#115 | Unicorn Food
By Kat Odell
Intro: Welcome to the Cookery by the Book podcast, with Suzy Chase. She's just a home cook in New York City, sitting at her dining room table, talking to cookbook authors.
Kat Odell: I'm Kat Odell and my latest cookbook is Unicorn Food.
Suzy Chase: Kat Odell: Food journalist, former Eater LA editor, and the original pioneer of Unicorn Food. I am so happy to chat with you again on my podcast and catch up.
Kat Odell: Yes, definitely. Thank you so much for having me.
Suzy Chase: Yay! How can we unicorn our food?
Kat Odell: Oh, my goodness, there's so many ways. What this book is largely inspired by is the natural colors that occur in foods, from purple sweet potato, to purple cabbage, to beets, to saffron and tumeric. There's so many ways to naturally add color to your food and the great part about that is foods that are naturally hued are higher in antioxidants and anthocyanins so they're actually more healthful.
Suzy Chase: What are anthocyanins?
Kat Odell: It's a form of antioxidants-
Suzy Chase: Okay.
Kat Odell: Commonly found in purple food, so you'll find that in purple cabbage and purple broccoli, purple sweet potatoes, blueberries, ingredients like that.
Suzy Chase: So you begin every morning with a drink. Talk to me about the inspiration behind this book.
Kat Odell: Sure. So I lived in Los Angeles for many years and then I relocated back to New York City, which is where I'm from originally. And I found when I moved back to New York, which was in 2014, the city was really behind in terms of health-conscious eating and so the foods that I was accustomed to finding readily in Los Angeles, I couldn't find in New York. So I started just making all of these clean foods for myself and it really started off with nut milks. And I don't have any dietary restrictions, luckily, but I personally love almond milk. I've always loved almond milk. It tastes like a vanilla milkshake if you do it properly. And so I started off just making these different types of milk at home, so I would make some with cashews and some with almonds and hazelnuts and then I would add different ingredients.
So first, I added spirulina to almond milk, then I played around with Blue Magik, which is a blue algae, it's different of spirulina, adding ingredients like rose and tumeric, and I just created this like rainbow milk and I remembered looking down at at this, like I'd created four or five milks one day, and I was like, "I feel like this needs a name, what should I call it?" And it reminded me of the mane of a unicorn, so, I thought, "Oh, unicorn milk." And the milks are really, really tasty and you know, so they were sort of magically delicious, so I thought it was a very fitting name. And then unicorn milk turned into unicorn food, because I started making foods that were based around these milks. And that's kind of the providence of the book.
Suzy Chase: P.S. I had no idea that raw almonds were banned in 2007.
Kat Odell: Yeah. I think unless you're really paying attention, you wouldn't really know and it's not that easy to find almonds that haven't been treated in some way. And when you do find them, they're pretty expensive, which is frustrating.
Suzy Chase: How did you develop the vibrant colors, like, let's say, pink?
Kat Odell: I was thinking about ingredients I really loved and so, I love cardamom as a flavor in general and I love rose and, of course, those are really classic in Indian cuisine and Indian desserts. And I wanted to create like a pinkish milk and so I've learned that different flower petals have different ... Like, not all rose petals have the same rose flavor and so, anyway, I started playing around with rose as a flavor plus cardamom, and I was able to score some really high quality rose petals which gave the milk this really pretty pink hue. And I preferred it to adding like a rose extract, which you can still do, but when you add the petals, it adds a really pretty pink color, which just makes it more fun to drink.
Suzy Chase: Do you look at emotion as an ingredient?
Kat Odell: Definitely. I mean, for me, cooking, the whole reason I got into food and cooking is because of my family and mainly my grandmother. When I was really young, so my grandmother and my mom is from the Czech Republic and my grandmother still lives in Prague. She actually turned 100 this year, which is crazy. And so she used to come to New York and take care of me when I was really young and she's an amazing cook and we just used to cook all day together when I was little. And so food is very emotional for me and it reminds me of my childhood, so I have a lot of inspiration from her in everything I do. And then certain types of not necessarily entirely unicorn, but a lot of recipes I make are from when I was really young, but those are more like normal recipes, not really unicorn recipes. But definitely for me, cooking is really tied to family and emotions.
Suzy Chase: Describe chicha morada from Peru.
Kat Odell: So, yeah, it's this purple Peruvian corn. And I was actually, ironically, just in Peru and was able to try it again, but it's basically boiled corn and all these other fruits and spices are added and you get this really very fruity and spicy drink and it has this awesome purplish bluish color to it. And when I was in college, I used to drink a lot of alcohol and so my savior was blue Gatorade. I had this roommate my freshman year and she would drink the orange Gatorade and I would drink the blue Gatorade and it was like I didn't like any other flavor, except for that. It had to be the light color blue, because there are different colored blues. Anyway, it was like my one ... I've always been to healthy eating to a certain extent, but that was like when you're hungover and you feel like death, you'll kind of do anything to feel better and blue Gatorade was always the thing that would help me recover.
And so I was thinking about how to make something, a drink, that was really good for you and could sort of satiate or sort of like cure a hangover remedy, to a certain extent. And, of course, coconut water is really high in potassium. It has a lot of electrolytes and other sort of ingredients your body needs when you're really depleted of, when you're really hungover. And so I came up ... Somehow, I don't remember. It just occurred to me that maybe using this Peruvian drink as inspiration to recreate a healthier version of Gatorade could work and because the blue Gatorade flavor is almost like a sort of tropical punch flavor which is also the flavor you get with this Peruvian drink and so it actually worked really well together. And it is time-consuming to make, but it's awesome. It's delicious and really, really thirst-quenching at the same time.
Suzy Chase: So do you just make a big batch of it and just have it in your fridge?
Kat Odell: Yeah. Exactly. Exactly. Yep.
Suzy Chase: So these recipes in the cookbook are almost vegan. What does that mean?
Kat Odell: So I hate the work vegan because, to me, veganism references like the '60s and '70s and that's when people were eating a lot of really processed food that were devoid of animal products like seitan and tofu. And I don't really eat those foods. And I'm more of plant-based eater so I pretty much for right now, for me, for my job, I eat everything. But at home, I'm a very, very healthy, very clean eater, so and I mostly just eat fresh, wholesome ingredients, fruits and vegetables. So for me, there's a big difference between technically you can still call this book vegan, but in my opinion, veganism encompasses a term which references another genre of food, which I don't include in this book very intentionally because it doesn't have any of those processed ingredients. And it's really just about clean, wholesome, healthful ingredients straight from the earth that haven't been treated or processed in any way. So that's the way that I differentiate the two in my head.
Suzy Chase: I cracked up when I read the little box that said "You'll notice the term 'superfoods' doesn't exist in this book."
Kat Odell: Yes.
Suzy Chase: That made me so happy. I hate that term.
Kat Odell: Because, you know, everyone calls everything a superfood these days. It has no meaning anymore, so I just, rather than call everything a superfood or this is this, just describe why it's good for you instead.
Suzy Chase: You're right.
Kat Odell: You don't need to call it a superfood, right?
Suzy Chase: Right. Exactly. You incorporate bee pollen in a lot of these recipes.
Kat Odell: Yeah.
Suzy Chase: How is bee pollen different from honey?
Kat Odell: I love bee pollen. For myself, personally, I feel like it's a really great energy booster, more so than honey. Honey, I really use as a sweetener. And I talk a lot about sweeteners in the book. I've always had a sweet tooth my whole life and so a large part of the recipes in this book were how can I create sort of desserty food items that are also good for you in some way? And so sweeteners are, at the end of the day, and I wrote this in the book: All sugar is sugar. But if you can incorporate a cleaner sugar with additional enzymes and nutrients, that's the way to do it. And also, the glycemic index is important. How it affects your blood sugar.
But bee pollen is really, really nutrient rich and I love to take it before working out. I feel like it gives me a lot of extra energy and there's a lot of easy ways to incorporate bee pollen into your diet besides you can make a drink with it or you can put it on yogurt but or in coconut yogurt, but I like to make little kind of like protein balls and take almond butter and kind of mix it all up and sometimes add dehydrated fruit and whatever I have lying around at home and it's great, great source of energy.
Suzy Chase: What's the cleanest sugar that you use?
Kat Odell: So my personal favorite, which is a little bit expensive and hard to find, is something called yacón syrup. So yacón comes from a South American root and it's extremely low on the glycemic index, so if Stevia, which I don't like, is a zero glycemic index tax, and let's say honey and maple syrup are maybe in the 30s, 30s, 40s, yacón is a one. So it's really, really, really low. And what's also awesome about yacón syrup is it's a prebiotic fiber, which means it feeds the bacteria in your gut and it serves as food for them. You've heard about prebiotic versus probiotics. And then, also, the structure of yacón syrup is so complex that our bodies can't fully digest it, which means it passes through. So let's say honey has maybe 30 calories for a teaspoon and then this would have like 10 calories, so it's much lower in calories, as well.
Suzy Chase: You've built your pantry at home around ingredients like medicinal mushrooms or protein rich seeds. But the great thing is you don't necessarily need all of these wacky ingredients to make the recipes in the book.
Kat Odell: Yeah.
Suzy Chase: Talk a bit about that.
Kat Odell: Sure. So the way that we structured these recipes was first and foremost, they're good for you regardless of whether you're able to sort of like spike them with these extra healthy ingredients, so they're gonna be really healthy and fun and delicious, but if you wanna seek these out, then you'll get an extra dose of nutritional benefit, but but the reason we did that is because they are, some ingredients more than others, are a bit esoteric and they can also be a bit pricey. For the most part, you can find all of those on at least Amazon, but if somebody doesn't wanna go out and spend 50 bucks on like a jar of chaga, then they can still make whatever this other recipe without adding it.
Because more than anything else, a lot of these ingredients, like the medicinal mushrooms are not really imparting a flavor, they're just more adding a nutritional component. However, in the case of like matcha, that would be adding flavor. So the ones that are not necessarily adding a flavor and they're just boosting the nutritional content for a recipe, we added in for certain recipes like a little spoon that shows you can spike a certain recipe by adding these extra ingredients, but you can still make the recipe and have the same flavor without them.
Suzy Chase: Tell me about your homemade Cinnamon Toast Crunch.
Kat Odell: I always loved cereal. And I ate a lot of it, as a kid, growing up. And it's not ... Cereal is ... There are so many foods that are just loaded with sugar that you don't really realize, because they don't always necessarily taste incredibly sweet. Some do, some don't. And sugar is definitely one of those. It's also really high in carbohydrates and so, anyway, I was trying to think of a way that you could recreate a familiar, classic cereal but in a way that's better for you and that was sort of the origin of the recipe, so this is not coming out of a box from the store, but you're actually making it yourself and it's not that hard.
Suzy Chase: That's awesome.
Kat Odell: Thanks.
Suzy Chase: Mike Bagale, former Executive Chef, at Alinea, developer of Floating Food and the famous balloon course, is your boyfriend.
Kat Odell: Yeah.
Suzy Chase: I've heard him say that he manipulates food, because he understands what it's capable of.
Kat Odell: Yeah.
Suzy Chase: Do you find that you share that philosophy with him, in terms of unicorn food?
Kat Odell: You know, Mike is a very scientific chef and he really understands ingredients. I think the way that I cook with unicorn food is much, much simpler and I think it depends how you define, like, the food that I'm making is just a little bit more streamlined and I think it's less manipulated because you're taking whole ingredients, just sort of blending them, and a lot of chefs around the world, chefs add other ingredients to create textures or basically to get an ingredient to function in a way that it normally wouldn't and I feel like I follow, my process with these recipes is just a little bit more straightforward. But I mean, everything he does is so amazing and delicious and really complex. This is a lot more simplified.
Suzy Chase: Are you guys collaborating on projects these days?
Kat Odell: Mike has, he left Alinea, and he started a consulting company, is doing projects around the world, and I'm helping him here and there with various things and it's a lot of fun, so for me, I've always, I've been behind a computer for so many years writing about food and working with him on projects gives me the opportunity to be a little bit more hands on, which I really, really enjoy a lot and we work really well together and just get along really well together and have a lot of similar ideas when it comes to food and also quite a similar palate. We like the same things. So yeah, we do work together sometimes and it's really fun.
Suzy Chase: Now your Instagram. Everyone should follow you on Instagram. Is chock full of my travel and food goals.
Kat Odell: Thank you.
Suzy Chase: Now, you guys are living in Dubai, right?
Kat Odell: Yeah. Technically, Dubai is our primary residence right now. We left the US back in August, but we're sort of bouncing all around, so there's a project in Dubai, there's a project in Hong Kong, and then a few more things coming up, so we're kind of homeless. We're free-basing it, is what I say. We're just like all over the place.
Suzy Chase: And you were just at Noma. Tell me about the Noma game menu?
Kat Odell: You know what, I've been to Noma a number of times and I think this was actually my favorite menu I've had so far. I like to look at Noma, more than anything else, as a culinary research facility that serves food, because it's so much more than a restaurant and René is really pioneering technique in fermentation and plant-feeding, different ways of plating, obviously, foraged ingredients. And I found this menu, in particular, I can understand why people say it's challenging, because the first course you get is a soup that has squirrel in it, right? When have you ever had squirrel? Toward the end of the meal you're eating duck brains out of the head of a duck and you're eating sort of this fried cube, this fried duck wing of sorts, but I'm pretty open-minded when it comes to food and dining, so it was fine. But I can understand for some other people that are a little bit more trepidatious about dining and certain ingredients that it could be a little bit more challenging, but it was delicious. I absolutely loved it. It was really wonderful.
Suzy Chase: Was that a real beetle that you ate? I saw a huge-
Kat Odell: Oh, so. Oh, so, so, it's not. It tastes kind of like ... It was made from more of like a fruit leather, but I thought when they dropped that course, I thought it was a real beetle, but when you look closely, it's not. But you know what, I can't even imagine how long it took for them to prepare that course.
Suzy Chase: I mean, it looked like a real beetle.
Kat Odell: Oh, totally, it looked like a real beetle. I was really impressed with that.
Suzy Chase: What was your favorite course?
Kat Odell: So there was a course where ... They had a lot of really good courses. They made this really beautiful feather that was out of truffle that was really, really nice. Honestly, the brain course was actually really delicious. Oh, so one of the first sort of sequences was a reindeer sequence and they had three or four different preparations of reindeer meat. That was really delicious. I liked that a lot.
Suzy Chase: Now to my segment called My Last Meal. If you had to place an order for your last supper, what would it be?
Kat Odell: It would be my grandmother's chicken soup. It's the most delicious chicken soup I've ever had in my life and it's something that as a kid I ate almost every day. She's an amazing cook and she would always say to me growing up, "Don't you want something else? Can I at least make you chicken soup?" And every day for years, she would make me just a very simple chicken soup. Sometimes they would have wild mushrooms that she would bring from the Czech Republic. There's like tweaks. But I wanted chicken soup every single day and it's still my favorite dish ever.
Suzy Chase: Where can we find you on the web and social media?
Kat Odell: So I am @Kat K-A-T underscore Odell O-D-E-L-L. And my byline is just Kat Odell.
Suzy Chase: You're always so fun to chat with. I cannot thank you enough for coming on Cookery by the Book podcast.
Kat Odell: Thank you. This was awesome. Thank you so much for having me.
Suzy Chase: Follow me on Instagram @cookerybythebook. Twitter's IAmSuzyChase. And download your Kitchen Mix Tapes: Music To Cook By on Spotify at Cookery by the Book and, as always, subscribe at Apple Podcasts.