Plant-based food preparation

photo of Vesanto Melina

by Vesanto Melina

As a dietitian, I have learned a lot about which foods rate highest in folate or vitamin C, and what makes beans, peas and lentils the nutritional superstars they are. Yet my training did not include a course on how to make food taste good.

My mother enjoyed teaching children practical skills such as food preparation. All of my birthdays featured participatory cookie-making activities. The ingredients were not the healthiest—yet our parties were great fun! Meanwhile, my dad, a physiology prof, was doing cancer research and teaching about diabetes at various institutions including Langara College.

It took a while for my two worlds of Nutrition and Health, and Food Preparation, to merge.

A push in that direction was taking courses at the Living Light Culinary Institute (, on the beautiful Mendocino Coast in northern California. People had come from all over the world to gain chef skills using health-supportive ingredients. Class members included people who wanted to transform the cuisine of their native country in order to reduce risk of chronic disease. Some participants had just discovered cardiovascular disease, diabetes, or cancer in themselves or a family member, and were well aware of the links between dietary choice and chronic diseases. Others wanted to improve chef skills in order to work at a spa on the Italian coast or a health-oriented restaurant in New York, Texas, or Japan. Some wished to learn quick and simple ways to use a variety of plant foods or to make their everyday time in the kitchen more fun. Others were true gourmets who created exquisite food arrangements, with subtle flavour combinations, both raw and cooked.

We learned knife skills and how to plate artistically. We tasted items that we had never sampled. We learned how to store ingredients, create menus, and integrate healthful eating with travel. We did demonstrations for the class, on a topic of our choice, and gained confidence in this supportive, friendly environment.

One fascinating class explored combining flavours. We had five trays of food, each covered with ingredients. One tray held items that would contribute saltiness – amazingly – including celery. Other trays featured sweet, sour, bitter, and umami. Each small group of students was to create a salad dressing or other menu item using our choices from these basic flavours.

One delight of working with foods is that we can involve so many of our senses. After attempts at recipes that were not winners in other respects, I appreciated learning from chefs who had a sense of taste and texture that was much better developed than mine.

Lemon Tahini Dressing Makes 1-1/2 cups

Sesame tahini can be used to flavor sauces and soups, or to give creamy texture in a dressing. Since it is not hydrogenated, oil may rise to its surface during storage so it may need stirring before use. Try this dressing on salads, steamed broccoli or cauliflower, and baked potatoes. Using fresh squeezed juice in the recipe is best.

1/2 cup water
1/2 cup tahini
1/4 cup lemon or lime juice
1-2 tbsp tamari
2 cloves garlic
Pinch cayenne pepper (optional)

Put the water, tahini, lemon juice, tamari, garlic, and cayenne in a blender and process for 30 seconds or until smooth. This dressing will keep for up to three weeks when refrigerated in a covered container.

Vesanto Melina is a Vancouver dietitian and co-author of the award winning Becoming Vegan: Comprehensive Edition and other books.


March 9 at 7pm, Food Demo Party ($10), register through Meatless Meetup.

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