Life is too short to eat things that don’t taste great, roasted garlic is so good she’ll eat it spread on toast and “some days you put more plants on your plate, other days there might be a cupcake or two".
Meet Desiree Nielsen – dietician, cookbook author, TV host and a huge fan of garlic, dips (“I generally regard anything starchy as simply a vehicle for dip”) and kitchen adventures. But not bananas – she admits she doesn’t like raw bananas at all, but since she does love them in banana bread and cookies and has excellent recipes for both, the unanimously banana-loving SBS Food team is happy to welcome this dissenting voice.
Nielsen, the host of new SBS Food show The Urban Vegetarian (Mondays 7.30pm from April 29), credits her Portuguese heritage – her mother and grandmother are from the Azores – for much of her love of food.
“Growing up, life happened around the kitchen table in my grandmother’s house. When you arrived, you were fed. When the food on the table started dwindling, it was replenished. My grandmother spent most of her day in food preparation, and I learned how to cook at her apron strings. I saw how much joy there was around the giving and receiving of food,” she tells us when we chat to her ahead of the show’s start.
“Food was always flavourful and based around garden-fresh produce, but we never talked about what was ‘healthy’ - this was just how you ate. And sure, there were lots of cakes and cookies around, but our meals were always wholesome, and I am sure I ate way more veggies than a lot of my friends! With my cooking now, it always starts with the veg. I’ll change up textures, play with the spices, but if I have a bunch of veg and some legumes, I can always make a meal.”
Nielsen, who is a registered dietitian and runs a practice specialising in digestive health in Vancouver, Canada, became a vegetarian as a teenager.
“I was either 16 or 17… which is a pretty common time for people to make a change. I wish I could say that I had some noble reason initially when in reality, the boy I liked was vegetarian and I did it to try and impress him! Embarrassing, but true,” she says.
“For me, eating this way isn’t about deprivation - it’s about abundance and having a bit of a kitchen adventure in trying new things. I think at this point, the evidence is strong enough to confirm that we all need to be eating way more nutrient-dense, high-fibre plant foods on a daily basis but most people aren’t interested in going totally plant-based. Only a small percentage of folks are totally vegetarian or vegan at this point! However, 100 per cent of us could eat two to three veggie meals a week and it would have a massive impact on our personal health, and the health of the planet.”
In The Urban Vegetarian, Nielsen shows how everyday veggies can be used in great smoothies, juices, breakfasts, lunches, dinner and desserts.
“Eating well isn’t about being perfect all the time. It’s really just about doing the best you can. Some days you put more plants on your plate. Other days there might be a cupcake or two. When in doubt, just eat real food,” she says in the show (which does include cupcakes - chocolate cupcakes with pink velvet icing!)
“Balance can kind of seem like an overused word these days, but for me, it’s just about doing the best I can as often as I can. But also not forgetting to find a little bit of pleasure in every day too. A good meal, a nice glass of wine.
“The thing about balance is that it’s not about, you know, saying yes or no or having treats all the time or not having any treats, it’s about figuring out how to find things that you really love and flavours you really love and make them healthy enough that you can enjoy them way more often. This banana bread is totally that,” she says in as she makes her version of the classic loaf (studded with macadamias, sweetened with maple syrup and wheat-free too).
Nielsen’s passion for helping people eat well is partly inspired by her own experience with digestive issues.
“In my first job, I was head of nutrition at a chain of health food stores, and I couldn’t help but notice how many people were suffering from digestive issues and didn’t seem to be getting the help they needed from their health care team. So I dived in and learned as much as I could!” she tells us when we ask how she came to run a practice focussed on plant-centred anti-inflammatory nutrition and digestive issues. “Then, after the birth of my first child, I ended up with irritable bowel syndrome and so now, the interest is both professional and personal. I am so driven to show people that they don’t have to feel unwell forever.”
“I want to serve people in an inclusive way and help break down some of the stereotypes about eating vegetarian or vegan meals. These are things I hear all the time: that vegetarian meals leave you hungry, that they only use weird ingredients, or that they don’t taste as good.
“To me, the show is really about introducing people to the creativity and flavour of vegetarian food. It’s for everyone…not just vegetarians!”
As well as those cauliflower steaks and sweet potato noodles, The Urban Vegetarian serves up a wealth of veg-strong recipes, from a rich, hearty and filling vegetarian cassoulet, ‘zoodle’ pad Thai and a secret-ingredient mac and cheese to zucchini muffins and a healthy breakfast cookie. Each episode starts with a juice or smoothie, before moving on to meals and baking.
Nielsen, a mother of two, has written two books, with her third, Eat More Plants, due out later this year, and is passionate about pretty much everything about food, from growing it to eating it.
"When it comes to food, I really can’t help myself. I want to taste every flavour, learn every technique, learn all the science behind it. I may be a bit of a food geek, but it’s the good kind of geek to be," she says in The Urban Vegetarian.
"Cooking brings me so much joy. Getting my hands dirty, getting to play with beautiful fruits and veggies. But also knowing that I'm doing something really good for myself, that's probably what makes me happiest."
And you don’t have to be a great cook to start cooking food that will help nourish your body, she says.
“Before you ever do something for the first time, it always seems like it's going to be so much more difficult than it really is. And that's the fun of cooking, not being afraid to bust out of your comfort zone. Even if the first time you try something, it doesn't quite work out as it does in your favourite restaurant, it's no big deal. That's part of the fun of learning. Never be afraid to try something new.”
Looking for more plant-strong recipes? Take a look at SBS Food's vegetarian collection, which has more than 1500 recipes for breakfast to dinner and everything in between.