Pure Vegan: An Interview with Author Joseph Shuldiner
By Giorgina Paiella
Pure Vegan is living proof of the delicious, wholesome, and beautiful nature of vegan cooking. Joseph Shuldiner’s first cookbook highlights how fresh and pure plant-based foods nourish both the body and soul. A compilation of 70 adaptable recipes, Pure Vegan offers creative ideas for breakfast, satisfying entrées, and late-night snacks and cocktails that are as tantalizingly delicious as they are beautiful.
I caught up with the author of Pure Vegan, Joseph Shuldiner, to discuss and share with readers his culinary inspirations, lifestyle, and future directions in the plant-based realm.
What was the main inspiration behind the creation of Pure Vegan?
I wanted to create a vegan cookbook that was not only visually inspiring, but that contained recipes that just “happened” to be vegan.
Your cookbook features sophisticated, elegant, and indulgent recipes that are simultaneously accessible to individuals of all culinary backgrounds and abilities. Do you think that this approach helps to eliminate some of the stereotypes about the sacrifice, difficulty, and restrictive nature of vegan cuisine?
The stereotypes about sacrifice, difficulty, and restriction are, in my opinion, self-imposed. Without fail, when I’m at a book singing or social function, and the vegan subject comes up, inevitably someone proclaims, “I was vegan for a while, but now I’m not”. They felt that if they didn’t tow the vegan line 100% they were a failure. Maintaining a strict plant based diet is work. Depending on what city you live in, it may be impossible to eat out at a restaurant or socialize and ultimately lead to living in a vegan-vacuum. Now I know there are infinite reasons why to choose a plant based diet, many are complicated and may shift with time, but my approach is to remove the stigma, at least on the cooking side. Pure Vegan seems to have developed a following with the vegetable-curious, eaters interested in integrating more plants into their diet without going cold-turkey (sorry for the meat pun). If the book can inspire existing vegans as well as the vegan-curious, I’ve done my job.
Are you a vegan? When did your interest in plant-based cuisine first start?
I consider myself vaguely vegan. I am mostly around omnivores and pretty much all of the people I interact with on a daily basis are not vegan. I enjoy being the lone example, and as a gay man, I’m used to integrating in a mixed crowd. I do have a curious side as well as a mischievous streak and every so often I like to shock people by tasting something verboten in front of them. Growing up as child, I did not like the taste of meat. My Mother, who grew up in the 1920′s on a utopian society in the Southern California desert, was an Adelle Davis devotee. Davis wrote Let’s Eat Right to Keep Fit and was way ahead of her time calling for a diet of unprocessed foods and vitamin supplements. The issue for me was that she was big on animal protein, and the recipes weren’t that tasty or visually appealing – a harbinger of the opinionated artist I’d yet to become. I did however have an obsession about how things are made, especially natural ingredients. As a teenager I experimented with grinding my own wheat berries into flour, making dried fruit leathers outside in the sun and yogurt with a Salton yogurt maker. I was fascinated by nature and attempted to make soap, natural dyes, spin yarn and weave cloth. The resulting products I created weren’t very good but in hindsight, I was discovering where things came from and how amazing they were when they weren’t processed and packaged. Many of the recipes in the book include instructions on how to make ingredients from scratch, and reflect my passion for deconstructing easily available store-bought products.
You devote a part of the cookbook to the essential elements of a vegan pantry. What are three kitchen staples that you cannot live without?
My home kitchen pantry runneth over. I collect so many things on my shelves that fascinate me but the go-to items that will make me run out in the middle of the night to replenish are olive oil, basmati rice, vegetables to make a salad, kosher salt and whole peppercorns. My non-guilty pleasures are wine, exotic spices and homemade jam.
I love that Pure Vegan is composed of recipes that let fresh and pure ingredients shine. Was it an important goal of yours to feature recipes that maintain the integrity of simple and delicious whole foods?
Very much. What I did take away from my Mother’s Adelle Davis fixation, was the importance of not over-processing food. I tried, with a few exceptions, to write recipes for the book that did not replicate animal products. If you miss chicken or beef, no faux wheat gluten Chicken a la King or crumbly bean-nut-grain burger is going to replace the real thing. I do have a sweet tooth and love baked goods and frozen desserts so there are a few dairy substitutions which are more about food chemistry than anything else. Otherwise, I tried to combine ingredients in ways that showcased, or brought out their inherent beauty. Sometimes, just for their color, sometimes for their texture as with the Ceviche de Vegan.
Living in Los Angeles, do you have your own vegetable garden?
I do, though unfortunately I don’t get that much time to tend it. Mostly tomatoes in the summer and a few herbs and salad greens the rest of the year. I do have an olive tree which I’ve cured the fruit and prickly pear cactus plants which I’ve made the fruit into jam. Really though I’m spoiled by having a certified farmers’ market which I started this past Spring. One of the unique aspects I incorporated into the market is the (Sub)Urban Farm Project, a row of backyard farmers which I helped navigate the County Agriculture department’s rule to become a certified farmer and be able to sell in a farmers’ market. I even had my tiny home garden certified to see how the process worked first hand. It’s quite subversive in how simple it is to circumvent big agriculture and grow, as well as supply, local produce in the middle of the city.
One of the elements that captured my interest was the organization of the cookbook by time of day rather than the standard division of recipes by type of dish. Can you elaborate on how you came up with this unique concept?
I was very interested in the lifestyle aspect of the book as well as the recipes. Going back to the perceived difficulties of eating a plant based diet, I wanted to show that vegans can have fun all day long. You’ll notice that as the chapters get later and later, the recipes become more and more indulgent. The last two chapters are basically desserts and booze. As I developed those chapters I had an image in my mind of blowing up the stereotyped myth of a vegan sitting at home eating carob covered almonds then going to bed at 9pm. I replaced that image with a vegan coming home at two in the morning from a club, having sex, then having the munchies and being able to eat an amazing dessert with a cocktail.
Do you have a favorite recipe from the book? I know it must be hard to choose because all of them are phenomenal!
Ah, I’m blushing as I type. At my book signings I make the Ceviche de Vegan because it’s so beautiful and it’s just vegetables soaked in fresh lime juice. I also am addicted to the Muhamarra which has given hummus a run for its money in my household. I love the Pistachio Olive Oil Cake because it uses so many of my favorite ingredients, but also the whole orange and lemon that gets reduced down into a compote/marmalade and slathered on top when the cake is still warm, just out of the oven. Did I mention I like sweets?
The photographs, layout, and overall rustic design of Pure Vegan are all so beautiful. How did you achieve the artistic vision of the book as a whole?
My background began as a graphic designer. I worked forever as a designer, art director and creative director for various magazines and book publishers. I was also trained in food photography by Emily Sandor who co-photographed the book with me. I’m also a visual artist, so it all seemed to make sense to pull from those disciplines in designing the book.
How long did it take to complete the project in its entirety?
About 3 years. I went overboard and designed a very extensive book proposal to send the major publishing houses. I wrote, photographed and designed a sample chapter, had it printed and fake-bound to look like a book. When Chronicle Books (my first choice) picked up the book, I spent quite a while researching, writing and testing the recipes. Regarding testing, I put a call out on Facebook for people interested in being part of my Team Pure Vegan recipe testing team. I ended up with about two dozen people, some who I didn’t know, volunteer from all over the world. It was a huge help, not only to find mistakes, but to get feedback if I was on the right path.
To draw inspiration from the Food Network’s “The Best Thing I Ever Ate”, what is the best dish you have ever eaten?
I was in Japan staying at a beautiful Ryokan inn a month after 9/11. Most tourists were too freaked to travel so there were no other guests. Each night we were served dinner in our room by kimono-clad attendants. It was Fall and the kitchen had gone all out to create multiple dishes that looked like a museum diorama of a lush forest floor, and all edible. It was so spectacularly breathtaking that we cried. Afterwards, our attendant told us in broken Japanese that the chefs had come out into the garden to stare through our window at the foreigners that were taking pictures and crying, but most importantly sending back their dishes to the kitchen licked clean.
If you had to design your “Last Supper” from start to finish, what would it consist of?
While I am not organized-religious, nor on death row, I’d have to say the meal would consist of anything that was grown or handmade by my friends. Something with garlic and olive oil, a nice red wine and a salty-sweet chocolately dessert.
You mention in the acknowledgments that you hope Pure Vegan is only the beginning. What is your next adventure?
I started the Institute of Domestic Technology a year ago. It’s a modern home ec academy were I’ve assembled the best food preservers in the city to teach jam making, coffee roasting, bread making, pickling, cocktail bitters and liqueur making etc. I’m working on “The Institute of Domestic Technology Handbook” which will showcase the classes and techniques we’ve developed. It will demystify how ingredients are made, a theme I’ve been exploring since my childhood.
On an unrelated but equally important note, you reference your three cats in the “about the author” section of your cookbook. As a fellow feline-lover, may I ask what their names are?
Oscar and Leonard are brothers. Missy Lou just passed away this summer. R.I. P. Miss Millenstein.
Image Courtesy of Reed Davis.