Food is about so much more than nutrition—it’s one of the most personal expressions of our cultures, values, and traditions. Our new series, Behind the Recipe, profiles a different healthy cook every month to explore the personal, untold stories of their favorite dishes. This month, health coach Haile Thomas shares how her father's health inspired her entire family to eat differently—and changed her life in the process.
Growing up, eating food that was "healthy" wasn't really a priority for my family—we just ate what tasted good. My parents are Jamaican, so my mom would make a lot of traditional Jamaican food including red meat, white rice, green beans, and fish. Those foods were really the cornerstones of my childhood meals.
When I was 9, my dad was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes. That's when, as a whole family, we really started to think more about what we were eating. My mom, dad, little sister, and I all decided to go vegan as a way to cut back on meat and eat more plants. As you can imagine, this really changed what our meals looked like.
My mom has always been the culinary master in our house and I started cooking with her at a super young age, when I was 5. I started out just scrambling eggs, but I loved to be my mom's little helper in the kitchen, mixing ingredients together, and of course taste-testing. This continued once we shifted to a vegan diet. One favorite plant-based dinner we made together was lettuce wraps. We used to have it literally every week until we finally needed a break from it. Curry mushrooms with rice and peas and cornmeal porridge are other dishes we made that were huge hits with the whole family—particularly my dad.
By the time I was in 5th grade, I was experimenting in the kitchen on my own. By this time, we had actually completely reversed my dad's Type 2 diabetes—meaning that his blood glucose levels are stable without medication—just by changing what we ate. The power of that was inspiring to me, and I decided I wanted to share what I‘d learned with my peers. I spent a few years doing community cooking demos and talks around the country about health and wellness, which eventually led me to become a certified holistic health coach. I wanted to deepen my knowledge, so I enrolled in the Institute of Integrative Nutrition and graduated from the program when I was 16—their youngest graduate ever! (I'm 19 now.)
Having a health coach certification enables me to work one-on-one with people, but I‘ve always wanted to create a practical holistic wellness guide that could reach people all over the world, which is why I decided to write a book. Living Lively, which was published earlier this year, is full of healthy plant-based recipes and also talks about mindset, engaging in creativity, and community service, which are all parts of wellness, too. In the book I feature five women who are changing the world in major ways and have come to a place of self-love and empowerment in the process. My hope is that the book will bridge the gap between food and other parts of wellness such as these, because they're truly all connected.
One of my favorite recipes in the book is a creamy beet spaghetti with garlicky greens. I remember the very first time I made this dish. I was invited to do a restaurant takeover at The Organic Grill, a vegan restaurant in New York City's Lower East Side. I wanted to serve something that was both healthy and beautiful. I thought of beets because they're hot pink—so fun!
Beets are also a food my dad loves, so this dish quickly got his thumbs up when I was perfecting it at home before the event. But it was when it got my sister's approval that I knew it was really good, because she normally doesn't like beets but she loves this pasta dish. The beet pasta is topped with mushrooms and greens, which are mixed in a garlic and oregano sauce. I like adding pine nuts on mine for a beautiful finishing touch.
I hope people make this dish and see that eating healthy is the complete opposite of restrictive. It's so fun to experiment with different foods and this is just one example of that. I mean, what's more fun than pink pasta?
Creamy beet pasta with garlicky greens
Makes 4 servings
For the beet pasta and sauce:
2 large red beets, greens attached
1⁄2 cup olive oil, plus more for drizzling
Pinch of kosher salt
1 lb. gluten-free spaghetti
4 garlic cloves, peeled
1/2 cup raw slivered almonds
2 Tbsp red wine vinegar
1 Tbsp dried oregano
1 Tbsp dried parsley
For the mushrooms and greens:
1 Tbsp coconut oil
2 1⁄2 heaping cups sliced shiitake mushroom caps
1 cup sliced spinach
1 tsp kosher salt
2 tsp dried oregano
1 tsp garlic powder
1/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper
Pine nuts (optional)
1. To make the beet sauce: Preheat the oven to 400°F.
2. Cut the beet tops off and slice one cup of the greens for this recipe and reserve the rest for another delicious use. Peel the beets and roughly cut them into chunks. Place them on a sheet pan and drizzle with enough olive oil to lightly coat them. Roast for 35 to 40 minutes, turning halfway through with a spatula, until the beets are tender.
3. Meanwhile, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the pasta and cook until al dente.
4. In a food processor, combine the garlic and almonds and pulse until the almonds are a fine meal and the garlic is minced. Add the roasted beets, a half cup olive oil, vinegar, one teaspoon kosher salt, oregano, and parsley and pulse into a smooth sauce. Set aside.
5. To make the mushrooms and greens: In a medium skillet, heat the coconut oil over medium heat. Add the mushrooms and sauté until soft and juicy, about five minutes. Add the reserved sliced beet greens and the spinach and cook, stirring, for two to three minutes, ensuring the greens aren’t fully wilted. Season with the salt, oregano, garlic powder, and pepper and mix to combine. Cover and set aside over low heat.
6. Toss the pasta in the beet sauce and top with greens and mushrooms. Sprinkle with pine nuts (if using). Serve hot.
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