Sunday, January 22, 2012

Interview: Eat, Drink, and Be Vegan's Dreena Burton

In addition to being a popular vegan blogger and cookbook author, Dreena Burton is a dedicated mom who also somehow finds time to stay in good touch with her legions of fans. New Vegan Age's Nikki Sabella recently had the opportunity to ask Burton about veganism before it became popular, and learned more about the beauty of beans and the wonder of winter—and even picked up a few tips for mothers raising vegan children.

New Vegan Age: First, I just want to say that I'm not sure that I would be a successful vegan without the help of your cookbooks. My favorite is Eat, Drink, and Be Vegan. And every time I've cooked or baked anything from it, people have been amazed (including nonvegans). They always ask for my recipes. So thank you so much for providing vegans with delicious, whole-food, easy-to-make recipes!

Dreena Burton: Hearing that is heartwarming. Thank you. It's the best kind of reward for a cookbook author to know their recipes are well-used and loved.

NVA: You've been vegan for 14 years, right? Can you tell us what it was like before veganism became more mainstream?

DB: I think that's about right. I've lost count of the years at this point! It was VERY different to become vegan about fifteen years ago. The diet was not well known. I recall having to explain what the word vegan meant at restaurants and stores. I got in the habit of simply saying "I don't eat meat, chicken, fish, dairy or eggs"... of course that was met with confusion. Sometimes shock.

There were few substitutes on the market, just a few soy and rice milks, and most of them tasted awful. Compare that to present day—vegan is a household word (even if the diet isn't), and there are substitutes for just about every non-vegan food imaginable. Plus, options within those vegan foods—like soy-free, nut-free, gluten-free, and more. I sometimes joke "you new vegans have it easy these days". I tell how it was 'in the old days', haha!

NVA: I sure am glad things have evolved since then. But it's still cool to be creative on your own. The vegan community is very much filled with DIYers like you. Do you have any advice for vegans starting out and creating their own recipes?

DB: Before venturing on your own, get some cooking basics with some written recipes by trusted authors. That way, you'll get a sense of how to cook different grains, vegetables, the textures of beans, nuts, pastas, etc. And, once you feel comfortable with even a small range of ingredients and techniques, choose those you love best and then start experimenting. If you love sweet potatoes, find ways to work them into stews, casseroles, spreads, sauces, dips, and even desserts. Seasonings are key too, and that doesn't just mean salt. Sometimes a splash of vinegar or citrus gives the edge, or fresh herbs.

NVA: I go through phases where I cook a lot or hardly cook. Any motivation to stay interested in cooking?

DB: Funny, I haven't taken a break in cooking for years. But, that's out of necessity having three children. I love cooking, and the only time I get tired of it or overwhelmed is when I'm multitasking while working a recipe. And that can happen often! But, if you're needing a break, that's cool. Take one. Sometimes having a breather and just watching some cooking shows or thumbing through a magazine can invigorate your kitchen senses again.

NVA: Good ideas; thanks! Your recipes are for what I like to describe as "vegan soul food." Are there certain ingredients you focus on and others you avoid to create that hearty flavor and texture?

DB: Well, I love beans (as you may have already figured out!) and think they are often under-utilized in vegan cooking. Some of my other favorite ingredients are yellow and orange sweet potatoes, leafy greens, raw nuts, and using citrus like lemon, limes, and oranges in baking and also cooking. And, we use avocados a lot at home. Our girls can inhale 4 or 5 at one sitting ... Our eldest once said "Mom, we should never run out of avocados—ever!" As for ingredients I avoid: Sorry to the seaweed lovers, but I can't deliver any recipes, it makes me gag. Might be a pregnancy association, I'm not sure. I am okay with the kelp granules, but that's about it! And cabbage. Don't care for it, even though I love kale and it is related to cabbage. But the two are very different to me.

NVA: Oh, wow! And I thought I loved avocados! So, you're a beanaholic. Be honest: How many cans of beans do you have in your pantry at the moment? (I think I have 15.)

DB: We have a good 30+ cans ... But, we are low on cannellini beans, not so good. In my ideal world, I would cook all my beans from dried. But, I do so much from-scratch cooking for our family, plus packing lunches for everyone daily, and recipe development/blogging/book developments ... There is little time left over to cook everything from scratch, particularly when you'd like to have a variety of beans, like chickpeas, black, kidney, white, pinto, etc. That's where canned beans come in handy. I do cook lentils from scratch though, because they're pretty quick and simple.

NVA: What's your favorite recipe?

DB: Oi! That's hard. I have favorites from every book, and then favorites within categories, like soups, dips, desserts, and on. And, some of my top picks are not necessarily the same for our children (or my hubby). Let's see. From The Everyday Vegan, I've got to pick 'Triple Layer Chocolate Cream Cake' and 'Maple Banana Loaf'... and for savory, 'Pureed Curried Squash and Sweet Potato Soup', 'Spicy Thai Almond Stew' and 'Roasted Turnip (Rutabega) Puree'.

I also love the Sweet and Sour Neat Balls but don't get to making them often. From Vive le Vegan, I bake a lot from that book for school snacks—like 'Banana Oat Bundles' and 'Apple Hemp Muffins'. I also love the 'Lemon Rosemary Potatoes', 'Cannellini Bean Sweet Potato Hummus', and of course 'Chickpea Ratatouille'—one of my all-time faves! And, I think my 'Homestyle Chocolate Chip Cookies' from Vive set me on a cookie path in the vegan world that I'll cherish forever! That cookie recipe has become so well known and has sparked more creativity for delicious (and healthier) vegan cookies. From Eat, Drink & Be Vegan, I love a bunch of the hummuses. Is that a word?! Is now!

The Moroccan Phyllo Rolls with Balsamic Maple Sauce are also one of my very favorites, and my family loves the 'Cashew Ginger Tofu' and the 'Living Caesar'. The Super-Charge Me! Cookies from ed&bv and the Chocolate Pumpkin Pie are two of my top sweet picks! I've gone on enough, and haven't even started on my faves in my new book.

NVA: Yum! Those are some of my favorites, too. So what would you say is your favorite season to cook for?

DB: I love winter for its inherent draw to soups and stews. So many of our family dinners are hearty stews with either whole-grain bread, brown rice, or roasted potatoes—and a fresh salad. But I'm a warm-weather girl at heart, and just love the farm-fresh vegetables, greens, and herbs of summer. Did someone say basil?! I love pestoing (there I go creating another word, I have my own kitchen-dictionary!), and grilling summer vegetables. So, it's a toss up. I'm the first to admit I'm indecisive.

NVA: I love basil, too. I'm gonna start using 'pestoing' as a word. Sounds like you have it all figured out at home. What do your friends and family think of your lifestyle?

DB: All pretty cool really, at least close family and friends. Not that any of my extended family members are vegan. No one else outside of my immediate family eats a pure vegan diet. A couple that eat vegetarianish I'd say (some fish, some eggs). But, I think that because this is just who we are, it's our life and has been for so many years, there isn't any questioning or teasing or anything like that. (Plus, they know if they tease they get no cookies!) I have a good friend that is purely vegan, and she raises her children on a vegan diet as well. Other than that, everyone else I know eats more of a standard diet.

NVA: Any tips for mothers interested in raising vegan children?

DB: I'd say that parents should have a slew of resources at their hands. They'll always be prompted at doctor visits—and even at times by relatives and friends—questioning their choice to eat a vegan diet. Even if they don't have the exact answer in the moment, they can feel reassured referencing a book or site. I'd recommend books like like "Becoming Vegan", "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Plant-Based Nutrition", "The China Study", and also going to to download nutritional and scientific information. Fortunately there are many more resources to support a healthy plant-based diet now.

NVA: Oh, nice. Always good to know. And what happens if one of your daughter's friends has pepperoni pizza at their party? How have you prepared for this?

DB: Whenever our girls are invited to birthday parties, I ask the mom in advance if they'll be serving hot dogs or pizza (it's usually one or the other). If so, I send along a piece of vegan pizza or a veggie hot dog in a container for them, and also a cookie or cupcake to replace the birthday cake. Parents are always understanding, and I've sometimes had the moms make a vegan cake or serve something vegan-friendly for the girls. Actually, a few times now the moms have made vegan cupcakes or a vegan treat for our daughters! Pretty cool, right?

NVA: That is super cool! You really have this all down to a science. Have you ever thought of writing a vegan parenting book?

DB: Funny you should mention. I've been toying with the idea (pun intended)... and might have a partner with the project. There's a definite gap in the vegan cookbook world, and I am asked fairly regularly about it, so we'll see!

NVA: So glad I asked. How exciting! You seem so motivated overall. Who inspires you?

DB: Gosh, I think apart from my family and wanting to feed them delicious, hearty, and nutritious foods, my inspiration comes from my readers. That sounds kind of corny, I know. But when I receive notes and messages from people saying that my recipes helped them transform their diet, helped them on a path to healthier eating, or even helped them with a health condition... heavens, that kind of thing is so touching and motivating. It gives me extra mojo to keep creating!

NVA: Yes. I noticed you're always so friendly to fans, making sure to comment back to them via your blog or on Facebook. Where do you find time?

DB: That's nice of you to say. Maybe it's the Newfoundlander in me. People often say that there is something real and kind about Newfoundlanders. So, I guess if I'm perceived as being friendly to my readers, maybe it can at least partially be attributed to that. Plus, I just feel like if someone takes the time to comment or ask a question, I want to do my best to give them a thank you or an answer. At least when I can.

I care about helping people make their way to a vegan diet, because I know how much resistance there is against it, at least for most folks. And yes, life is busy (and highly distracting!) with three young children; sometimes I miss things.

NVA: I read you were motivated by the book Fit For Life. Do you still stick to the principles discussed in that book?

DB: That's true. It was one of the first books that made me question my food choices - that and Diet For A New America. I don't necessarily adhere to all of the principles in terms of food combining, such as not eating proteins with carbohydrates. Some of the tenets in the book are fairly rigid and require a lot of discipline and planning to stick with. Though, I generally don't eat fruit after a meal as it doesn't sit well, and I also don't drink water with a meal because it doesn't feel good. So I guess some of the principles in that book rang true for me. It's been years since I've read the book actually; I wouldn't mind revisiting it.

NVA: Okay. I have to ask: How do you stay so slim? (Whenever I make your delicious dishes, it's hard to stop eating them!)

DB: In general I'm pretty active, I exercise most days of the week (for about 1/2 hour in the morning), and I'm also "go, go" all day with the girls and chores around the house. But, in terms of food I think I eat such a good amount of whole foods and highly nutrient-dense foods that it makes it fairly easy to maintain my weight, even now that I'm 41. I do enjoy my sweets, and am rather ridiculous for how much I love ice cream. And chocolate.

I probably eat more sweets than I should, but I don't eat big portions at any given time. Smaller servings are very satisfying for me. And, I've noticed as my diet has become more whole-foods centric that the sweets I crave and enjoy are those that are less processed and not sickly-sweet, if that makes sense. Also, I don't enjoy eating to feeling "stuffed".

Many years ago I learned about eating to about 80% full, through an Ayurvedic class. Not sure if that affects metabolism and weight maintenance...but ultimately you feel better for it!

NVA: I read that your husband's parents went vegan. How is that going? Why do you think it's a good idea for older people to consider a plant-based diet? (My dad just went vegan.)

DB: When my husband's parents made their dietary changes, they did so quickly and entirely. Big, sweeping changes in sync with Dr. Dean Ornish's plan for reversing heart disease. This is a very low-fat diet for the reversal program. Plus, they began an exercise program of walking daily and doing some stress reduction through yoga. It was all very daunting for them at first I think.

They did incredibly well, though. They really embraced the changes and they both enjoyed health improvements. They are still healthy and well. They do eat fish now as part of their diet, but no dairy or eggs or other meat. I'm really impressed at how they have maintained that level of commitment with their background and social support. They have no other friends or family that eat the way they do. Odd, because I thought some of their friends and other family members might take a cue from their health scare (and subsequent health improvements).

But, ultimately people make change when they are ready to, whether through inspiration—or desperation!

NVA: Good to hear it's still working for them. That gives me hope. Let's quickly jump back to the subject of food. Your first cookbook is quite different than your latest. Can you talk about the evolution of your recipes? Was it for health reasons?

DB: Interesting you notice some changes. Very true. I think most cookbook authors evolve in one way or another, either with techniques or ingredients or philosophy. For me, it is a general shift towards eating more whole foods, for me and my family. Not that my first book used a lot of processed ingredients, on average it has a lot of healthful recipes.

But, I utilize a wider range of different ingredients now, and rely more on things like nuts for creaminess (rather than say silken tofu or vegan mayonnaise). Not that we don't use vegan mayonnaise or silken tofu in our home. But I think I've become more creative with 'the basics' like nuts and whole grains—which are so nutritious.

And, I like to show folks that you don't have to use vegan substitutes like sour cream or vegan sausages to make great tasting vegan food. There is so much deliciousness in using more of the basics, which most of us have at home anyhow! And, also I guess I've evolved into creating more wheat-free and gluten-free recipes. Largely due to reader requests and feedback!

NVA: Tell us more about your latest cookbook.

DB: My next book, Let Them Eat Vegan: 200 Delicious Plant-Powered Recipes for the Whole Family, will be published this spring (2012) with a new publisher—Da Caop Press. I think LTEV represents more of this evolution we just talked about. The recipes are "plant-powered", using unprocessed and minimally processed ingredients, and plenty of nutrient-dense foods like greens and beans.

I take the 'vegan basics'—beans, nuts, seeds, whole-grains and whole-grain products, vegetables and fruits—and churn them into delicious, wholesome vegan meals, snacks, and sweets for everyday plant-powered eating. You won’t find any 'white processed stuff' in this book... no white flour, no white sugar, and also no vegan substitutes like vegan cream cheese, sour cream, or vegan meats.

The recipes are all wheat-free and also largely gluten-free, plus a sprinkling of raw delights for good measure. And, there are some 'powered' up sections like 'How To Make Green Smoothies', 'Eating Your Greens Everyday' and 'Plant-Powered Lunchbox'. I'm really proud of this book... and a little anxious as it's been in the works for four years now!

NVA: Excellent! I can’t wait for it to come out. Thanks, Dreena, for your time, great recipes, and thoughtful insights!

Interviewer Nikki Sabella hasn’t always been the fitness and health freak she is now. Most of her life was filled with sedentary TV watching and junk food eating until she discovered the vegan lifestyle in 2007. She now enjoys more energy, a healthier weight, a greater level of wellbeing, and a clearer conscience. When she’s not writing, she’s exercising hard, cooking, baking, or reading up on plant-based or eco-friendly subjects. She and her husband celebrated their vegan wedding in the spring of 2012.