For Anna Thomas, vegetarian meals with ethnic appeal

CULINARY PEOPLE

January 13, 1993|By M.S. Mason | M.S. Mason,Los Angeles Times SyndicateChristian Science Monitor

When she first wrote "The Vegetarian Epicure" in 1972, vegetarian cooking in America was, generally speaking, bland. Not that there weren't plenty of terrific vegetable dishes (known then as "side" dishes) in all the best cookbooks, but somehow the term "vegetarian" had the ring of asceticism for most people.

Anna Thomas may well have changed the meaning of the word.

She wrote the first volume while in graduate school, and it paid her way through the film school, including her first film, "The Haunting of M." Without taking a moralistic point of view, or even a health-nut perspective, the young Ms. Thomas reveled in the delights of fruits and vegetables, cream and eggs, nuts and grains. She made them appealing to meat-eaters and vegetarians alike, because she genuinely preferred them.

"This wasn't a thing that I decided I would do -- never eat meat again -- I just found I wasn't eating much meat," she said in a telephone interview. "I was cooking for myself a lot because I didn't like meat.

"There really weren't any good vegetarian cookbooks then. So I was just making things up in 1968 and '69, and somebody said, 'Gee, Anna, you're such a good cook, you should write a cookbook.' And when you are 19 or 20 you say, 'Yeah, OK, I think I will,' and then you do."

A friend sent the manuscript to an agent. The agent sent it out to two or three publishers, and one of them snapped it up. "The Vegetarian Epicure" had "legs," as they say in the movie business. Both it and its sequel, "The Vegetarian Epicure II," still sell extremely well. They have been reprinted many times and have been translated into Japanese, Spanish, British English (different measurements, different names of vegetables), German and Dutch.

The ready success of her cookbooks strikes her as being in sharp contrast to her struggles in the film business. She and her husband, Greg Nava, made "El Norte," a drama about Guatemalan refugees who illegally enter the United States. Their second commercially released feature was "A Time of Destiny," another drama about culture clash. Ms. Thomas and Mr. Nava now write screenplays to support their two young sons and the family's beautiful ranch in Ojai, Calif.

Meanwhile, Ms. Thomas has started on another cookbook, reflecting how her cooking style has evolved over the 20 years since the "Vegetarian Epicure."

"I go back and read that first book and think I must have been living in a butter-and-cream factory," she said. "Over the years the fat content has gone way down, the fresh produce has become more varied."

Ms. Thomas leads a busy life on her avocado ranch, so another change in cooking style has included creative ways to fix fresh meals quickly, with a minimum of fuss.

"I do a lot more very simple kinds of cooking. There are a lot of times when I want a fresh tasty dish at home and don't have a lot of time," she says. "I fix very simply prepared roasted vegetables with some kind of a grain pilaf -- any vegetable you can steam, you can cut up, toss with olive oil and the appropriate herbs, toss in the oven, and forget."

The tone of Ms. Thomas's books, the tone of her voice, the tone of her new recipes says vegetarian cooking should be wonderful and delicious and fun. "It is not any form of deprivation," she says.

Black bean chili

Serves 8 to 10.

1 pound dried black beans

1 whole onion, peeled

2 whole cloves garlic

5 to 6 branches cilantro

1 teaspoon salt, more to taste

(3 pounds canned black beans could be used in place of the first five ingredients)

5 ancho chilies, whole pods, dried

2 chipotle chilies, whole pods, dried

4 teaspoons cumin seed

4 teaspoons dried oregano leaves

4 teaspoons paprika

2 to 3 tablespoons corn oil or olive oil

3 yellow onions, chopped

5 cloves garlic, minced

1 bay leaf

1 15-ounce can chopped tomatoes

1/2 to 1 teaspoon salt

1 to 2 tablespoons white vinegar

1/2 cup chopped cilantro leaves

2 to 3 tablespoons chopped roasted green chilies (Ortega is OK)

FOR GARNISH

sour cream

additional green chilies, cilantro leaves

shredded Cheddar cheese

If you're starting with dried beans, soak them overnight in cool water to cover, then change the water and simmer them with the whole onion, whole garlic cloves and cilantro branches until almost tender. Cooking time will vary with the age of the beans, and could be anywhere from an hour to 3 or 4 hours. Stir in salt and continue simmering until beans are perfectly tender, adding water if needed to keep them covered with liquid. Discard onion, garlic, and cilantro when beans are done.

Meanwhile, soak dried ancho and chipotle chilies in hot water to cover for about 20 minutes. When they are soft and pliable, take them out, remove stems and as many seeds as come away easily, and then puree them with soaking water in a blender or food processor. Press puree through a medium strainer and discard skins.

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