Meatless Monday: Anna Thomas' Revolutionary Idea -- "Vegan, Vegetarian, Omnivore"

04/18/2016 07:48 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

April 18, 1775 began what was to become the American Revolution. More than 230 years later, Anna Thomas may be the voice of a social revolution with her new book, "Vegan, Vegetarian Omnivore." At its heart -- and at Thomas' heart -- is the belief that gathering together for a shared meal "is the basis of civilization."

Whoa -- that's a pretty high-stakes meal. So what are we going to eat? "Start with the food everybody eats -- at the greener end of the spectrum," says Thomas. "That's the food I love to cook and write about."

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The author of books including "The Vegetarian Epicure," "Love Soup" -- and a filmmaker and faculty member at American Film Institute, while she's at it -- Thomas considers herself "mostly vegan most of the time." Her two sons have been vegan off and on, but the thing is, Thomas wants to feed everyone. "I want to make it easier for people to cook a meal where they can have all different people over to eat and nobody feels weird or sidelined or guilty."

A natural but unfussy home entertainer and self-taught cook, Thomas usually has a pot of soup going on the stove, forming the core of a meal --and a reason to gather. That's the essence of her 2009 James Beard Award-winning book "Love Soup," which contains 160 soup recipes to suit your season and your mood. "Vegan, Vegetarian, Omnivore," one of Amazon's top 10 picks for April, takes the concept further. Maybe you start with a significant spring soup. Add a vegan galette or some flatbread, roasted vegetables and a few dips and you've got a feast. Add cheese or chorizo if that's what you're into.

"I'm expecting some people to be shocked and upset that it includes recipes for sautéed garlic shrimp and lamb meatballs," she says. "They want ideological and they want things to be pure." Alas, very little in life works that way. Accommodation, compromise, collaboration not only means everyone gets to eat, "that's how we learn to be tolerant," says Thomas. "It's not what's on the table, it's who's at the table. You want people to feel comfortable and welcome."

Thomas has just moved to Los Angeles aka fabulous restaurantville, into a small place with a kitchen that needs work. She still prefers to cook. It's how she grew up. "If you're lucky enough to be raised with home cooking, you absorb it by osmosis, like language," she says. "Even if the cooking isn't that great, you just absorb that idea -- raw ingredients come into a kitchen and people do things do them and people sit down and eat."

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Photo credit: Ladye Eugenia Stewart

When Thomas wrote "The Vegetarian Epicure" back in the 1970s, raw ingredients including tofu and tamari were hard-to-get weird hippie chow. Now they're in your local supermarket -- and the tamari's on the shelf next to the sriracha. There's more farmers markets, more specialty stores, more access to fresh produce and the global ingredients we've come to crave. The thing is, fewer people are cooking. We spend more money dining out than we do on groceries.

"I don't think people realize what we lose when we lose just natural straightforward everyday cooking and gathering around a table,"says Thomas. "Sitting down at the table is not a frill. we stop gathering, if we lose our ability to gather comfortably, happily and with generosity, we're losing an essential foundation of civilized life." So cook, already. Do it for the sake of humanity. Viva la revolution. Viva "Vegan, Vegetarian, Omnivore."

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Photo credit: Victoria Pearson



Fish (or Vegetable) Soup

Recipe and image from "Vegan Vegetarian Omnivore" by Anna Thomas. Copyright © 2016 by Anna Thomas. Used with permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

Anna Thomas calls this "the easiest fish soup or stew I know." Despite its name, fish soup is vegan-friendly and vegetable-based. Ladle up the vegetable soup for the plant-based people and add the fish at the last for fishaterians. Either way, "the result is a fresh and lively flavor." It perfectly illustrates the concept of her book, subtitled "Dinner for everyone at the table."

Thomas suggests choosing the freshest fish you find. "Mix several kinds. I've had good results with cod, halibut, sea bass, red snapper (watch for bones), monkfish, scallops, prawns, clams . . ."

3-4 stalks celery (8 ounces), sliced
1 pound small potatoes, cut in wedges or diced
4-5 medium carrots (12 ounces), sliced
3 cups peeled tomatoes, cut up (canned are okay)
2 fennel bulbs (12 ounces), quartered and sliced
1 large red bell pepper (5 ounces), quartered and thinly sliced
2 bay leaves
2 teaspoons dried tarragon or t tablespoon fresh tarragon
2-3 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves, chopped
6 cups light vegetable broth
1 teaspoon sea salt, plus more to taste
freshly ground black pepper
3/4 cup (1-1/2 oz.) fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 large onions, quartered and sliced
1 large leek (5 ounces), white part only, sliced
6-7 cloves garlic, chopped
1 cup dry white wine, plus more to taste
about 3 pounds assorted fish and shellfish
optional:
crushed red chiles
croutons
garnish:
extra-virgin olive oil

Combine the first 6 vegetables in a large pot with 5 cups water, the bay leaves, tarragon, thyme, vegetable broth, salt, and pepper to taste. Simmer for 30 minutes, or until the vegetables are just tender, and add the fresh parsley.

Meanwhile, heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a large nonstick pan and sauté the onions in it over medium heat for 10 minutes, until they are limp and beginning to color. Add the leeks and continue sautéing over medium heat for 8 to 10 minutes, stirring often, until everything is soft and golden. Push the onions and leeks to the edges of the pan, add the remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil in the middle, and when it is hot add the garlic and sizzle it for about a minute. Add this mixture to the soup, deglazing the pan with a bit of the broth. Add the white wine, bring the soup back to a simmer for 10 minutes, taste, and correct the seasoning with salt and pepper if needed, and crushed red chiles if you like.

Trim your fish if it needs trimming, and cut fillets into cubes or slices. Wash shellfish thoroughly. Do not peel shrimp.

No more than 5 minutes before you want to serve the soup, bring it back to a simmer, remove and discard the bay leaves, and add the fish--denser fish first, more delicate fish last. Simmer only until the fish is opaque and flaking and the shrimp are pink, 3 to 5 minutes. Serve the soup at once, in large bowls, and drizzle olive oil on top of each serving. Add croutons if you like, or have plenty of fresh sourdough bread or garlic toast for dipping.

Serves 8 to 10 as a meal.

A Practical Note . . .This recipe is scaled for a dinner party, enough for 8 to 10. If you are 4 or 5 at the table and planning on leftovers, add half the amount of fish to half the vegetable soup, and repeat this on another night for fresh-tasting soup.

Another Way . . . with a Cheese Crouton The hearty vegan vegetable soup that is the base for my fish soup is delicious on its own, but can also be dressed up with a cheese crouton for the vegetarians at the table. For each crouton: brush a thick slice of baguette with olive oil and toast it in a hot pan, a couple of minutes on each side, until it has golden brown edges. (This can be done in advance.) Top each crouton with a heaping spoonful of shredded Gruyere or a thick smear of fresh goat cheese, and toast under the broiler just until the cheese is hot and melty, 1 or 2 minutes. Drop a crouton on top of a generous bowl of vegetable soup, and serve.

More at soup and other things soulful and soulfulvegan.com