In the Kitchen with Laura Wright of The First Mess
Laura Wright's The First Mess Cookbook weaves together approachable plant-based recipes, relatable real food stories, and sumptuous imagery. Recipes run the gamut from nourishing weeknight dinners to beautiful statement desserts, but through it all, Laura brings readers along – explaining ingredients and techniques, and sharing inspiration with the same thoughtful yet laid-back style evident on The First Mess blog.
Like many home cooks, I learned to cook from cookbooks. Over the years, I've made my way from general cookbooks with basic recipes to more specialized ones highlighting complicated techniques or those focused on a single cuisine. No matter the subject, the cookbooks I love most are those that carve out a place in my kitchen and shift my approach. The First Mess Cookbook is just such a favorite. It's one of those instant classics that's transformed my go-to salad dressing (her Creamy Cider and Sunflower dressing is a revelation) and inspired a more thoughtful approach to layering flavor. Laura's book is also rich in fundamentals. Novices will benefit from her depth of knowledge and streamlined techniques and come away with smart, flavorful basics like wonderfully rich vegetable broth.
I recently caught up with Laura to ask about her approach to food and favorite recipes.
In your intro, you talk about MFK Fisher and her influence on you. What is it about her writing that speaks so deeply to you, and what do you see as the commonalities in the way the two of you approach food and cooking?
Her influence on my blog-turned-book is quite light if I'm being honest, despite both being named after a passage from one of her works. I was thinking about buying a domain and starting a creative cooking project online when I stumbled across a transcript of An Alphabet for Gourmets on Gourmet's website. When I read what her grandmother called "the first mess of peas" under the entry for P, I knew that I had found something I connected with. In the same passage, she calls out the Earth-Mother, the notion of food from the earth being this great gift that deserves reverence, and the quite beautiful nuances of preparation in both the kitchen and garden.
The only other work that I've read by Fisher is How to Cook a Wolf, which of course isn't about actually cooking a wolf, but is still funny to me given the vegan lean of my site.
The very first meal that I had in commitment to the plant-based lifestyle was a bunch of vegetable side dishes at a Thanksgiving dinner. I remember how beautiful it looked and how satisfied, but vibrant, I felt afterward. So I'm always coming back to that feeling.
Often vegan cooking reimagines conventional dishes as vegan ones with meat and dairy substitutes. But your book avoids this and lets vegan ingredients be themselves. How did you arrive at this approach?
When I first started eating plant-based, I would try all of the meat and dairy substitutes. Non-meat meatballs with spaghetti, the weird vegan cheese, the breaded seitan "cutlets" and on and on. I always found that there was something off with the texture and flavor of those well-intentioned dishes for me personally. I had never really enjoyed the texture of meat growing up, so I think this factored in quite a bit. The very first meal that I had in commitment to the plant-based lifestyle was a bunch of vegetable side dishes at a Thanksgiving dinner. I remember how beautiful it looked and how satisfied, but vibrant, I felt afterward. So I'm always coming back to that feeling.
I just love naturally vegan foods that taste great with minimal fussing. This was the approach that I took with my blog because, at the time, it seemed important to me to highlight that vegan food could be so much more than these foods born out of imitation. It could be elegant and a little bit rustic, and maybe even cool! I had all of this in mind with my book, which is totally inspired by the same goals that I have with my blog.
Do you have advice for readers who might fall in love with the ideas, flavors, and images in your book, but don't have much experience cooking and aren't sure where to start?
I don't think the recipes require any particularly advanced technique for the most part. As long as you have a willingness to stock your pantry with intention, and to chop a few extra things, you should be able to tackle any of the book's recipes with relative ease. I discuss optimal pantry additions in detail at the beginning of the book.
If you're new to plant-based cooking, or even cooking in general, I'd recommend starting with anything in the soups and stews section of the book. Soups are easy to fix if you under-season or something just seems off, and while they feed you in the moment, the leftovers are often better. Beyond that, I'd recommend one of the sauces in the book like the Green Tahini, the Cider Sunflower Dressing, or the Creamy Garlic Dressing made with cashew butter. Sauces bring that extra sparkle to seasonal plant-based meals, and can be applied as a creamy garnish, a simple dip, or as a delicious drizzle over a vegetable and grain bowl.
Which recipe are you most proud of?
While I enjoy sweets here and there, I don't particularly love plant-based baking. I don't have the patience to play around with what is an especially delicate science when you take eggs and dairy out of the mix. I also enjoy/require the potential for spontaneity with savory cooking. So with that in mind, I'm particularly proud of the Fudgy Nut and Seed Butter Brownies and the Coconut Cream Tart. Both have all the richness and flavor of their traditional counterparts, but with plenty of sneaky health-supporting ingredients, and without refined sugar and gluten.
What recipe was the most challenging to develop?
It seems like it would be so simple, but the Vanilla Coconut Coffee Creamer gave me some trouble. The base of it is full-fat canned coconut milk, and the texture, flavor, viscosity, and homogeneousness varies so much from brand to brand. I had about 12 brands in my pantry at one point with the intention of testing all of them in that recipe. Eventually I settled on providing detailed notes of what you're looking/listening for when you're purchasing the coconut milk at the store, rather than recommending one brand over another. We drank so much coffee to get to that point, though!
Tell me about your book tour and how readers and fans can connect with you.
I've done a couple things in Toronto so far and we're finalizing some events in Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles with fellow authors/plant-based bloggers for late spring/early summer. All events will be updated at the bottom of the cookbook page on my site. I also post updates on book-related items on Instagram and Facebook!
More from Laura Wright and Elizabeth Stark
You can find delicious plant- and produce-based dishes by both Laura and Elizabeth here at Kitchn.
Laura created a collection of vibrant and hearty smoothies for us, showcasing how satisfying and nutritious they can be. From a rich and chocolately avocado number to a reimagined creamsicle, each carries her philosophy of vibrant and nourishing plant-based foods. Find more of her recipes in her debut cookbook, The First Mess Cookbook.
Elizabeth Stark of Brooklyn Supper has long been a proponent of seasonal cooking and we often look to her to showcase all spring has to offer. From the abundance of citrus that lingers on from its winter season to the baby vegetables that fill our gardens and markets come spring, Elizabeth has shared recipes to celebrate the season of spring with us in recipes like Baby Beet and Carrot Salad with Yogurt Ranch Dressing or a stunning Blood Orange Olive Oil Cake.