In the 1980s, Nava Atlas was a graphic designer and illustrator “trying to make her mark in New York City,” as she puts it. She was also a vegetarian, which at the time “was enough to make you crazy.” When she’s not working, she says in a Zoom interview from her home in New York’s Hudson Valley, she cooks creative but simple dishes for herself and her husband.
She didn’t cook from books; She improvised, leading to the inevitable problem that afflicts those of us who like to paint outside the lines: when she did something great, she couldn’t necessarily repeat it. “So my husband started saying when I did something he liked, ‘Why don’t you write that down?’ “Soon she had her own collection of written recipes. But her interests were always broader.
“I was a cook and I was an artist and I love books, literature and reading,” she says. “So I came up with the idea of putting all my interests together in one book.” By “one book,” she means Vegetariana, the quirky 1984 volume of 170 vegetarian recipes paired with her own delightfully whimsical pencil drawings , trivia about food and quotes from famous people.
A quote from Babe Ruth about scallions – “The Greatest Cure for a Batting Slump Ever Invented” – is accompanied by a drawing of Ruth about to brandish a giant scallion instead of a bat. Late last year, Atlas released a revised and updated edition of the book that reflects one of her biggest diet changes: it’s all vegan now.
Since publishing Vegetariana, Atlas has written 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 like The Literary Ladies’ Guide to the Writing Life and running the Vegan Atlas and Literary Ladies Guide websites. Even as she’s gained more and more experience cooking—and writing recipes—her own cooking remains appealingly straightforward.
For example, this recipe for Sloppy Joes with Quinoa and Red Beans, one of the recipes she’s included in the new issue (from which she’s removed a chapter on eggs and cheese, along with recipes she says she likes “Just felt too much like the ’80s — or even the ’60s or ’70s.”) In their classic form, sloppy joes are little more than gravy and seasoned ground beef on a bun, and have a decidedly retro comfort-food appeal.
Remember the 1970s ad for Hunt’s canned Sloppy Joe Sauce: “A sandwich is a sandwich, but a manwich is a meal”? Quinoa did not appear in the original 1984 Atlas. It has only just started exporting it, she says, but it hasn’t caught on for many years. In a second 1999 edition of the book, Atlas added quinoa recipes, along with lore including that, according to Inca legend, it was a crop so revered that “it sprang from a heavenly banquet.”
These days, quinoa — with its high protein content and quick preparation — is ubiquitous, perhaps no more so than in plant-based cooking, like the variety Atlas has been promoting for so many years. I doubt the Manwich writers imagined that half a century later some sloppy joes would be made with quinoa and red beans.
But in the hands of Atlas, their filling is made almost as quickly as the classic. While your quinoa is simmering, sauté the onion and bell pepper, then add the quinoa, plus a can of beans, a can of tomato sauce, and seasonings. A few more minutes for the flavors to meld, and you’re ready to spoon the filling onto lightly toasted buns (or onto tortillas for tacos, if you prefer) — and turn the meal into a delicious mess.
Quinoa and red bean sloppy joes
This smoky-sweet combination of quinoa, red beans, and spices can be stacked on buns to make sloppy joes or used as a taco filling with your favorite toppings. Serve with fries, pickles and/or coleslaw.
1 cup of 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 (can 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 chilli powder
2 teaspoons smoked paprika powder
1 teaspoon agave or maple syrup
½ teaspoon dried oregano
8 soft burger buns, lightly toasted
In a small saucepan over medium-high heat, combine water and quinoa. Bring to a gentle boil, then reduce heat to medium-low, cover and simmer until water is absorbed, about 15 minutes.
Meanwhile, heat the oil in a medium skillet over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add the onion and cook, stirring, until translucent, about 3 minutes. Add the peppers and cook, stirring, until the onion and peppers 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 mixture to a gentle boil, reduce heat to medium-low, partially cover and cook, stirring occasionally, until thickened and flavors begin to meld, about 5 minutes. Turn off the heat and let the mixture sit for another 5 minutes to allow the flavors to blend.
Stack about ½ cup of filling on eight bottom buns, top with top buns and serve warm.
Yield: 8 servings
Notes on storage: Store leftovers in the refrigerator for up to 5 days or freeze for up to 6 months.
Adapted from the revised and updated “Vegetariana” from Nava Atlas (Amberwood Press, 2021).