Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Interview with author Jae Steele on her new vegan cookbook 'Get It Ripe'

Few weeks ago we presented you with a new vegan cookbook 'Get It Ripe'. I love food and even though I'm not vegan, vegan food always seem to me as a territory I should explore more. So I decided to interview the book's author, Jae Steele, and learn a little bit more about her book and vegan food in general. Jae was also generous enough to share with us one of her favorite recipes, so don't miss it at the end of the interview!

What got you to write Get It Ripe in the first place?

Oh lordy! There were about a hundred things that all contributed to me writing Get It Ripe. We could say it started with my enthusiastic interest in midwifery when I was 14 which, in Canada at least, is very centered around the idea of informed choice. I could see the importance of people having access to information and making choices that they felt were best for them.

So the context was initially childbirth, but it soon expanded to health in general. I took a break from my midwifery studies and decided to explore the country in the way that a number of my friends were - by doing work exchanges on organic farms. It was then that I first started thinking about where my food was coming from and the kind of impact that had (on the environment, my health, the economy, etc). I became vegan and was very excited about the community I tapped into full of food enthusiasts.

A couple of years down the road I assisted a chef, creating recipes that were vegetarian, but the food wasn't particularly healthy (what with refined ingredients and even food colouring and weird powders I couldn't pronounce the names of), and that's when it registered in my mind that my interest couldn't be limited to culinary arts. That's when I decided to go to school to become a holistic nutritionist. And, well, it's always been in my nature to share the information I learn that I hope other people can get excited about too.

How much time did it take you to work on the book? What was the most difficult part of this process?

There are two answers to this question, really. It took seven years or one year, depending on how you look at it. I started collecting and creating recipes for the book when I first became vegan in 2000. Becoming vegan forced me to learn to cook as I wasn't exactly surrounded with lots of other folks who were used to preparing food without the use of dairy and eggs. It wasn't long before I started self-publishing cookzines (small booklets) to share my favourite recipes with others.

Then came my weblog Domestic Affair ( where I also started posting recipes for a wider audience. The content from the zines and blog was like the rough draft for a good portion of the book's content.

What the most difficult part of this process was is hard to pin down. Some days it was just getting my thoughts to translate onto the page the way I wanted to, or making the text succinct and editing the information down. Other days it was just sitting in front of my laptop when I wanted to be doing something more social, like visiting with friends. And sometimes it was communicating with my publisher and designer about what I wanted to the book to look like - as I was self publishing before (with my zines), I was used to getting my own way all the time!

On your publisher's description of the book it says "Get It Ripe is a vegan cookbook for the 21st century". What does that actually mean?

I'm not sure those are words that I would choose to describe the book, but the folks at Arsenal Pulp have always been more succinct than I. I think the suggestion is that there is a mentality that is still budding in the Western world that we need to have a greater consciousness around food. We need to get back to basics - know where our food comes from, and also how it benefits our bodies.

I think we have gotten ourselves into a terrible mess of eating the foods that are the simplest to prepare, or have the flashiest packaging and we're turning up our noses at the basics - like gorgeous fresh produce and delicious dishes that have been made from scratch by us or people we know. There is so much buzz around food in the media these days, and I have tried to offer clear and simple information and suggestions - whether it be on organics, local foods or a balanced eating plan - in Get It Ripe.

What's the target of the book - do you want more people to get familiar with vegan cooking and become vegan?

I have never wanted to convert anyone to veganism. Telling people what will work best for them doesn't honour their personal process and path. What I do want is for us all to eat more vegetables - and I don't mean overcooked flavourless greens; I'm talking tastily-seasoned veggies in a variety of colours and textures - and to improve the quality of the food we eat.

That means using ingredients that are organic, locally grown and produced and/or fairly traded, and avoiding packaged products with names on the ingredients list that you can't pronounce. You choose to eat free-range eggs or/and organically-raised meat a few times a month from a local farmer who loves and cares for her or his animals? Fine. You want to eat a bologna sandwich on white bread from a deli chain every day for lunch and avoid salad? That's something I'd take issue with.

How difficult is it to make sure a vegan dish will be not only nutritious, but also look and taste good?

Easy as pie. In fact - easier than pie! Vegetarian and vegan cooking has long been associated with heavy, flavourless dishes created by people who may be driven by an interest in health or animal rights, but lack culinary skill. I call these creations vegetarian mish-mash, and I avoid them too!

The food enthusiasts I am most drawn to are those who bring health awareness, progressive politics (meaning they are for clean, high quality food and against factory farming and refined foods) and culinary artistry to the table. I like to fancy myself as that kind of foodie, and I've tried to offer information and recipes that cover all those bases in Get It Ripe. And if you're really big on food presentation, I'd look to some of the famous raw foods chefs around these days - they seem to do the most beautiful things with plant-based ingredients.

I guess many people who will be convinced to try vegan cooking will be also concerned about the price of such a move. Is it more expensive to become vegan?

I'm not sure that's a concern I've really heard before, as veggies, fruit, grains and legumes (the staples of a vegan diet) tend to cost less than animal products. A pound of organic tofu costs $2-3, but the same amount of organic meat or cheese would be a few times that price.

There is however a big push in the book to go organic and shop locally more often, and that can often be more costly at first glance, but it really depends on how you look at it. The price tag on organic and local foods is typically representative of the 'true cost' of food - something we don't see as often with conventionally-grown food produced by farms who may get government subsidies, cut corners on pest management by using harmful chemicals (which is sure gonna cost us in health problems and environmental clean-up down the road!) or not pay fair wages to their workers.

There is a shift in mindset that needs to happen for a lot of people. The ingredients for the organic green drink I make myself daily cost $1.50-$2 - about the same as a coffee from my local cafe - but I'm putting vital vitamins and minerals in my body, instead of leeching minerals out of my system (the way coffee does).

We see a growing number of vegan cookbooks being published - what do you think of this trend and how is your book different from the others?

These days you'd have to be living under a rock in order to be unaware of the myriad dietary paths that exist. Heck, veganism has even come up on The Simpsons! (In fact, Lisa Simpson's been vegetarian for at least 8 years now!)

People are drawn to veganism for so many different reasons (compassion for animals, the environment or for health reasons), and lots of people who enjoy vegan cookbooks aren't vegan, they might just have vegan family members or friends, or feel that the more plant-based recipes they eat, the better they feel.

Each cookbook brings something a little different to the table. Get It Ripe has a nutritional and political focus, though when I say political I'm not trying to scare people with horrifying photographs taken in factory farms, I'm saying "vote with your dollars!" I don't know any other cookbook on the market, vegan or not, that follows the path of a carrot and some hummus through the digestive system to help us understand just what's going on after we swallow the stuff that's supposed to nourish our bodies.

This is education I feel as a holistic nutritionist, is important for everyone making food choices to understand. I tried to take a well-rounded approach to food in this book because that's what I would want in a good cookbook.

What's your favorite dish in the book? Are there any with special stories behind them?

There are some recipes that grab people from the moment they hear the titles: Sweet Potato and Coconut Milk Soup, Chai Cake with Cardamom Icing... There are some hidden gems in there too, though. The flavour of the filling for Millet Stuffed Bell Peppers makes it a real comfort food for me. Everyone who tries House Dressing goes nuts for it - it's a great combination of flavours.

Almost every recipe has a story - and I often try to fill the reader in at the start of every one (my introductions err on the chattier side of things).

What are your plans for the future? Where are you heading to?

The path of Get It Ripe didn't end when I e-mailed the manuscript off to my editor last fall. It's really only just begun! I am so excited to get this book out into the world - talk to people about it, and hear what they've done with the information and whom they've fed with the recipes.

Along with private nutritional consultations, I am excited to continue to offer cooking classes and workshops in Toronto, and anywhere else that'll have me. Not to mention I've already started creating recipes and collecting information for my second book, though I'm not sure I'm really to reveal much about it just yet. Another project that's currently in the works is creating some short cooking videos to be posted on YouTube. Keep your eyes peeled for those!

And finally, the moment we are all waiting for - can you share with our readers one of your recipes from the book to give us an idea of what it is all about?

There's no way I could find one recipe that represents the book - there are so many different things going on in there what with delicious vegetable, grain and legume dishes and decadent wheat-free desserts. Your best bet is really to hop over to my weblog, Domestic Affair (, and see what's going on over there.

I can, however, share a tasty dip that was a big hit at my book launch: Cilantro Black Bean. DipBlack beans are a great source of fibre and iron, and have more antioxidants than any other legume! Cilantro is good for digestion and said to have anti-anxiety properties.

This dip-with-a-kick is good served with corn chips and veggies, or as a spread for sandwiches or burgers.

2 cups cooked black beans (or 1-19 oz can, rinsed)
2/3 cup packed chopped cilantro (leaves and stems)
2 medium cloves garlic
2 tbsp. fresh lime juice
1 tbsp. tomato paste
1 tbsp. flaxseed or olive oil (optional)
1 tsp. sea salt
½ tsp. cayenne or chipotle pepper powder, or to taste
½ tsp. ground coriander seed
½ tsp. ground cumin seed
¼ cup filtered water (or to desired consistency)
Toss all ingredients in a food processor or blender and give it a whirl.
Stop the food processor, scrape down the sides with a silicone spatula and whirl again. Add more water as necessary (be careful not to let it get too runny though!) and adjust seasonings to taste.
Store in an airtight container in the fridge for up to 4 days.

Makes 1 ¾ cups.

Thank you, Jae!


'Get It Ripe' on

Jae Steele's blog - Domestic Affair

Raz @ Eco-Libris

Eco-Libris: plant a tree for every book you read!