Nine out of ten vegans can tell you exactly who Isa Chandra Moskowitz is. VegNews named her "favorite cookbook author" for seven years in a row; she's been creating recipes for zines, bestselling cookbooks and her beloved website, Post Punk Kitchen, for more than two decades. And she's just released her latest masterpiece, Isa Does It, jam-packed with easy, fast, plant-based recipes that are bound to be a staple in many kitchens before long (for vegetarians and meat-eaters, too). She'll be signing the book at the Tattered Cover, 2526 East Colfax Avenue, tonight at 7:30 p.m. In advance of that appearance -- complete with cookies! -- we caught up with Isa to talk about the new collection of recipes, moving from Brooklyn to Omaha by way of Portland and more. Keep reading for a recipe of that meaty beany chili with cornbread shown in the photo!)
Westword: I know you became a vegetarian as a teenager, which led you and your family to explore cooking more heavily than you had before; how did you wind up creating recipes for a living after that? And were you vegan right from the start, or was it more of a progression?
Isa Chandra Moskowitz: I started as a vegetarian and became a vegan pretty quickly after that, within a year. I wasn't really trying to become a cookbook author, it's just having grown up in the punk-rock scene in New York, I always did zines and was putting recipes in my zines or using other people's cook zines. There was obviously no Internet back then, so as soon as we started doing my cooking show, Post Punk Kitchen, in 2002 and put the recipes online, it just kind of blossomed from there.
How would you describe your food philosophy, for people who might not be familiar with the Post Punk Kitchen ideology?
In one sentence: Just try to make vegan food fun and accessible.
You made a move from Brooklyn to Omaha -- was there food culture shock involved for you in that transition? What was that like?
I actually went via Portland. I moved from Brooklyn to Portland and then moved to Omaha. I think if I had gone straight from New York to Omaha, I would have had some type of culture shock, but having gone to a mellower place and having visited Omaha a bunch, I knew what I was in for. I like it here because there's a lot of potential -- in Portland, there's so much vegan food people are complaining about it; it's nice to be in a place where you can serve vegan food and have it be a new, welcoming experience for people and it kind of feels more effective in that way.
That's actually what led to the new book, basically just being like, "This is what's available to most people." I do have a Whole Foods, and there are great Asian and Mexican markets -- most things are available to me -- but it just gave me a very good idea of what most of the country has available. I think Vegan With a Vengeance has rosewater in a recipe, and here, I'm just not going to do that. I had rosewater at my corner store in Brooklyn! And in Portland, there are so many vegan products like soy curls. Here those things aren't accessible, and I feel like it led me to create lots of pantry-friendly recipes.
In what other ways does Isa Does It compare to the other cookbooks and food resources you've made available?
It's a lot pared down compared to Veganomicon. For that, we thought, let's do all this really interesting, creative vegan food, there are a lot of projects in there. Isa Does It is trying to get all that flavor and creativity and make it weeknight-friendly. I feel like it's a cumulation of everything I've done.
Your meals are very meat-eater friendly; they're similar to a lot of what you might see on a typical American table, just without the meat. Can you talk about that?
I think it's because that's how I like to eat, so it just worked out that way. When I stopped eating meat I wasn't like, oh, I miss the meat, what can I replace this with, but instead I was finding more and more vegan foods I like and using them. I really like hearty, filling, satisfying foods, so I was going to those protein-dense ingredients like nuts and beans and tofu.
You clearly have a wide taste range, selecting from different cultures and cuisines to create the meals you have. Do you have a favorite cooking "style" at all?
In term of ethnicity, I just think of it as Brooklyn cooking. I pretty much ate at my friends' houses every night of the week, and they were from all different ethnicities, so that all is engrained in me. I don't have a one-size-fits-all for people who are looking to do more vegan cooking, but just look at the things you're craving and see how they can be translated in a vegan way. If you're Italian, you're not giving up basil and lemon and capers and olives, you're just kind of changing around the other ingredients that are going in. So I just think, find the stuff that's really satisfying to you, concentrate on flavor and kind of go from there.
People typically have lots of excuses why they can't incorporate more plant-based meals into their diets or can't go fully vegan -- what would you say to someone who argues that they'd miss the taste of animal-based foods or that it's too difficult to prepare plant-based meals?
I don't disagree with them because that's how they feel, so I just say, don't give that up. If your thing is, I would miss this Havarti or whatever cheese, keep that, start with vegan cooking and see what satisfies you. I would say, try everything else vegan and keep your Havarti or your ice cream or whatever your comfort security blanket is and see how that goes. I went through a period in my early twenties where I stopped being vegan and was a vegetarian, I really missed pizza and bagels and cream cheese, and so what I did was just kept those things and cooked vegan the rest of the time. And as time went on, I found I don't really need these things.
It's no good to go vegan if it's going to take two weeks and you're back saying, "That was too hard, I give up." There are so many people like that out there. I think a better idea is to do a long transition if that's what's more comfortable with you, really be happy and satisfied and don't guilt yourself. Really get yourself to a place where you're happy with every meal. I even have the clause, if I'm dying for something, I can have it, but I haven't done that. It's become this all or nothing how we're culturally so obsessed by it, being bad or being good, and once somebody caves and has a bite of blue cheese, they cave and have a steak. I think that mentality is what causes so many ex-vegans. Don't call yourself vegan if you're not a vegan yet, but if that's what you're trying to do, it's a process and you shouldn't let anybody pressure you, it has to come from your heart.
I think you've done a great job of making this book really accessible to diners of all persuasions who want to try something new; what would you say to a meat-eater or dairy-and-egg eating vegetarian to persuade them to check it out? What's in it for them?
Really good food! I think it benefits everybody to cut down on their meat and dairy consumption. If you don't care about the animals, there's still environmental reasons, if you have kids you want to give them a planet to grow up in, see what you can do and what satisfies you. See what you like and can become part of your repertoire. The meatless Monday movement is awesome, and the more and more we're using cashews instead of cream from cows, the better it is for the planet -- and you're going to like chickpeas, so don't worry about it. Keep reading for the meaty beany chili and cornbread recipes, directly from Isa Does It.
Watch Isa make this recipe -- and the corn muffins following -- on the Post Punk Kitchen website.
Meaty Beany Chili
Serves eight to ten. Total time: 1 hour. Active time: 20 mins
I'm no Texas chili expert, but I am a culinary reality TV expert, and one thing that's for sure is that if chefs on a cooking competition talk about Texas, they talk about chili. And if they talk about chili, they have to state no fewer than ten times that Texas chili has no beans in it. They'll say it in slo-mo and with echo and dubbed over techno music. Texas chili has no beans. Did you hear that? No beans! So this is my reverse homage to Texas chili. A mean pot of stew ﬁlled with all my favorite beans! It's thick and stick-to-your-ribs and super-duper meaty, thanks to the cooked-down lentils. Serve with Cornbread Mufﬁns (page 264) and Pepe's Secret Guacamole (page 233) or avocado.
1 tablespoon olive oil 1 medium yellow onion, diced 1 green bell pepper, diced 2 jalapeños, thinly sliced (seeded if you want it less spicy) 1 1/2 teaspoons salt, plus a pinch 6 cloves garlic, minced 3 to 4 tablespoons mild chili powder 1 tablespoon dried Mexican oregano 2 teaspoons ground cumin Several pinches of freshly ground black pepper 1/8 teaspoon ground cloves 4 cups water, plus more as needed 1 cup brown lentils 1 (28-ounce) can crushed tomatoes 1 (15-ounce) can kidney beans, rinsed and drained (1 1/2 cups) 1 (15-ounce) can black beans, rinsed and drained (1 1/2 cups) 2 tablespoons fresh lime juice 1 tablespoon pure maple syrup
Preheat a 4-quart pot over medium-high heat and add the oil. Sauté the onion, green pepper, and jalapeños in the oil with a big pinch of salt for 5 to 7 minutes, until the onion is translucent.
Add the garlic and sauté until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add the chili powder (start with 3 tablespoons and go from there), oregano, cumin, remaining 1 1/2 teaspoons salt, black pepper, and cloves and toss to coat the onions, letting the spices toast a bit (for a minute or so).
Add the 4 cups water and scrape the bottom of the pan to deglaze. Add the lentils, cover the pot, and turn the heat up to bring to a boil. Let boil for about 20 minutes, stirring every now and again. The lentils should still be ﬁrm but almost tender enough to eat.
Add the tomatoes, kidney beans and black beans. Cover the pot and turn the heat down to a simmer. Let cook for about 30 more minutes, stirring occasionally. The lentils should be quite mushy, almost melting into the chili.
You may also need to add more water, depending on how much the chili has cooked down. Adding up to 2 cups more would not be unheard of.
Add the lime juice and maple syrup, and then taste for seasoning. It tastes best if you let it sit for 10 minutes or so before serving, but if you can't wait, then just dig in!
Keep reading for Isa's cornbread muffin recipe.
Makes 12 muffins. Total time: 40 mins. Active time: 10 mins
These are what I consider the perfect cornbread mufﬁn, whether for breakfast or for chili. Beautifully golden, not too sweet, plenty of corn ﬂavor, and lots of great texture, too, thanks to fresh corn kernels baked right in. As usual, fresh kernels cut right from the cob are best. But frozen is perfectly ﬁne, too. Just make sure they are thawed ﬁrst.
If you'd like to turn this into a berry corn mufﬁn, feel free to add 1 teaspoon of vanilla extract and 1 teaspoon grated lemon zest along with the wet ingredients, then fold in 1 cup of berries.
Cooking spray 1 cup almond milk (or your favorite non-dairy milk) 2 teaspoons apple cider vinegar 1 cup all-purpose ﬂour or whole-wheat pastry ﬂour 1 cup medium-ground cornmeal 1/3 cup granulated sugar 2 teaspoons baking powder 1/2 teaspoon baking soda 1/2 teaspoon salt 2 tablespoons reﬁned coconut oil, melted 2 tablespoons unsweetened applesauce 1 cup corn kernels (thawed if using frozen)
Preheat the oven to 350°F. Lightly spray a 12-cup mufﬁn pan with cooking spray.
In a medium bowl, combine the milk and the apple cider vinegar, then set aside to let curdle.
In another medium bowl, mix together the ﬂour, cornmeal, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Make a well in the center and add the curdled milk, oil, and applesauce. Stir together the wet ingredients in the well. Then mix the wet and dry ingredients together just until the dry ingredients are moistened, being careful not to overmix. Fold in the corn kernels.
Fill each mufﬁn well most of the way full with batter. Bake for 18 to 22 minutes. The tops should feel ﬁrm to the touch and a knife inserted through the center should come out clean.
Remove from the oven and, when cool enough to handle (usually 10 minutes or so), transfer the mufﬁns to a cooling rack to let cool the rest of the way.
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Isa Chandra Moskowitz will be at the Tattered Cover on Colfax Avenue at 7:30 p.m. Monday, October 28. Find more information here.