Meat-Free Week is back for 2015 and I speak to ambassador and MasterChef alum Renae Smith about Veganism, her travels in India and her fabulous Tomato Tart. Photographs by Nicholas Rider.
Renae Smith leans over the granite bench top in her kitchen trying to fix the dial on her Thermomix. It’s Monday afternoon and we’re making a vegan almond cream which will act as a base for some vegan tomato tarts she is putting together. “This is why the digital ones are annoying,” she says and twists the silver knob to slow the blades. “[MasterChef] makes you need a Thermomix,” says Renae, “How could I ever live without one? They’re pretty good but you don’t need one.” Upon buying her machine, fellow MasterChef 2014 alum, Colin Sheppard sent her a picture of a pot and a stick blender. “He’s like, yeah Thermomix, and I saved myself two grand.” Despite his joke, Renae tells me it does help to have a Thermomix in her kitchen, and on busy weeknights she can pop in a few veggies and some stock and have a delicious soup on the table in no time.
“It’s not a clinical faceless country. It’s filthy and it’s depressing sometimes and it’s hard, but at the end of it you leave and you’ve experienced something.”
An Indian Insight
Renae tells me she has already emailed through a copy of the tart recipe. I’m quite surprised considering she has only just arrived from an eight hour plane journey the morning before. On her second visit, Renae returned to India with fellow Master Chef Emelia Jackson. “For the other MasterChef [contestants], going to India is a real struggle. Emelia especially struggles. She gets sick every time. She struggles with the food and she struggles with the poverty.”
Having visited India previously, Renae was keen to see how the locals lived and cooked. “I would write a Facebook post and say, ‘Who wants me to come for dinner?’ So I met lots of different people.” On her dinner visits, she noticed something incredible about the generosity of her hosts. “I’d go to people’s places and get fed more than I probably think they eat in a week.”
Life on the noisy, crowded and unfinished streets of cities like Mumbai helped Renae realise an important lesson. “There’s so many people who are struggling just day to day, but they have this passion for whatever it is they are doing. If they are selling nuts in newspapers they seem happy still. It taught me a lot because we whinge about everything here like, ‘Oh my god I have to catch the train,’ whereas you don’t have to work for fourteen hours selling nuts in a cone, but this guy is happy and smiling. It taught me to be much more grateful for what we have.” Renae has also learnt there’s no need to be miserable about things. She says, “There’s always someone who’s doing it worse off than you, in fact they’re probably happier than you. It’s made me a much more humble person.” She would like to take her two daughters, Kyah and Paris, to India on her next trips. “My children are very humble as it is, but I think it’s so nice to see people with nothing being happy, but also being incredibly generous.” It’s a beautiful country.
“When I got to Singapore and I walked around for a day, It made me realise how boring Singapore is compared to India. In India there is always this energy that I can’t describe. Even when we landed from Bangalore back into Mumbai, I saw all the slum fires and kind of got this,” she shudders, “I don’t know, it seemed to fit me very well. It’s not a clinical faceless country. It’s filthy and it’s depressing sometimes and it’s hard, but at the end of it you leave and you’ve experienced something. You haven’t just laid on a tropical island resort. You take things from India that you’ll never forget.”
“It’s not someone with a rainbow shoving Veganism in your face. It’s a casual ease into trying vegetarian food.”
Life without meat
Upon her return Renae immediately resumed her role as founder of The Atticism, a brand development agency she established in 2012. In addition to the Atticism, Renae is an ambassador for Meat-Free Week, a global annual challenge encouraging people to try vegetarianism for one week, while thinking about animal cruelty as a result of factory farming, and the harmful impacts too much meat has upon your health.
Co-founder Lainie Bracher says she was inspired to put the skills she gathered throughout her career to helping the animals mistreated through factory farming after watching the 4 Corners special ‘A Bloody Business’(2011). She teamed up with media publisher Melissa Hobbs creating Meat-Free Week. 2015 marks the establishment of a UK chapter with further plans to spread the Meat-Free Week message across the world.
Renae was invited to submit recipes for the program, but as a passionate vegan, Renae told them she would also like to be involved in any way she could. As an ambassador Renae will speak about the program whenever she can and is happy to provide her support on the website.
Renae tells me she convinced fellow MasterChef contestant Byron Finnerty to come on board with the program. He approached her asking for a movie he should watch one day. She suggested Earthlings(2005), a film about the suffering of animals for food, fashion, pets, medical research and entertainment. “It’s all about the wastage and how bad it is for the environment and how many animals die. It’s full-on! I was being a little sneaky, but he watched it and at the end he said, ‘Okay, so I’m not eating meat anymore.” Finery chooses to avid meat on weekdays. Witnessing this reaction inspired Renae to consider using the film for educational purposes.
“I realise that being a vegetarian is not for everyone. But that’s what I like about Meat-Free Week. Just try it for a week then maybe implement it one or two nights a week. It’s not confronting. It’s not someone with a rainbow shoving Veganism in your face. It’s a casual ease into trying vegetarian food.”
“What’s some things that I always have in the cupboard?”
How to cook like a vegan
Maxwell, Renae’s four-month-old purebred Devon Rex watches us from the staircase that leads into the kitchen. His aquamarine eyes are fixed to the tarts and he purrs to let us know he’s interested. A bowl of Wiskas sits forgotten in the corner. Renae has just finished the almond cream for the tarts and spreads the textured paste onto squares of puff pastry. She has used sunflower seeds in addition to the soaked almonds, a technique she picked up on her travels through India. A woman she met blends batches of organic baby food including a fava bean and strawberry mash, and hummus made from sunflower seeds instead of chickpeas. The nuts provide a great source of protein. Renae says, “A lot of people would not think of using it that way but it gives a creaminess without having to use any dairy.”
She tops each tart with a row of halved asparagus batons, and places a quartered roast tomato on top. “I hope the skin gets a little black as they bake,” she says with a gleam in her eye. “I’m not going to waste the juices,” she says, brushing the oil around the corners of the tart, before placing the tray in the oven.
Renae developed the recipe for the tarts over the weekend and was determined to keep it simple. “It’s just something that I make for the kids when they come home from school. I though I’d do something that would be super simple because we are trying to encourage people to give [Veganism] a go, it’s easy.”
“I thought, ‘What’s some things that I always have in the cupboard?’ Tomatoes and asparagus are quite easy to get at this time of year.” Of course most families with busy schedules are looking for a fuss-free meal. Renae says, “This is a recipe basically using puff pastry sheets, which is easy and can be changed to sweet or savoury. A lot of people think puff pastry has to have butter in it. It doesn’t, the shop-brought puff pastry usually has olive oil. You could use mushroom and rosemary. You could use whatever you want.”
Renae says the best thing about this tart is that you can be creative with it. A fun and easy dinner she shared with her two flatmates and kids involved laying various ingredients on the kitchen counter. Everyone was given a square of puff pastry to put what they wanted on it. A quick bake and everyone ended up with their own personal pizza.
As she pops them into the oven, Renae snaps her fingers realising that she has forgotten something. “Caramelised Balsamic. It will go nicely with this.” She pours balsamic into a small frying pan and pops in some spoonfuls of brown sugar, cooking the syrup until it forms a glaze. Pan in one hand and tablespoon in the other, Renae stands above the plate and drizzles the sticky acidic sauce on the tarts, then places a basil leaf in the corner.
It was so cool to be able to speak to Renae and she has kindly shared the recipe for her delicious tomato tarts which will be online tomorrow. Meat-Free Week officially kicks off today. For more info and to go meat-free yourself head to meatfreeweek.org.
Happy Cooking and Keep Smiling,