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From Gigante Beans to Grocery Stores: Talking All Things Food with Desiree Nielsen

Desiree Nielsen photographed at Dachi, a favourite neighbourhood spot for dinner.

Vancouver-based nutritionist and author, Desiree Nielsen, is launching her fourth book, Plant Magic: A Celebration of Plant-Based Cooking for Everyone (published by Penguin Canada) on April 23rd. We had the opportunity to preview the book and found it to be not only engaging, practical and realistic, but also quirky, honest and, ultimately, empowering-as-heck. Basically: the antithesis to the disconnected, aspirational (slash-delusional) ‘lifestyle’ genre of cookbook that tend to be more discouraging than helpful. Plant Magic‘s fun and supportive approach to plant-based cooking is meant to enhance your life, not complicate it; and it inspired us to link up with the author to find out more about her ideas about food and wellness.

This isn’t the first time we’ve sat down for a chat with Nielsen (last year she dished on her fave spots for eating and drinking around Vancouver via our ‘The Dishes’ column) – and, probably, it won’t be the last! But for now, dig into our brand new interview with Nielsen below:

Out of all of your cookbooks to date, Plant Magic seems to have the loosest concept. How did you decide on the direction? Why is this book right for right now?

Plant Magic does represent a shift from my previous books: Eat More Plants and Good For Your Gut were therapeutically focused. I wanted to show people that you could still love what you eat when you are trying to heal your body…and share the education and the recipes to help them get there. I joke that Plant Magic’s theme is “Desiree cooks whatever the heck she wants”, but there is definitely a deeper chord there. I found myself feeling really frustrated by the increasingly negative and restrictive messaging I was seeing online about food and nutrition. The shift to short form video online resonates with us on a much deeper level than static content; as a dietitian for over 15 years, I can’t help but notice that people are increasingly confused and even fearful of food. I mean, when people have been successfully convinced that rolled oats are bad for us, something is seriously wrong. So I wrote Plant Magic in hopes of reminding people that eating should be joyful and pleasurable, and that doesn’t change when we’re trying to take good care of ourselves. I say this a lot but sometimes, healthy eating looks like a kale salad and sometimes, it also looks like potato chips.

The introduction to Plant Magic reads as a sort of manifesto. How important is sending a message with your recipes to you? What, if any, change do you hope to make with your cookbooks and what does the roll-out of that look like?

It’s so important to me that I do everything I can to help reframe the conversation around nutrition and wellness because right now, it’s broken. Nutrition is supposed to be a tool to help you live your healthiest, happiest life…it’s not meant to be a hobby or worse, to fuel your anxiety. We’ve allowed ourselves to be convinced that wellness is only available to those with the money and time to take pricey supplements or treatments. And the goal posts just keep moving because it’s good for engagement: just a few years ago, everyone was calling dairy “inflammatory” and now, wellness influencers are praising the benefits of raw milk and colostrum. You can’t make this stuff up! But you can’t ‘wellness’ your way out of sleeping four hours a night. And a greens powder won’t make up for the fact you don’t eat vegetables. We also need to acknowledge that just feeding our families a basic healthy diet and affording rent is more expensive than ever.

And I say this as someone who became a dietitian because I fell in love with wellness 20 years ago. I mean, my first job as a dietitian was in a health food store! I’ve taken all the greens powders, read all the wacky wellness books, and I plunge in the Burrard inlet in January. I will forever have a curiosity around wellness and I believe that how we take care of ourselves matters. I love the fun stuff. But that’s not what taking care of yourself actually is. Whether it’s with my books, or what I share on Instagram or The Allsorts Podcast, I want to help people exhale and realize that taking care of yourself is SO much simpler and more accessible. It’s drinking water. Winding down so you can get a good nights sleep. Trying to make half your plate vegetables whenever you can. Those aren’t just the level one basics: it is those consistent daily actions that transform your health.

The book is also sprinkled with personal anecdotes. What do you feed yourself when you’re feeling nostalgic?

When I need a taste of my childhood, it’s the caldo verde recipe in the book. Caldo verde is a classic Portuguese soup made with kale, onions and potatoes. My grandmother was one of those iconic, matriarch cooks: up at 4am to make 20 loaves of pao doce (sweet bread) without a recipe for Easter and she made her caldo verde from water, not stock, and it was perfect. I cheated a bit with some bouillon concentrate but even my mother agrees, we got real close to recreating her magic.

How about when you’re feeling indulgent?

I cannot resist a plate of nachos…they rank high on my list of perfect foods, so it was really fun to create the tempeh nachos for the book. Tempeh is one of those plant proteins that not everyone is super confident cooking, so I wanted to offer a familiar and super flavourful way to explore it.


How lazy are we talking about here? Because I’ve been known to open a can of gigante beans and eat them straight out of the can…which is why I included an oven baked version in the book. It’s ten minutes of hands on time: just dump it all in the pot and let it bake while you’re curled up on the couch with Netflix, and then eat as is with some pita on the side.

Desiree Nielsen photographed at Dachi.

What was the last solo meal you made for yourself?

I’m currently eating my chickpea version of the viral Italian chopped sandwich on some Livia baguette.

For your family?

I made some brothy beans this week for work, so we’ve been chipping away at them as a family for dinner.

For a crowd?

I am a bizarrely anxious entertainer, so I tend to keep things simple; the last time we had some friends over, I made a vegan bolognaise!

Tell me about your last “disaster” in the kitchen.

As a self-taught cook, I have had countless kitchen disasters…the worst one in recent memory was when I discovered that quinoa has the potential to boil over SPECTACULARLY when cooking it in soy milk as a porridge. I scrubbed it off the cook top for hours.

You spend a lot of time expounding on the idea of pleasurable eating and cooking – whatever that means to the individual. However, one aspect that you don’t mention is how aesthetics play into that idea – something that, obviously, you do put some thought into since the photos in Plant Magic are beautiful! How important is the presentation of food to you when you’re cooking for yourself, compared to cooking for work, others and going out to eat?

I find myself in the predicament of having pretty strong aesthetic sensibilities…and zero skills required to make things aesthetic! When I’m at home, the only thing I’m worried about is taste. I make a lot of beige and brown food and it is delicious. When I’m out, I absolutely want it to look gorgeous. That’s part of the theatre of an evening out, and I love it, and I’m so in awe of the professionals who can actually make that happen. It really was writing cookbooks that taught me to think a little more about colour and texture, because if something doesn’t look delicious in the photo, people won’t make it…no matter how delicious the recipe really is! Plant Magic looks the way it does because of the incredible talent of Gabriel Cabrera and Sophia Mackenzie: they make my dreams come true with their work.

Image of Desiree’s “most beautiful dish” in Vancouver, via @suyorestaurant.

Okay, so what’s the most beautiful dish you’ve eaten in Vancouver, to date?

We are so spoiled for plant-based food in Vancouver, that’s a tough choice; but the kohlrabi ceviche at Suyo is pretty up there.

Which Vancouver kitchen would you love to raid?

The Acorn. For the sheer gloriousness of local produce alone…but all of their ferments, preserves and sauces would also make me deeply happy.

What is your favourite neighbourhood spot for dinner, and why?

I am forever a Dachi fan… and not just because it’s down the street from me! Local producers and seasonal produce is always the star of the show. A few of my recipes have even been inspired by things I’ve eaten there. I love that I can pop in after work for a cheeky glass of natural wine or non-alcoholic cocktail and a snack, or make a whole evening out of it.

Who is your favourite local grocer?

Donald’s Market on Hastings is my local shop and I love it. I don’t know who does their buying, but they always have everything I need.

A local ingredient/in-season item that you can’t wait to score from the Farmer’s Market this Spring, and work your magic on?

Rhubarb season can’t come soon enough. I could eat rhubarb every day for a month. Galette, crisp, chutney, and compote, on repeat.

Obviously you spend a lot of time cooking and thinking about cooking. Do you ever get sick of it, and how do you ‘reset’ yourself when you’re lacking inspiration and/or motivation?

As someone who puts out work on the internet, it’s easy to get burnt out by the sheer volume of content. It’s a bit of a hamster wheel! But I never get burnt out on food and cooking. Every time I eat something delicious, whether I’m cooking or someone else is, I am just so damn motivated to keep going. I mean, the reward is immediate!

Lastly, if you were to make a complete career change, what would it be and why?

I always loved the idea of having a fancy neighbourhood bodega, in the image of Le Marche St George or The Federal Store but totally plant-based. I think Hastings-Sunrise needs one! If I win the lottery sometime in the next decade, who knows?

If you’ve gotten this far without securing your copy of Plant Magic in advance – or at least sussing out which Vancouver bookstore to snag your copy from – then do yourself a favour and sort it out here.

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