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Meatless Monday: Nava Atlas on What to Cook and How to Be

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For years, Veg Kitchen's Nava Atlas has shown us what to cook and what to eat. But her just released The Literary Ladies Guide to the Writing Life shows us something else -- "How to be." Whoa -- rewind. This is Nava Atlas, right? Author of a crop of meatless cookbooks. So what's she doing profiling a dozen literary femmes?

Even if your last encounter with these authors was high school lit, "The message is inspirational and universal," she says. "It's about attitude. They believed in themselves."

An accomplished visual artist as well as a meatless maven, Atlas is "really interested in the creative process," the thing that fuels all artistic endeavors from art installations to chili-bright Thai soup. She is also interested in discipline. Not in the pleasantly kinky sense, but in its true meaning -- mastery.

"It sounds so stern and boring, but being disciplined about something you want to achieve, whether it's a cleaner diet or writing the Great American Novel can be so gratifying," says Atlas. "Many of the literary ladies were all about self-discipline -- not that they were always good at it, just like the rest of us."

Discipline and that other underappreciated virtue, perseverence shaped George Sand, Charlotte Bronte, Jane Austen and Atlas' other literary ladies. It shaped Atlas, too. She was 27 when she published her first book, Vegetariana, hailed as "a one-woman masterpiece celebrating vegetarianism." Today, she'd be a Food Channel diva with her own product line. But Atlas, who gave up meat in her teens, began making kick-ass meatless dishes at a time of hippies, not hype. So she just kept going. She launched VegKitchen a decade before The Julie/Julia Project carved a food blogging niche and went entirely plant-based when her youngest son did. Like the femmes she writes about, she's always been ahead of her time.

When she started out, "if you wanted to see other cookbooks, you went to the library. Now you just have to look in whatever browsers you have and have the whole world in front you. The internet has made everything so accessible. It's so easy to be a vegan now." On the other hand, she points out, polls indicate it hasn't made for a new crop of converts. "The trends have not grown. There's a very static number and I find that frustrating."

Clearly, providing easy to make, awesome to eat meatless dishes hasn't been enough. Now Atlas is taking the agitprop approach with her art. Just out is her cheeky art book, The Completely-from-Scratch-Steer-to-Sirloin Beef Slaughter Guide and Cookbook. "There's this dissonance," she says. "You're eating a sentient being. What can you say about something like that? I can't understand it and it does bother me. I'm not live and let live. People think grass-fed beef is a new kind of a holy grail, but the animal feels as much fear [as corn-fed, factory farm cows] as it goes to slaughter, shits just as much, it's still an environmental disaster."

You can see why Atlas has an affinity for the authors she profiles. "Charlotte Brontë didn't take shit from anyone, and Harriet Beecher Stowe was determined to change the world."

If you're thinking of changing the world by changing to a meatless diet, Atlas has advice "Keep it simple. That's really my guiding philosophy. I really like good food simply prepared. I don't like things with a million ingredients and million steps."

And persevere -- like Atlas' literary ladies and like Atlas herself. "We live in an age of instant gratification, but there's a great deal to be gained by sticking with something you love and becoming better at it."

Nearly-Instant Thai Coconut Corn Soup
Adapted from Vegan Express

When I first came up with this soup, I was looking to make something speedy to
serve with a main-dish salad. And speedy it is-- 20 minutes is about what it
takes from start to finish, yet it tastes like a long-simmering soup. The tiny
bit of red curry gives it subtle heat; if you'd like a spicier soup, use more,
and for a mild effect, omit the red curry altogether. It's a great choice for
the blustery, rainy days of March, when a warming soup is still welcome, but you
want to put winter's dense, homey stews behind you.

1 tablespoon olive oil
3 cloves garlic, minced
4 to 5 scallions, white and green parts, thinly sliced
1 medium red bell pepper, cut into short, narrow strips
Two 15-ounce cans light coconut milk
1 1/2 cups plain rice milk
One 16-ounce bag frozen corn
2 teaspoons good quality curry powder
1/4 teaspoon Thai red curry paste, or more, to taste
1 teaspoon salt, or to taste
1/2 cup minced fresh cilantro

Heat the oil in a small soup pot. Add the garlic, the white parts of the
scallions, and the bell pepper. Sauté over medium-low heat until softened and
golden, about 2 to 3 minutes.

Add the coconut milk, rice milk, corn, curry powder, the green parts of the
scallions. If using the curry paste, dissolve it in a small amount of water
before adding to the soup.

Bring to a rapid simmer, then lower the heat. Cover and simmer gently for 5
minutes. Season with salt and remove from the heat.

Serve, passing around the cilantro for topping.

Serves 6.

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