I’ve been a huge fan of Valli and the team at Delicious Magazine for years and was thrilled when the opportunity arose to interview Valli herself about her gorgeous new cookbook, Feel Good Food.
I fell instantly in love with this book – it’s filled with 180 gorgeous recipes shot by Jeremy Simons and noted food stylist David Morgan that are focused on living and eating well. Valli’s passion to make you feel good about the food you eat is evident from the get-go. These recipes are all simple to prepare and use accessible ingredients (there’s no unpronounceable, hard-to-find or expensive ingredients here!).
There’s currently a huge push towards cooking and eating food that nourishes and sustains, and this book suits my eternal quest to find balance between an indulgent and healthy lifestyle. Plus there’s loads of tips on essential pantry ingredients and cooking methods, so you’ll have no excuse but to whip up something fab whether you’re grabbing breakfast on the run or entertaining a crowd.
When we spoke, Valli said she wanted people to look at her recipes in Feel Good Food and think “wow that looks delicious, I’d like to cook that for dinner” not “oh that looks healthy”. This book isn’t about fads or diets – it’s just about fabulous food that is good for you!
Interview with Valli Little
Hi Valli, you’ve been the food director of Delicious magazine and released 10 acclaimed cookbooks during your lengthy career. Could you tell the readers a bit about how you got your foot in the door of the food industry?
I was brought up in food, my parents had a restaurant in the UK, so from a very young age, food was a passion. When I left school I went to Cordon Bleu in London and did their 1 year training course. I worked as a caterer in London for quite a while, then I came to Australia on a working holiday for 6 months. It was the late 70s, and when I got here, I got the biggest shock, because the food was pretty dire. The ingredients I had been used to shopping for in London were few and far between. You would get cheese in a tin!
So I battled on for a while, but I have to say it wasn’t easy. But what happened was the start of this amazing food revolution that started in the early 80s in Australia. It was exciting to see what was happening. I wanted to be part of that.
I met a nice Australia man and got married and we opened a gourmet food shop called Gastronomes. It was one of the first big, innovative food stores in Australia and it was very successful. We had that for about 8 years but I had to have several back operations and I ended up having to lie on a surfboard on my bed for weeks at a time to get over it.
During my recovery time I started writing recipes and sending them in to magazines and editors. Once I got better from my surgery, I started testing recipes for magazines and cooking food for photography. One day I got a call from Jody Vassallo, who was the food director of Murdoch Books and she asked me to work with a chef on his first cookbook. It was Bill Granger. So that was sort of my first big break into publishing!
Then Neale Whitaker, who was the editor of Marie Claire magazine, said that ABC wanted to start a new food magazine and he thought I’d be a great food editor. He asked “do you want to come onboard?” And I said yes! And that was 14 years ago. Because of my health issues last year, I stepped back from my role as food director and I am now the senior contributing editor, so I still write my own monthly features and do lots of travel features for them.
Feel Good Food is all about eating and living well. What prompted you to release a healthy cookbook?
Well I’ve published 10 cookbooks, and they’ve all had a different slant to them. Last year I was diagnosed with bowel cancer and I had to have radiotherapy, chemotherapy and surgery. Working as a food editor has amazing perks, there’s a lot of eating and a lot of drinking and a lot of having fun. And this really was my wakeup call. To rethink everything.
I’ll never be a “healthy cook” per se, but I just started to rethink how I was cooking, products I was using and redefine my diet. So to me, it was important to share this with everyone. I tried to avoid refined sugars, I used lots of healthy vegetables and greens, just sort of taking a different approach to how you cook.
There is a huge pressure for us to eat clean and a never ending stream of fad diets flooding the media. How is your book different/challenging this unrealistic approach?
I want people to look at my recipes in this book and think “wow that looks delicious, I’d like to cook that for dinner” not “oh that looks healthy”. My recipes are always about keeping it relatively simple, but producing something really delicious. It’s not a diet book by any means, but I have tried to give things a twist. So for example, I have made a green smoothie soup.
Do you think this cookbook is a reflection of the way we are collectively heading in our approach to cooking and eating?
Absolutely. Just from the magazine’s perspective, that’s the sort of requests we are getting from our readers all the time. And I think it’s fantastic that there’s now this global awareness to be conscious of where your food comes from, what you’re doing with it and what you’re cooking and eating. People are now asking questions, which they’ve never done before, so it’s really important to understand about healthy eating and where the food is from.
And what do you think the upcoming trends in food are? Whether it be a food, cooking technique, ethnic cuisine etc….
It’s so hard, people ask me all the time! There’s a lot of talk about South American food and what’s happening down there, and I think we will definitely be looking toward those sorts of flavour. I love the strong South American flavours.
I also think all these fresh food delivery services are great, and that’s a big trend right now. For busy, working people, you can order all the ingredients for a great healthy meal, and all you have to do is put it together. And there’s no waste (which is another big issue right now, food wastage).
A lot of healthy recipes call for long lists of unpronounceable, hard to find ingredients – were you conscious of creating easy and accessible recipes in Feel Good Food?
Definitely, I am very conscious when I write a recipe to make sure the ingredients are accessible and obviously fresh produce is primary. I like to go to the farmer markets on the weekends and buy it when I can. There’s a lot of things with crazy names out there and I think it scares people off. I am all about keeping it simple, but delicious.
Just say you’ve got a group of friends coming over for dinner, what showstopper dessert would you make them from this book?
There’s lot cakes in this book, there’s a gluten free raspberry cake which is a pretty spectacular dessert. One of my favourite recipes from the book are little walnut tarts, they have gluten free pastry and a walnut filling with maple syrup.
There are also some ice creams in there as well. Stracciatella is an Italian ice cream that has chocolate, orange rind and nuts in it. So I’ve made a coconut-based ice cream and then added cocoa nibs, french orange rind and some toasted nuts and that’s pretty yummy too.
It’s so easy to make easy, healthy desserts. For example the pears at the moment are beautiful, and all you need to do is poach them with some coconut sugar or maple syrup, some vanilla and cinnamon and I think it’s the most gorgeous and simple dessert. And you can have leftovers for breakfast the next day!
How many times do you test a recipe before you’re confident enough to put it in one of your books?
The process is reasonably drawn out. I usually put pen to paper and write recipes in batches, and then I will test them over a week, the ones that I am really happy with I’ll put to one side, and then retest again. The ones I am not happy with I’ll go back to the drawing board. Each recipe is tested 3 times before we even get to the photography stage, where it’s tested again.
Where do you get inspiration from for your recipes? After releasing 10 cookbooks you’re still dreaming up amazing things!
When I finish writing a book, I’m completely brain dead! There’s literally not one recipe left in me, and I need to recharge my batteries. During the Christmas period I usually unwind a bit. I read and research all the time, I eat out a lot, I travel a lot. I’m continually inspired and even though there’s nothing really knew, there’s always something to learn.
Today I was reading Nopi (by Yotam Ottolenghi) and he baked a whole celeriac and it was such a simple thing to do, but so so gorgeous. And I know that will stick in the back of my mind and I’ll do something inspired by it down the track.
And lastly, what’s your number 1 tip for readers looking to adapt a healthier lifestyle?
Can I have more than 1?! I think keeping some sort of a food diary is a really good thing to do. I started doing that at the beginning of my healthy journey last year, and it’s really interesting. I was quite shocked, really, at the quantity of the food I was eating that I didn’t need.
And secondly, be conscious of where your food is coming from. To me, the most amazing experience is to go to Eveleigh markets (in Redfern, Sydney) and talk to the farmers, hear their stories and get their tips and tricks on what to do with your produce. And to me, that makes you want to eat healthy.
I can’t wait to cook basically everything in this book, and the good news is, you have a chance to as well! The lovely folks at ABC Books have given me 5 copies (RRP $39.99) to give away, enter below now.
Good luck everyone. And remember, food is life. So make it delicious!