Healthy, plant-based recipes for summer from Plant Magic

Vancouver-based dietitian Desiree Nielsen on bringing a bit of magic to our everyday lives

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Our cookbook of the week is Plant Magic by Vancouver-based dietitian Desiree Nielsen.

Jump to the recipes: cumin lime black bean burgers, herby potato salad with grainy mustard vinaigrette and grilled pineapple with toasted coconut.

There’s so much noise about diet and nutrition. Social media only seems to make it noisier, whether it’s “Oatzempic” — oats blended with lime juice, for the uninitiated — or the supposedly immune-boosting “swamp soup.” Amid the cacophony, the ethos of Vancouver-based author and registered dietitian Desiree Nielsen‘s fourth book, Plant Magic, is refreshingly reasonable.

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“My opinions are not very viral, so you feel like you’re whispering into a void. It’s like, ‘Hey guys, it’s OK. Just eat some kale, and everything will be fine. Enjoy potato chips, too,’” says Nielsen, laughing.

According to an April 2024 study by MyFitnessPal and Dublin City University, only 2.1 per cent of TikTok diet and nutrition trends are accurate. Yet, 57 per cent of millennials and Gen Zers said they’re influenced by or frequently adopt trends they see on the platform, and 67 per cent of them adopt at least one trend a few times a week.

Nielsen underscores that there’s “infinite potential” in the internet, especially for people without access to nutrition and general medical care. The challenge is there’s so much information that no one is fact-checking it. Algorithms determine how content is ranked. Whether we engage with it or not can depend on the creators’ ability to get our attention in a few seconds.

“The people who are best at doing that, and the messages that resonate the most in that kind of environment, utterly lack nuance, and they’re even stronger when they’re novel — and good nutrition is not novel.”

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Plant Magic book cover
Plant Magic is Vancouver-based dietitian Desiree Nielsen’s fourth book. Photo by Penguin Canada

As Nielsen highlights in Plant Magic, there are few absolutes in nutrition. As unique as our needs are, she says they can be distilled to a handful of words: Drink lots of water and eat as many whole plant foods as possible. “This is boring advice in reality, but that is the juice. The quiet, consistent, showing up and simply trying to eat a little better, eat a few more plants, is actually what moves the needle. It’s not eschewing oatmeal because someone told you that your blood sugar is going to spike, and boy, doesn’t that sound dangerous?”

Amid the deluge of wellness messaging, online and otherwise, taking care of yourself can feel out of reach. For her part, Nielsen believes that it should be achievable. In her book, as in her practice as a registered dietitian, she puts evidence-based advice in people’s hands. “It’s really about accessibility, pleasure and joy — and encouraging people to exhale around their nutrition.”

Growing up in Kitimat on B.C.’s north coast, Nielsen was raised by a single parent. Her grandparents, who emigrated from Portugal in the 1950s, provided child care and support, and she saw them grow and fish their own food and cook from scratch. For Nielsen, a love of food, health and science was there from the beginning — an appreciation for cooking came later.

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When Nielsen became a vegetarian as a teenager (she went vegan in her mid-30s), she asked questions about diet for the first time: Why do we choose to eat a certain way, and what does it mean for our health? Without access to the internet, she went to the bookstore to find answers. Most authors in the health and nutrition aisles at that time were doctors.

“I didn’t even know what a dietitian was. But I was so inspired by the idea that changing how you eat could change how you feel and ultimately help you prevent many of the chronic diseases that were on the rise in the ’90s and now continue. So, that’s what I wanted to do. It was also Oprah time, and Oprah was starting to have these nutrition and wellness gurus on her show, for better or for worse. So, that cemented. I was like, ‘This inspires me so much, and I want to help. I want to write a nutrition book that helps people take their health into their own hands and feel good.’”

As a teenager, Nielsen dreamed of writing a bestselling nutrition book. She achieved her goal three times over with Plant Magic, the IACP Cookbook Award-winning Good for Your Gut (2022) and Eat More Plants (2019).

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It’s really about accessibility, pleasure and joy — and encouraging people to exhale around their nutrition.

Nielsen practices “positive nutrition” (a.k.a. additive or gentle nutrition), focusing on what you’re including in your diet rather than eliminating. One of the book’s gentle messages is “pattern over plate.” As Nielsen explains, “No one food, ingredient or meal has the power to make or break your health. Instead, it is the overall pattern of how you eat over weeks, months and years that moves the dial.”

While Eat More Plants focused on chronic inflammation, and Good for Your Gut centred on digestive disease (Nielsen’s two core clinical areas of expertise), she wrote Plant Magic “for the rest of us.” She started providing recipes early in her practice as a registered dietitian, understanding that counselling people to make food choices only got them part of the way. They still needed to figure out how to turn that information into a Tuesday night dinner.

Nielsen highlights that Plant Magic is her most personal set of recipes, mainly because she worked within therapeutic nutritional parameters for her other two cookbooks. Here, she cooked whatever she wanted, tapping into her Portuguese roots and international travels. One of her main goals with the collection was to drive home that “healthy” plant-based foods can and should be deeply flavourful.

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“I want to address this idea that plant-based or vegan food is somehow lacking in any way: lacking in texture, lacking in flavour or lacking in even visual interest. Because I want to show people that plant-based eating is not just for plant-based people. If you ate oatmeal with some berries this morning, that is inherently a plant-based meal. So, I want to help blast this mindset that plant-based eating is only for plant-based folks. Everyone can enjoy eating this way and feel great eating it, too.”

Nielsen approached Plant Magic’s more than 100 recipes and essays — including one-pot (or pan) meals and dishes for sharing and snacking — with general health in mind. “(I thought) maybe I can just say, ‘This is what a healthy life looks like to me.’ It’s lots of whole foods. It’s also sometimes just a cake with white flour and real sugar. And use this cookbook to quiet the noise and help reassure people that they don’t need to overthink it. They can trust themselves, put more plants on their plate, and sometimes have some chips or cookies. That’s part of a healthy life and part of a healthy relationship with food. It’s not that you have a healthy life in spite of those things.”

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Cumin lime black bean burgers
Desiree Nielsen is “firmly committed to burgers that are weeknight doable.” Case in point: these cumin lime black bean burgers. Photo by Gabriel Cabrera

Makes: 6 patties

Gluten-free option | Nut-free | Vegan

1 cup (250 mL) packed fresh cilantro leaves and tender stems
1/2 medium yellow onion, roughly chopped
1/2 cup (125 mL) gluten-free old-fashioned rolled oats
4 cloves garlic
2 cans (14 oz/398 mL each) black beans, rinsed and drained
1/4 cup (60 mL) ground flaxseed
2 tsp (10 mL) ground cumin
1 tsp (5 mL) onion powder
1 tsp (5 mL) salt
1/2 tsp (2 mL) garlic powder
1/2 tsp (2 mL) ground coriander
Juice of 1 lime (about 2 tbsp (30 mL)
1 tbsp (15 mL) extra-virgin olive or avocado oil, plus more for cooking

For serving:
Hamburger buns, whole-grain or gluten-free
Vegan mayonnaise
Sliced or smashed avocado
Pickled red onions
Spicy Cilantro Garlic Sauce (recipe follows)

Step 1

In a food processor, combine the cilantro, onions, rolled oats and garlic and pulse until finely chopped. Add the black beans, flaxseed, cumin, onion powder, salt, garlic powder, coriander, lime juice and olive oil. Pulse 6 to 8 times until about half the mixture resembles a paste, but you can still see plenty of texture. Be careful not to purée the whole mixture or the burgers will not stick together.

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Step 2

Heat a large non-stick skillet over medium heat. Scoop a generous 1/3 cup (75 mL) of the bean mixture and flatten it into a patty in the pan to 3/4 inch (2 cm) thick and 3 to 4 inches (8 to 10 cm) wide. Cook, in batches if needed, until a brown crust forms on the bottom, 4 to 5 minutes. If browning too fast, reduce the heat so the burgers have time to cook through without burning on the bottom. Carefully flip and cook for another 4 to 5 minutes until brown on the other side. (You can freeze uncooked patties, stored between layers of parchment paper in a resealable plastic freezer bag, for up to 1 month. Cook from frozen, until cooked through and golden brown, 7 to 8 minutes per side.)

Step 3

To serve, slice open the buns and spread some mayonnaise on the bottom half of each and top with a patty, sliced or smashed avocado and pickled red onions. Spread some of the spicy cilantro garlic sauce on each of the bun tops, then arrange them on top of the pickled red onions.

Swaps + Stuff: For a gluten-free version, use gluten-free buns.


Makes: about 1 cup (250 mL)

Gluten-free | Nut-free | Vegan

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2 cups (500 mL) firmly packed fresh cilantro leaves and tender stems
2 cloves garlic
1/2 to 1 jalapeño pepper, depending on desired heat, roughly chopped
Juice of 1 lime
2 tbsp (30 mL) extra-virgin olive or avocado oil
1 tbsp (15 mL) apple cider vinegar
1/2 tsp (2 mL) salt

Step 1

In a food processor, combine the cilantro, garlic, jalapeño, lime juice, olive oil, apple cider vinegar and salt. Pulse until the mixture looks like a loose pesto. Taste and adjust the salt if needed. (I usually add another pinch or so.) Store in an airtight container in the fridge for up to 5 days.


Herby potato salad with grainy mustard vinaigrette
Desiree Nielsen likes to serve this herby potato salad with grainy mustard vinaigrette alongside her cumin black bean burgers. Photo by Gabriel Cabrera

Serves: 6 as a side

Gluten-free | Low-FODMAP | Nut-free | Vegan

Herby potato salad:
2 lb (900 g) baby potatoes, halved or quartered
1 can (14 oz/398 mL) lentils, rinsed and drained well
1 cup (250 mL) lightly packed fresh curly parsley leaves and tender stems, chopped
1/2 cup (125 mL) lightly packed fresh basil leaves, thinly sliced
1/4 cup (60 mL) lightly packed fresh dill, chopped

Grainy mustard vinaigrette:
1/4 cup (60 mL) freshly squeezed lemon juice
1/4 cup (60 mL) extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 cup (60 mL) lightly packed thinly sliced green onions (green part only)
2 tbsp (30 mL) grainy mustard
1 tbsp (15 mL) capers with brine
1/2 tsp (2 mL) salt
1/2 tsp (2 mL) cane sugar
Freshly cracked black pepper

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Step 1

Boil the potatoes: Place the potatoes in a medium pot and cover with salted water. Bring to a boil over high heat and cook until fork-tender but not too soft, 10 to 15 minutes. Drain and rinse well under cold running water. Set aside.

Step 2

Meanwhile, make the grainy mustard vinaigrette: In a small blender or using a wide-mouth blending cup with a handheld immersion blender, combine the lemon juice, olive oil and green onions. Blend until the green onions are liquefied. Add the mustard, capers, salt, sugar and pepper to taste and whisk to combine.

Step 3

Assemble the salad: In a large salad bowl, combine the cooked potatoes, lentils, parsley, basil and dill. Add the grainy mustard vinaigrette and toss to combine. Serve at room temperature or chilled. Store leftovers in an airtight container in the fridge for up to 3 days.


Grilled pineapple with toasted coconut
“I feel like such a dietitian when I say that fruit is the ultimate dessert, but I don’t think we appreciate what a treat it can be in all its fragrant, sweet and juicy decadence,” Desiree Nielsen says of her grilled pineapple with toasted coconut. Photo by Gabriel Cabrera

Serves: 4

Gluten-free | Low-FODMAP | Nut-free | Vegan

1/4 cup (60 mL) unsweetened shredded coconut
1 ripe pineapple
2 tbsp (30 mL) avocado oil
2 tbsp (30 mL) brown sugar
1/2 tsp (2 mL) cinnamon
Pinch of salt
Dairy-free vanilla or coconut-flavoured ice cream, for serving (optional)

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Step 1

Preheat a grill to medium-high heat (500F/260C). Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

Step 2

Toast the coconut: Heat a small, dry skillet over medium-low heat. Toss in the coconut and toast, stirring constantly, until golden brown, 2 to 3 minutes. Remove from the heat and transfer the coconut to a small bowl.

Step 3

Prepare the pineapple: Trim the ends of the pineapple and cut away the peel and core. Cut the pineapple in half lengthwise, then cut each half crosswise into 1/2-inch (1 cm) slices. Place the pineapple on the prepared baking sheet.

Step 4

In a small bowl, stir together the avocado oil, brown sugar, cinnamon and salt. Brush both sides of the pineapple slices with the sugar mixture.

Step 5

Grill the pineapple: Place the pineapple slices on the hot grill, close the lid and grill until golden grill marks appear, 3 to 5 minutes per side.

Step 6

Serve the grilled pineapple topped with toasted coconut and a small scoop of ice cream, if desired. Store leftovers, with the coconut, in an airtight container in the fridge for up to 3 days.

Swaps + Stuff: 1 cup (250 mL) of pineapple is a low-FODMAP serving.

Recipes and images excerpted from Plant Magic by Desiree Nielsen. Copyright ©2024 Desiree Nielsen. Photography and illustrations by Gabriel Cabrera. Published by Penguin, an imprint of Penguin Canada, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.

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