Going vegan "changed my life and changed the course of my life," says Ann Gentry. "I couldn't see it then. I just thought I was changing my diet."
You may know Gentry as the founder of vegan mecca Real Food Daily, you may know her through her new cookbook Vegan Family Meals, but she started out as an actress -- the starving kind. This only sounds romantic. In real life, it's a drag. So Gentry learned to cook.
"It was horrible in the beginning," she recalls. "I didn't have a clue about food."
She figured it out. "I gave up animal products, I gave up sugar. I stumbled upon macrobiotics. I learned about complex and simple carbs and what their differences really mean. I started to feel much better." So much better, that in time, she swapped film for food. In 1993, Gentry, who had no business skills or restaurant experience, opened Real Food Daily, Hollywood's first upscale vegan restaurant "back when vegan was a dirty word."
From the beginning, Gentry had a different vision of what a vegan restaurant should be. The Santa Monica landmark is sleek and airy, not brown and boring. The food isn't brown and boring, either, but vibrant with color and flavor, and deeply comforting. From pinto burritos to veggie chopped salad, Real Food Daily's menu makes good on its promise -- it's plant-based, yes, but first and foremost, it's real food.
That's what Vegan Family Meals offers, too, with recipes straight from Gentry's experience and kitchen. She's one of vegan dining's forerunners, but she's also the mother of a twelve year-old daughter and an eight year-old son. Dinner at home is meatless and fuss-free.
"I just stick to what I know," she says. "I'm going to put quality, healthy vegetable and grain dishes on the plate."
Wanting to eat more meatless meals as a family? "You can make the changes together," says Gentry. "But it's got to start with the parents. You can't think your kids are going to eat healthy on their own -- they're not. They're looking to you for guidance and direction. Get on board. Get a vegetarian cookbook -- mine, or there's thousands of others... Take them to restaurants that offer vegetarian choices. That's where Real Food Daily is so great; you can go there and not feeling intimidated."
That easy, open attitude has kept Real Food Daily going over the years. It's a favorite among Hollywood's plant-based faithful including Ellen DeGeneres, Alicia Silverstone and Glee babe Lea Michele-- but you don't have to be a star to eat here. You don't even have to be meatless. "Looking at a busy dining room, most of the people aren't vegetarian," she says. "Are they going to be vegetarian and vegan? Probably not. They're just looking for good quality food."
And yet, it can be hard to find. "How our food is grown, what's happening in the big industrial food complex -- people don't think about that when they eat," says Gentry. "From my decades of experience, most people aren't going to become vegetarian and vegan." Does it make her want to leave the restaurant biz and try show biz? Not at all. She sees celebs galore all the time. They come to her restaurant.
"This touches people in a deep, profound way. People want this food." And Gentry wants to keep serving it. "I believe in this cuisine, am still excited by it. It's pleasurable, it's fun, it's creative. My job is to show this can be done where you are satisfied on every level."
Boiled Vegetable Salad with Umeboshi-Scallion Dressing
From Ann Gentry's Vegan Family Meals/Andrews McMeel Publishing
Don't let the title fool you: It's important to cook each vegetable separately in boiling water just long enough to reach their peak tenderness and flavor. I've chosen my favorite vegetables; feel free to incorporate any combination of seasonal vegetables that you especially like. The quick and easy dressing adds a depth of flavor and color; it incorporates umeboshi,* which can't be topped for its clean, light, and refreshing flavor. I prefer to make this dressing with the umeboshi paste; however, you can substitute umeboshi vinegar for the paste and water. Simply sprinkle with vinegar to taste.
1/2 head cauliflower, trimmed into florets (about 1 1/2 cups)
6 red or tricolored radishes, trimmed
1 1/2 celery stalks, cut diagonally into 1/4-inch thick slices (about 1 cup)
1 yellow squash, cut into 1/4-inch thick half-moons (about 1 cup)
1/2 head broccoli, trimmed into florets (about 1 1/2 cups)
2 medium carrots, peeled and roll-cut into 1-inch pieces (about 1 cup)
1/2 cup water
1 1/2 tablespoons umeboshi paste **
3 scallions, thinly sliced diagonally
3 tablespoons sesame seeds, toasted
Vegetables: Bring a large saucepan of lightly salted water to a boil over high heat. Working with 1 vegetable at a time, cook the vegetables in the order listed until their colors brighten and they are just tender, about 2 minutes for each vegetable. After each vegetable is cooked, immediately submerge it in a large bowl of ice water to stop it from cooking, then drain it well and pat dry with a clean kitchen towel. Quarter the larger radishes or cut the smaller radishes in half.
Dressing: Whisk the 1/2 cup water with the umeboshi paste in a small bowl to blend. Stir in the scallions and 2 tablespoons of the sesame seeds.
Assembly: Gently toss the vegetables in a large bowl with enough of the dressing to coat.
Garnish with the remaining 1 tablespoon sesame seeds and serve.
* Japanese pickled plums
**available at Asian markets and many gourmet and natural food stores