Alanna not only shares her passion for vegetables with her readers, but a bit of her warm personality. When you read her blog, you almost feel like she has opened her kitchen to you to teach you how to make everyday meals that you and your family can enjoy.
Alanna has kindly offered a copy of Vegetables Every Day to one lucky commenter! Leave a comment on this post by the end of the day on Friday, December 12 for a chance to win.
Note: Except where noted, all photos are compliments of Alanna.
How did you end up writing about food?
My mom had cancer and was living with me while my dad and I took care of her. Near the end, she was bedridden and her mind was still quite good but she needed something to do. So, I sort of thought, “What can we do?” Then, I remembered that a couple years before we had talked about organizing a family cookbook with all of her side of the family. I went online and I found software that would allow us to do it from all over.
It actually turned out to be this really, really good thing because people could call her and say, “How are you doing?” and she could say, “Well, not so good today, but let’s talk about the cookbook.” She got to look back through all of her old recipes that we happened to have there. There are so many memories associated with food.
The day of her funeral (we hadn’t finished the cookbook yet) I asked people if we could name the cookbook Kitchen Parade, which was the title of the column that she wrote for 11 years starting when I was a baby and that she was still very famous for. They said, “Yes!”
For the first time as an adult, I went back and read her columns and they were so good. She was so ahead of her time about nutrition and fresh foods and just eating healthfully. I said, “I’m going to pick this up and carry it on.”
How did your mom get the job writing Kitchen Parade?
My mom was a Home Ec grad and married a small town newspaper publisher. She was a city girl and she was trying to find her way in a small town with a baby. He thought the newspaper could use a column and she was a natural - so she did it. They have no memory of why they called it Kitchen Parade.
There’s this funny little logo, which shows a woman in a kerchief at the stove and the father’s in the corner in an armchair reading a newspaper with a dog on the floor and two baby boys. Those baby boys are my sister and me.
What did you learn growing up with your mom writing this column?
We were proud of her for doing it. It was definitely part of the reason why so many people loved her. Even now, all these years later, people still stop me and say, “Oh, I made your mom’s such and such yesterday.”
But, just like food bloggers will know, because you’re testing something for the blog, you do weird combinations. You might do the same thing two nights in a row to get it right. Or, you might just have a really weird meal because you needed to fill the space.
Did you complain about the bizarre food?
I didn’t. We’ve talked about it (my sister and me) and neither of us have a memory of that. We just remember that food was always interesting.
Did she teach you to cook while she was cooking?
No. We actually had very different styles, especially as adults. We learned that if she cooked, I cleaned up and if I cooked, my dad cleaned up. She was a real natural cook. She was one to sort of make it up as she went along. She knew a lot more about the science of food than I do.
I think I pick good starting recipes and I make them very much my own. Also, I’m willing to invest in ingredients in a way she wasn’t, and I’m willing to take time in a way she wasn’t.
Stephen Cooks made Alanna's grandmother's pierogies. Photo credit: Stephen Cooks.
We have a family recipe for pierogies that my grandmother made for family occasions and it was a really big deal and they were so delicious. I remember the year when my mom wanted to skip making her own dough and use wonton wrappers. It was a nice experiment, but they weren’t very good.
She would have been a blogger.
Why do you say that?
Because she loved sharing recipes.
I started the column in 2002. If I had known about blogs, I wouldn’t have started a food column. I would have been one of the very first food bloggers because you wouldn’t need a column, if you will, to share the recipes.
What is the difference between being a food blogger and being a food columnist?
They are actually quite different. To write a column, you’re very attuned to what your readers are looking for. You’re also limited by space and you are affected by what ingredients people have available to them in that very local readership. A food blog can be a little bit more playful. You can say, “I tried this and it didn’t work, but I learned this.” In a food column, I wouldn’t ever do that. In a column, recipes are a lot more formal. The recipes may be simple, but these are recipes that are worth ink and paper.
Do you have a lot of editorial control when you write the articles?
I’ve only been edited twice. The first time was the very first column and we were getting to know each other. Once they became accustomed to my very conversational writing style, then they loved it. The second time, we had a very big disagreement about the appropriateness of a particular piece of information I wanted to include. Since it was their paper, they won.
Now, your column has a blog presence too?
I publish my column online as if it’s a blog.
How does that conversion work?
The column is written expressly to be published in two columns side-by-side. Until it was actually visually presented that way online, but still in a blog format with comments and a side bar and all the navigation tools that come with blogs, it didn’t work. I had very few subscribers. Even though the recipes were good, the writing was good, I think, it just didn’t work because it wasn’t presented properly. It was so geared for presentation in print.
Once you changed that, did it made a big difference?
Once I changed that, the site completely took off.
Are the readers the same people who would be reading your column locally, or do they come from everywhere?
I don’t actually know. The reason is because there’s no geotagging for the local area where the column is published. So, all I know is how many St. Louis readers come, not how many people come from our little corner of St. Louis.
Do you have a high percentage of St. Louis readers?
No. I actually have a lot of Canadian readers. I’ve sort of come to understand that I probably have a Northern style and Canadian style and that’s perhaps only natural because my mom was Canadian.
When did you start A Veggie Venture?
Actually, I started the blog on a whim - on April Fool’s Day. I did have this idea that it could be a joke. Like if it didn’t come to be, I’d say, “Oh, that was a joke.” It was so unimportant to me that it didn’t even make my journal until about two weeks later. I made some note that said, “I updated my blog today.” The whole idea was I was going to do a 30 day blog. I’m sure it was inspired by Chocolate and Zucchini. The only other possibility was the Julie & Julia project.
I just started it and the idea was very much to just post a vegetable cooked in a new way every single day for a month. Some place back on one of the anniversary dates, I actually cataloged how many days passed before I had a comment – just four - and how many passed before I had a second comment – 89! But, at the end of the 30 days, I was really intrigued. I was learning, and it was fun.
I still had no idea that there were other blogs. There were a lot of new blogs being started in that period in 2005, which is like an eon ago. But, we were all sort of in our own little worlds just plugging away at our own little blogs and it was a long time (like several months) before I did anything to reach out to other blogs. I was just kind of in my own little world cooking vegetables and loving it because I was learning.
At some point in the third or fourth month at the end of summer, I said, “I’m going to do it for a year.” I knew it was this big, weird thing to do - impossible actually. I mean, who can post everyday? What reader wants to read everyday? Or can absorb everyday? But, I just set out to do it. By the end I was very tired. I really thought I would give it up. It was enough.
Did you actually stop for a little while?
I didn’t ever say I was quitting. I just said I’m going to take a break. And that’s what I did.
For how long?
It wasn’t actually that long, maybe two weeks.
Two whole weeks!
But it was such a difference. Because I literally, for the first nine months, decided what to make, cooked it, photographed it, wrote it, and posted it the very same day. If you ever look at the time stamps, a lot of them were like at 11 o’clock at night. In the last three months of the first year, I got the idea, “Oh my gosh, I could cook during the week and take the weekend off.” So, I started writing ahead of time. That actually made a huge difference.
You didn’t take any vacations during that first year?
I did actually take a vacation in the summer time, but by that point, I had started to put Kitchen Parade columns online too, and so I posted archive columns while I was on vacation. All I had to do was press publish. By the way, in that period, I wasn’t doing any photographs either. So, in that sense, it was a little bit easier.
I have no idea. I don’t remember having this grand scheme saying, “Oh that will be very popular.” I guess I’ve always eaten vegetables. I was a vegetarian for a number of years. It was just something I could learn about. I might have picked bread or cupcakes or soup or...
Later, I realized the only reason I could sustain doing it every day for a year was because it was vegetables and mostly simple supper vegetables.
What did you learn in that first year?
When you’re just doing it, not everything turns out. You might make a mistake or the recipe’s no good or the vegetables weren’t fresh enough. Especially in the first 90 days, as I looked back, I realized I didn’t have very many favorite recipes, ones that I would mark as keepers and I would recommend. That’s because I was used to almost always cooking with frozen vegetables. Now I love frozen vegetables. I think they have a great place in this world, and everyone’s freezer should have a stock. But for taste and pleasure, they really have to be fresh. I didn’t know that. I didn’t actually know that for quite some months.
What was a vegetable disaster recipe that happened?
Vegetable disaster recipe? I don’t remember the recipe, but it was so bad that the post actually reads, “I’m not sharing the recipe. Do you think I would want to perpetuate this?” I didn’t name the cookbook. I think it was a Brussels sprouts recipe actually and I love Brussels sprouts. But it was so bad. But, that was part of the learning process and being able to say, “Okay, I didn’t like that Brussels sprouts recipe, but I do like Brussels sprouts. Could I do something different with it?” So part of the learning, even for me, was to not give up on Brussels sprouts just because I had a bad experience with Brussels sprouts.
Is there any vegetable that you just hate?
I didn’t get artichokes until this year. I just thought they weren’t worth the trouble. But now, I get them. They are very good and they are worth the trouble - especially since I learned you can throw them in the microwave and it’s just as good as steaming them.
There isn’t anything I’ve hated. But I will say that each year, I fall in love with a different vegetable. The first year, I just fell completely in love with beets. I did more beet recipes than you could imagine - very simple things like beets cooked any way you want to cook them, then chilled, cut in layers and plated with a little feta cheese on top and just a little drizzle of lemon juice. It’s sublimely simple and people who don’t like beets say, “Oh my gosh, can I have some more of that?”
Last year it was beans. I really fell in love with green beans in a way I hadn’t before.
What about this year?
It might be radicchio because I’ve only used radicchio, which is quite expensive, as just a little add-in to a salad for a little bit of color. When I cooked them seared this week, they were so good that I want to go on. I want to grill them, and someone sent me a recipe for a radicchio soup today. Radicchio has this sort of bitterness that isn’t found that often and is unusual to the American palate in a way that rhubarb is.
Is there anything surprising to you that you learned about vegetables during this time on the blog?
So many things. But mostly, it’s the obvious things, but because I never paid attention, I hadn’t put them all together. The first thing is that nearly any vegetable can be roasted and turned into something very different than you’ve ever tasted before. Even roasting kohlrabi or celery or rhubarb brings out a softness, a texture, and a sweetness that’s just quite different.
I’ve learned that most vegetables don’t require much enhancement. If the vegetables are fresh (and by that I don’t even mean farmers-market fresh, because I think what we get at the grocery stores is actually very good) and cooked simply just with a little bit of olive oil and a little bit of salt and pepper, you end up with something that’s really tasty and healthful and that you can eat a lot of and feel good about.
I’ve learned that if you get bored with vegetables, you can sort of change their structure and end up with something new. If you’re used to roasting beets, instead grate them and eat them raw - something very different. If you’re used to having Brussels sprouts always cooked whole and either roasting them or steaming them, mix it up a little - slice them really thin and cook them like a hash.
Oh, big surprise (this should be number one) - vegetables need salt. We’ve become so afraid of salt, just like we’re afraid of carbs and fat and in the mean time, we’re chowing down on our box pizzas and we’re going out for lunch and we go through the drive-thru and the carry-out and in those situations, we don’t know how much salt we’re consuming. My idea is cut out all that food that you haven’t cooked yourself and then you can literally salt your vegetables and your other foods so that they taste good. You can eat more of what’s good for you and you’re actually consuming less sodium than in your old diet. It takes an overhaul, however.
Does salt really make that much of a difference?
Oh, salt makes a total difference. If you cook green beans in well-salted water, you wouldn’t believe the difference in how the green beans taste. It’s not salt you’re tasting - it just changes the chemical structure inside the beans in a way so that both the texture and the flavor really just work.
What do you think vegetable-haters should do to get started eating vegetables?
If they are grown-ups, they are probably not going to change their ways unless they have children and they know that they need to be good role models for their children. Then, they will eat something that they wouldn’t have just to show the kids that they’ll eat it too.
First of all, I would do a little bit of research; there are actually chemical reasons why some people don’t like some vegetables. I keep coming back to Brussels sprouts like they are the only vegetable, but there’s a chemical reaction that some people have in their bodies to Brussels sprouts that makes them particularly unpalatable to them. There’s a way to counteract that. If you don’t like Brussels sprouts, that’s fine, do something else.
I think the greatest evidence of how kids can be turned on to vegetables is a project out of the UK, The Great Big Vegetable Project, that just published their book this month. Here’s this darling little nine-year old boy who turns up his nose at the site of a vegetable and negotiates whether or not he can eat just two peas, mom, please. Now, he’ll try anything. He doesn’t always like things, because he was given permission to not always like things. But, he was asked to try things.
Why did you become and then stop being a vegetarian?
I didn’t eat meat for eight years. It was sort of on a dare, but during those years, I wasn’t a vegetarian for ethical reasons. I wasn’t even doing it particularly for health reasons. I was just doing it. During that time, I always was hungry for ribs and hamburgers.
I was actually at a sushi place and learned that I was allergic to wasabi and ended up in the emergency room. I was driving home at seven in the morning with a friend who had taken me to the emergency room because my throat had closed, and I said, “I want a Big Mac.” I didn’t actually have a Big Mac, but a week later, on a mountain, I had a hamburger and a steak. I still eat meatless a lot.
Kitchen Parade actually has a lot of vegetarian recipes because I think that whether or not we go completely without meat is a personal choice, but all of us should be eating less meat than we do - much smaller portions and much less often.
Do you have a favorite recipe?
Do I favorite recipe? Do I have a favorite uncle? The recipes I like the most aren’t so much recipes as concepts because I’d like to provide families with tools so that just by an inspiration, just a bare, vague, construct of what to make, they say, “There’s our supper.” I work quite hard, actually, to develop concept recipes because they take a lot of testing to try and get the balance right - to get people the range of the options that you might give them.
What’s an example?
I have a stew recipe that will publish in January. I’ve tested it with five different kinds of meat and different vegetables, I’ve done it in a crock pot, I’ve done it in the oven, and I’ve done it on the stove top. It happens to have fruit in it as well. I’ve experimented with different kinds of fruit. It has so many variations that I asked for help testing it. Some family and friends jumped in and probably five of them cooked it in a couple of different ways. So it’s a well-tested, good, basic, very substantial, healthy stew recipe.
Are all of your recipes tested like that?
Not like that, but all of them are tested a lot.
So, you make a recipe more than once before posting it?
Oh, yeah. Let’s see, when I was working on pie crusts last fall, I did, I think, 19 pie crusts in two weeks - 19 pies in two weeks. That’s overkill. I did four flatbread recipes yesterday. I’m working on a sorbet recipe that, funny enough, has only two ingredients, but it’s so simple, you need to be certain of the balance of it in different situations. I’ve made it four or five times.
Wow! That’s a lot of time invested into your posts. How much time do you spend on your blog?
Oh, let’s see, it might be easier to answer it the other way around. How much time do I not? I don’t know. I’m obsessed by it and I know I am. I’m very obsessed by it. It would be nice to have it move into balance.
Do you have another job or is this your full time job?
I do have another job. I’m a consultant in the payments industry. But, this is where I have all my fun.
On your blog’s About page, it talks about how you lost 30 pounds with Weight Watchers. Has Weight Watchers had an impact on the recipes you make?
Completely. I provide nutrition information and Weight Watchers points for every single recipe, good or bad. This week, in fact, in Kitchen Parade, I took an old recipe that I love from 30 years ago and made it and loved it all over again. Then, I did the nutritional analysis and about died! I almost didn’t post it, but I thought, “You know what? I’m going to go ahead and post and I’m going to give the nutrition information.” I’m just going to say, “Listen, it’s so important that we know this information so that we can make our choices, good and bad.” Needless to say, I’ve put those 30 pounds back on since I started the blog.
Where do you turn to for recipes?
My recipes actually come from all over. I get a lot of reader recipes. People send me stuff and I love that - a lot of family recipes. Because of my mom having the column, you can imagine the stacks of recipes that I inherited. I do have too many cookbooks. I’m actually feeling very burdened by cookbooks right now. I’ve stopped accepting them from people that are offering to send complimentary copies, unless I’m really, really excited about a topic. I love Food and Wine and I really do love Gourmet and Bon Appetit as well. Their simple recipes are good and I’m good at picking the right recipes.
Where do you see the future of your two sites?
I think I would never, ever in this world run out of vegetable recipes because I haven’t even touched on the preparations of other cuisines. I’m looking at this beautiful Italian book right now and it has so many recipes where vegetables are the center of a dish. So, I think that can go on forever. Kitchen Parade, in another year, will turn into a real blog and only be published online.
It’s a real thrill to be published in print and, for me, in particular, it grounded me to Webster-Kirkwood and the area where the papers are published. It was really neat to run into people at the grocery store and have them say, “Oh, I made your such and such.” That was just really neat. But, papers have to be profitable and this is a really good local newspaper and they are getting pressured by the economy. If they don’t have room or they don’t have the page space for something like a recipe column, that’s okay. I still want them to do really well and will do everything I can to keep making them do well.
If you could interview one person about food, who would it be?
I would love to see an interview from someone who is bridging the publishing world and the online world well. I think it needs to be from the serial publishing world - the magazines - because cookbooks are different. I would say the editor of Food and Wine would be excellent. I’d like to see the topic be: How do we all get along and (without pandering to blogs) how do you incorporate blogs? What do they do for you? What would you like blogs to do for you?
Another idea (on that business side too) would be from the PR side, people who are trying to push product to the blogs. I’d love to start a conversation about mutual trust and respect and everybody getting something out of it for the benefit of the readers.