Reading & Recipes

Mindful Vegan Meals: Food is Your Friend

Tracy Turlin
Written by Tracy Turlin

You might think that a cookbook is simply a collection of recipes, but if you read as many as I do you’ll see that they’re usually more than that. A cookbook can be a guide to a different country or culture, a tribute to an author’s heritage or a celebration of family, friends or the bounty of the seasons. It is often a road map of an author’s travels. Maria Koutsogiannis has written a road map of a different kind. In her first published book, Mindful Vegan Meals: Food is Your Friend (Page Street Publishing; 2018) she shares her journey through the hell of an eating disorder and out the other side to wellness. It’s not for the faint of heart or for those offended by hard truth or hard language. The road is sometimes bumpy and the view is not always pretty, but, she assures us, “we eventually end up in a happy place.”

I’d never recommend a book that makes claims of magical diets, or wonder foods that will solve all your problems if you just put them in your morning smoothie. But I am interested in people who truly want to help others and I admire the courage of those who are willing to show their own scars to do so. Koutsogiannis had some significant issues in her childhood that led to an unhealthy relationship with food. She now spends her life showing people what she did to change that, and invites us to see how improving that relationship can result in an amazing change for the better. 

Koutsogiannis is the founder of the food and lifestyle blog foodbymaria.com and was named “Food Blogger of the Year” in Calgary in 2017. She’s the child of Greek immigrants and is able to embrace the food culture of her childhood while maintaining the plant-based diet she now enjoys. 

Author Maria Koutsogiannis

Mindful Vegan Meals is all about making delicious, nourishing food from plants and enjoying that food to the fullest. It balances taste and texture, nutrition and emotional connections. It illustrates that food that makes you feel good emotionally and food that makes you feel good physically can be the same thing. 

Hearty Vegetable Minestrone is a recipe she shares from her childhood, a staple at her parents’ restaurant in Swift Current. It’s a wonderfully rustic soup full of chunks of vegetables in a soothing, simple broth. The squeeze of lemon at the end brightens everything up. It’s the kind of soup you want to eat while looking out the window on a cold day. 

Her version of Rice & Dill Stuffed Grape Leaves (Dolmades) has one of the best lines I’ve ever read in a recipe. When sautéing onions, she advises, “You will know they are ready when your home begins to smell very fragrant.” They are a bit more labour-intensive than most of the recipes you’ll find in this book, but isn’t that how cooks show people that they love them? 

With an entire chapter devoted to the Greek favourites of the author’s childhood, this book is a sure hit even if you care nothing about a plant-based diet. For the adventurous non-vegan, there’s a chapter of sauces, dips and dressings that have been “vegan-ized.” I have to tell you, I’m a nut for this type of food and these look delicious. If, like me, you firmly believe that raw vegetables are simply a vehicle for dip, you might want to try some of these. 

Photography duties in this book were split between the author and Calgary commercial photographer Chris Amat. Food pictures are primarily done by Koutsogiannis and are warm, inviting and colourful. They make you hungry. Amat photographs the author and manages to capture a feeling of joy and freedom from Maria, along with her “take no prisoners” attitude.

Whatever your feelings about veganism, Mindful Vegan Meals is a great cookbook and an even better story. In the end, this book is about food, love and happiness. Isn’t that what all good cookbooks are really about?    

Recipes excerpted from Mindful Vegan Meals by Maria Koutsogiannis. Copyright © 2018. Published by Page Street Publishing. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.

Hearty Vegetable Minestrone 

This soup brings me straight back to my childhood. It’s super simple because all you need is one pot, just over ten ingredients and a bit of time to allow the flavours to simmer as you get on with your day! I recommend you enjoy a bowl of this minestrone soup with cheesy toast and fresh herbs.

Growing up we used to always go to the restaurant, Kabos, which my parents own in Swift Current, Saskatchewan, and enjoy a bowl of soup, do some child work (make coffee, clean tables for fun, fill waters). This place was and will forever be my second home: a place where I learned to socialize and to work my ass off, and it is where my love for food was first born. I am crying just typing this because it brings back so many memories. Weekends and Mondays were vegetable soup. Tuesday’s soup was chicken noodle. Wednesday was lentil. Thursday was bean and bacon. Friday was traditional Greek avgolemono (otherwise known as lemon rice) soup. It’s safe to say this recipe is really special to me and reminds me of the good old days. 

SERVINGS: 4–5

2 tbsp (30 ml) extra virgin olive oil 
1 sweet white onion, finely diced
3 cloves garlic
1 cup (100 g) celery stalk, finely chopped
1 cup (128 g) carrot, cubed
Handful of fresh thyme and oregano, chopped
2 cups (248 g) zucchini, cubed, 1 inch (2.5 cm) thick
1 cup (150 g) red pepper, cubed, 1 inch (2.5 cm) thick
2 cups (360 g) tomatoes, roughly chopped
2 cups (200 g) green beans, cut into 3-inch (8-cm) pieces
8 cups (2 L) unsalted vegetable stock
½ cup (100 g) orzo
Salt and pepper to taste
Squeeze of lemon
Fresh cilantro and parsley

In a large soup pot heat the olive oil on high for about 30 seconds. Lower the heat to medium and add the onion, garlic, celery and carrot and let them cook down for about 5 minutes. Stir occasionally to avoid burning. When the onions have become translucent, add the thyme and oregano. Give the mixture a gentle stir then add the remaining vegetables—zucchini, pepper, tomatoes and green beans. Cook the vegetables down for a few minutes on medium heat. 

Just as their colour brightens, add the stock. Bring the mixture to a boil then simmer for 15 minutes. Add the orzo and cook for another 10 minutes. Taste test, and add salt and pepper if needed.

Enjoy immediately with a squeeze of lemon and more fresh herbs!

Did You Know? 

Hot/warm foods help with digestion and bloating. When you learn to listen to your body and understand why you are craving certain foods you gain a stronger relationship with your body. In turn, your body will love you back for nourishing it so well!

 

Rice & Dill Stuffed Grape Leaves (Dolmades) 

Oh baby, welcome to flavour town. These are about to blow your mind and leave your family and friends excited to come back around for dinner. I realize they are a bit more work than most of my recipes but you can’t mess with tradition, folks, so just be patient and trust that these taste like love in your mouth when you’re finished. 

The combination of lemon, dill and silky rice is perfect and the tastes complement each other well. I highly recommend trying the vegan lemon sauce but please note that this recipe is traditionally made using eggs, so if you want to stick to tradition then call your nearest Greek grandma and snatch that recipe off her! 

SERVINGS: 4–5

30 grape leaves 
1 yellow onion, finely chopped in a food processor
4 green onion stems, finely chopped
1 cup (9 g) fresh dill, finely chopped, stems removed (can also add parsley), plus more for garnish
7 tbsp (105 ml) extra virgin olive oil, divided
1 cup (185 g) white rice 
Salt and pepper to taste
4 slices lemon, ½-inch (13-mm) thick 
Vegetable stock, enough to cover dolmades in the pot
1 tbsp (8 g) cornstarch
½ cup (120 ml) lemon juice
Lemon wedges

Add enough water to halfway fill a medium-sized pot. Add the grape leaves to the water and bring to a boil then reduce the heat to low and simmer for about 30 minutes or until tender to touch. 

While the grape leaves are cooking, put the yellow onion and green onion stems in a food processor and pulse for about 30 seconds; you do not want them to be very finely chopped, just well-blended. Remove from the processor and set aside. Add the dill to the food processor and process for about 20 seconds or until very finely chopped. If you do not want to use a food processor you can cut it by hand.

When the grape leaves are cooked, drain them and lay them in a bowl or on a plate nice and flat so they will be easy to roll later. Check for large stems at the base of the leaf; if they are long just give them a little chop. 

In the same pot you used for the grape leaves, warm 4 tablespoons (60 ml) of olive oil and the onion and cook over medium heat until the onions are soft. You will know when they’re ready when your home begins to smell very fragrant. 

In a large mixing bowl put the rice, dill and onions mixture. Stir well and season with salt and pepper. Let this mixture sit for 10 to 15 minutes. 

In a medium-sized pot put a few grape leaves and the lemon slices.

Now it is time to begin assembling our little beauties! Start by holding a grape leaf, stem side up, in your palm. Scoop about a tablespoon full of the rice mixture onto the leaf. Close the leaf by folding over the top and then the two sides. Finally, tuck it in all tight with the bottom. 

Place the dolmades in the pot and make sure that they’re very close together to ensure they don’t fall apart while cooking. Repeat this step until you’ve used up all the grape leaves. Drizzle the remainder of the olive oil (3 tablespoons [45 ml]) over the rolled dolmades. Add enough vegetable stock to just cover the dolmades then place a small plate on top (you want the plate to touch the dolmades). Bring to a boil then lower the heat and simmer for about 1 hour, or until the rice is cooked. 

Reserve 1 cup (240 ml) of juice from the pot to make the lemon sauce. If there is not enough juice to equal 1 cup (240 ml), add some hot water.

To make the lemon sauce, put the cornstarch in a bowl, then add 1 cup (240 ml) of juice from your pot and stir until well combined. Slowly add the lemon juice to the mixture and beat like you would an egg. Pour the sauce into a pot, heat on high for a minute until the sauce thickens, and then serve, poured over the dolmades. 

Sprinkle with the dill and serve with some lemon wedges for squeezing over the dolmades.

Did You Know? 

Grape leaves are used in traditional herbal medicine to combat a variety of ailments including heavy menstrual bleeding, canker sores and stomach aches.

Notes 

You can find grape leaves in the ethnic section of many grocery stores; they are most commonly sold jarred or canned. If some leaves are larger than others, add more rice mixture accordingly. You could add up to an extra teaspoon when they’re a bit larger. At first, your grape leaves will not seem so tender but as the dish sits they begin to tenderize! Sometimes, these are best enjoyed as leftovers and heated before consuming!

About the author

Tracy Turlin

Tracy Turlin

Tracy Turlin is a freelance writer and dog groomer in London.
Reach her at tracyturlin@gmail.com.