THE BLOG
10/24/2011 08:28 am ET Updated Dec 24, 2011

Meatless Monday: The Big (Vegan) Bang Theory

Happy Food Day! Enjoy. Eat mindfully, eat meatlessly, and for a little encouragement in that department, here's an interview with Big Vegan author Robin Asbell.

In the beginning, there was her mom's homemade curry. And Robin Asbell said it was good. Really good. Growing up, "I remember the excitement on curry night," she says. "We could have a bowl of chopped peanuts and a bowl of raisins we could put on our food. I couldn't believe it -- it was the most exciting thing on earth."

There was also the not-so-good. "We grew up in a community where there was lot of hunting. I didn't like that," says the author of the new cookbook Big Vegan. "We would go visit my grandparents or uncle, there'd be squirrel hunting and turkey hunting and from very early on, I refused to eat it."

Great food of every ethnicity, no cruelty, no killing -- these have been the defining forces for Asbell, who spreads the meatless joy in the kitchen, in the classroom and by way of fabulous recipes that "tempt and seduce." Offering both quantity and quality, Big Vegan earns its name, with over 350 plant-based recipes from Indian Masala Brown Rice with Tomatoes (echoes, perhaps, of her mother's curry) to classic wintery comforts like shepherd's pie sans sheep, cow or animal of any kind.

Being vegan "makes so much sense," says Asbell, who went meatless in her teens. "I was sure everyone was going to go vegan. I thought, 'I'm going to see this happen.'"

Even God didn't make a meatless world in seven days. "Thirty years later, I'm more realistic," she says. "The meat thing does not go away."

Neither does she. "I've survived a lot of bad food fads," says Asbell, breezily. "Margarine -- everybody was supposed to eat this hydrogenated fat that was killing people, the fat-free thing, then there was the no-carb thing -- that was terrible."

Growing up in farm country, she's also seen some of the bad food fad underbelly, from factory farming to industrialized agriculture. "I was aware pretty early there were not so wonderful things going on." Not so wonderful from the production end and not so wonderful for consumers, either. People raised on a steady diet of processed food have a hard time with the concept, even the flavor of natural foods. "You're so used to this shouting in your mouth," she says.

Preparing your own meals, preferably meatless ones, helps you turn down the noise in your mouth and get you off the processed food habit. Because it is a sort of addiction.

Asbell, who lives in Minnesota, has concluding that eating "is a very complicated thing." It doesn't have to be. "Just stick to natural, real, whole foods. Steer away from anything that's too manipulated. Get into grains and beans," she says. They'll save you money, boost your health and make for terrific eating.

If Asbell no longer foresees the vegan revolution happening with a curry-scented bang -- or in her lifetime -- she's learned to be Zen about it. She advocates evolving, taking small but positive steps, "a gradual decrease of meat consumption. Come at your own pace."

She still holds on to the hope of a brave new meatless world, of a not-too-distant future where we can say, "we passed through a dark phase of allowing industrial food to dominate, there was a great renaissance in eating whole and natural foods." Big Vegan may help get us there. "It's great food, it's good for you, you'll feel good and you'll want to eat more of it," she says. "We can save a lot of cows that way."

Sweet Potato and Edamame Shepherd's Pie
from Robin Asbell's Big Vegan

The shepherd must have found a soybean plant in this fun version of his pie. Sweet potatoes boost the orange antioxidants and carotenoids, and greens and edamame meld with mushrooms in the creamy sauce.

1 tablespoon canola oil or Earth Balance margarine, plus extra for the pan
1 1/2 lb/680 g sweet potatoes
1 1/2 cups/360 ml rice milk or other milk
1 tablespoon dark miso
2 cups/240 g chopped onion
2 cups/285 g fresh cremini/brown or button mushrooms, sliced
2 large carrots, chopped
2 ribs celery, chopped
1/2 cup/120 ml white wine
2 tablespoons chickpea flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 cups/130 g chopped mustard greens or kale
1 cup/170 g shelled edamame, thawed

Preheat the oven to 400°F/200°C/gas 6. Lightly oil a 2-qt/2-L casserole.

Bake the sweet potatoes until they are very tender. Let them cool until you can handle them. Strip off the skins, drop the flesh into a food processor, and puree until smooth, scraping down the sides to get it all. Add 1/2 cup/120 ml of the milk and the miso and puree to mix well. Reserve.

In a large pot, heat the oil over medium-high heat. Sauté the onions, mushrooms, carrots, and celery, stirring frequently, until the carrots are crisp-tender and the mushrooms are softened. Add the wine and bring to a boil, stirring until the pan is dry. Sprinkle the flour over the contents of the pan and stir to coat the vegetables evenly. Drizzle in the remaining 1 cup/240 ml milk, add the salt, and stir constantly to mix well. Cook until the sauce is thickened, about 5 minutes. Stir in the greens and edamame and transfer the contents to the prepared pan. Dollop the sweet potato mixture over the filling and spread it to make an even topping.

Bake uncovered, until it is bubbling around the edges and browned on top, 30 to 40 minutes. Serve hot, or cool and refrigerate; reheat slices in a toaster oven or microwave.

Serves 6.