Q&A with Saveur Award-Winning Blogger Laura Wright, Author of The First Mess
With more people choosing a healthy lifestyle — and caring about where their food comes from and how it makes them feel — home cooks are flocking to Saveur award-winning blogger Laura Wright of The First Mess for both accessible seasonal vegan recipes and her captivating storytelling.
Why start a food blog?
Laura Wright: I was honestly just bored when I started my blog. I had been working in restaurants for a while and was getting called off shifts at a not-so-busy spot. So my friend suggested I take all of these things I had learned about plant-based cooking and apply it to an online project.
How did you learn to cook plant-based foods?
LW: I attended a nutritional culinary program that had me learning meat, fish, dairy, egg and produce preparations. Just learning the basics of classic cookery helped me when I applied it to my plant-based preferences. For my internship portion of college, I went to a strictly vegan restaurant, which was interesting in a lot of ways, but quite educational. I also grew up with a mother who cooked from scratch pretty much every night, so watching and learning from her gave me a good start.
What impact did growing up on a farm have on your perspective of food, cooking and community?
LW: I wouldn’t call it a farm — more of a large-scale hobby garden. The constant presence of fresh, seasonal food on the part of my family definitely put me on the right path. I cook at home and plant my own vegetables in the summer because of my upbringing, which is a huge part of my life now. I don’t really waste food because I know what goes into its passage from seed to dinner. I have such a reverence for the superior flavor of good produce, whole grains, nuts, seeds, etc. They make cooking easy, nourishing and fun — and that’s the message I try to convey with my work.
Why cook by season when these days so much produce is available year-round?
LW: I do bring some imported produce into my kitchen during the deep winter. My diet is entirely plant-based and nearing the end of February, things like cabbage, potatoes, and other stored items start to get old. I get the greens, avocados and citrus from California like so many other people do around that time, and I feel fine about it. Once we get into proper spring though, and right up until early November, I try to cook as seasonally as I can because it just feels good. I think the body naturally craves what’s popping up out of the ground and off the branches as it all happens. The flavor is also hard to beat.
Why do you recommend plant-based meals every day over eating everything in moderation?
LW: I don’t think I generally recommend one over the other, and I think you can eat plant-based with a sense of moderation at the same time, too. A plant-based lifestyle has helped me feel my best, my most energetic and I love the food that I make with it as a guide. I respect that every body is different, and everyone responds differently to certain foods. I’m not trying to get the whole world to go vegan, but if a family decides to forgo meat or cheese one night a week in favor of one of my recipes, that gets me excited.
How did your body feel differently when you first went vegan in college? Do you still feel the same health benefits are true?
LW: I immediately felt like I had a surplus of energy. At that moment of life when I made the change, I was doing plant-based with lots of fresh vegetables, whole grains, pulses and nuts/seeds (I still eat that way). Nothing processed or pre-fab like tofu “chicken” nuggets or something. I was sleeping better and didn’t find myself hitting the afternoon slump as hard. And I do feel the same benefits now! I’ve had to change some things as I get a tiny bit older, but I feel like those core whole foods still give me the best energy.
Is vegan cooking easy — and affordable enough — for every day?
LW: Yes and yes. If you learn a few basic preparation methods—like how to make a good salad dressing, a batch of brown rice or quinoa, a pot of beans, a good smoothie that you like, you’re already on your way to eating well with relative ease. I don’t think good food has to be complicated, but I also feel like anyone can learn to appreciate the transformation that cooking more often brings into your life. As long as you’re starting with whole foods, plant-based eating is quite affordable. You don’t need to stock your pantry with superfoods and fancy vegan versions of cheese, or anything like that. Whole grains, dried beans and nuts/seeds in bulk are accessible for a lot of people.
Why do you think there’s a perception that vegans don’t get enough protein? What are your favorite sources of protein?
LW: I don’t understand that perception! I guess it makes sense if you grew up with meat/eggs at the center of your plate. I eat a highly varied, whole food, plant-based diet, so I know that all the grains, pulses, vegetables, nuts, etc. will eventually add up to a complete protein that my body can use over the course of the day. I’ve never in my life felt deficient in protein and I work out regularly. My favorite sources of plant-based protein are quinoa, hemp seeds and chickpeas.
What three pieces of advice would you give a vegan beginner?
LW: 1: Start small. Learn five core meal-appropriate recipes from front to back, and keep experimenting once you have those locked down.
2: Watch YouTube videos of professional plant-based cooks to get a better idea of what sensory cues you’re looking for with basic recipes.
3: Remember that it’s just food and even the most colossal failure is usually edible or easily repurposed.
Veganism is on the rise — especially among teens. Do you think social media has helped elevate its popularity?
LW: Oh, for sure! The amount of YouTube and Instagram accounts dedicated to eating healthy and vegan (many of them started by young people) create an infectious energy. These accounts showcase such beautiful, colorful food. The positivity that beams off many of these pages is easy to catch. I also think a healthy lifestyle has become much cooler in the last 5 years or so. People care more about where their food comes from and how it makes them feel.
What are five must-have items every vegan starter pantry should have? How about every vegan dream pantry?
5 Must-Have Items Every Vegan Starter Pantry Should Have: Brown rice; Dry/canned beans; Tamari soy sauce; Canned tomatoes; Good olive oil
5 Must-Have Items Every Vegan Dream Pantry Should Have: Miso paste; Nutritional yeast; Spices; Maple syrup; and Vinegars (balsamic, apple cider, sherry). Bonus: Roasted almond butter.
Please share a favorite season recipe from your cookbook.
LW: Yes, I’d love to share my Gingered Brussels Sprout and Shiitake Pot Stickers. They look fussy to make with their folded tops, but they’re anything but. After I moisten the edge of the wonton wrapper, I quickly pinch and secure in any way I can to get the Brussels sprout and shiitake filling locked in. They wind up looking pretty in that “perfectly imperfect” way. If I’m serving these as a snack or an appetizer, I brown them ahead of time and just keep them warm on a low setting in the oven. The salty-sweet soy dip absolutely makes these!
Gingered Brussels Sprout and Shiitake Pot Stickers (pictured above at top right)
Makes: about 25 pot stickers
1/4 cup (50 mL) gluten-free tamari soy sauce
2 tablespoons (30 mL) pure maple syrup
1/2-inch (1 cm) piece of fresh ginger, peeled and finely grated with a Microplane grater
1 green onion, finely sliced
2 teaspoons (10 mL) sesame seeds
1 tablespoon (15 mL) virgin olive oil, plus extra for cooking
1 medium shallot, fine dice (about 1/4 cup/50 mL diced shallot)
1 cup (250 mL) thinly sliced shiitake mushrooms
2 cups (500 mL) sliced Brussels sprouts (about 1/2 pound/227 g)
1 clove garlic, minced
1-inch (2.5 cm) piece of fresh ginger, peeled and minced
salt and pepper, to taste
25 wonton wrappers
Make the dipping sauce: Whisk the tamari, maple syrup, ginger, green onion, and sesame seeds together in a small bowl. Set aside.
Make the pot stickers: Heat the olive oil in a large sauté pan over medium heat. Add the shallots. Stir and cook until fragrant and translucent, about 3 minutes. Add the shiitake mushrooms. Stir and sauté the mushrooms until they start to soften, about 2 minutes. Add the Brussels sprouts, garlic, and ginger, and stir. Season everything with salt and pepper. Keep stirring the filling until the Brussels sprouts are bright green and slightly wilted, about 1 minute. Remove from the heat, and allow the filling to cool slightly.
Set out a small bowl of water. To assemble the pot stickers, divide the vegetable filling among the wonton wrappers, placing about 1 tablespoon (15 mL) of the filling in the center of each wonton wrapper. Take one filled wonton wrapper and dip your finger in the bowl of water. Moisten two sides of the wrapper, fold all sides together, and pinch along the edge to form a seal. Repeat with the remaining filled wrappers.
Wipe the sauté pan and heat a thin slick of olive oil over medium heat. Fry the pot stickers in batches until they’re golden brown on all sides, about 1 full minute per side. Add more oil to the pan as needed to finish cooking all the pot stickers.
Serve the pot stickers hot with the dipping sauce on the side.
Per serving (1): Calories:43; Fat 1 g (Saturated Fat 0 g); Sodium 302 mg; Carbohydrate 8 g; Fiber 1 g; Sugar: 1 g; Protein 2 g
Recipe reprinted from The First Mess Cookbook by arrangement with Avery Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company. Copyright © 2017, Laura Wright
Silvana Nardone is the author of Silvana’s Gluten-Free and Dairy-Free Kitchen: Timeless Favorites Transformed.