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Author gives the vegetarian table a re-boot

A must-follow blog, Herbivoracious.com, becomes a must-read cookbook, "Herbivoracious."

Article by: RICK NELSON , Star Tribune

Updated: June 20, 2012 - 4:19 PM

Michael Natkin's bookmark-worthy blog has one of the more memorable URLs on the food-world side of the Internet: Herbivoracious.com.

After five years of stretching the boundaries of vegetarian home cooking to an ever-growing Web audience, the Seattle blogger has produced a useful, flavor-packed, I-want-to-make-this cookbook of the same name (and like most bloggers, he not only wrote it but he photographed it, beautifully).

Northern Thai curry noodles, basil-ricotta dumplings, fry bread tacos filled with peppers and pinto beans, chermoula-stuffed eggplant: This title is an around-the-world page-turner.

Q A global mentality permeates your book. Where does that come from?

A It's just how I eat. I've always thought that if you're going to try to eat vegetarian, the worst kind of food you can possibly look to is American comfort food. Once you get past mac-and-cheese and veggie burgers, it gets old.

But in the rest of the world there are these amazing dishes that are vegetarian, or it's not hard to see how to make them vegetarian. A lot of what I like to do is look for deeper recipes, things that people might not have seen before, and put my own spin on them, or figure out how to adapt them into American kitchens.

Q Have you always had a dislike of meat substitutes?

A Here's the thing: If you're going to be a vegetarian, why are you trying to make bad fake meat? Food is about pleasure. Some simulated meat thing is just never going to be good, so why do it? I will make one exception: If we're in someone's back-yard barbecue, then I'm happy to bring over a veggie burger and throw it on the grill. It's quick and easy and it doesn't make you a high-maintenance guest.

But let me say a word about tofu. It's not fake meat, but a lot of people think it is. Tofu can just be really amazingly delicious. I just had a post on the blog about how to make tofu delicious, how to pan-fry it and get a really good crust on it. It's simple and not at all intimidating.

Q Do you make your own tofu?

A You know, I never have, but I'm really motivated to do it, especially now since Andrea Nguyen just wrote this amazing book called "Asian Tofu."

Q You're not afraid of fat, and you have a sweet tooth, right?

A I'm all about eating for pleasure. People ask me about nutrition and I tell them, "I'm not a nutritionist." I stress that if you eat a wide variety of foods, you're going to be fine. I'm not at all about trying to convince anyone to go vegetarian.

But I think that everybody is thinking they should eat more meatless meals. Even if it's going to be one meal a week, let me make sure that it's going to be really satisfying and hearty and delicious.

Q I want to bake that blueberry-raspberry buckle today.

A That's a great one to have around in the summer, because after you've eaten as many blueberries and raspberries and blackberries as you possibly can out of hand, then it becomes "What can I do with these?"

Q The recipe calls for whole-wheat flour. I'm skeptical. Whole-wheat flour, in a dessert?

A I don't even think of it as a healthy touch. In desserts, a lot of times using whole-wheat pastry flour works really well. It's lower in gluten, so it still produces a really tender baked good, and actually it has a nice flavor that's appropriate in many places. It's not about putting in whole-wheat flour to make it better for you, but when it's right, I'm all for it.

Q Is there a restaurant in your future?

A Yeah, my goal -- possibly by fall -- is to open a very quirky restaurant. I like to describe it as the blog sort of materializing into the real world. I'll really be opening more of a blog test kitchen, so I can produce a lot more concepts and recipes for the blog.

I'll open up at noon, and 12 people can come in and eat what I've been making and testing. They'll be part of a social media experiment of living inside my blog. I think it's going to be really fun.

Q Can you compare and contrast the social media world and the traditional media world of cookbooks?

A They're different in a few ways. Maybe this will change over time, but right now a book has a lot more gravitas. That's universally true; people love cookbooks. I love cookbooks. If you love cookbooks as much as I do -- and I'm one of those people who takes a cookbook to bed with me every night -- what could be better than being asked to write one of your own?

And I'll be honest, the recipes in the book are better tested than the recipes on the blog. On a blog, generally you make it once, you write it down and that's that, and people understand that. But with the book, we tested multiple times.

I also did a beta test, where I asked readers of the blog to volunteer to test recipes, and then fill out a survey so I could understand how they worked in a home kitchen. Also, I would not minimize the importance of the book's editor, Dan Rosenberg. A good editor is worth their weight in gold.

Q You've had a midlife career change, one that many would like to follow. How did you do it?

A I've worked in the software industry for 30 years, but I have loved food all along, and I have been a serious cook all along. I started the blog five years ago as a way to have some kind of an outlet for that passion. I thought it would be a good way to begin to make connections, and to see if people like my recipes.

Q How has it worked out?

A It has far exceeded any dream I could have had. I never expected to have hundreds of thousands of people a month coming to my site. Then the book offer came along a couple of years ago.

I took several months off at a time to work at a few restaurants to see if I had not just the passion for food but also the skills and the stamina and the desire that would make it really work in a restaurant setting. So putting all those things together, I sort of pulled the rip cord, and here I am.

Follow Rick Nelson on Twitter: @ricknelsonstrib

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