Locavorism We Love: Trish Sebben-Krupka on the Art of Eating Close to Home
Trish Sebben-Krupka , based in New Jersey, is a professional chef, caterer, activist, and cooking instructor. You can find some of Trish’s wonderful (and perfect-to-follow) recipes in The Best of Vegan Cooking (Friend of Animals’ Nectar Bat Press, 2009). Here, Lee Hall interviews a much-loved culinary comrade and teacher.
Trish, you are a local food fanatic. Tell us: Why we should strive to enjoy and share local food?
Trish: There are so many reasons to eat close to home: supporting biodiversity, reducing the miles food travels to your plate, sustaining green space in your community, keeping family farms in business, and ensuring that the person growing your food cares about the health of your family and their land.
I do a CSA [community-supported agriculture] share from June through November with Richfield Farms, a family farm in Clifton, New Jersey. I shop almost daily in-season at Farms View, a family farm in Wayne. I visit local farmers’ markets regularly. I love the whole experience: chatting with the farmers, nosing about to see what everyone else is buying, and just taking in the atmosphere.
My favorite moment of spring is walking into the farm stand for the first time, and loading up on arugula, scallions and other early-season produce. During the growing season, nearly everything that we are eating has been sourced within 25 miles of our home, and much of it has been grown organically.
How can inspired cuisine be possible on a budget?
Trish: Plan ahead, and eat what’s in season.
My farm share costs about $25 per week, and I do spend a little extra at our other local farm and the weekly farmers market. With canning, freezing and cold storage, we have local foods to enjoy throughout the winter.
I have created a very low-tech DIY cold storage setup in my garage, using coolers, newspaper, and other items I already have lying around the house. This year, we stored winter squash, garlic, onions, cabbage and other staple foods, as well as two crates of apples I purchased at a wonderful farm in New Paltz during our last hiking trip of autumn. In springtime, I made my last batch of apple butter using the remaining apples.
I usually want everything I see at the farm or market, so knowing what’s in season means I can plan my meals in advance without overspending and ending up with too much food. My farm share includes what is seasonal and bountiful, so when we get a ton of corn or blueberries or summer squash, we eat some, and freeze or can some to enjoy later. We really get our money’s worth, and there is no greater pleasure than pulling a delicious, in-season tomato sauce or corn and summer squash chowder out of the freezer or pantry to enjoy on a cold February evening.
And you teach this too?
Trish: Yes: I love to teach, especially classes such as “Pickling, Canning and Preserving.” And for the past two summers, I’ve participated in the New York Botanical Garden’s Edible Garden series, where I demonstrated everything from home canning techniques to making vegan ice cream. Each time I was there, there were a number of kids and teens in the audience. I had a great time encouraging them to try new foods and cook at home. If I can convince one kid to replace one fast food meal with something healthy, then I have accomplished something great.
That’s a wonderful goal and no one is better suited to carrying it off with flair and kindness, Trish. Any tips for starting a garden in a school, back yard, or communities with children?
Trish: Just get out there and do it. Dig. Grow. Compost. Start this work at home, with your own family, and talk to kids about their food choices.
I meet children and teens all the time who don’t eat vegetables. I want to show children it’s fun to grow food and share it. I’m currently researching ways to bring more fresh food to underserved people in my community; stay tuned!
You are also a success in the corporate world. How did you start to blend your professional career and activism?
Trish: My employer has supported my work; I am very rarely asked to just “shut up and cook.” I have strong opinions about food and politics, which for me are intertwined, and I appreciate the opportunity to work in the mainstream world without being asked to stop being me.
I do love talking and teaching and cooking, and that’s what I get to do every day. My job gives me many opportunities to do this within the kitchen appliance industry, for design professionals, architects and people who buy our products, as well as teaching classes at the Viking Culinary Center in Fairfield, New Jersey.
Through my own business, Local Girl Makes Food, I also do classes and demonstrations for yoga students, home cooks and anyone interested in learning more about vegan cooking, as well as catering events such as afternoon tea, bridal showers, and dinner parties. Vegans have special occasions, too, and I love to make them extra special.
You’ve said you love doing cooking demonstrations for large groups.How do you put a cooking demo together for 30 to 50 or more people? There’s some mystery about how you pull this all off.
Trish: I fly by the seat of my pants. I never plan exactly what I’m going to talk about. I get up there, cook, and let it happen.
But I do meticulously prepare my food and equipment, especially since much of what I do is done outdoors, or in kitchens that are not my own. My favorite demonstrations have been the ones where I’ve shopped for the ingredients an hour in advance, and then just cooked what I’ve found.
There’s usually some sort of last-minute scramble. But it works in the end. And if it doesn’t, I’ll make you think it did. Just watch me try to make ice cream in front of 100-plus people in the middle of a field in August as everything around me just overheats and melts, and you’ll see what I mean. I love the feeling of not knowing exactly where a cooking demonstration is going to take me.
Do you see hope for a plant-based cuisine movement at the Food Network, for hotels…for the mainstream?
Trish: I hold great hope for the future of plant-based cuisine. I’m not preaching to the converted here. The people I’m trying to win over are those who take a step back when I start talking about vegan food, or who don’t have the time, money or luxury to put their food choices first.
I shop in local supermarkets, and see people struggling to feed their families. We need to support everyone, from those eating more plant foods for health or religious reasons, to those who are doing it only on Mondays or before 6 pm. Any change is a step forward, however small. And as a community, we need to do our part to give everyone access to fresh, clean food.
There is still a snobbery among “foodies”—as though it isn’t real food without meat. The word “protein” has become quite popular, and I think it makes it easy to depersonalize what’s on your plate with this generic term.
I’m tired of hearing celebrity chefs characterize vegans and vegetarians as self-righteous, and I reject the idea that our food is boring and somehow less than fine cuisine. But if we’re going to be embraced by the mainstream, these are the notions that we must tackle with grace and respect.
Yoga has helped me work through this. I found it easy to embrace non-harm. But I struggle mightily every day with the principles of non-attachment and non-judgment. My food is delicious, and I let it speak for itself, often without uttering the “V Word” until I’m halfway through a conversation with someone who has discovered that they love what I am cooking.
Could you tell our readers your thoughts about committing work to a cookbook published by an animal-rights group? What are your thoughts about that connection?
Trish: I felt so privileged to contribute to The Best of Vegan Cooking. Lee, when I met you and Priscilla at one of my vegan cooking demonstrations, I was so inspired by the work you do. And being a part of the book has helped me to make fundamental changes in myself, especially in the way that I relate to the people for whom I’m cooking. And I love that the proceeds from the book benefit Friends of Animals, because I respect and admire what you’re doing, and how you’re doing it.
Thank you for your encouragement! And you are also a cat rescuer. How did that start, and how does it affect your day?
Trish: My family always took in strays of the human and non-human variety, and our house was filled at all times with kids, dogs and cats. I grew up with the mindset that if someone needs help, you should just roll up your sleeves and do it. Nobody else is lining up to do it for you.
Angels of Animals, a Clifton-based non-profit dedicated to rescuing injured and medically challenged homeless animals, saves hundreds of lives each year. I love volunteering. I met the founder, Amy Kozell, in 2006. I’d been reading the back pages of the local paper and noticed they were having a bake sale. Two weeks later, I took in Sydney, a formerly abused thirteen-year-old cat with serious medical issues.
It seems clichéd to say that while I can’t make a difference for every cat, I can surely make a difference for one, but Sydney changed my life in a fundamental, religious-conversion-esque kind of way. People had let him down, but he gave his trust to us and spent his remaining time in this world loved and grateful. I consider Sydney’s rehabilitation to be a great triumph of the spirit, and proof that God holds animals dear, and a part of him will remain with me always. And I want that beautiful soul to be proud of me.
And we’ve noticed you bring vegan baking into the rescue and fundraising sphere! Trish, with whom did you first learn to cook?
Trish: I am a self-taught cook. When I was five, I was watching Julia Child and reading my cherished copy of Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse Cookbook. I cooked my first family meal from that book.
My grandmother, Josephine, was known for her Italian-American cooking, and I have always been inspired by the energy and love that she put into creating food for her family. I definitely have the Italian grandmother gene, and will over-feed anyone who will let me.
I collect “old lady friends” and ask them to tell me their housekeeping secrets, like canning and preserving and feeding your family well during lean times. I will talk to anyone who has a garden. I want to know what you had for dinner last night. I learn something new every day—from my co-workers, from those who assist me and wash my dishes, from my family, from random strangers.
What was the funniest or most surprising moment you’ve had when doing a culinary demonstration?
Trish: Last summer, my three-year-old niece Rebecca announced she’d be coming up on stage with me at the New York Botanical Garden. She had my assistant pull up a chair for her, just like she does at my counter at home, and we made a salad together. She’s very chatty and funny, and the audience loved her. When the time came to taste what we’d made, though, she flat-out refused to taste my food in front of over a hundred people, and everyone found it hilarious. Rebecca keeps me grounded, and I feel privileged to be the one to feed her raw cupcake batter whenever she demands it.
On that note, what shall we cook? Will you share a couple of your fantastic recipes with our readers?
Trish: How about a Southwestern Veggie Skillet?
I love eating a huge breakfast from a cast-iron skillet. It reminds me of the Short Stop, a funky little train-car diner where we used to get all kinds of fattening, greasy and terrible-for-you foods when we were kids. Many of these foods were served directly in their own iron skillet, so you didn't miss out on a bit of that saturated fat. My version is actually quite good for you (although it's a little higher in fat than something I would eat on a daily basis, it's the good fat, so I suggest you loosen up, particularly if it's Sunday morning), especially when served with a side of Irish steel cut oats cooked with maple syrup, blueberries and strawberries. If I had a cute little diner of my own, I would cook this delicious skillet of breakfasty, potato-ey goodness while back-talking sassily to my customers, chewing gum and wearing a fabulous beehive hairdo with a pencil stuck in it…
Southwestern Veggie Skillet
3-4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
10 oz. fingerling potatoes, sliced into rounds
1 large onion, halved and sliced
6 oz. button mushrooms, thickly sliced
1 teaspoon smoked paprika
1 medium zucchini, seeded and diced
2 scallions, thinly sliced, white and green parts divided
1 cup diced tomato
1 avocado, diced
2 tablespoons chopped cilantro
Heat olive oil in cast iron skillet over medium-high heat, then add potatoes. Cook for about 5 minutes, then add onions, mushrooms and smoked paprika, season with salt and freshly ground pepper, and cook 5 minutes more. Stir frequently, but not too frequently. You want everything to brown.
When it's all getting nice and brown and delicious-smelling, toss in your zucchini, the white parts of the scallions, and the tomatoes. Cook until the zucchini begins to turn golden brown, about 4 more minutes.
Remove from heat, and top with sliced avocado, green parts of the scallions and cilantro. Serve with lots of hot sauce.
Note: You can certainly fancy this simple recipe up in many ways. Chop a poblano or a jalape ño pepper up and add it with the mushrooms and onion. Tofu sour cream or whatever kind of salsa you have lying around, like maybe some black bean salsa, would be nice. But sometimes simplicity is the thing, and you really don't need any of this stuff.
And in case any of your readers missed it, here’s the Grilled Corn and Black-Eyed Pea Salad from The Best of Vegan Cooking (available to order from Friends of Animals):
Grilled Corn and Black-Eyed Pea Salad
This summer salad makes a wonderful light lunch for four when served over well-chilled greens with a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil. (It also makes a fine condiment for grilled veggie dogs!)
3 ears fresh corn, shucked, silk removed
2 cups cooked black-eyed peas (canned are fine)
1 red bell pepper, finely diced
1 yellow bell pepper, finely diced
½ red onion, finely diced
¼ cup chopped fresh Italian parsley
1 tablespoon finely chopped cilantro
Zest and juice of 1 lemon
A dash or two of your favorite hot pepper sauce
Extra virgin olive oil, to taste
Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
Heat the grill or grill pan to medium-high. Grill the corn, turning frequently, about 5 minutes. (You may also roast in a 400 degrees F oven for about 10 minutes with equally good results.)
Set the corn aside to cool it. Remove the kernels by standing the cob on your cutting board on its stem end, and running a sharp knife down the sides of the cob at a 10 degree angle. This should leave you with whole kernels of corn.
Place the corn kernels, black-eyed peas, red and yellow bell pepper, onion, parsley and cilantro in a mixing bowl. Add lemon zest (remove zest with a microplane grater, or peel the yellow skin from lemon, being careful to leave the bitter white “pith” behind, and chop finely), lemon juice and a drizzle of olive oil. Season it with salt, pepper, hot sauce and a little more olive oil if necessary.