There are so many fabulous food bloggers out there that I adore because they constantly inspire me with their original recipes, beautiful instagram feeds and diy creations. I love keeping up with their lives through their blogs, and getting a better understanding of the way they think as well as what drives them to constantly create. My most favorite bloggers are those that I want to sit down with over a good vegan meal after reading their blogs and get to know better. Since that’s not always possible, I came up with a column on Olives for Dinner called Why I Cook that virtually allows both me and you the chance to get to know great bloggers better.
In this column, I’ll ask some of my favorite bloggers questions around, well … why they cook! If you don’t already know about these noteworthy bloggers, you’ll be introduced to some great ones and, if you are already fans, you’ll learn something new about them here! This week, I’m excited to feature Gena Hamshaw, practicing vegan nutrition counselor, cookbook author, dietetic student and blogger over at The Full Helping.
I not only love Gena’s simple but hearty and nourishing cooking style, but also her inspiring and always insightful writing. Gena is always open and forthright about her past struggles with anorexia and blogging for her has been, in her own words, “a chronicle of my evolution with food.” Formerly known as “Choosing Raw,” which focused on detoxification and raw foods, Gena’s blog has morphed and blossomed into “The Full Helping,” which reflects her current, celebratory relationship with food, acknowledging that “not every ingredient needs to serve a nutritional purpose.” I especially love the way Gena explains how the act of cooking helped recalibrate her former thought patterns, serving as a way to embrace and celebrate the imperfect:
“My mind began to find quiet in the rhythms of chopping, stirring, and experimenting. The rituals of touching and selecting ingredients began taking over where resistance once lived, and perfectionism slipped away.”
Gena also highlights other voices of recovery and how they intersect with a plant-oriented lifestyle in her recurring Green Recovery series. While she acknowledges that these two things may not offer a clear pathway or align perfectly for everyone, this series shows that the compassion that fuels veganism can also serve as a source of healing for those in recovery. Gena words about how it played a role in her process of recovery are both beautiful and empowering:
“Veganism showed me that life was bigger and more connected than I’d ever realized. It made me aware of the impact I could have on the world through compassionate and loving food choices. Perhaps most importantly—at least in the short-term—veganism allowed me to fall back in love with food.”
I’m so honored to have Gena here on the blog today to share a bit more about why she cooks, where and who she draws inspiration from and the one ingredient she can’t live without! For more on Gena, be sure to check out her two cookbooks, Food52 Vegan and Choosing Raw, and stay tuned for a third cookbook, due out next spring!
When did you start to cook and what about the process itself kept you interested in it?
My story of learning to cook is inextricably linked to my anorexia recovery. I stopped eating red meat when I was young, and that encouraged me to learn at least a little about cooking. But I also developed anorexia in my early teens, and the disease put a lot of constraints on my capacity to enjoy food, or the process of making it.
Cooking felt messy and imprecise. It didn’t lend itself to tight calorie counting or obsessive monitoring of my macronutrients. It demanded prepping, tasting, cleaning up: in other words, it was an investment. I didn’t take enough pleasure in food back then for the work or the attention to feel worthwhile.
I recovered from my last and most severe anorexia relapse in my mid-twenties. After that, I committed to experiencing food in a radically different way. I understood that part of this would mean learning to create food with love, and that’s when I started to play around in the kitchen.
At the same time as all of this, I was transitioning to a vegan diet. It was the most meaningful choice I’ve ever made, one that shifted my perspective on just about everything, including food. As my veganism deepened, I came to view the act of eating in a radically different way.
For so many years, I’d approached eating as a concession. It was something I did because I had to, because I couldn’t survive without it, but I did so only without an elaborate infrastructure of rules and tradeoffs. Veganism showed me that eating can be a means of doing powerful good in the world: good for animals, good for the planet, good for the body.
Veganism also showed me what a profound pleasure eating can be. I’d always known this, really, but guilt and fear got in the way. The more time I spent preparing vegan meals in the kitchen, the more integrated and whole my experience of food became—and the greater my interest in becoming a better home cook.
Describe your process of recipe development. How do you come up with fresh and new ideas on a regular basis?
Ideas come from a lot of different places! Most of my ideas come from recipes I’ve made before. This may be evidence that I’m not a very creative cook, but it’s how I work. I’ve always been the sort of cook who has a set of “template” recipes that get adapted in lots of different ways to become varied and new. When I was really into raw food, it was salads, zucchini noodles, raw soups, and collard wraps. Nowadays, it’s bowls, grain salads, legume-based soups, and pasta dishes. The templates are always evolving, as are the ideas that build upon them, but the process remains somewhat unchanged.
I also sometimes find inspiration in food I’ve seen or tried in local restaurants, the work of fellow bloggers, cookbooks, or Instagram. It’s a very exciting time to be a vegan foodie!
What influenced your love of cooking?
Veganism, first and foremost. This lifestyle opened the doors for me to fall back in love with food, to reconnect with my appetites. After that, a love of cooking came easily and quickly. I have very special, fond memories of my early vegan kitchen experiments, and I have this indelible sense of gratitude to the vegan bloggers and cookbook authors who taught me how to cook: Dreena Burton, Isa Chandra Moskowitz, Hannah Kaminsky, Julie Hasson, Sarah Kramer, Jo Stepaniak, and Robin Robertson (among so many others).
Define your own style of cooking.
This is a tough question to answer, because my style has evolved in so many ways! A couple years after I went vegan I got very into raw foods, and I was strict about food combining. So, a lot of my early recipes are very simple, very vegetable-centric. Today I aim to include protein, fat, and carbs with every meal, but for a long time I was actually working to separate these groups, which put inborn limits on how complex or varied my meals could be.
Nowadays nearly all of my recipes are shaped around a whole grain, a legume, or both; I’m a pretty starch-centric eater. I try to think about macronutrient balance whenever I can, but I don’t shape my meals around any particular nutritional principle or rule. Instead, I let flavors and textures guide me. I’ve also become a more spontaneous cook than I used to be, and this year in particular I’m trying to shape meals around what I have in the pantry, rather than planning my meals in my head and then running out for the ingredients I need.
My approach has changed in other ways: I’ve warmed up to a much greater variety of spices and a bolder set of flavors. I still have a relatively low tolerance for heat, and I like clean, bright flavors, but I’m more adventurous. My food is more globally inspired. I think it’s more complex. I still have certain favorite ingredients (kale, sweet potatoes, chickpeas, avocado) and flavors (anything nutty, salty, or lemony), but I’m more willing to try new things. I think this is a capacity that develops with eating disorder recovery, too: not every meal feels like a life-or-death, make-or-break scenario. You’re not starving, so not every meal feels like your last supper. You learn to recognize that there will be lots of opportunities to eat, and you become willing to take risks.
If I had to describe my cooking style, I’d call it hearty, wholesome, and comforting. That’s what I hope it is, anyway.
Describe the best dish you’ve ever made.
Oh gosh—it’s so hard to say. I have a very emotional experience of food, which means that some of my “best” meals were best not because they were the most flavorful or refined or technical, but because they meant something to me personally.
I think of all these dinner salads I made when I first went vegan that symbolised my capacity to be creative and generous in feeding myself. They felt like the best meals ever, simply because I had given myself permission to savor them fully. I think about the first, all-vegan Thanksgiving I made for me and my mom. I was so proud of it, even if I didn’t have to do much to the Tofurky, because it captured the lifestyle I’d fallen in love with, and my mom’s willingness to experience it with me.
I think about some of the soups and stews I made for myself during my pre-med, post-bacc years. They were pretty simple, because making a big pot of soup and eating it for days was about all the cooking time I had back then. But these soups were my attempt to take care of my body during a very stressful time, and I’ll always be grateful for the simple nourishment they gave me.
If your current self could give your past self one piece of sage cooking advice, what would it be?
Relax. Mess up. Try lots of things, knowing that some will taste great, and others won’t. That’s how you learn. When something goes wrong, move on. Don’t overthink things.
Don’t try recipes because you think you should; make recipes you want to eat. Julia Turshen has a line in her cookbook to the effect of “life is short, and everything should taste delicious.” I agree.
Do you have any culinary heroes?
Well, Julia Turshen is one of them. I discovered Small Victories this year, and I love its warmth and honesty.
Those vegan cookbook author and blogger pioneers I mentioned in response to Question 3, to whom I’ll always feel indebted and grateful. Anna Thomas, Deborah Madison, and Mollie Katzen, because they taught so many people that vegetarian food could be wholly satisfying and accessible. I really love Peter Berley’s books, too: he has such a thoughtful, cohesive approach to food and cooking.
Out and about in the restaurant world, I love what Chloe Coscarelli is doing to make veganism fun and hip and approachable for everyone. I love the whole team at the Candle restaurants in NYC; they do what they do with so much love. And I have such respect for the simple, wholesome, down-to-earth food that Ann Gentry has been creating at Real Food Daily for decades.
If you could choose anyone to cook with in the kitchen, who would it be?
Any one of the incredible chefs and creators I just mentioned!
If you could throw a party for anyone, who would be there and what would the menu look like?
Well, as tempting as it is to think of famous writers or musicians or artists I could invite, what would really make me happy would be a chance to gather all of my closest friends together at one table. My friend group has scattered as I’ve gotten older, which I guess is part of life, but I often think about how nice it would be if everyone were close enough to gather easily for a meal.
So, I’d invite my closest friends, and the menu would be simple. It would be my food, the food I love to eat: a hearty grain pilaf, a salad, some sort of soup with sweet potatoes and beans, and for dessert, probably vegan pie.
Name one ingredient and a kitchen gadget you can’t live without.
Well, I couldn’t live without whole grains, and if I were stuck on a desert island, I’d pick them as my sustenance of choice. But if we’re talking about an ingredient that’s slightly less essential, I’d be pretty lost without nutritional yeast!
As far as gadgets go, my slow cooker gets the most use these days, but I’m most attached to my food processor. Life is just better with homemade hummus.