Kathy Hester is worried that her recipe might be too threatening—not because it, like all of her recipes, is vegan, or because it, like all of the ideas in her latest book, keys on Halloween. Rather, she frets that people may not know what "vegan sausage" is, or that their grocery store will not stock it.
"Well, let's see," she says, striding across the kitchen floor of the comfortable modern home she shares with her wife, Cheryl, and a menagerie of cats and dogs just north of Durham's Eno River.
Nearly two weeks before Halloween, the place is already decorated with a militia of ghouls and goblins, plus placards that demand "witches drink up" and "eat, drink and be scary." On Halloween weekend, she and Cheryl will host their annual holiday feast, with some of the same recipes featured in The Ghoulish Gourmet.
For now, though, Hester grabs a cloth-covered iPad and glances at the ingredient roster for her amusing Moonlit Zucchini Mummies. She wipes her hand on her brown T-shirt, which depicts a scowling cupcake as a headless horseman, and scrolls.
"No, I left lots of options like I always do," she continues, listing them off—sausage, tempeh or mushrooms, chopped and crumbled in any case. "I try to offend the least amount of people possible."
During the last four years, Hester has published six vegan cookbooks, including a Halloween ebook and the highly lauded The Easy Vegan Cookbook, issued in September. She's written two vegan guides to slow cooking, another for handling beans and another for turning oatmeal into more than, well, just oatmeal. At this point, the idea that she worries about offending someone confused by vegan sausage seems patently preposterous. She is America's de facto monarch of vegan cooking with Crock-Pots (at one point, she had two dozen) and an online authority on the topic.
But those seem to be but symptoms of Hester's real core value: She just likes to help feed people. She began developing vegan slow-cooker recipes, for instance, because a friend's kid had dairy allergies, and she began posting them online because people liked them. And when her meat-eating friends snub the idea of vegan food, she invites them over for a tasting menu; last summer's included smoked avocado mousse, watermelon gazpacho and avocado pesto. All of her books begin with elementary fundamentals. And in the introduction of her website, Healthy Slow Cooking, she doesn't use the word vegan—she wants people to appreciate the result first, not the rules.
"I don't talk about it a lot, but I am an ethical vegan," says Hester, now sitting at her dining room table and pouring almond-based creamer into her tea. That is, she forgoes meat, dairy, eggs and all other products that she feels inherently exploit animals. "But I'm not the mean vegan police people. I really don't want to be one of those people. I want to just be the middle-age lady next door, where someone says, 'Hey, what can I make with a squash?' And then we sit down and talk about it."
Hester, 50, grew up in Winston-Salem with a family for whom cooking mostly meant heating up frozen or canned foods. Early on, she shied from meat, picking around the chicken in soup or eating the beef atop her noodles quickly, so that the dough underneath would remain unspoiled. At the age of 18, when she saw a side of beef hanging from a butcher's hook, she denounced meat for good. Her mother told her to learn to cook for herself.
After years of a bad diet stuffed with too many grilled cheese sandwiches, she did just that during graduate school in St. Louis, where she studied French horn performance. Hester took her mom's slow cooker (which had been used, albeit rarely, for beef stew) to school and prepared communal meals for her peers in penury. She invited people to bring different vegetables, folding them into dishes of beans and grains. That's where she began learning to try cooking whatever came to mind.
"I was cooking for so many different people, so I had this huge support group. They were happy just to eat—and eat cheaply," she says with a characteristic laugh that sounds like an eruption. "When I was younger, I thought that if I didn't reach the goal I had in mind, it was a failure. But now, if it doesn't work, I know I have the information to make it better."
Hester now speaks of her recipes almost as if they are grand road trips. She begins with an idea and makes some progress. She might sometimes veer wildly off-course but almost always ends up somewhere interesting—except her recent futile attempt to make black ravioli for Halloween, which stained her food processor for days.
At her kitchen counter, she's experimenting with a new caramel apple bar, made by putting chopped apples slathered in a miraculous caramel of pureed dates and vanilla between layers of salty, chewy crust. As she drops teaspoons of spices into the mix, she inhales deeply and then scribbles a new measurement onto a notepad by her side. Half an hour later, after the test has emerged from the oven and cooled for a few minutes, Hester begins analyzing the process as soon as she starts doling the dish out. These aren't bars so much as an apple crumble, settling into great big blonde mounds on little white saucers. She should have let it bake and cool longer, she proclaims, but she's not discouraged. In writing six cookbooks, she's only thrown out three dishes and learned to tinker with misses.
"I have realized that it's pretty hard to fail at cooking. You can have some things that may not be amazing. But I doubted this would fail to the point we can't touch it," she says. "Eighty percent of the time, the worse thing that's going to happen is that it's not going to be the best thing you ever ate. But if you made macaroni and cheese or pasta with tomato sauce, it wouldn't be the best thing you ever ate, either."
But it's actually delicious, as the caramel blends into the soft apples and against the brittle crust. She offers up a second helping—a treat with a few not-so-scary vegan tricks.
After many unsuccessful attempts to pitch a vegan Halloween cookbook, Kathy Hester decided to turn her interest in culinary creeps, such as bone-shaped crackers and whoopie pies covered in spider-webbed designs, into her first foray into self-publishing. The Ghoulish Gourmet starts with a decoration guide, works through spooky but simple soups and ends with a section of alliteratively titled autumn drinks.
Below, Hester offers up her recipe for "Creepy Bats and Cats Chocolate Graham Crackers," the playful little cookie she recently served at Triangle VegFest. To buy the book, visit www.healthyslowcooking.com.
(From The Ghoulish Gourmet) serves 6–8
These adorable chocolate cookies are just a touch sweet from maple syrup. The midnight black color comes from the special dark cocoa powder. These are crunchy and are great dipped in "Spooky Sweet Potato Oatmeal Cookie Dip." (See the recipe in The Ghoulish Gourmet.)
1 1/2 cups whole wheat flour
2 tablespoons Dutch-processed cocoa powder (like Hershey's Special Dark)
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup maple syrup
1/4 cup mild oil (I use an avocado-coconut blend.)
1/4 cup nondairy milk
1. Preheat your oven to 350°. Prepare two large cookie sheets by oiling or covering with parchment paper.
2. Mix all the dry ingredients in a medium-size mixing bowl.
3. Add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients and cut in with a pastry cutter or 2 forks.
4. Use your hands to make a ball. If the dough is too crumbly, add another tablespoon of nondairy milk and try again.
5. Roll out one-quarter of the dough at a time on a floured work surface into a medium thickness.
6. Use bat and cat cookie cutters to cut out shapes. Gently place them on the baking sheet.
7. Repeat until all the dough is used. If you use medium-size cookie cutters, these will need to bake for about 10 minutes.