Food critic Jesse Mulligan cooks his way through Supergood by Chelsea Winter
Dad might have been the only person in Hamilton who truly bought Playboy for the articles. If he knew there were naked ladies in there too, well, it never came up, and when he occasionally passed me a story of interest (“this 20 Questions puts Jay Leno in a new light!”), in his head he may as well have been handing me The Listener.
Playboy paid well by the word so the writing was pretty good (“check out the new Joyce Carol Oates!”), but it was hard to leaf through that magazine without catching glimpses of the California skin displayed elsewhere among those glossy pages, particularly when you had to thumb right to the end of the mag to find the last few paragraphs of a very long short story.
Enjoying Chelsea Winter’s new cookbook felt a bit like all that, though it’s a different sort of guilty pleasure on these picture pages – the soft pornography of women’s magazines rather than men’s. You come for the lasagne but can’t help running into Douglas, the handsome, hairy father of Chelsea’s baby boy Sky, padding around the sand dunes or standing with eyes closed doing a mindfulness exercise, probably. It seems like just a cookbook or two ago that first husband Mike and Sprite the dog featured in these photos but life happens fast and, though Sprite’s whereabouts are unclear, Mike popped up as a contestant on The Bachelorette about six months after Chelsea revealed the two of them had separated, and that she was pregnant to Douglas (Chelsea historians will know about an earlier “pregnancy announcement” that turned out to be a new cookbook; this gag didn’t go down very well with some of her facebook fans and was a rare social media misstep from a chef so popular that her “lockdown loaf” recipe on Instagram is currently on 3.2 million views).
Nadia Lim, author of Vegful and a fellow Masterchef winner, has fewer fans on Facebook but more on Instagram and it’s tempting to pit the two of them as the Betty and Veronica of New Zealand’s TV-star chefs. But having cooked my way through Supergood, Chelsea’s new plant-based recipe book, I think she’s more usefully compared to Alison Holst, the OG celeb cook, who rarely put pictures of herself in her cookbooks, let alone of her messing about on the beach with a bearded man.
I bring Alison up because although New Zealand was very different when she was famous (she was once warned not to use rice on a television show because the network felt it was “too ethnic”), there are plenty of recipes in Chelsea’s new book which could easily have sat inside the pages of Meals without Meat, a 1990 stocking-filler that responded to New Zealand’s growing interest in eating fewer sausage-based meals. The spices Alison used in that book were mostly cumin and coriander, supplemented with tomatoes and onions, and a lot of the early recipes in Chelsea’s new book are this sort of thing – nachos, bolognese and dahl. This stuff fills you up and tastes fantastic, but isn’t the sort of revolutionary approach to vegetarian cooking you might expect from an exciting chef in 2020.
Later in the book things get better, with some big hits and very few misses. I made “notdogs”, featuring three boiled carrots simmered in flavoured water and tried to trick my children into believing they were frankfurters but, though it’s a nice idea, they still tasted like boiled carrots. Then I made “Plant based Parmesan”, blending miso, two types of nut and nutritional yeast and it was almost better than the real thing – my 18-month-old finished a whole bowl of it and burst into tears when we told him there was no more. I haven’t tried the crumbed, fried tofu block burger because tofu tastes of nothing unless braised and, like the notdogs, it’ll rely too heavily on the condiments to make it work – vegans should demand better. I made the “Eatloaf” and it tasted lovely, though we showed the recipe to my mother-in-law and it barely differs from the one she used to make for Seventh Day Adventist pot lucks in the 1970s (she and dad had a great chat at the wedding).
Her Snickalicious Slice includes half a pound of butter, three cups of icing sugar, a large block of chocolate, a packet of chocolate biscuits, half a tin of condensed milk and … well, you get the idea
The Chelsea Winter ingredient palette doesn’t quite fit with Michael Pollan’s famous advice to “eat food, not too much, mostly plants”. The ‘eat food’ part of his slogan is shorthand for eating real ingredients – “food your grandmother would recognise” – and Supergood has a little too much of the processed stuff to gel well with the wholefood ethos which generally comes hand in hand with a move towards vegetarianism. Many of her recipes include Frankenfoods like “vegan cheese” and “dairy-free spread” and while the former is often listed as optional, it’s hard to imagine that margherita pizza tasting of much without it. If you’re changing your diet because of health, you might wonder what you’ll achieve by baking a caramel slice which replaces butter with margarine.
Though Chelsea Stans might flinch when they see some of her new pantry staples, like jackfruit and aquafaba, there are elements of the book that are almost too basic: “Chelsea’s Hummus”, for example, uses the same recipe as everybody else’s hummus. And who needs an ingredient glossary to explain what pepper is?
The recipes in her previous books were famously and intensely calorific. Her Snickalicious Slice, which she says “might be the best recipe I’ve ever written” includes, for example, half a pound of butter, three cups of icing sugar, a large block of chocolate, a packet of chocolate biscuits, half a tin of condensed milk and … well, you get the idea. The new book isn’t significantly different in this respect, so If you’re expecting your new plant-based diet will help with weight loss, you might be disappointed. The promised deliciousness of the baking recipes in particular generally comes from something thats bad for you, at least in the quantities she’s prescribing.
I remember asking Chelsea in an interview about whether it was the right thing to do, peddling high calorie, high-fat, high-sugar recipes without any extra messaging about the health downsides. She replied “everything in moderation” which sounds good, but it’s never been very clear what she eats when she’s not eating moderate amounts of, say, Spaghetti Chel-freddo, made with more than two cups of cheese and a bottle of cream.
I’d bet that many people who buy this book are buying a whole lifestyle – eat like me, live like me, look like me. But I’m not sure it all adds up. In one section she tells us that as soon as she started supplementing her diet with iodine via dried seaweed powder, “my monthly cycle clicked into place after years of being worryingly inconsistent. Then I got pregnant. Coincidence? I don’t know.” Though she’s careful not to be explicit here, she couldn’t be much more implicit.
But the recipes are mostly great, and the book will do some good. Not only is Chelsea cooking without meat and dairy, a quick survey of internet feedback shows many of her followers have already joined her on the journey, hopefully accruing the environmental, ethical and health-based benefits that come with it. In this respect, she’s using her popularity and power for good: plant-based cooking is the way of the future, at least until the next book.
Supergood by Chelsea Winter (Penguin Random House, $50) is available in bookstores nationwide.
* For more reviews, go to Kete, the site of the Coalition for New Zealand Books.*