Even as a child growing up on an organic farm in Vermont, Seamus Mullen always loved food and cooking – but he was also passionate about cycling. In his twenties, he raced competitively, and kept up an avid cycling habit even while working in elite restaurant kitchens in Spain and San Francisco and opening his own New York City hotspot, Boqueria. But in 2007, facing a diagnosis of an autoimmune disease, he began to revaluate how he was eating. Soon the three-time James Beard finalist and New York Magazine Best Chef award-winner was an expert at creating dishes that delivered on both culinary pleasure and wellness performance.
In 2012, Mullen authored his first cookbook, Hero Food: How Cooking with Delicious Things Can Make Us Feel Better, combining health-centric cooking with his rustic Spanish-inspired style. He released a second book in 2017, Real Food Heals, and is sought after often to speak and write about food, wellness, and cycling.
This summer, Mullen is collaborating with Vitamix to encourage home cooks to grill more and better vegetables. We spoke with him about his healthy food philosophy, and about the biggest mistake many of us are making when it comes to our veggies.
Tell us a bit about growing up on a farm and how that shaped your views on food?
I was very fortunate to be exposed to amazing produce from a young age. I was digging in the garden, weeding, picking tomatoes and snap peas, and canning and pickling with my mom and grandma before I was in kindergarten! My brother and I were the rare kids that actually loved vegetables growing up. I can honestly say that there’s not a single vegetable that I don’t love. Well, I’m not the biggest fan of raw green peppers, but otherwise, I love them all.
I think in many ways, being raised by two strong women – my mom and grandma – who were both very good cooks, impressed upon me the importance of making things from scratch. We always started with the best ingredients. My grandmother would say “you can’t make good food with bad ingredients,” and to this day, that is fundamentally how I cook.
How does plant-forward eating help you stay fit and active as a cyclist and in your other pursuits?
I’m a big advocate of a well-rounded, nutrient-dense diet and a healthy relationship with food. I firmly believe that it’s really important that each person learn what sort of relationship with food suits them best, taking account for health, happiness, spirituality, and values. I know that what works for me may not work for everyone else and I get turned off when there is so much tribalism and dogma attached to any one way of eating.
Personally, I feel best when I eat a low-carb, high-fat diet, rich in nutrient-dense vegetables. I skew towards brassicas, leafy greens, asparagus, and other pre-biotic, fiber-rich vegetables. I know that eating this way helps me feel strong, vibrant, full of energy. And it is helping to sustain a healthy microbiota, the foundation of our immune system.
What are some common mistakes people make when cooking vegetables, particularly on the grill, and how can those be avoided?
I think the most common mistake is when folks cook their healthy veggies in toxic, unhealthy seed oils. Some healthy fat goes a long way to make the nutrients in vegetables more bioavailable and simply taste better. The first thing I always do when helping folks clean up their kitchen is to discard all canola, soy, corn, and seed oils, and replace them with olive oil, ghee, coconut oil, and some avocado oil.
When it comes to grilling vegetables, there is something magical about slowly grilling them, letting them taking on that delicate smoke flavor that comes with time. There are so many super cool things you can do with vegetables on the grill, like hanging onions for hours above the grill to get a gently-smoked, sweet onion that becomes the perfect base for an onion jam. Or burying beets in the coals, then hours later taking them out, peeling them, and smashing the soft, sweet interior with olive oil, sea salt, and some fresh horseradish for an amazing beet mash.
I grill vegetables at least three or four nights a week and I use a few different types of grill pans. I have a sauté pan with holes, a mesh tray, and a perforated griddle. I use them all.
Lately I’ve been grilling a ton of mushrooms. My technique for grilling vegetables is pretty consistent: Toss the veggies – mushrooms for example – in a large bowl with some olive oil, sea salt, and a splash of vinegar. This is where they really come alive, adding in some acid. Then I add some herbs and whatever spice I’m feeling. Lately I’ve been really into Middle Eastern spices like za’atar and sumac. Toss the mushrooms thoroughly to coat them, then into the grill pan. I sauté them over the grill. I’ll finish with some fresh herbs to brighten the flavor. You can mix this up with other vegetables by simply changing the herbs and spices. Asparagus might get tossed with harissa and finished with fresh mint, for example.
Want to try Seamus Mullen’s go-to dry rub for grilled vegetables? Find the date- and mushroom-packed, refined sugar-free recipe here.