cooking with what you have: ‘start simple,’ with lukas volger

cooking with what you have: ‘start simple,’ with lukas volger

“Jarry” magazine, an award-winning biannual publication that explores where food and queer culture intersect.

Plus: Lukas has shared a recipe for his Cheesy Cabbage and White Bean Soup right here, farther down the page, and we’ll also have a book giveaway (enter by commenting in the box at the very bottom of the page).

Read along as you listen to the April 20, 2020 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on Apple Podcasts (iTunes) or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

Lukas: Hi Margaret. Thank you so much for inviting me on.

Margaret: Yes. Well, I’m enjoying the book so much, and as I said it’s almost eerie how timely it is. Of course, you didn’t write “Start Simple” to help us through such unforeseen times, but here we are and here it is. The book’s subtitle is “Eleven Everyday Ingredients for Countless Weeknight Meals.” So I presume those are your staples, and tell us a little bit about those.

Lukas: Yes, exactly. I sort of started the book by examining my shopping habits, and realized that these ingredients are ones that I’m always putting in my basket, whether I’m aware of it or not. So, that ended up being the organizing principle of the book.

So what we’ve got are hardy greens, beans, canned and dried. There’s summer squash like zucchini and yellow squash, eggs, cauliflower and broccoli, winter squash, cabbage, mushrooms, tofu, corn tortillas and sweet potatoes. Those are the ingredients that organize the book.

Margaret: Right. Good things for everybody to try to put in their market basket for those curbside pickup boxes if they can, I think. Are you a vegetarian? I mean, this cookbook is vegetarian. I am for 40-something years. I just wondered if you were, too.

Lukas: Yeah, I’m not a strict vegetarian anymore. I have been for various stretches of my life, and I’ll probably go back to it again. Right now, I don’t know, it’s hard to explain. It’s just this is my default style of cooking. It’s like weeknight cooking is always, when I’m cooking at home, it’s always vegetarian, but I just have a sort of more lax approach when I’m eating at someone else’s house or going out to eat, and that’s just what’s working for me right now.

Margaret: Yeah. Well, the book really has this, “Let’s see what I’ve got in my kitchen” premise as the start of meal making, as you say early on in the book, and sort of not the, “What can I go buy right now?” premise.

Lukas: Yes.

Margaret: And by the way, I should tell people I love your e-newsletter and your Instagram feed, and I’ll tell people in the transcript of the show, where we’ll also have a book giveaway, I’ll tell them how to get subscribed to those with the links.

But I believe it was last winter when you were doing like, I don’t know, an oatmeal challenge or something like that, that I got totally hooked [laughter]. Because oatmeal’s not one of the things you just named, but you love good, basic, solid ingredients that can do a lot of things, don’t you?

I’ve done this challenge for myself three years in a row for the month of February, and it’s a hashtag I called #28daysofoatmeal, even though this past year I had to do 29 days, and it was exactly that. It was one of those things where I realized, “You know what? I eat oatmeal almost every day.” It is actually this blank canvas for all kinds of different toppings, and so the challenge was to change up my daily oatmeal every day and document it on Instagram.

It ended up being one of those things that really resonated with people, because I think they, too, were eating oatmeal, maybe not every day, but eating it pretty often, and had kind of fallen into ruts with their toppings and didn’t even really think to change it up. But I think it’s one of those dishes that help you begin to cook intuitively, and to begin to cook with sort of what you’ve got. So in the captions of that I’m always just like “oatmeal with poached egg and soy sauce and scallions and sesame seeds,” and you can sort of like immediately grasp how that comes together without having to put it into a recipe. [Above, Lukas’s oatmeal with mashed winter squash, tahini, maple, and a teeny bit of brown sugar and salt, from “Start Simple.”]

Margaret: Right.

Lukas: So that definitely informs the way I cook, and the way I’m always trying to get people to learn how to become better cooks, and more intuitive cooks and more resourceful cooks, with the things that they’ve got on hand.

“Veggie Burgers Every Which Way,” and that’s another cookbook that would be great to have on hand right now, by the way. I think you even had a vegetable burger business.

Speaking of veggie burgers, in the new book, in “Start Simple,” there’s one with white beans and carrots [above and below], and I was so wanting to have panko crumbs in my cupboard that I didn’t have, because I read the recipe for that and I thought, “Ooh, that sounds like such a good burger.”

It’s sort of like you’re the master of the veggie burger universe or something [laughter], and I just wondered, is there some sort of basic rule of thumb about veggie burgers? Like you need a binder and a bean and a I-don’t-know-what to make it work?

Lukas: Yeah, I definitely have sort of a formula in the back of my mind. My thing with veggie burgers is that I’ve always thought the most exciting potential for them is to express vegetables in new and interesting ways, and so my veggie burgers are always … they always highlight some specific vegetable or maybe a pair of vegetables. It’s never been the goal to try to make it taste like meat or approximate meat flavor.

Margaret: No!

Lukas: So with that new veggie burger, it’s that carrot and white bean burger where you cook down some shallots and grated carrots with little tomato paste and some apple cider vinegar until it gets a little blistery and soft, and then you really just mash in two cans of beans and add an egg and then some breadcrumbs for the binder. That’s like the easiest formula that I find for veggie burgers. [The carrot and white bean burger is detailed in this recipe.]

With vegan ones, we wouldn’t use the egg, it’s a little trickier because there are different types of vegan binders and they all work differently. One of my favorites is just like a steamed potato. This is like one of those accidents, where when you put a potato in the food processor it turns into wallpaper glue-

Margaret: [Laughter.]

Lukas: …which I know is not something you’re supposed to do, but in the world of veggie burgers it’s actually quite helpful [laughter], because it turns into a really sticky and fail-safe binder. So, that’s one of my favorites. Using the steamed potato and a little bit of potato starch.

And there are some egg replacers that work sometimes, like a “flax egg.” Flax egg will work, but that’s a little bit looser and wetter. So the vegan binders are a little trickier, and I think you have to be recipe-specific with them.

And then the other component there is the binder, which when I’m using wheat-based breadcrumbs like panko or homemade breadcrumbs, they’re sort of like the easiest in this formula of like the beans and the vegetables and then the egg and then the breadcrumbs. With gluten-free ones, the gluten-free stuff absorbs things a little bit differently.

There’s a trick that one of my friends who’s a cookbook author, Jodi Moreno, she wrote a book called … What’s it called? Now I’m blanking on the name, but she has this great trick for gluten-free breadcrumbs, where you cook quinoa, and then you’ve toast it in the oven after it’s cooked, and it ends up really mimicking breadcrumbs. They have sort of that flaky but somewhat coarse quality, and then they end up being really pleasantly absorbent. So, that’s something I want to try more in my veggie burgers. I haven’t gotten around to it yet. And her book, now I remember, it’s called “More with Less.”

Where to order “Start Simple” published by Harper Wave of HarperCollins

  • Lukas Volger’s Instagram
  • Lukas’s website, where you can get his e-newsletter
  • “Jarry” magazine, which Lukas founded
  • (Photos from the book “Start Simple” by Cara Howe. Copyright © 2020 by Lukas Volger. Reprinted by permission.)

    recipe: cheesy cabbage and white bean soup

    iTunes/Apple Podcasts or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).


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