Herbivoracious is the not only the name of a new cookbook with 150 original Vegetarian recipes, but also a fabulous food blog both by Michael Natkin. Michael became a vegetarian at the age of 18 and taught himself to cook. His ideas of a vegetarian lifestyle is not one that compromises taste. He is inspired by global cuisine and is inventive in the dishes he prepares. Michael is an Ashkenazic Jew and he grew up in Louisville, Kentucky, he is married to a Sephardic woman now and they both identify strongly with the Jewish community. I had the pleasure of meeting Micahel and learning more about him and how we can all benefit from his vegetarian teachings. Visit his blog, Herbivoracious and Buy the Book.
When and why did you decide to go vegetarian?
About 30 yrs ago. I had a girlfriend who was vegetarian and she was teaching me to cook. I loved food. Then my mother was sick with cancer and she was trying everything including a macrobiotic diet, but she couldn’t cook the food herself, so I learned and cooked for her.
Before then I had been eating meat and fast food all the time. Once I started to eat vegetarian with my mom I just knew it was right for me. It is not quite an animal rights thing, I just have an empathy to animals.
Why didn't you go all the way to vegan?
At the time I had never really heard of vegan. It is probably something I have started to think of only in the last several years, but am not ready to do. I do choose organic and when possible I buy directly from a farmer.
Tell me about your Jewish heritage?
My family is Ashkenazic and I grew up in Louisville where there was a small Jewish community, but we had 4 shuls. To be honest, I didn’t feel a strong attachment to religion, but I respect the value and I love the community. When I met my wife, even though she is Sephardic, our shared Jewish background really helped us connect. We recently joined a small community shul.
Has it influenced your culinary identity?
The sephardic stuff has! My wife’s grandmother is 93 and she still cooks all the traditional foods. I have three or four Sephardic recipes in the book. We also went to Israel five years ago and I just loved the food. I can't wait to go back.
What do you think is the biggest misconception about vegetarian food?
A lot of people think gray, baseless, tasteless food. My food is healthy, but it is the farthest thing from my mind. I cook for pleasure and I know eating a variety of foods will take care of health. I design recipes to be big and bold and hearty and I uses dishes from all over the world in inspire me.
What advice would you give someone considering going veg?
Don't put pressure on yourself to do it all at once. If you try and do it cold turkey and you don't know what to cook you will fail and be unhappy. Start going meatless a few nights a week, build up a repertoire of recipes that are tasty and satisfying and slowly work your way to a vegetarian lifestyle.
What has been your most memorable coking experience?
I have worked or rather interned (we call it staging) in three professional kitchens to learn techniques and how to work in that space. I have always dreamed of opening my own restaurant. The first time I put on my whites in a professional kitchen, that was the most memorable experience.
And I hope to make my dream come true in a few months with my own small restaurant, showing how a blog materializes in a restaurant. There won’t be a menu and I will only be open a few hours a day to serve food, it is very exciting.
What is your earliest cooking memory?
I strongly remember my mom teaching me to make meatloaf. I think the tactile experience, mixing it with my hands really helped me enjoy the food. I believe we should experience food with all our senses and when cooking it is important to follow the recipe but also listen, look and taste to make it our own.
What is your worst kitchen disaster?
We had a fruit fly problem in our house and I had to find a place to put the fruit bowl. I don’t like putting it in the fridge so I stuck it in the oven, forgot about it and preheated it for another meal. Oh well, we ended up with cobbler.
What is your favorite ingredient and why?
This really keeps changing, but I love brown butter. You basically melt butter over medium heat, it takes 7 to 10 minutes and then you can use it in all sorts of recipes, I like to use it in corn bread. It has a nice nutty aroma.
Tip: add non fat dry milk powder to butter as it is browning, then strain it. It adds protein so it creates an ultra power brown butter.
Here are some vegetarian versions of traditional recipes from around the world: