Deliciously Ella is on a mission to make plant-based food more appealing
Bolgger, and plant-based deli-chain owner Ella Mills tells Ella Walker about being misinterpreted, and encouraging people to eat their greens
VEGGIES and vegans can get a lot of flack for being self-righteous, judgy and pushy on the 'eat-your-greens' front – and Ella Mills (formerly Woodward) has experienced a shed-load of that flack since founding her popular blog-turned-brand, Deliciously Ella.
The 27-year-old started blogging under the moniker in 2012 after being diagnosed with postural tachycardia syndrome, and her debut cookbook went on to be a massive success with readers, if not always with critics.
Now the entrepreneur – a daughter of former Northern Ireland secretary Shaun Woodward and grand-daughter of Lord Sainsbury – is back with The Plant-Based Cookbook, and it's all about inclusivity.
"[It's not designed] with the intention of anyone needing to become a vegan, but for people who do want to try cooking more vegetarian food, it's a very nice way to get involved," she explains.
In fact, she is at pains to point out that she eats plant-based for "very personal reasons. I was very, very unwell, changing my diet allowed me to get my life back, and for me, I still do it every day to manage my illness. I'd rather do that than take beta blockers and steroids."
Her mantra appears to be "you've got to make it work for you" – whether you're a carnivore looking to hit your five (or 10) a day, or a vegan in a recipe rut.
The cookbook features 100 recipes from Deliciously Ella's delis and events but runs to almost 20,000 words – it's part recipe collection, part diary, with mini-essays inserted between chapters. "It allows us some space to tell our story," explains Mills, "about who we are and what happens behind the scenes – the good bits and the bad bits."
At times, it reads like a blow-by-blow account of Deliciously Ella's business targets and difficulties – from getting their energy ball products into supermarkets, to having to secure a loan against Mills's flat to avoid going bust, with her also addressing the closure of two of the company's delis earlier this year. At others, she talks about the mental and physical challenges of running the brand.
It's a somewhat strange narrative to stumble upon if you're just interested in whipping up a charred broccoli and kohlrabi salad, but Mills was determined to follow in the same vein as her debut cookbook, and her blog, allowing for "a human and personal element" in the gaps around the recipes.
You can see how she manages to work alongside her husband Matt, son of the late MP Tessa Jowell, day-in-day-out – they even have desks side-by-side. "I absolutely love it," says Mills. "Fundamentally, the reason why it works is because we do completely separate things."
Matt takes care of retail and products thanks to his finance background, while her focus is the creative side and "who we are as a company and a community".
"We work together on the shared vision and strategy," Mills adds, ever business-like. And at home? "I do all the cooking, Matt doesn't cook, no – but I love that, he is a phenomenal washer-upper!"
That merging of her private life and her health concerns with the Deliciously Ella trajectory may be at the core of her business, but it's also been what's caused Mills a lot of problems.
It "was a pretty long time ago now" she says, of the critical furore around Deliciously Ella's perceived alignment with the ethically and nutritionally dubious 'clean eating' movement. "Honestly, it was a frustrating moment."
"'Clean' isn't a word that Deliciously Ella's traditionally used," she explains. "We've never been about restriction or taking the fun out of food – we've been about plant-based cooking. We've never been about before and afters, or weight loss or anything around that space. It was a complete misinterpretation of who we are."
While intent on distancing herself from the world of 'fad' food, she accepts there is a "really important" conversation to be had around food as aspirational and as part of an Instagrammable lifestyle, rather than being achievable at home.
She's mindful that, when "healthy food exploded, it became a little too connected to the more exotic ingredients, the superfood powders and things – that is not accessible for people." But she's also unshakeable that something needs to be done if we're to tackle the very serious increases in health issues that are the result of lifestyle related diseases and obesity.
And if posting pretty pictures of vegetables on the 'gram encourages people to eat more greens, then where's the harm?
The Plant-Based Cookbook, Mills says, focuses on using ingredients that people are already comfortable with, and that are very much your supermarket staples.
She's firm though in doing her absolute best to not sound preachy: It all comes back to making that personal choice. "I changed my diet for me because it allowed me to manage a chronic illness, and everyone's got to do what works for them," says Mills.
"It's about an overall picture about the way that you live and feeling good in yourself, and only you know exactly what that is for you."
She concludes: "I'm a really big believer in the concept that, for anything to be sustainable, it has to be enjoyable. So you've got to make it interesting, you've got to make it colourful, you've got to make it abundant," and, she adds, "you've got to make it delicious."
:: Deliciously Ella The Plant-Based Cookbook by Ella Mills, photography by Nassima Rothacker, is published by Hodder & Stoughton, priced £25.
SPICED PEANUT SWEET POTATOES
(serves 4 as a side)
2 large sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into small cubes
2tbsp olive oil
2tsp ground ginger
2tsp ground cinnamon
2tsp ground cumin
Handful of parsley, chopped
45g dates, pitted and chopped
1tbsp (heaped) black sesame seeds (normal sesame seeds also work - you'll just need to toast them)
Salt and pepper
For the dressing:
2tbsp date syrup or maple syrup
2tbsp sesame oil
2tbsp smooth peanut butter
Juice of 1/2 lemon
Handful of peanuts, toasted and chopped (optional)
Preheat the oven to 240C (fan 220°C). Place the sweet potatoes in a large baking tray and drizzle with the olive oil, add the spices and some salt and pepper and mix well, ensuring everything gets coated. Bake in the oven for 45-50 minutes, until they're really soft.
While the sweet potatoes are cooking, make the dressing, whisking everything with some salt until smooth. Next, place the parsley and dates in a large bowl with the sesame seeds. Once the sweet potatoes are cooked, add them to the bowl with the dressing and mix everything together. Sprinkle with toasted peanuts, if using, serve and enjoy.
FIVE-BEAN CHILLI AND CORNBREAD
(Chilli serves 4, cornbread serves 10)
For the cornbread:
750g drained tinned sweetcorn
450ml almond milk
150ml sunflower, rapeseed or vegetable oil
1tbsp apple cider vinegar
25g coriander, chopped
1 x 400g tin of black beans, drained and rinsed
2 red chillies, deseeded and finely chopped
1tbsp sea salt flakes
Pinch of pepper
For the dry ingredients:
60g plain flour (we use a gluten-free one)
30g rice flour
1tbsp corn flour
1tsp baking powder
2tsp bicarbonate of soda
For the chilli:
1 onion, chopped
1 celery stalk, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, chopped
1 red chilli, deseeded and chopped
1tsp dried rosemary
1tsp dried thyme
3tbsp tomato puree
2 x 400g tins of mixed beans
1 x 400g tin of tomatoes
1tbsp maple syrup
2 red chillies, sliced
Handful of sliced spring onions
Start by making the corn bread. Preheat the oven to 200C (fan 180C). Line a deep 35 x 25cm baking tin with baking parchment. Place three-quarters of the sweetcorn in a food processor and pulse until smooth. Once smooth, mix together with the rest of the whole sweetcorn kernels.
Place all the dry ingredients in a large mixing bowl and stir well. Once mixed, add the almond milk, oil and apple cider vinegar and give everything another really good stir until well combined. Next, add the coriander, black beans, chilli, salt, pepper and sweetcorn, giving it all one final mix.
Once the mixture has come together, pour into the lined baking tin and bake in the oven for 50-55 minutes until golden and cooked through. To test if it is cooked, insert a knife into the corn bread, it should come out clean. If not, place back in the oven for five more minutes to cook through.
While the corn bread is baking, prepare the chilli. Place a large saucepan over a medium heat and add a drizzle of olive oil, the onion, celery, garlic and a pinch of salt and cook until soft, about five to 10 minutes.
Now add the chilli, rosemary, thyme and tomato puree and cook for another five minutes. Add the beans, tomatoes, 150ml water, maple syrup and some pepper and bring to the boil, then lower the heat and leave to simmer for 25-30 minutes, at which point it should have a thick consistency.
When you are ready to serve, sprinkle the chillies and spring onion over the top and enjoy with the corn bread.