Nicola Graimes is an award-winning health, cookery and food writer. With a back catalogue of over 25 books, covering subjects as diverse as flexitarian diets, vegetarian and vegan food, pregnancy, weaning, children’s food, good health and weight loss, Nicola is the winner of the Best Vegetarian Cookbook in the World Gourmand Awards, Best Family Cookbook in the World Gourmand Awards and a finalist in Le Cordon Bleu World Media Awards.
Tell us where your passion for food started and share one of your fondest memories of food?
Growing up, I was always encouraged to try different foods, especially what were seen as quite unusual ingredients like avocados, which weren’t widely available when I was young! I was always happy to try new dishes – I was never a fussy eater.
My real passion for food and cooking coincided with leaving home to go to university in London to study journalism, and I also gave up eating meat at the same time. Cooking was initially a case of “needs must”, but it was the perfect time to discover new recipes, an experiment in the kitchen and cook for my housemates. As student finances were always quite tight, my meals focussed on economical vegetables, pulses, and basic ingredients – I still enjoyed creating something out of nothing. I’d often visit food markets towards the end of the day to pick up fresh produce that was going for a reduced price or perhaps was slightly past its best. Markets are still one of the best places to pick up seasonal fresh fruit and vegetables, and they also support the local economy.
One of my fondest memories relating to food was interviewing Linda McCartney about her journey to becoming a vegetarian. She was incredibly warm and welcoming, and, as a bonus, I could hear Paul practising for a gig in the next room.
I bumped into her again a few years later at a press lunch and was impressed that she remembered my name and was genuinely interested in what I was up to.
Tell us about the journey from being a keen foodie to having published over 25 cookbooks!
Pretty much my first job after graduating was as an editorial assistant on a magazine for restaurateurs, followed by a job on a magazine for delicatessens and fine food shops. I got my dream job as editor of Vegetarian Living magazine, which is when I got the career-changing chance to create my own recipes and style of photography.
I moved into book publishing when my children were young as I found the pace slightly slower than magazines. I then worked as a freelance editor for a publisher producing a collection of sixteen cookbooks for Tesco, soon after which I was approached to write my first cookbook – an Encyclopedia of Wholefoods.
I’ve been so lucky that my career has been in food publishing, and I have experienced both sides, working in-house with magazine and book publishers alongside writing my own books. I’m constantly inspired by what’s going on around me, travelling, eating out, reading, television, food shops and conversations with friends and family, which often spur a new idea for a book. What has been fantastic, too, as well as writing my own books, I’ve had the chance to ghostwrite and edit books for others – naming no names!
What did you learn along the way while writing, producing and publishing so many cookbooks? Were there any particular roadblocks that you faced?
Whether it be in print or online, a career in food publishing is definitely an excellent starting point for those wishing to write their own cookbook, albeit maybe a slightly back to front one! It has given me an indispensable insight into what it takes to create and produce a book, from the initial idea and concept to the finished book. Writing a cookbook is definitely a collaborative process. While there has to be a firm raison d’etre for your book, I’ve found that it’s beneficial to have a good working relationship with your publishing team, including publisher, editor, designer and photographer, to bounce ideas off.
What is the best piece of advice you’ve been given – who gave it, and how has it stuck with you?
I can’t remember who said this to me, but it was a publisher I worked for many years ago. They said, ‘Remember who you are writing for, who will buy your book and what they are looking for in a cookbook’ – indispensable advice as it is all too easy to get caught up in what others are doing, or trends or become too single-minded.
How has the food landscape changed throughout your time writing cookbooks?
It has changed immensely over the years. In many ways, food is like fashion, so there are definite trends, be it a popular type of cuisine, style of cooking or particular ingredient. Many years ago, vegetarianism was seen as cranky, hippy and all about lentils. I remember Gordon Ramsey saying something along the lines that vegetarians weren’t welcome in his restaurant – imagine saying that now! That said, I believe vegetarianism and veganism are not fads; they are positive and healthy ways to eat and being kind on the planet. The number of people cutting down on the amount of meat they eat or cutting it out altogether has been one of the most positive changes since the publication of my first cookbook many years ago.
What is the inspiration behind The Thrifty Veggie?
We’ve all become much more aware of the cost of food, not just in our pockets but also in terms of the environmental impact of what and how we eat. Additionally, most of us are time-poor, so it can pay off to plan our shopping and cooking whenever possible, rather than grab a ready-meal or pricey takeaway. I wanted to create recipes that use every day, budget-friendly and simple store cupboard ingredients alongside seasonal fresh veg. So, when you look in your cupboard at the end of the day and see a packet of pasta and can’t think of what to make with it, I’m hoping you’ll find inspiration in The Thrifty Veggie. I also wanted to create nutritious recipes that make the most of leftovers, such as bread that is slightly beyond its best, surplus cooked rice, or a handful of herbs. Where recipes use a particular spice, I’ve been mindful of using that spice in another recipe, so readers aren’t left with a barely used jar in the cupboard. Alongside the recipes, there are many helpful foodie tips on how to save money and cut waste.
How is this book different from your other vegetarian books?
I wanted this book to be more back to basics, so there are recipes for making your stock, chutney, yoghurt and even a very quick and thrifty preserved lemons recipe, which can be very pricey to buy. There are also money-saving and waste-free tips on how to make the most of your fridge and freezer and how to use up fresh veg, as well as thrifty shopping and cooking ideas, such as making the most of the oven by batch cooking or cooking several things at the same time to keep costs down. One easy step we can all take, and it definitely works for me, is planning ahead. I find it really helps to write down a list of meals (even if it’s just daily dinners), which makes shopping so much easier to organise, saves the pennies, and helps to avoid food waste. The structure of the book is straightforward to use and focuses on ingredients. So, there are chapters called Tin of Beans, Pack of Pasta, Sack of Rice, Bag of Nuts, Carton of Eggs, Slice of Cheese and Box of Veg. I’ve been mindful to include plenty of vegan recipes too.
What are your three favourite recipes from The Thrifty Veggie?
I’ve picked three recipes, which give a good idea of the variety of recipes you’ll find in my book.
- The Yum Cha Buns are light, fluffy Chinese buns that come with a mushroom and nut filling. They don’t take long to cook, and they are perfect for making in bulk and freezing for later.
- The Lentil, Preserved Lemon and Date Tagine, which came about through a need to use up surplus veg in the fridge. This shows off how lentils (and beans) are the most perfect nutritious, economical ingredients we can buy.
- The Beet Top, Spring Onion and Gruyere Tart use the leaves from a bunch of raw beetroots, which can quickly go to waste. Beetroot leaves taste similar to chard or spinach and can be served as a side dish or used in a soup, bake or tart, as in this recipe.
How do you hope this book will change our relationship with vegetables, waste and saving money?
My real hope is that my book will inspire and make people think about how they shop, cook and avoid wasting food. The recipes aren’t fussy or complicated, but they give lots of ideas on how to use everyday ingredients. The recipes make the most of all parts of vegetables, some of which we often throw away. For instance, rather than ditch vegetable peelings, such as carrots, parsnips or potatoes, toss in oil, roast them in the oven to make nutritious vegetable crisps, or turn slightly stale bread into crumbs, then freeze them for when you need breadcrumbs. These simple, nifty ideas help us to cut waste and, in turn, save money. I read a frightening statistic on how much food we throw away each year – in the West up to a third each year – so I’m hoping that my book will help us think before throwing away.
Where do you see the future of food and in particular of “Veggienomics”, as you say?
Veggienomics is a made-up word – a combination of vegetarian and economics – but it describes perfectly how I envisage the future of our food, or our food landscape, to be in years to come. I think we are becoming more and more conscious of what and how we eat. On a personal level, and I can only really talk about the UK, I hope as a country we start to grow more of our own food, especially fruit and vegetables, as this is an area we rely heavily on imports. Over the years, we have become increasingly reliant on other countries for our fresh produce when we could easily grow much of it here. For consumers, this means that we could buy more local, seasonal produce, which not only tends to be cheaper and taste better, but it is better for our environment as it hasn’t travelled thousands of miles to reach us. I believe it’s essential to support our local independent shops, farm shops, box schemes and food markets. It’s all about balancing the books, buying the best ingredients that you can afford and cutting waste whenever possible. Every little helps.
You can find out all about Nicola Graimes on her website and her Instagram and find the full recipes for the recipes mentioned in this article in your free copy of the September-October Digital Magazine. You can download it here.