cooking with what you have: ‘start simple,’ with lukas volger
JUST BEFORE THINGS SHIFTED in our world, I bought a new vegetarian cookbook called “Start Simple,” by Lukas Volger. Little did I know that just weeks later, its promise of “an uncomplicated approach to cooking that allows you to use what you already have on hand to make great meals you didn’t think were possible” would sound not just appealing, but really the order of the day.
I called Lukas to talk about dependable, versatile ingredients and how to use them, about how to cook better no matter what ingredients we have on hand, and also how to make vegetables last.
Lukas Volger is the author of three previous cookbooks, and the co-founder and editorial director of “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).
cooking with what you have, with lukas volger
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.
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?
Lukas: Yes, exactly. And the oatmeal, 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.”]
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.
Margaret: Yeah. Also, I think it was on Instagram recently you had, and this is going to sound nutty to people probably at first when I say the words: “roasted chard stems.” You had a picture of roasted chard stems [above], and you would think, “What the heck? Why do I want to eat chard stems?”
But it’s just what you said, it’s even beyond waste-not, want-not. It’s like some of these bits and pieces just can make a whole other dish, or an embellishment or a flavor-additive thing, so what about roasted chard stems and the like? Because there seem to be tricks like that in all your books.
Lukas: Yeah, the chard stems is such a revelation.
Lukas: And it’s one of those things that you really can’t quite believe it until you do it. Because I feel like there are all these people that are saying, “Kale stems, dice them up and add them to your stir-fries,” and I waste as little as possible, but I can’t fully get on board with kale stems. They’re just too fibrous to really enjoy, so I’ll throw those into a juice or I’ll compost them.
But the chard stems just become something completely … It’s like they almost turn into this delicious spring vegetable that’s really tender and has this, I think of it as like an almost asparagus-y flavor, but so different from the leaves, and I’m always saving those and roasting them in a hot oven, around 400 degrees. You just want to cook them until they’re quite tender.
I think it’s best when the crunch is removed from them, and it usually takes about 15-20 minutes. But then, just chop those up and I add them either to my greens that I’ve sautéed, or I’ll throw them into a taco filling or in any area, like into an omelet, into a grain bowl, something like that. I mean, it’s crazy that there is this vegetable like Swiss chard that has the leaves, which are one thing, and the stems of which are another thing entirely. It’s kind of a little miracle.
Margaret: Yeah. [Laughter.] Speaking of greens, you have a recipe in the book, and here we are with our curbside pickup boxes, as I said before, of whatever, and hopefully we’re, during this time when in shopping is difficult, patronizing local farms and alternatives to be able to get fresh stuff. You have a greens recipe that’s deceptively simple: marinated greens. Tell us about that one. [Above, from the book, of use of marinated greens: in a peanut butter and greens sandwich.]
Lukas: Yes. It sort of comes from the place of me getting home from the farmer’s market to my apartment in Brooklyn and having several … I eat a lot of greens so I’m always buying three, four bunches of greens at a time to last me a stretch of days. And having to make space in the fridge for all those greens when they’re in their raw state is one of the tasks I find more tedious than other tasks. [Laughter.]
And so the whole idea here is that rather than trying to find space in the fridge, I’m cleaning them and cooking them down, and then taking it a step further where I’m marinating them, which is just I’m coating them in some fresh olive oil and seasoning with some pepper flakes and salt and pepper, and it’s just kind of like front-loading the labor of dealing with greens.
This is something that I’ve been hoping to convey to readers, and I think has been clicking a little bit, it helps people and it helps me indeed to see the greens after they’re cooked like that as sort of a component of the dish. So I end up using those greens as like an enchilada filling, or an omelet filling, or in all kinds of various ways, where from like a recipe standpoint it helps take the reader out of the granular, line-by-line ingredient list and steps, and it helps them see that, “Oh, all I’m doing is cooking some scrambled eggs here and then turning that into an omelet with a handful of these greens and a few little onions that I pickled in some vinegar and a little bit of yogurt, and that’s that.”
So, I tried to do something like the marinated greens with each of these vegetables, each of these essential ingredients, so as to help think of these prepared dishes as like components that help … I’m sorry, I feel like I’m rambling a little bit, but the idea is to see recipes more as an assembly of various components than as a granular, line-by-line sort of get out of the minutia of a recipe. Which I think will help people to cook more intuitively in the long run.
Margaret: Yeah, and to see that learning that one simple thing means that you have on hand—not dissimilar to the fact that you have your oatmeal on hand, because I read in the book, or maybe I read it on your Instagram or whatever, that you make oatmeal every week, I think like I do, you make steel-cut oats. I think you make a big batch and you use that during the week.
Margaret: Yeah. And so in the same way you’ve taken your farmer’s market haul of greens, and some of them you’ve turned into this thing that can then be incarnated in a few different ways during the week, which is great I think. I mean, so much smarter.
I love sweet potatoes, and sweet potatoes appear in the book a couple of times, I think, and you talk about maybe combining them with miso. I have a jar of miso in the door of my fridge and I have sweet potatoes, and I was like, “What? I’ve never thought of that.” Tell us about that, how that is.
Lukas: Yeah. I feel like miso is one of those ingredients that a lot of people will buy for a specific recipe and then it sort of languishes in the fridge. Maybe it’s to make miso soup or it’s to make a marinade or something, and it’s one that a lot of people might not see the versatility of it. I mean, especially with the oatmeal, in the early days of my oatmeal challenge, it was like oh, a spoonful of miso just stirring that into my steel-cut oats toward the end of the cooking or even when I’m reheating them, it just takes the oatmeal in an entirely different direction.
And that whole sweet-savory component, which is especially good in oatmeal because oatmeal lends itself to all these savory treatments, it just helped me to see the potential of this and that’s a flavor that just tastes good and all kinds of different places.
I think that with vegetarian cooking as well, those sorts of fermented ingredients like miso and the soy sauce and kimchi and things like that, they really can help pull a lot of weight in the flavor department when you don’t have sort of meat that ends up being this huge buffer in terms of flavor and texture and all that stuff.
Margaret: Yeah. So it’s funny because the miso, of course, has this sort of saltiness, and so one of my favorite things with sweet potatoes is Parmesan cheese, which might sound insane. [Laughter.]
Lukas: Oh, no, that sounds delicious.
Margaret: So sometimes when I have nothing for dinner, I bake a sweet potato. I always have brown rice in the fridge (as well as oatmeal), and I might just have mashed up some sweet potato and have it with my rice and have some Parmesan cheese. And it’s that salty, sweet, the different textures, and I’m a happy person. So, yeah. So, when I saw the miso I thought, “Ooh, I’m going to like that. I’m going to like that.”
So when you bring home your greens, you said some of them you might cook. Are there other things that you sort of, especially now at the moment where ingredients are so precious, are you doing any other tricks to kind of have more longevity between shopping trips and so forth, with any of your vegetables?
Lukas: Well, the marinated greens has been one that’s really come in handy lately so that I can continue to have the greens. But I think in general it’s when I see a vegetable starting to turn, that’s when I know I just need to cook it whether or not I’m ready to eat it. By cooking it, you’ll add a few days to its shelf life. So this is with the greens, which look like they might be getting a little wilty, or with squash or sweet potatoes, I find that once I cook them, then it’ll be easier to consume them later on, but then it also adds a couple of days to the shelf life of the vegetable.
So with the squash, and I’m often buying like ‘Butternut’ squash or a kabocha squash. I will cook those whenever I have the time, and then I scoop the flesh out and mash it up, and similar to the greens, I’ll season that with some salt and pepper and a little bit of olive oil and sometimes throw some toasted sesame oil in there or a little bit of lemon zest or things to give it a little bit more character. But it just ends up creating that sort of like component, rather than an assembly of ingredients, that just makes dinner that much faster when it comes time to cook.
Margaret: Right, it’s an at-the-ready component. Now, I’m a one-person household and I cook all my food myself, and I don’t live in an area where there’s takeout food or whatever very much, and so a lot of times when I make a recipe or a whole ‘Butternut’ squash or a whole thing of grains, it’s too much for one (or even two or even three or even four servings), and I even portion it and freeze it in some cases. Do you know what I mean? It might be for next week, too.
Lukas: Yup, absolutely.
Margaret: I mean, not perfect sometimes, and with certain things it’s better than with others, but generally speaking with most of the vegetables, I do it.
Lukas: Yeah, and to freeze them after you cook them, especially with the greens, that just sort of locks in the color at least.
Margaret: Absolutely. Absolutely. Now burgers, you did a whole veggie burger cookbook a while back. I think maybe, what, 2010ish or something?
Lukas: Yeah, it was 10 years ago, which I find hard to believe.
Margaret: [Laughter.] It’s called “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.
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-
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.”
Margaret: So, in the book you have a number of uses of cabbage, and that’s something that keeps well. But when you get a head of cabbage, it’s a big thing. But you have like a great, easy, Cheesy Cabbage and White Bean Soup in “Start Simple” [above; recipe farther down the page]. A can of beans and some cabbage, and it just really uses easy pantry staples. And then you have a whole section of slaws, like one with the quinoa again with I think a brown sugar Dijon vinaigrette, and lots of interesting slaws. I think that’s another thing that a lot of us don’t make that we could, the slaw as a side dish, as a salad instead of a salad kind of thing, yes?
Lukas: Oh yeah. Using cabbage sort of as a salad green?
Margaret: Yeah, like not a cooked side-dish vegetable, and not a salad as in lettuce, but this is … I don’t make slaw, and I saw you had, I think, three of them in the book and I thought, “Oh, that’s a good idea,” and it’s going to be kind of crunchy and delicious. One was Asian-inspired, I think with tofu and a honey-soy kind of dressing and sesame, and really interesting. One had another one of your secret ingredients: charred scallions. Tell us about charred scallions. [Laughter.]
Lukas: Yeah, that’s one of those like flavor bombs. I was just going to say about the slaw, I feel like in working on this book was the first time that I thought that, “Oh, a slaw can actually be a meal.” You can make that pretty hearty with … I’ve got a couple of recipes in here, one that’s with lentils and some frizzled shallots, and you use the shallot oil and the vinaigrette and then put crispy … I’m sorry, you crispy-fry shallots and then use that shallot oil in the vinaigrette and some chopped-up almonds in there, and it’s a really good sort of main-dish salad.
And then the one with the tofu, there’s some orange in there and like a honey-soy vinaigrette. I was thinking about cabbage when you asked me about our current cooking conditions, because right now one of the things that I’m really craving is just crunch.
Lukas: That could just be that it’s spring, and seasonal appetite is revving back up, but I find that cabbage, I’m using that more than I am sort of like a salad green just because I’m craving a crunch so much and also because that head of cabbage is going to last so much longer than any other salad greens that I might be able to get.
Margaret: Right, right. So in the last couple-few minutes, I have to ask because we’ve all heard about everyone stocking up on beans, beans, and more beans, and there’s a run on beans. Beans are now a “thing.” I mean, I ate beans every day for a million years, but now everybody’s eating them. I loved your Brothy Beans recipe, and it’s barely even a recipe, really. Can you just kind of tell us about that?
Lukas: Yeah, so the Brothy Beans is that sort of core recipe for the beans chapter, where I’m trying to convey to readers that a pot of beans and their bean broth is delicious on its own when it’s cooked properly, but it’s also a pretty versatile ingredient.
So to make the Brothy Beans, I mean it’s a pretty similar method to most other bean methods when you’re cooking it on the stove top. It’s soaked beans, and cooking them with a good couple of glugs of olive oil, and salting them pretty well. I’m always surprised that people don’t think of the bean cooking liquid as an aspect of the pot of beans. A lot of people strain that off without knowing that it’s so delicious and it’s such a wonderful ingredient to use in soups and stews and braises.
So yeah, I mean it’s very, very simple. Then I go on to use those beans … There’s one recipe in the book for a braised, it’s like baked white beans and chicories, where you’re kind of cooking down some aromatics and fennel and some carrots and some onion, and then you’re adding some radicchio and endive, and that starts to cook down. And then sort of you’re taking essentially that recipe of the pot of beans with the bean cooking liquid and adding that, and then throwing it into the oven. It just turns into this wonderful, super-complex flavor.
The endive and the radicchio are just like such different ingredients once they’re cooked like that and they become really succulent, and it’s just such a hearty, warming, delicious dish. So I’m trying in the book to show that pot of beans as a dish of its own, but also sort of an ingredient that you can use in a couple of different directions.
Margaret: Right. Well, I’m grateful to have, in time, bought a copy of “Start Simple.” Lukas Volger, I’m very grateful to have it and I’m enjoying it and I’m going to start cooking more from it. So thank you so much for making the time today, and we’ll have a book giveaway as I said with the transcript and so forth and I’ll tell people how to find you on Instagram and your wonderful newsletter, as well. So, thanks so much.
more from lukas volger
- 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
By Lukas Volger, excerpted from his book ‘Start Simple’
Serves 4 to 6
This fantastic soup is inspired by a Martha Rose Shulman recipe, from her “Recipes for Health” Column in “The New York Times,” where cabbage is cooked in a combination of broth and milk. My adaptation tastes sophisticated even without any dairy (thanks to cabbage, that chameleon, showing off a whole new side of itself when cooked), but the Gruyere makes the soup absolutely elegant. I’ve added white beans for heft and creaminess. Taste carefully for seasoning toward the end—I find that after adding the cheese I need to add a bit more salt to bring the flavors into balance.
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 medium onion, or 2 leeks, white parts only, chopped
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- ½ medium head green or Savoy cabbage, shredded (about 5 cups)
- ½ teaspoon salt, plus more as needed
- Two 15-ounce cans cannellini beans, including the liquid, or 4 cups cooked white beans with a few ladlesful of their broth
- 5 cups vegetable broth, or 1 tablespoon bouillon base dissolved in 5 cups water
- 1 cup shredded Gruyere or Parmesan cheese, or 1½ cups shredded sharp cheddar
- Freshly ground black pepper
- Fried breadcrumbs or croutons, for serving (optional)
Warm the olive oil in a soup pot over medium heat, then stir in the onions and garlic, followed by the cabbage and salt. Cook for about 5 minutes, until just starting to soften, then add the beans and broth. Bring to a simmer, then cover and cook for 30 minutes, or until the vegetables are tender and the broth is flavorful. Remove from the heat and add the cheese a handful at a time, stirring until it melts into the broth. Taste and season with additional salt, as needed (depending on the saltiness of your vegetable stock or bouillon, it may need quite a bit of salt, as the beans really soak it up), and a few grinds of pepper. Serve hot, topped with breadcrumbs or croutons, if desired.
(From the book START SIMPLE by Lukas Volger. Copyright © 2020 by Lukas Volger. Published on February 18, 2020 by Harper Wave, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Reprinted by permission. Photos by Cara Howe.)
enter to win a copy of ‘start simple’
I’LL BUY A COPY of “Start Simple” by Lukas Volger for one lucky reader. All you have to do to enter is answer this question in the comments box at the very bottom of the page:
Are there ingredients that are your mainstays, certain building blocks or flavors you would miss (or might be missing, with shopping so tricky) most of all?
No answer, or feeling shy? Just say something like “count me in,” and I will, but a reply is even better. I’ll pick a random winner after entries close at midnight Tuesday, April 28, 2020. Good luck to all.
prefer the podcast version of the show?
MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its 11th year in March 2020. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the April 20, 2020 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes/Apple Podcasts or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).