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How to Get Into Plant-Based Cooking, According to Sophia Roe

From microplanes and must-have pans to essential cookbooks, the chef shares a smorgasbord of accessible advice on plant-based cooking.
MF
New York, US
July 29, 2021, 8:36pm

Plant-based cooking sounds easy enough. Omit the animal-sourced food? Sure. Nix the artificial ingredients? Yeah, man. But deep down, we’re not sure we know how to make the transition over to a plant-based diet when that whole scene [ducks from the Vegan Mafia] can feel kind of intimidating, so we sought the help of the Patron Saint of Veggies, Sophia Roe, for guidance. 

If a ray of sunshine learned how to hold a whisk, it would be Sophia Roe. The chef, writer, and Emmy-Award nominated TV show host has become our favorite ball of energy on the culinary scene in recent years, because no one is a bigger hype man for the undervalued glory of radishes, or the importance of getting dirt under your fingernails at the farmers market. Nor does Roe’s optimism feel like store-bought sunshine; it comes instead from her own insatiable, ever-evolving, and intersectional philosophy on how to make meals less colonized, and more ecologically conscious; more rooted in storytelling, and most of all, more accessible.  

“Look, If you’re new to plant-based cooking,” Roe tells VICE, “you really have to [get into the mindset] of, well, fuck control. You don’t need the stress of these bells and whistles and kitchen tools that people might try to sell you. First, let’s understand the vegetables, the fruits, and the sauces. Let’s get excited about them for what they are.” 

We knew no one would tell it to us like it is better than Roe when it comes to cooking plant-based meals, and sure enough, the chef gave us a prose-worthy breakdown on her must-have kitchen tools, go-to cookbooks, and advice for easing into plant-based plates. 


VICE: Sophia, I’m so stoked to pick your brain. Are you entirely vegan? Plant-based? 

Sophia Roe: No, dude! Everybody always thinks I’m a vegan, and I’m like, I eat lamb on my show. And by the way, there is incredible, ecologically conscious and mindful meat consumption out there. That literally is a thing. Though I eat primarily plant-based, I would argue it’s better to eat a local egg that came from 50 miles away than it is to eat an avocado that came from New Zealand, if you’re looking at carbon emissions and how things are farmed. Diet is what’s regional for me. Whatever is around is what I want. 

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What kitchen tools would you recommend? What are we using to zhuzh our “plants”? 

A mandoline is great. You definitely need a microplane. It’s going to make all of your aromatics a lot easier, so you’re not going to be chopping garlic and chilis and ginger forever. Microplane them right into a sauce. It’s one of my most-used kitchen tools. 

Microplane

Premium Classic Series Zester Grater

You also need a really good cutting board. Make sure it’s nice and big, nice and flat. It just has to make you feel like you can spread out and be prepared. The same thing goes for a knife; and you don’t need to go crazy expensive, but just make sure you get one that feels good in your hand. Go on YouTube, and find some tutorials on how to hold a knife—you should have that thumb and first finger on your blade for control—and a seven, eight, or nine blade is good. It should be sharp. Also, back to sauces, which can do a lot for you—a heavy-handled whisk is great, because it will give you control with your sauce. 

Misen

Chef's Knife

Misen

Essentials Knife Kit

HHXRISE

Large Organic Bamboo Cutting Board

Food52

Five Two Bamboo Cutting Board

Williams Sonoma

Signature Stainless Steel French Whisk

These are the [tools] I come back to, and they’re versatile. Like a great Dutch oven. A heavy, heavy Dutch oven for those stews. Same goes for a heavy handled or bottomed pot that you can use to braise or make soups. A nice heavy-bottomed skillet, [be it] cast iron or porcelain enamel. Make sure it seals up nice on whatever you’re cooking. GreenPan makes a great pan, Caraway makes a really good pan. So does Food52. There are so many good brands now making really cool pans. Just make sure you take care of them. 

Le Creuset

Enameled Cast Iron Round Wide Dutch Oven, 6 3/4-Qt

Food52 x GreenPan

Nonstick Skillet (Set of 2)

GreenPan

Premiere Ceramic Nonstick 12-In Covered Wok with Helper Handle

What are some snake oil cooking gadgets to avoid? 

That avocado saver. Garlic choppers. I would avoid anything that is single use. Anything that is only designed for one thing probably isn’t your friend. Like, asparagus steamers? C’mon. All these things don’t make sense. 

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What cookbooks would you recommend for people who are new to plant-based cooking? 

Start with The Flavor Bible instead. That’s going to help you understand what goes with what. Forget the whole idea of [needing to] start with a vegan cookbook, because it’s just going to intimidate you. You need technique. A foundation. That’s what The Flavor Bible gives to you.

Little, Brown & Co.

The Flavor Bible

That book also lets you understand [pairings] like, say, lemons and blueberries; almonds and raspberries. It makes you feel like even if you’re not using cheese or meat, that you still know how to be creative. You’ll learn what to do with fennel in a really easy way! Which is, pickle it. Or microplane it really thin with shallots and zucchini and tomatoes, or some grapefruit—it’s fire. Trust me. 

The thing is, so many cultures already have vegan dishes, and they don’t call them vegan but they just so happen to be [vegan]. Look at Samin NosratSalt, Fat, Acid, Heat—that is another incredible cookbook, and it’s going to teach you the whys; Like why you add oil last when you make a dressing; why you need to use an acid or vinegar or some kind of citrus for a dressing. And the dressings are pretty damn vegan. It doesn’t necessarily say that, but they are. Maybe there’s an anchovy in there, but just omit it. The point is that you’ve learned why it’s there. 

Simon and Schuster

Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat: Mastering the Elements of Good Cooking

What’s the anatomy of a great plant-based plate?  

The plant-based plate is different for everybody. It might be a little easier for me to tell you what isn’t on my plate. I don’t do a ton of processed stuff. I don’t do Impossible meat. I don’t do Tofurky. If it comes in a package and is super processed—listen, you can be a vegan and eat French fries, bro! That’s totally fine, live your life. 

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This [compartmentalized] idea of, “Oh, I see a source of protein here and another source of nutrition there,” reflects such a colonized plate. The idea that things need to be separate on the plate. I mean, just look at indigenous cultures. They’re making stews. Bowls of food. Some of my favorite plant-based things to make are long, stewing sauces and soups. One thing you see a lot of in indigenous cultures is a kind of perpetual stew, which you make sure never runs out, and keep adding yummy stuff to it. There’s a story there. 

That brings me to the “why” of this kind of plant-based eating. It sounds like it brings you closer to deep-running history and tradition.  

I just love the way that vegetables can reframe how we feel about ourselves as a species. They really make you feel like, wow, I’m an animal. This thing grows out of the ground. There’s this interesting connection that happens and we don’t live in an agrarian society anymore, we’re so disconnected from not just the food itself but the question of who grew it, and how did it get to you? It’s a lot easier to feel connected to the earth when you pick up a carrot and it has dirt on it. 

What inspired you to develop a primarily plant-based diet? 

Well, I was coming off of a sickness. Also, I was always high-key inspired by plants and vegetables; they’re just so gorgeous. As a cook through the years, I was hyper-inspired by the flexibility of vegetables, fruit, and fungi. Look at them! They’re such interesting mediums for innovation and creativity. 

Sophia Roe

Photo: Courtesy of Sophia Roe

My boomer dad can’t have dinner without a hunk of meat on the plate. What would be your gateway meal for someone like that?

Number one, I’d be up-front about it being plant-based. I mean, that idea of trying to replicate meat so literally—I could never make anything that looks or tastes as delicious as a beautiful piece of [animal] protein that’s been cared for, and taken for, and listen, a lot of other plant-based cooks out there and the vegan mafia will get mad at me for saying that. 

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But I can’t compete with Uyghur cuisine. This is their food, you know what I mean? What the fuck kind of crazy person would I be if I was like, “This is my version of a Uyghur kebab!” and made it with cabbage or something? That’s also its own form of colonization.

How do you think these conversations about veganism and indigenous erasure play into plant-based eating? 

Well, you can’t go into Yemen and tell people, “Nope. You can’t drink milk anymore.” That’s also a kind of weird, white saviorism. It’s just weird, man! So I think that for me it’s about honoring the custom. Even the word “ceremony,” I really like. You know? Your dad has ceremony in his meal, and I think that should be celebrated. I don’t think it’s bad that people look at a plate and want there to be something on it. But I think a way to segway someone into more plant-based eating would be trying, maybe once a week, something different—and position it like that. 

Do you have any tips on subbing animal proteins? 

That depends on what kind of protein we’re trying to replace. If this is someone who loves steak, we might cook a piece of cauliflower in the same form as a steak. Or maybe we soak some mushrooms in liquid smoke and make a shawarma. It just depends on the palate. 

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Any final words of send-off wisdom, for our aspiring plant-based cooks? 

I guess I’d say this: Cookbooks are wonderful, and it’s really important to read them. But you also have to watch people. Get on YouTube. Get a show you connect with, and watch what they do. I think we need to bring back chatty food content. I know everybody loves those quick ASMR reels cooking videos, but how much are they really teaching you? Learn why you’re steaming tempeh before you marinate it. Learn why you press tofu and freeze it twice before you fry it. Understanding why you’re doing something is so empowering in the kitchen, plant-based or not. 

You can keep up with Sophia Roe on Instagram, and catch her show, Counter Space, on VICE TV. 


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