Zsu Dever hails from a long line of culinary professionals and restaurateurs, and is the author of the new cookbook Everyday Vegan Eats, which hit bookshelves yesterday. Zsu worked in her parents’ restaurants for years, and she also catered and cooked professionally. Her kitchen experience helped a lot when she converted her family to a plant-based diet 14 years ago. Since then, she has become passionate about teaching new vegans and vegetarians how to succeed with their newly chosen diet and become lifelong vegans.
I recently had a chance to chat with Zsu, and we talked about going vegan, food and feeding families. Without further ado, here’s Zsu!
Zsu Dever – During the summer of 2001 reports began circulating about a brain-wasting disease that was spread by eating cows. When I learned what the underlying cause of mad cow disease was – feeding cows other cows – I discovered that prions (a misfolded form of a protein) could be transmitted even in milk. At this point I was living in Texas and married to a Texan. Fortunately for the family, my husband, who wasn’t even a vegetarian at that point, put the health and well-being of our children ahead of his taste buds and we went vegan over the weekend. On Friday we decided that being vegan was the safest thing for our children’s health, on Saturday we got rid of all non-vegan foods from the house, on Sunday we went shopping for vegan food and a few cookbooks and on Monday the family was vegan.
ZD – Unfortunately, our three young children liked their hot dogs, chicken nuggets and pizza. They didn’t really care for going vegan when it had to do with their health (Mad Cow), but they were all in when they learned about the plight of farmed animals. Kids have a natural connection with nature and animals and they actually do not want to eat them. As soon as they realized that the nugget on the plate was a being, there was no need to “make them” eat vegan – they wanted to be vegan.
ZD – At that time veganism was not as ubiquitous as it is now becoming and veggie dogs were bland and tasteless – they didn’t fool my kids! Vegan cheese was a mass of gritty chemicals and the only time they melted was when you set fire to them. There were a few good cookbooks, but when we first went vegan it was difficult to find them. I remember the first book we liked was Simply Heavenly by Abbot George Burke. I’d say the greatest obstacle was the lack of good-tasting transition foods. Now there is Beyond Meat, Field Roast, Follow Your Heart and Daiya, to name a few popular products. It is incredibly comforting to have a few transition foods for those times when a great bowl of Mac and Cheese is being craved. So from that point-of-view it was more challenging. However, although our first steps toward veganism was for health reasons, we continued being veg because of the animals.
ZD – “What is that?” There is a lot of misinformation and ignorance regarding what being vegan is. I basically tell them: “We do the best that we can in doing the least harm to the animals, planet and ourselves. This means that we don’t eat animals or animal products, we do not wear animal products and we do not purchase products that uses animal ingredients or conduct animal testing.” After that they usually bust out with “Do you eat fish?”
ZD – It is a cookbook of what my family eats. We are a diverse bunch of people and everyone has their favorite meals. It’s really not hard waiting for your favorite dish to roll around since all the food is so good, but we all have foods we simply do not like – Mikel hates raw tomatoes, Catt dislikes mushrooms and Kate doesn’t care for broccoli. This book has all the picky-eater’s favorites, plus some!
Going vegan was a little difficult because of the lack of a concise “beginner” book, in the sense that a great substitute for egg salad or chicken salad or cheese sauce would have been such a windfall! Now that we have the kinks worked out, I wanted to share that with would-be-vegans, new vegans or vegans who like tasty food, especially ones they perhaps thought were too difficult, too costly or impossible to make – such as a vegan ranch dressing or vegan mac and cheese. Got them covered!
Hard questions since the book really does have all my favorite recipes! If you twisted my arm I’d have to say Timeless Tomato Sauce… or the Cheese Sauce… or the Vegan Meatloaf…or the Pasta Primavera with Alfredo Sauce. Yes, that one. That last one is my personal comfort food. Let me put it this way, when dinner rolls around, I keep finding myself being very grateful to have this book by my side, instead of having to look for a recipe I need in my binder or having to print one out for the umpteenth time.
CV – What inspires you to create new recipes?
Unlike the rest of my family, I love eating new and varied foods. Even though I have favorites, I can’t help but think how I could change-up an old recipe or if I see an ingredient I wonder what I could create with it. I guess it’s in my blood!
ZD – Ahh! The vegetables! First, I would tell moms that veggies (especially dark leafy greens) have a distinct bitter flavor. Children’s taste buds are very sensitive and they can pick up on the strong flavors much more distinctly than adults can. While it is okay to ask them to taste foods, do not force them to eat it.
It takes at least 11 times for someone to taste something and then be able to decide whether they like it or not – and even then young children might opt against a vegetable. If after a dozen or so taste tests the child still asserts that they do not like a certain vegetable, let it go for a few more months or a year before asking them to give it another go.
Your child should be able to find something they do like – such as green beans, cauliflower, squash, lettuce, carrots, broccoli, cabbage, peas, etc. – more of the milder veggies. Remember that children can find flavor off-putting, but TEXTURE is more offensive. Veggies that are slick – tomatoes (no, not a veggie) and cooked squash can have a texture that is offensive to some kids.Try serving a vegetable cooked and then try serving it raw – sometimes that makes a huge difference. My youngest likes raw carrots but not cooked carrots. My son likes anything with tomato sauce but will never eat raw tomatoes. Both these kids have their preferences based on texture, not flavor.
An alternative is to take the green smoothie route. Start with only a leaf of kale or spinach and add lots of fruit. Increase the greens over time. Add a bit of lemon juice, which I have found covers bitter and earthy flavor well. Use blueberries as they cover the green color and help neutralize the bitter flavor of the greens.
Ultimately, variety is your key. Try lots of different veggies and shop with your kids. Get them in the kitchen to help cook. While I have not found it to be true that just because a child helps choose the produce and cook it they are more likely to eat it, it can still be beneficial; kids become more independent, more likely to at least try different foods and they see that you respect their opinion. All win-win scenarios.
ZD – We do breakfast of green smoothies, oatmeal, cereal, bagel or fruit. Lunch is something quick, like a soup or a sandwich and dinner is the big deal of the day. Pasta, beans, seitan, tofu or an ethnic meal. Breakfast and lunch are pretty predictable in the sense that we don’t “experiment.” Dinner time is typically the more unique meal since that is when I develop new recipes if the kids don’t get their way and I wind up make something from Everyday Vegan Eats.
CV – What is your favorite vegan indulgence?
ZD – Eating out at a great vegan restaurant! I love Millennium in San Francisco. I’d say that is a huge vegan indulgence.