Arlene Coco Buscombe

Duluth chef and instructor Arlene Coco Buscombe has adopted a mostly-vegan diet to improve her health. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)

DULUTH -- “This is a wonderful time to be plant-based,” says Arlene Coco Buscombe, known to many in the Duluth-Superior, Wis., area as the Cajun chef who headed Coco’s Catering and Coco’s to Geaux. Buscombe sold those businesses in 2005 and became a culinary instructor, teaching cooking classes and food safety in three states. In the spring of 2019, her food interests took a new turn — toward a plant-based diet.

As I chatted with Buscombe over coffee, she explained that health was her primary motivation for getting “on the road to vegan.” “I have good health, and I want to keep it,” she said. “I want to stay off medications.” Mounting scientific evidence shows that plant-based eating significantly increases a person’s chances of having a long and healthy life. Buscombe has found that she sleeps better and has more energy on a plant-based diet.

Here are some highlights of our conversation.

Q: What is the transition to vegan cooking like for a highly trained chef like yourself?

A: Taste is paramount! After 40 years over the stove cooking professionally, I’ve learned what tastes good. I’ve always been interested in all types of cooking, and many traditional dishes don’t have meat, so I was already familiar with many meatless dishes. And I love to learn new things! The most exciting thing for me is to learn something new after cooking professionally for so long.

Savory dishes swap out with vegan ingredients very easily. Vegan baking is a bit more challenging. Lately, I’m looking toward making more of my own vegan meats. I make an andouille sausage with seitan. The first day, it’s good. The second day, you can’t tell the difference between it and meat sausage. My husband is a non-vegan, and he likes it.

I’m blown away by The Herbivorous Butcher in Minneapolis! People need to understand that when they experiment with plant-based meats and cheeses, they can’t expect them to taste exactly the same as animal-based, but they’ll be better off!

Q: You mentioned your husband. Any insights on the subject of mixed vegan/non-vegan households?

A: It teaches the art of compromise! You can’t always have it your own way.

Q: Would you describe yourself as vegan?

A: I’m a flexitarian — 80% vegan. When I’m a guest, I will eat a little meat, but I don’t make it for myself, and I often bring a plant-based dish to share at potlucks. I still cook meat sometimes for my own guests, but I introduce them to vegan dishes, too. I occasionally have seafood, because it’s part of my Cajun background, and it’s my specialty.

Q: What are some plant-based dishes you like to share?

A: My favorite vegan cuisine is Italian. I make polenta lasagna with mushrooms, mushroom risotto, and mushroom bolognese. Mushrooms are a good swap for meat, and most people like them. I use a mix of fresh and canned. I like to make a base mix of celery, onion and carrot (called a mirepoix) with added mushrooms; it can go in many directions.

Q: What advice do you have for readers who want to be more plant-based?

A: From a chef’s perspective, a whole food, plant-based diet requires two things: first, you must have time to cook. And second, you must learn to use seasonings and take an interest in learning about new ingredients and flavor profiles. Your spice cabinet will grow! Learning about plant-based food is an ingredient adventure. Have fun!

It doesn’t have to be all-or-nothing. You can start with a Meatless Monday or Mark Bittman’s VB6 idea (vegan before 6 p.m.). Like any lifestyle change, it can’t be done successfully overnight. A supportive partner is helpful. I have a niece who lives in another city; she is vegan and has been a great influence on me.

For me, this is part of a lifelong journey. As I grow, I find people along the way to collaborate with. It’s an opportunity for exploration.

* * *

Arlene offers frequent cooking classes at Whole Foods Co-op and teaches cooking parties in private homes. She also does TV cooking segments on Duluth's Fox 21. Readers can find some of Buscombe’s recipes on her blog at arlenecoco.com.

Here are two recipes Buscombe shared with me.

Skinny Vegetable Soup

Makes 6 servings, or 10 cups

From “Coco’s Latest Bite: Cozy Soups and One Pot Meals for a Crowd”

“This soup is gluten-free and dairy-free. It can be made with most any type of vegetable. Freeze it in pint containers for individual servings or the whole batch for a first course at an upcoming dinner party.” — Arlene Coco Buscombe

4 pounds winter squash, peeled and cut into 1-inch cubes*

2 medium white onions, diced

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 tablespoon minced garlic

½ teaspoon salt

8 cups vegetable stock

½ teaspoon ground cumin

One 13.5-oz can coconut milk (optional)

½ cup pistachio nuts or pumpkin seeds for garnish (optional)

extra virgin olive oil for garnish (optional)

*Winter squashes include acorn, butternut, kabocha, hubbard, pumpkin. You can use frozen squash that is already peeled and cubed; butternut is the variety most commonly available. Or, if you’re starting with a whole raw winter squash, make peeling easier by microwaving the entire squash for a few seconds, or baking it for a few minutes and letting it cool. This will soften the hard skin.

Heat a large pot or Dutch oven over medium heat and add olive oil. Add onions, garlic and salt and cook until soft, about 5 minutes. Add squash, vegetable stock or water, and cumin and cook until soft, about 30 minutes. Carefully puree until smooth using an immersion, or stick, blender or a food processor or blender. Add coconut milk. Garnish with nuts or seeds and a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil, if desired.

Mushroom Farro Risotto

Makes 8 servings

From “Coco’s Latest Bite: Vegan and Vegetarian”

“Any kind of dried mushroom will work. I used dried lobster mushrooms. Leftovers freeze well." — Arlene Coco Buscombe

1 ounce dried mushrooms

4 tablespoons olive oil, divided

1 onion, minced

1 tablespoon garlic, minced

Three 8-oz containers (or 3 cups) fresh cremini mushrooms, sliced

3 cups farro, rinsed

6 to 8 cups vegetable stock, hot

½ cup frozen green peas, thawed

½ cup white wine

⅛ cup truffle oil (optional)

½ cup vegan Parmesan (optional)

Salt and pepper to taste

Soak dried mushrooms in warm water for at least an hour. Drain through a sieve or coffee filter and reserve mushroom water to add to vegetable stock. Chop soaked mushrooms into small pieces. Rinse farro and set aside. In a large skillet over medium heat, warm 2 tablespoons olive oil, then add fresh mushrooms and saute until soft and water releases, about 10 minutes. Add soaked mushrooms and heat until cooked through, about 2 more minutes. Remove mushrooms from pan, add 2 more tablespoons olive oil, and saute onions and garlic for a couple minutes until soft. Add farro and stir to coat all the kernels. Add hot vegetable stock, a cup at a time, and cook until farro is tender to the tooth, much like arborio rice — 18 to 30 minutes, depending on your cooking heat and how hot the stock is. When farro is cooked, add mushrooms back in, plus peas, white wine, truffle oil (if using) and vegan Parmesan to taste. Add salt and pepper and serve hot.

Did you know?

If the US became a nation of vegans, we would save $250 billion annually in health care costs and carbon emissions, and would avert 320,000 deaths due to obesity and chronic disease. Another estimate places the savings at $2 to 3 trillion. From a study by Marco Springmann published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2016, reported in “The Atlantic.”

Bonnie Ambrosi lives in Duluth and is an organizer of The Vegan Cookbook Club, which meets at 11:30 a.m. on the first Thursday of every month at Mount Royal Branch Library. Contact Ambrosi at bonnieambrosi@gmail.com.

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