‘Focus in on the positive’

Plant Magic: A Celebration of Plant-Based Cooking for Everyone
by Desiree Nielsen

Toronto: Penguin Random House, 2024
$34.00  /  9780735244900

Reviewed by Rebecca Coleman


When I say the word “vegan” or “plant-based,” what springs to mind? You’re probably thinking of food that most people would deem healthy: lots of vegetables, good for your energy level and your waistline.

Over the last decade or so, two camps of plant-based food have emerged: there’s the stuff we think of as traditional vegan food, primarily whole-food based and healthy. But then there’s the vegan junk food: French fries, potato chips, Oreos, burgers—all made without any animal products, but maybe not… healthy.

Desiree Nielsen is a Vancouver-based nutritionist, and Plant Magic is her second cookbook, a follow-up to Eat More Plants.

Vancouver-based Desiree Nielsen has 15 years of experience as a dietician

What I love about Desiree is how damn smart she is. If you’re not already following her on Instagram, go do that right now, I’ll wait. With a decade or so of experience as a nutritionist, Desiree’s advice is good, but more than that, it’s practical.

Plant Magic falls into the first category of vegan food. While you won’t find any recipes for French fries here, you’ll be welcomed to eat and enjoy them. In the introduction, Desiree talks about how the wellness industry has affected us so negatively, creating “good” and “bad” foods. Instead of labeling foods, her philosophy is to focus in on the positive: what can you add to your plate/diet that is going to make you feel better, rather than focusing on what you “shouldn’t” eat (which, let’s face it, just makes our brains want it more).

“No one food, ingredient or meal has the power to make or break your health,” she says. “Instead, it is the overall pattern of how we eat over weeks, months and years that moves the dial… there is plenty of wiggle room for whatever else you want to eat.”

The end results of Desiree Nielsen’s Chickpea Frittata with Herby Salad

So instead of focusing on why bread is bad for you (also, it isn’t unless you’re a celiac), instead focus on adding extra, nutritionally-dense foods to your plate, a little more, day after day. The only two “rules” she follows are to make sure you’re adequately hydrated by drinking water, and to eat as many whole plant foods as possible.

Finally, food should be joy! We should enjoy and take pleasure from our meals. The reality is, no matter how healthy something is for you, if it doesn’t taste good, why would you eat it?

And this is where Plant Magic starts.

Beyond a comprehensive introduction that includes pantry staples and information about spices and how to manage your produce, there is also a section of basic recipes, like a za’atar spice mix, pickled onions, and various sauces that are great to keep on hand and will be integrated into other recipes.

The book’s sections consist of: morning things (breakfasts), craveable salads, soups and stews, noodles, one pot meals, snacks, sweets, and “stuff on bread.”

I tried 6 recipes from Plant Magic: Sweet Potato Harissa Dip, Gigantes (giant beans in a tomato sauce), Shawarma-spiced Cauliflower and Chickpea Pita, Cardamom Tahini Cookies with Apricots and Pistachios, Black Olive and Za’atar Focaccia, and the Miso Caramel Sauce.

Reviewer Rebecca Coleman took Nielsen’s advice and added a little whole wheat flour while preparing this focaccia. Photo Rebecca Coleman

Focaccia is something we make pretty often in our house, but this version, as with most things that call for flour in this book, incorporate some whole wheat flour into the mix for added nutritional value. I was afraid it would make the bread heavy and stodgy, but it turned out quite light and it rose nicely. We had it with additional olive oil and balsamic on the side for dipping.

I was intrigued by the Sweet Potato Harissa Dip, as it is basically a hummus, but made with sweet potatoes instead of chickpeas, and I love the spicy smokiness of harissa. Sweet potatoes are roasted (skins on for extra nutrition) and then blended with tahini and the harissa for spice. This dip was great while it was still warm, but once it cooled, it became a little too thick, so I’d suggest adding maybe a few extra tablespoons of water to this one.

Rebecca Coleman added some of Nielsen’s Sweet Potato Harissa Dip to the focaccia prepared earlier. Photo Rebecca Coleman

The real food critic at our house is my son, who is very much not vegan. If you can make a vegan dish that he likes and says he’d eat again, to me, that’s a winner, and he really liked the Shawarma-Spiced Cauliflower and Chickpea Pita. Cauliflower is such a great neutral vegetable: rub it with spices and it takes on that flavour so well. Basically, you cut a cauliflower into florets, and then toss them with a little oil and then cumin, coriander and other Mediterranean spices, and then roast in the oven. What I loved about this recipe was the addition of chickpeas in the roasting process, both for extra protein, and also for texture. You then serve the final “wrap” on a pita (we only had whole wheat tortillas that day) with a tahini/lemon sauce and lots of crunchy veg. I added pickled red onions to mine as well. This made for a satisfying dinner.

I was personally excited to try the Gigantes (Ygantes) recipe, as it had been a while since I’d made them. Gigantes is a Greek dish that uses giant beans and simmers them slowly in a tomato sauce until they are creamy and saucy, and I have eaten this dish in Greece.

I had some challenges finding the correct beans, though Desiree says you can substitute butter or cannellini beans. I did finally find some at Parthenon, but I think there was something wrong with them, as when I soaked them, they did not behave like regular beans should behave when soaked. I should have maybe tossed that batch and tried to find better beans, but I was committed, so I made the sauce and baked them for four hours. I didn’t love the end result, but it could have been defective beans. I just wanted this recipe to be saucier, the final dish was very mushy, and the beans weren’t very distinct from the sauce.

Reviewer Rebecca Coleman also baked Nielsen’s Cardamom Tahini Cookies with Apricots and Pistachios. Photo Rebecca Coleman

Finally, in terms of desserts, I made the Cardamom Tahini Cookies with Apricots and Pistachios and the Miso Date Caramel. I loved the Tahini Cookies, they taste like Halva, and that’s absolutely a good thing. The tahini lends both a warm nuttiness that works so well with the cardamom, and it also keeps the cookie (which, again, is made with whole wheat flour) moist.

The Miso Date Caramel is a no-cook recipe, you just whiz up some dates, miso and a few other ingredients in your blender. I had mine over some vegan ice cream. I liked it, but I also felt like it didn’t compare to traditional caramel (which is made when you cook sugar down for a long time). I actually really enjoyed this as a spread on toast (giving Kaya vibes).

Overall, the recipes in Plant Magic are easy to follow and offer nutritious but flavourful plant-based meals. The food is accessible, healthy, and good for everyone, even if you aren’t fully plant-based, but are just looking for positive ways to increase the amount of whole plant foods in your diet.


Rebecca Coleman

Rebecca Coleman is a content creator, foodie and 2x cookbook author. She specializes in vegan/vegetarian food, and is always on the hunt for the world’s greatest donut. Rebecca lives in Vancouver, BC, with her son and their tuxedo cat. She has previously reviewed books by Steven Hodge, Denise Marchessault, Jillian Harris & Tori Wesszer and Jessica Schacht. Visit her website at: https://cookingbylaptop.com


The British Columbia Review

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