ll also keep my eyes open for the give away, i would LOVE to add that book to my collection!!!)

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Elisa Rodriguez, RD, LDN November 15, 2011 at 10:52 AM

I agree Amanda! I really enjoyed getting an inside glimpse as to how Nava has evolved into such an accomplished chef. Really looking forward to her take on preparing greens as well!! I’ll do my best to keep your cookbook collection growing ;-) Thanks for commenting!!

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