CAMBRIDGE — Seattle food blogger Michael Natkin is demonstrating a dish from his new cookbook. It’s an appetizer of goat cheese with sauteed grapes. “If you blink, you’re going to miss it,” he says — and he’s right.
The author of “Herbivoracious: A Flavor Revolution, With 150 Vibrant and Original Vegetarian Recipes,” is in the new test kitchen of How2heroes, the cooking videos website. To make the dish, he sautes a bunch of red grapes, which are cut in half (“the only way you can screw this dish up is if you buy grapes with seeds,” he says), pours them over a platter of sliced goat cheese, and sprinkles it with sea salt, fresh chives, and oregano. The result is a sweet, creamy-tangy, aromatic nibble. The dish is one of the easier recipes in Natkin’s book, which essentially represents this vegetarian cook’s philosophy. He strives for multiple layers of sweet, sour, bitter, salty, and umami. “I like food to have some complexity of flavors,” he says. He feels the same way about the need for a variety of textures on the plate.
Despite the healthfulness of most of his recipes, Natkin, 45, a native of Louisville, Ky., says, “My approach to cooking has very little to do with health.” His style would be the antithesis of assembling a plate of plainly cooked vegetables and calling it a vegetarian meal. He started the blog Herbivoracious in 2007 and attracts diverse readers, most not vegetarian, he says. “They just want to make good meatless meals.” About half the recipes in the book have appeared in the blog; about a third are vegan.
He brings “some fine dining sensibility and a deeper understanding of international cuisines” to his table, he says. Many recipes are rooted in the cuisines of India, Asia, and the Middle East, all of which rely heavily on plant protein and vegetables. Natkin offers Indian chana masala (chickpea stew), Vietnamese bun (rice noodles with toppings), Thai curry noodles, Middle Eastern mujadara (rice and lentils), and Ethiopian ful medames (mashed fava beans) among others.
In some recipes, the author mimics the flavor profiles of popular dishes. He makes a cheesy lasagna with portobello mushrooms and summer squash; pappardelle with eggplant ragu; and in his “triple-smoky” mac and cheese, the smokiness does not come from bacon or pancetta, but rather from smoked cheddar, smoked paprika, and chipotle chilies.
A dish of potatoes and chanterelle mushrooms bathed in red wine is reminiscent of a French coq au vin. The classic sweet and sour tastes of Sicily appear in spaghetti with cauliflower, pine nuts, and raisins. Wine braised cabbage is a pork-less dish inspired by Alsatian choucroute. Mexican-style enchiladas are filled with Swiss chard; pan-fried leek patties replace balls of ground meat (kofta) in pita sandwiches; and potstickers are stuffed with tempeh and cabbage.
“Herbivoracious” does have a handful of chef-y recipes, including asparagus with nori-infused butter, shiitake tacos with Asian pear slaw, and apple-celery sorbet, which reveal the author’s technical bent. Over the last few years, Natkin apprenticed at a few vegetarian restaurants and recently devoured the six-volume “Modernist Cuisine.” The blogger has never cooked meat, chicken, or fish; he does eat dairy and ethically sourced eggs.
Natkin began cooking as a teen, taking over the dinner-making role from his mother, when she was ill with cancer; she died when Natkin was 18. He became a vegetarian at roughly the same time. A software engineer by training, Natkin just recently left Adobe Systems to be a full-time blogger and writer. He learned the fundamentals of vegetarian cuisine from the Moosewood series, “The Vegetarian Epicure,” and the Tassajara cookbooks. He farmed and cooked at California’s Tassajara Zen Center during a year off from Brown University. As a longtime Celtics fan, Natkin says that knowing Celtics star Robert Parish is a vegetarian helped reinforce his own choice.
Natkin’s family eats a vegetarian diet at home, but his wife, Sarina, will occasionally order meat at a restaurant. At home, tofu may appear in a number of Asian preparations. Natkin likes the protein-rich food for its ability to absorb a variety of flavors, but he doesn’t see it as a meat substitute.
When they’re out and his wife is dining on poultry, says Natkin, he teases her that “she likes her chicken to look as much like tofu as possible.”Lisa Zwirn can be reached at