Down The Aisle:Alaina Sullivan

Senior Designer at Bon Appetit Interview and Images by Aimee Brodeur

While ego-less and nutrition-focused meals are not typically the most eye-catching, they do tend to be the ones that sustain us on a daily basis. Cooking, in general, has always been a balance between what makes me feel good and what is fun and enjoyable to make. When I discovered Alaina’s weekly-posted meals on Instagram, I instantly felt like I was being re-educated in how to make incredibly simple but highly nutritious meals, which slipped away for me over the years. Why was I overcomplicating things? I have continued to bookmark her images because her approach towards cooking and nutrition is intuitive, curious, and above all humble. Her work is an ongoing reminder that we can benefit from tuning out some of the cultural noise around the terms “health” and “wellness”, and instead learn to use our own bodies as a compass.

You have worked at Bon Appetit for a while, would you say that being a part of that environment has impacted the way you eat and cook for yourself?

It has definitely had an effect on me. I work on the layouts of the magazine, which means I get to spend a lot of time looking at the recipes. So it’s definitely inspiring.

With such an interesting list of ingredients in your meals, I’m curious as to where you stock up on all of your items. What are your go-to places in New York?

For fresh items and produce I like to mainly shop at my local Farmer’s Market, which is Fort Greene. I also stock up on poultry and fish there or at Greene Grape. I use Whole Foods for bulk items since there is one located so close to the World Trade Center, where I work. I also always used to go to Perelandra when I lived in closer to downtown Brooklyn. They have a chilled bulk room.I love the hippie health food stores. I am always drawn to them. One last spot that I get all my spices from is in the East Village called SOS Chefs

I equate this shop to the “Harry Potter wand shop” of spices. It is floor to ceiling walls of spices, and when you gravitate towards something, the owner will open them up for you to smell and will tell you all about them. She even makes her own vinegars. That place is a chef’s secret weapon. She will hunt down any spice you want. It’s a really special NYC place that is open to everyone.

How does what you buy at the grocery store reflect who you are and what is important to your health?

I shop like I cook and eat (and generally approach life): intuitively. I rarely go into a grocery store with a list or a plan, instead I like to slide through the aisles collecting what speaks to me in that moment. It might be something that sparks creativity, like an ingredient I’ve not explored enough, or a more visceral reaction to something my body wants to consume. Obviously, if I know I’m out of lemons, that’s going in my cart. But if I go in thinking I want radicchio, and it’s all wilty and sad, and instead there are gorgeous wild mushrooms, I’ll change my course. The ingredients are really driving the cart. I think that extends to my philosophy about health too… allowing myself to be flexible with it, and make space for things I maybe didn’t plan on. I fill my bags mostly with things that look like they came right out of the earth, and probably still have dirt on them. Seasonality hugely informs the way I shop and eat, as does where the food is grown. They go hand in hand. Being intentional about supporting local farmers, local bakeries and butchers, local small-batch condiment-makers – for the health of my local community.


“The ingredients are really driving the cart. I think that extends to my philosophy about health too… allowing myself to be flexible with it, and make space for things I maybe didn’t plan on.”

What spices do you find yourself consistently replenishing in your pantry?

Coriander, cumin, and fennel seeds. I will buy them whole and grind them up in my mortar and pestle. I make teas from them since they are so good for digestion. It’s definitely one of my favorite things to make. It’s a classic Ayurvedic digestive tea formula.

Has the way you cook changed over the last 5 years? How would you describe your style of cooking?

I cook simply but with a curiosity for the ingredients I use. I try to use ingredients in surprising ways. I don’t hold myself to the rules of particular dishes. My cooking has definitely changed in the last 5 years. I have had some health issues in the last few years that have affected my digestion, so I have become really in tune to how my body responds to different things. Since I was an athlete at a younger age, I was so used to eating whatever I wanted. Thinking about food in that way was never important to me, but now I have had to pay more attention to it. I don’t eat a lot of dairy anymore. Eating raw foods doesn’t work well for me either. I love vegetables but I can’t eat a lot of salads. Being aware of what’s in season has been an important factor in how I eat, like in spring when all the sprouts are coming up from the ground and your body starts to crave more fresh ingredients, or in summer when you can eat more raw items because you’re at peak digestive capacity. During fall you begin to turn more inward and want grounding foods and roots and squashes.

A lot of these changes seem rooted in Ayurvedic practices, and I know you mentioned Ayurvedic teas earlier. Is that where you get a lot of your inspiration and information from on cooking for yourself?

Yeah. Just to give you a little more background on that, I wasn’t getting a lot of answers from Western medicine, so I took on a more holistic approach and started seeing a Chinese holistic practitioner who also does acupuncture. She taught me how to look at my body in a whole new way that I could relate to, and from that awareness I became interested in a spectrum of natural healing modalities, including Ayurveda, which felt incredibly intuitive to me. It was all about balance. I remember after our first session together I was like, “Oh, I thought you were just going to tell me what was wrong with me and we could fix it quickly.” But it turns out it’s so much deeper and complex than a quick fix.

Health vs. over-hyped health. What do you think we are wasting our money and our time talking about. What are we not focused enough on?

I think it’s wonderful that people are much more conscious of their health and interested in using food as a means to support that, but I do think the language around health is delicate and sometimes dangerous when misused. Marketers certainly latch onto buzzwords, and consumers tend to fall into the trap. Even the word “healthy” kind of bugs me. Food is not inherently “healthy” or “unhealthy.” People are healthy. Food is healthful. Somebody might think, “Oh but, kale is so healthy.” Actually … kale isn’t healthy. It’s nutritious, and choosing to eat it will probably make you a healthier person, but it’s not “healthier” than butter. “All-Natural,” that’s another good one. Like, OF COURSE food should be all natural. C’mon people!


“Somewhere along the way we lost our plant knowledge and instead we allow companies and advertisers to do our thinking for us. And we’re just consuming a lot of expensive dusts instead of taking a moment to reconnect with nature.”

Also, when it comes to digestion … there’s an adage in Ayurveda that it’s not “you are what you eat,” rather ” you are what you digest.” You can be eating “healthful” things, but if you’re not digesting them, and assimilating their nutrients, you won’t necessarily be in good health.
There is a lot of hype around all of these “dusts” and powdered supplements that have claims to make your skin glow, or make your sex life better, or help your adrenals rebound from stress. And a lot of them do have great medicinal benefits, but I worry about people taking these claims face-value and using them recreationally over long periods of time without really digging into whether it’s best for their body.

In my opinion, we are not focused enough on herbs! There’s been a huge movement in the last few years towards holistic health and using plants to support that … I got into herbalism several years ago and am just in awe of how much plants can offer us in the way of supporting our health. Common, native plants, just growing in our backyards! Not rare mushrooms that only grow on a specific mountain range in the Himalaya, but things like marigolds (aka calendula), a super skin-healing flower probably growing in your garden already… or dandelion root, a pesky weed, but a great friend to our livers… or nettle leaf, which is basically one of nature’s multivitamins and one of my favorite plants. Somewhere along the way we lost our plant knowledge and instead we allow companies and advertisers to do our thinking for us. And we’re just consuming a lot of expensive dusts instead of taking a moment to reconnect with nature.


“I do think the language around health is delicate and sometimes dangerous when misused. Even the word ‘healthy’ kind of bugs me. Food is not inherently ‘healthy’ or ‘unhealthy.’ People are healthy. Food is healthful.”

When you do longer cycling rides, what types of food do you keep on hand, and what do you feel gives you the fuel you need to perform?

Basically, you need simple and digestible carbohydrates when you’re doing these long rides. You pretty much need to be eating the whole time. Before I ride- say for breakfast- I do a hearty oatmeal, or fats and proteins like eggs. But as I’m riding, I like to eat these bars that I make myself. It’s a raw bar. I add cacao and a bunch of seeds like pepitas, sunflower seeds, chia seeds, and hemp powder. Then I bind it together with coconut oil and dates. I make little nuggets or bars of them which I stuff into my pockets when I’m riding.

What ingredients are must-haves in your kitchen?

Lemons! If I don’t have them I feel lost. I love using Middle Eastern spice blends or Sumac as a finisher on top of vegetables.

Favorite items to splurge on?

Haha, I spend almost all of my money on food! I shell out for quality, especially when it comes to meat and fish. I’m definitely in the quality-over-quantity camp. It’s so worth it. Also a sucker for good olive oils, local honey, and Japanese matcha.

Most satisfying meal to make for yourself? What is so satisfying about it?

I feel most grounded when I make myself a bowl of roasted root vegetables, braised leafy greens, and legumes or grains with an herbal sauce… Maybe some crispy Maitake mushrooms and a poached egg on top. Variety and balance is most satisfying to me. Also, simple, warm food.


“Coriander, cumin, and fennel seeds. I will buy them whole and grind them up in my mortar and pestle. I make teas from them since they are so good for digestion.”

I am a fan of your oatmeal, which always seems to be evolving. Can you share some of your favorite variations on this classic breakfast?

I start with regular rolled oats. I like Maine Grains. Sometimes I will soak them overnight, but sometimes I will forget. I always prefer them warm. Often I will use part water, part nut milk (or coconut milk) to give them creaminess. Then I put in a bunch of ground spices- usually warming spices like cinnamon, ginger, and cardamom, while it’s cooking on the stove. One fun variation was to cook the oats in Chai tea. Lastly I throw in a couple dates to give it some natural sweetness.

I’ve seen people asking this, and I’m going to ask it so it’s on the record: So when does your cookbook drop?

Ha… It’s certainly something that’s been on my mind for a long time, I have lots of ideas brewing and when I figure out what direction to take it, I’ll flesh something out. It’ll be a big project, because naturally I’ll want to write, shoot and design it, so I’d say give me a few years. (laughing)

Bee Pollen… What do you love about and why should we use it?

Well first, I think bees are the most amazing creatures and the products they make are among the most miraculous. Bee pollen no exception. It’s actually the food of young bees. I consider it like a food vitamin, used very sparingly, as it takes a single bee something like a whole month – working eight hours a day – to gather a teaspoon of pollen. Respect the bees, this is stuff is gold, and also not cheap. It’s rich in nutrients like amino acids and B-vitamins and protein. I’ve grown fond of its floral, almost nutty sweetness, sprinkling it like fairy dust over yogurt or oatmeal or smoothies, or on toast with nut butter and fruit. It’s a great garnish. I like to put it in my homemade energy bars sometimes too for extra buzz.

Recipe Recipe

Recipe:

Alaina Sullivan’s Adventure Bread

This recipe is inspired by a bread I had at The Mill, a wonderful bakery and coffee shop in San Francisco. I loved the name - Adventure Bread - like it's made for being thrown in a backpack and schlepped across streams and up mountains, and surely the density of nuts and seeds will sustain you for many miles. In fact, I once bought a loaf to take on a multi-day bike ride in Northern California, stashing slices slathered with jam and nut butter in my pockets to fuel the long days in the saddle. This is my version, and it has become a staple source of energy for hikes, bikes, or long days at the computer. It's kind of like granola-as-bread, and also happens to be gluten free - provided you use GF oats. Psyllium husk provides the binding mechanism in lieu of gluten, and can be found at health food stores or online. It's a very forgiving recipe, and suited to experimentation with different seeds-nut combos, as well as variable add-ins like spices and dried fruit. Go wild. It is especially good toasted with a little butter or ghee and a drizzle of honey.

Ingredients:

  • DRY:
  • 2 1/4 c GF rolled oats
  • 1 c raw sunflower seeds
  • 1/2 c raw pumpkin seeds
  • 1/2 c raw almonds
  • 1/2 c hemp seed
  • 1/4 c sesame seed
  • 1/4 c chia seed
  • 1/3 cup psyllium seed husks
  • 2 teaspoons fine sea salt
  • 1 tsp ground coriander
  • 1/4 c dried mulberries (optional, but delicious)
  • Nigella seeds, for sprinkling on top
  • WET:
  • 2 tablespoons maple syrup
  • 1 tsp honey
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 2 1/2 cups water
  • Heat your oven to 350F. Toast sunflower and pumpkin seeds for 10 minutes or so until golden. In a separate tray roast the almonds (they may take a little longer). Let seeds and nuts cool.
  • In a food processor, pulse the sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, and almonds together But not too much. You want it pretty course, and there should be rough pieces of almonds (we're not making meal here). Transfer mixture to a large bowl with the oats, hemp seed, sesame, chia, psyllium husk and salt. Add about 1 tsp ground coriander (I like to grind mine fresh in a mortar and pestle) and the dried mulberries if you like (they add little pops of sweetness throughout) and toss mixture with your hands to combine. Pour the wet ingredients over the dry and massage it with your hands until everything is moist.
  • Spread batter into an oiled loaf pan. Smooth out the top so it looks nice, then sprinkle nigella seeds over the top and press them into the surface. (You could also use sesame or flaxseed here or a blend.) Cover the pan with a towel and let the loaf rest for several hours (or overnight) in the refrigerator. (This part is essential.)
  • When you are ready to bake, take the loaf pan out of the fridge and bring it to room temp for about an hour. Preheat oven to 400F and bake the loaf for about an hour, until the edges are beginning to brown, and the bottom sounds hollow when tapped.
  • Removed the loaf from the pan and let it cool on a rack for at least two hours. (This part is also important. Patience! It will smell amazing but don't rush!) Slice, toast, and enjoy simple naked or with your favorite toppings.
  • Note : The bread doesn't have to be refrigerated, but doing so will extend it's life after a few days.
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