Shannon Martinez hopes her new cookbook will get dirty. In that well-used, dog-eared, food-splattered way. We rate her chances very highly.
Vegan with Bite is a font of great food. It's sassy, clever, interesting, up-front. A bit like Martinez herself.
“My palate’s f***d,” she says when we chat to the Melbourne chef.
She’s talking about what chemotherapy has done to her tastebuds. Martinez was diagnosed with breast cancer earlier this year and started chemo eight weeks ago. The chemo has mucked around with her taste buds big time – a challenge for anyone, and especially for a chef.
And Martinez is a chef who loves big flavours. As the owner of Melbourne’s much-loved plant-based restaurant Smith & Daughters and its sibling, Smith & Deli, and author of two previous books, Martinez has garnered many fans for her food, including vegans and meat-eaters alike.
The new book takes the type of food she loves to cook at work and makes it accessible for busy home cooks. Full of high-flavour, accessible recipes for everything from mapo tofu (“hands down one of my favourite dishes in the world. It’s everything I love about food,” she says, when we chat to the Melbourne chef) to a fun take on mashed potato and a very indulgent sticky fig pudding, Martinez’s new book has a simple mission: to prove that vegan food isn’t tricky, expensive, or boring.
“Veganism has had a bad rap over the decades, giving us THE WORST FOOD!” she writes in the introduction to the new book.
Having read through Vegan with Bite, we can safely say: not when you’re eating or cooking, her food. This is good stuff.
We put it to Martinez that we’d call this ‘heck yeah’ vegan food that doesn’t the earth.
“One hundred per cent!” she says.
It’s also written with a realistic eye to how busy our lives can be.
“Everyone's attention spans are shorter these days, everyone has more shit to do. So, it's really important to try and incorporate recipes that are realistic, that don't require a lot of pre-organising or pre-thought [about] the ingredient lists. If you work till six o'clock and your local supermarket shuts at seven o'clock, you want to be able to make sure you can swing by there, grab what you need from your local store and have dinner on the table by seven or something.
“And … people want to eat healthy, but they don't have the time, necessarily, to put a lot of thought into it. It's all very well to say spend your Sundays prepping and portioning all your meals out for the week. But if Sunday is your only day off, not everyone will want to spend the whole day in the kitchen, cutting celery.
The book has plenty of ideas for things that can be partially made ahead, or that make great leftovers. Take her Korean mung bean pancakes. “These pancakes are one of the easiest things you will ever make,” she writes in the book, introducing this versatile recipe which appears in the breakfast chapter but could just as easily be lunch or dinner. “Things like that are great because it's a thing that you can make for breakfast once and then have the batter in a jar in the fridge for the rest of the week, if you want to,” she says when we chat.
But for Martinez, that Sunday cooking session is her idea of fun.
“For me, cooking is relaxing. So, I do love to spend my Sundays, or every day really, but I do love to spend my Sundays cooking, because that's … where I'm finally cooking not on the clock. At work, as a chef, you're always cooking to a timer basically, but Sundays are a day where I can put the music on, not take my Ugg boots off, and just play.”
So, what are you enjoying cooking and eating now, we ask?
“Right now, it's a little bit different to usual. Well, not really, actually: Stocks and broth are my favourite things to make in the world. It's so relaxing. That smell, it does permeate through your house when you spend days cooking a stock. And slowly cleaning it and skimming your broth. It's like a relaxing process for me. So, with my mouth and the way it is currently I'm literally making broths every second day.
“Different broths. All the time. I'm doing a lot of research into Chinese medicinal broths, Korean medicinal broths, things like that, that can really sort of help heal as well. So, using incredible ingredients, going to the Asian grocers and finding things, like dried ginseng and liquorice root and black cardamom, all these sorts of ingredients, they have really good healing properties as well. And learning more about that. I guess right now doing COVID we've all got a little bit more time on our hands. So I'm using that for research.”
Also keeping Martinez lately: her new dog Cyrus, who says hello during the interview. “My mum surprised me with him about a month and a half ago, he's a Peruvian Hairless,” she says. “It’s been very nice to have the company.”
Along with Cyrus, chemo and cooking, she’s had other things keeping her busy: she’s working on that cookbook for cancer patients, and a comic book for kids and teens (the funds from that will go to cancer research).
“My palate's f***d… That's why I'm writing these recipes, with my palate the way it is right now. Besides the fact that it's terrifying that I can't taste properly anymore, it's actually quite exciting to channel that into a productive thing.
“My mom's had cancer twice, so I'd already researched the right sorts of food that are best for you to eat, while you’re going through the chemo and things. And so many of the books, they're just so militant and they're not nurturing. It's kind of like, "Drink a green smoothie at 6:00 AM and then go for a walk at seven o'clock and then put some time aside to write in your journal … When you're actually going through it yourself, that's just not realistic because the fact is, half the time you can't even get the f*** off the couch or maybe a green juice tastes like shit to you.
“So, this book will be based around foods that you're actually going to enjoy. So you actually eat while you're going through chemo.
“The first week of chemo, I lost six kilos. And that was just because there's zero appetite, nothing tastes good.
“What I've noticed is everything was really bland and so I'm really heavily seasoning food more so than usual, so sodium intake is way up because I just can't taste that. So, the salt is high, and things like acid because I guess you get quite an alkaline taste in your mouth and so from the chemo, make it very metallic. Things like South American food and Thai food, Vietnamese food... Things that are quite high acid, are really doing it for me at the moment.” (You can catch Martinez sharing a lot of what she’s been cooking in her Instagram stories.)
There’s plenty of flavour to be found in Vegan with Bite, too. Take breakfast – a chapter where Martinez declares it’s a meal she doesn’t like much. And yet she’s put together a cracking chapter of start-the-day ideas.
“I think anything can be breakfast,” she explains. “In terms of the white porridge and cereal and wheat bakes and toast, I hate that kind of breakfast food… things like Asian-style breakfast are really my jam. I just love them and I think there are so many more interesting things for breakfast than just what maybe we in Australia consider as breakfast, especially Western breakfasts, like your muffins, and your banana breads and stuff like that. There's a lot more to the breakfast world than that.”
The book also has chapters devoted to Maximum Efforts, Minimum results (this one is about meals for busy folk); Dinner is in the Details… or is it? (ideas if you’ve got a bit more time); Desserts and baked goods; Condiments (“The things you need to make everything OK. No condiments, no life. The end.” she writes); and Turning Trash into Treasure (ideas for using up bits and pieces).
Lurking in the baked goods is a recipe for flatbreads with spiced butter (vegan butter, of course!). You can use the recipe for flatbreads for dipping or, rolled a little thinner, as wraps. Or stuff them: “That's a really great base dough. For example, the lamb mince filling that’s with the hummus, you could stuff that bread dough with that lamb mince, just fold it over and then grill it with the lamb mince inside it. That would be an epic lunch! You could put all sorts of vegetables in there, vegan cheese… you could really take it wherever you’d like.”
Do you have a favourite recipe in the book, we ask, or is that just impossible?
“Obviously there's so many, but mapo tofu is probably my favourite. I eat that so often, it's just hands down one of my favourite dishes in the world. It's everything I love about food. It's the texture does it for me. I love the sort of snappiness of the black fungus. I love the slipperiness of the tofu. I love the funkiness that comes from the doubanjiang, which is that fermented bean chilli paste. I love how wet it is. It's amazing thrown in a jaffle when you've got leftover. It's great with noodles. It's just super versatile.
“Also, the sticky fig pudding. For my last book launch, I was in the UK… and I went to what's hands down my favourite restaurant in the world, St. Johns. And obviously, notoriously, not a vegan restaurant, but surprisingly the most amazing vegetarian and vegan dishes I've ever had have come from that restaurant. Their ginger pudding, I dream about. And so, this pudding was a little bit of a nod to that.”
“I want this to sort of be people's little Bible that they just keep on the bench,” she says. And if it gets messy, even better. “I want it to become dog-eared and splattered with food, and never leave your kitchen!” she writes in the book.
Images from Vegan with Bite by Shannon Martinez (Hardie Grant Books, $34.99). Photography: © Nikki To.
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