Learning to Love Cooking and Vegetables: How A Couple Cooks Changed the Way They Eat for Good
Making changes with what we eat and how we feed ourselves can often feel complicated and painful. Our individual histories, personal health and relationships with food need unraveling and addressing to make a change we can maintain. Sonja and Alex Overhiser, the creators of A Couple Cooks and authors of today’s newly released Pretty Simple Cooking: 100 Delicious Vegetarian Recipes To Make You Fall in Love with Real Food, make change seem possible and sustainable by learning to love cooking and vegetables.
Sonja and Alex went from eating frozen dinners to learning how to cook whole foods from scratch in a very short time. In 2010, they started to write about their journey, and by 2015 they were garnering recognition on healthy food blogger best of lists in Better Homes and Gardens and Huffington Post, just to name a few. Read on for our interview with Sonja about what her family eats and why, and how you can join them in February for a dinner party in your own home to celebrate the book launch.
What was your catalyst for changing the way you eat and regularly cooking vegetarian meals at home?
Alex and I got married 10 years ago, bought a house and wanted to have people over for dinner. At the time, we knew NOTHING about food. I could microwave hot pockets and pour milk over cereal, and that was about it. For one of our first dinners, someone lent us a cookbook from Julia Child. Reading the headnotes, her personality burst to life and she encouraged me that anyone could learn to cook, even if they had no experience like I did!
It was a lightbulb moment for us: We made a meal from her book, and it turned out delicious! That started a spiral of making dinner after dinner for friends and falling in love with the process. Around the same time, we read a book by Mark Bittman called Food Matters. It challenged us to eat minimally processed foods and as many vegetables as possible. We were pleasantly surprised that eating more vegetarian meals from scratch gave us more energy, made us feel happier and sleep better. We started discovering how delicious vegetables could taste when prepared at home and started our blog to share these recipes with others. Cooking has always been about love and passion for us—especially when cooking and eating with people we love.
You talk and write honestly about how cooking isn’t always easy, but keeping it simple is your strategy. Give us a high and low of cooking food from scratch.
Oh my, we’ve had so many lows! I think the most embarrassing moments have been catching an entire chicken on fire (before we were mainly vegetarian) and broiling croutons that went up in flames, both of them in front of guests! Or one time we didn’t wash spinach leaves thoroughly, and they added sand to our fettuccine alfredo—a very unsatisfying crunch! We make sure to have backup ingredients on hand (grilled cheese, quesadilla, big salad) just in case we have a failure.
There have been lots of highlights too! It’s always exciting to make recipes that people make for their families. The vegan pot pie we just posted on our website is getting rave reviews. When Alex and I get in the kitchen and make food together, we feel nourished in so many ways outside of just physically. It’s time with each other, creating memories and nourishing our souls. And now, we get to make those memories with our son Larson too!
Now that the New Year’s hype is over, can you give us one piece of advice on how to make food changes that last?
Learn to love the process. There’s no way I’d be cooking so much today if I didn’t love it. Cooking can be a creative outlet and entertainment for spending time with friends and family. Instead of ordering out and then doing an activity, make cooking the main event! Loving the process makes it something you’ll do day after day, year after year.
When it comes to eating in a way that matches what you value and how you define healthy, is there anything you have let go of in order to eat well?
To make time for eating well, Alex and I had to learn an important lesson: slow down. We had to minimize being overscheduled and procrastinating and spending excessive time on social media (we still do all those things to some extent!). But we realized the most important thing we could do each day was feed ourselves nourishing food. So we had to make priorities and cut out things that didn’t build our lives up. Ultimately it doesn’t seem like a sacrifice because in exchange we’re eating great food and spending time making it with people we love.
And finally, Pretty Simple Cooking comes out today! Can you share one recipe from this new collection of vegetarian recipes that you have on repeat in your home right now?
The red lentil coconut curry with cilantro chutney is a favorite of mine. It is inexpensive, vegan, gluten-free and bursting with flavor. The sweet and tart chutney really makes the dish. A reader, and one of our dinner party hosts, just wrote to me that it saved her night after taking one kid to urgent care and being crazy busy at work. It’s so meaningful to hear about people coming together at the table eating nourishing food. That’s why I do what I do!
Red Lentil Coconut Curry with Cilantro Chutney
Ingredients for the Curry:
- 2 cups uncooked brown basmati rice
- 1 medium yellow onion
- 3 medium garlic cloves
- 1 3-inch nub fresh ginger
- 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 cup red lentils
- 1 cup canned crushed tomatoes
- 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons full-fat coconut milk, divided
- 1⁄4 cup red curry paste*
- 2 tablespoons tomato paste
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 4- 5 cups baby spinach leaves, packed (chopped if leaves are large)
Ingredients for the Chutney:
- 1⁄4 cup diced yellow onion (reserved from above)
- 2 cups packed cilantro leaves and tender stems
- 1⁄4 cup chopped golden raisins
- 2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
- 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 1⁄2 teaspoon kosher salt
- Make the brown rice.
- Make the curry: Peel and dice the onion. Reserve 1⁄4 cup for the chutney and set aside; use the remaining portion for the curry.
- Peel and mince the garlic.
- Peel and mince the ginger and measure out 2 tablespoons.
- In a large skillet, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat, then add the onion and sauté until translucent, about 5 minutes.
- Add the garlic and ginger and sauté for 1 minute.
- Add the lentils, tomatoes, 1 cup coconut milk, 2 cups water, red curry paste, tomato paste and kosher salt. Bring to a simmer and cook very gently, just barely bubbling, for 10 to 15 minutes until the lentils are soft (if not, cook a few minutes more until tender).
- Stir in the spinach along with 2 tablespoons coconut milk and cook until the leaves wilt. Taste and add additional kosher salt or coconut milk to taste.
- Make the chutney: Meanwhile, make the chutney using an immersion blender or standard blender to blend the reserved 1⁄4 cup diced onion, cilantro, golden raisins, white wine vinegar, olive oil, kosher salt, and 1⁄4 cup water. Blend into a thick, smooth sauce.
- To serve, spoon the lentils over rice and top with a dollop of chutney.
*If your brand of red curry paste is very spicy, add it in gradually to taste. Our preferred brand adds flavor without excessive heat, but make sure to taste test before adding the entire amount.
Excerpted from A Couple Cooks | Pretty Simple Cooking: 100 Delicious Vegetarian Recipes to Make You Fall in Love with Real Food by Sonja and Alex Overhiser. Copyright © 2018. Available from Da Capo Lifelong Books, an imprint of Perseus Books, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc.
Want to join Sonja and Alex for their book launch and worldwide dinner party on Feb. 17? For information on how you can participate, pick up a copy of Pretty Simple Cooking or check out the Pretty Simple Cooking Dinner Party and sign up to be a host!