In the 1980s, Nava Atlas was a graphic designer and illustrator “trying to make my way in New York City,” as she puts it. She was also a vegetarian, which in those days “was enough to make you a weirdo.” When she wasn’t working, she says in a Zoom interview from her home in New York’s Hudson Valley, she cooked creative but simple dishes for herself and her husband.
She wasn’t cooking out of books; she was improvising, which led to the inevitable problem that strikes those of us who like to color outside the lines: If she made something great, she couldn’t necessarily repeat it. “So my husband, when I made something that he liked, started saying, ‘Why don’t you write this one down?’ ” Before long, she had a collection of written recipes of her own. But her interests were always broader.
“I was a cook, and I was an artist, and I absolutely love books and literature and reading,” she says. “So, that’s how I got the idea to combine all of my interests into this one book.” By “this one book,” she means “Vegetariana,” the quirky 1984 volume of 170 vegetarian recipes paired with her own delightfully quirky pencil drawings, food trivia and quotes from famous figures.
A quote from Babe Ruth on scallions – “The greatest cure for a batting slump ever invented” – is accompanied by a drawing of Ruth about to swing a giant scallion instead of a bat. Late last year, Atlas published a revised and updated edition of the book that reflects one of the biggest of her own dietary shifts: It’s now all vegan.
Since publishing “Vegetariana,” Atlas has gone on to write many other cookbooks over the decades, including “Plant-Powered Protein” and “Wild About Greens.” Now in her 60s, she’s as busy as ever, creating books such as “The Literary Ladies’ Guide to the Writing Life” and operating the websites the Vegan Atlas and Literary Ladies Guide. So, even as she has gotten more and more experience cooking – and writing recipes – her own cooking remains appealingly streamlined.
For example, this recipe for quinoa and red bean sloppy Joes, one of the recipes she added in the new edition (from which she removed a chapter on eggs and cheese, along with recipes she says “felt just too much like the ‘80s – or even the ‘60s or ‘70s.”) In their classic form, sloppy Joes are little more than sauced and seasoned ground beef on a bun and have a decidedly retro comfort food appeal.
Remember the 1970s ad for the Hunt’s canned sloppy Joe sauce: “A sandwich is a sandwich, but a Manwich is a meal”? Quinoa didn’t make an appearance in Atlas’s 1984 original. It had just started being exported, she says, but it wouldn’t catch on for many years. In a 1999 second edition of the book, Atlas added quinoa recipes, along with lore, including that according to Incan legend, it was such a revered crop that “it sprang from a heavenly banquet.”
Nowadays, quinoa – with its high protein content and quick cooking – is ubiquitous, perhaps no more so than in plant-based cooking like the sort Atlas has been promoting for so many years. I doubt the “Manwich” ad writers could have imagined that a half-century later, some sloppy Joes would be made with quinoa and red beans.
But in Atlas’s hands, their filling is almost as quick to make as the classic. While your quinoa is simmering away, you saute onion and bell pepper, then add the quinoa, plus a can of beans, a can of tomato sauce and seasonings. A few more minutes to meld the flavors, and you’re ready to spoon the filling onto lightly toasted buns (or into tortillas for tacos, if you’d like) – and make a delightful mess of the eating.
Quinoa and Red Bean Sloppy Joes
This smoky-sweet combination of quinoa, red beans and spices can be piled on buns to make sloppy Joes or used as a taco filling with your favorite fixings. Serve with chips, pickles and/or coleslaw.
1 cup water
½ cup dried quinoa (any color or a mix)
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1 medium yellow or white onion (about 8 ounces), chopped
½ medium red bell pepper, chopped
1 (15-ounce) can small red beans (may substitute red kidney beans), drained, rinsed and coarsely mashed
1 (15-ounce) can tomato sauce or crushed tomatoes
1 tablespoon low-sodium soy sauce
2 teaspoons chili powder
2 teaspoons smoked paprika
1 teaspoon agave or maple syrup
½ teaspoon dried oregano
8 soft burger buns, lightly toasted
In a small saucepan over medium heat, combine the water and quinoa. Bring to a gentle boil, then lower the heat to medium-low, cover and simmer until the water is absorbed, about 15 minutes.
Meanwhile, in a medium skillet over medium-high heat, heat the oil until it shimmers. Add the onion and cook, stirring, until translucent, about 3 minutes. Add the bell pepper and cook, stirring, until the onion and bell pepper are tender, 5 to 6 minutes.
When the quinoa is cooked, add it to the onion mixture, along with the beans, tomato sauce, soy sauce, chili powder, smoked paprika, agave or maple syrup and oregano. Stir to combine.
Bring the mixture to a gentle boil, reduce the heat to medium-low, partially cover, and cook, stirring occasionally, until it thickens and the flavors start to meld, about 5 minutes. Turn off the heat and let the mixture stand for another 5 minutes to let the flavors blend.
Pile about ½ cup filling on eight bottom buns, top them with the top buns and serve warm.
Yield: 8 servings
Storage notes: Refrigerate leftovers for up to 5 days or freeze for up to 6 months.
Adapted from the revised and updated “Vegetariana” by Nava Atlas (Amberwood Press, 2021).
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