Today UNC Press publicity director Gina Mahalek chats with Jennifer Brulé, author of The New Vegetarian South: 105 Inspired Dishes for Everyone.
In her enlightening cookbook, chef Brulé brings southern-style food together with plant-based approaches to eating. Her down-to-earth style and 105 recipes will immediately appeal to vegetarians, vegans, and meat-eaters alike. These dishes are also a boon for those who simply love southern food and want to learn more about options for flexitarian eating. Brulé deliciously demystifies meat substitutes and flavors up familiar vegetables. Imagine vegetarian barbecue: Brulé’s recipe for spicing, saucing, and oven-roasting jackfruit offers a robustly tasty alternative to pulled pork. Tofu is the perfect base for crispy Southern Fried Buttermilk Nuggets, and cauliflower beautifully fills in for shrimp in a Cajun-inspired étouffee.
The New Vegetarian South is available now in both print and ebook editions.
Gina Mahalek: Your book, The New Vegetarian South, is dedicated to recreating traditional southern dishes vegetarian-style. Did you find it difficult to transition some of the South’s trademark recipes into ones that are meatless? If so, what was most challenging?
Jennifer Brulé: Some dishes easily lent themselves to becoming vegetarian or vegan; Buttermilk Fried Tofu Nuggets, for instance, works beautifully. However, the idea of transitioning some dishes to be plant-based was daunting. Brunswick Stew is a great example—it’s known for all the different meats involved, from chicken, to pork, to beef to squirrel. How does one turn meat stew into a vegetarian dish while keeping it delicious? But, as I said, it was merely the idea that was daunting. Using texturized vegetable protein (TVP) and lots of layers of flavors resulted in a satiating, mouthwatering recipe.
GM: Did your professional background as a classically trained chef provide you with much of your knowledge on vegetarian alternatives for meaty dishes, or did you gain insight from recipe experimentation and creation?
JB: Being a classically trained chef helped, for sure, but more than anything it’s my unquenchable thirst for food knowledge that informed me about meat alternatives. I am a student of food and cooking, constantly curious about ingredients. I research and study food every day. Having two vegetarian daughters, of course has made me quite deliberate in finding, and working with, meat alternatives.
GM: What was the main reason you decided to adopt a more plant-based diet?
JB: Two things: my aforementioned children (one of whom became vegetarian when she was five years old), but also my love of animals. It seems stranger and stranger to me that we, as a society, eat living beings. That said, I’m a sucker for a properly fried piece of chicken. But, I figure if can eat plant-based meals most of the time and indulge in eating critters only occasionally, I’m headed in the right direction.
GM: Was the process of reducing your meat intake difficult?
JB: No, it truly wasn’t. If you think about it, a wonderful cheese pizza is vegetarian. A bowl filled with hearty grains, grilled slaw, pickled pink onions, roasted black beans and a creamy lemon-tahini dressing (like the ones we serve at my restaurant, Davidson Ice House) tastes AMAZING and happens to be vegan. I honestly think that it’s mostly a mental game, a perception that it’s not a meal without meat in the center of the plate. With some creativity, it’s EASY to eat a primarily plant-based diet.
GM: Based on your experience, do you have any advice for people who wish to begin adopting a more flexitarian lifestyle? And what does the term flexitarian mean to you?
JB: Be forgiving of yourself. You won’t go from three meat-filled meals a day (as I used to eat) to being vegetarian overnight. Pace yourself; ease into eating more plant-based meals. Start with Meatless Monday, then slowly add more days. If you can’t live without meat, occasionally indulge, enjoy every bite, and don’t feel even a twinge of guilt! That is what flexitarian means to me—intentionally eating less meat, but allowing yourself to eat meat, either as a component of the dish or as a treat once or twice a week, but focusing mainly on discovering fabulous plant-based meals.
GM: Since you have multiple family members (each with different eating habits) to please, what is one recipe from your book that can always be relied upon to satisfy everyone?
JB: Hands down, the Cauliflower Étoufée! Why? Because the flavors are so bold—savory and spicy. Roasting the cauliflower brings a caramelized depth of flavor to the dish and stands up to the rich tomato broth.
GM: You mention your “squad of recipe testers.” Who are the first people you run your newest recipes by?
JB: I’m very lucky to have supportive friends all over the world. Thanks to social media, we’ve stayed in close contact throughout our family’s many moves, both within the States and abroad. I have a list of buddies who want to try out my recipes. The great thing about my “squad” is that their cooking abilities vary tremendously, and this is important when testing recipes. If my friend Laura Ashely, who admittedly doesn’t cook often (or well) can successfully prepare one of my recipes, then I know pretty much anyone can. Conversely, my parents both attended culinary school and are expert cooks. When they test recipes, they give me excellent insight into what could be better or what works about the dish.
GM: If you could make only one meal to convince a meat-lover that vegetarian dishes can be just as savory and hearty as meaty ones, what recipe from your book would you make for that person, and why?
JB: Biscuits with Sawmill Gravy, for sure! I have yet to make that meal for any meat-eater who doesn’t believe that it’s loaded with pork sausage.
GM: What is jackfruit, and how does it fit into your book?
JB: Jackfruit is a large green fruit that grows and is used primarily in southeast Asian countries. To use it as a meat replacement, the young, green jackfruit are harvested before they’ve had time to ripen and sweeten. The texture is extremely similar to that of pork or chicken. If it’s seasoned and cooked in the same manner as meat, its flavor profile is remarkably similar.
GM: What other ingredients do you consider essential to the vegetarian kitchen?
JB: Lots of different textures, colors, and flavors are important to keep the meal interesting. Specifically, I rely a lot on smoked salts and smoked paprika (I have a thing for smoked foods), really good olive oil (which usually comes with a high price tag, but if used sparingly is worth every penny), all sorts of beans, and meaty mushrooms!
GM: How many vegan recipes are included in the book, and what are some of your favorites?
JB: There are 41 vegan recipes. I am partial to Charleston’s Country Captain, because I love the crunch of smoked almonds.
GM: Are many of these recipes from your book featured on the menu at your restaurant, Davidson Ice House? If so, what is/are the most popular?
JB: Only the Tickled Pink Onions and Firecracker Pimento Cheese are on Davidson Ice House’s menu, but they are both very popular!
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Jennifer Brulé is the executive chef and owner of the flexitarian restaurant Davidson Ice House, in Davidson, North Carolina. She is also the author of author of Learn to Cook 25 Southern Classics 3 Ways. For more, follow her on Twitter, on Instagram, or visit her website.