Grad lets her passion for food and cooking lead her in new directions
Renée Kohlman (Culinary Arts ’99) cooks from the heart. And her passion for conveying comfort through food has taken her career and relationships to unexpected places.
Her latest book, Vegetables: A Love Story, is both an ode to Kohlman’s own experience finding love with vegetable farmer Dixon Simpkins and to the evolution of her career. Prior to their meeting at a Saskatoon farmers’ market, the Taste Canada gold award-winning author of All the Sweet Things: Baked Goods and Stories from the Kitchen of Sweetsugarbean said she never dreamed she would write a book about vegetables.
“I may have made a savoury cookbook of sorts at some point, but meeting him definitely created the spark that it took to write this book,” Kohlman says.
Published in October 2021 by Touchwood Editions – Vegetables is a delicious extension of written and visual storytelling that Kohlman offers in her first book, but with recipes sprung from the garden (check out a sample below, for white bean and kale chicken chili).
The idea came to life on the couple’s first date, which took place at a Burmese restaurant she was reviewing as a food writer.
When she arrived, Simpkins was already there waiting for her, holding a bouquet of fresh asparagus from his garden. They got lost in conversation and have been together ever since.
“The asparagus bundle was really a last-minute idea. He was heading out the door and thought. ‘I should bring Renée something,’” says Kohlman. “That first date really did change everything.”
A personal take on ‘homey comfort food’
Just before Valentine’s Day, at work in her cozy Saskatoon kitchen with the comforting aromas of warm chocolate and butter wafting around her, Kohlman says no matter which ingredients she chooses when developing recipes, she hopes they will be used to foster feelings of comfort and connection.
“I feel like my take on homey comfort food is what the gist of my recipes are, so I want people to feel like they know a little bit more about me when they’re reading the recipe and can hear my voice as they’re following it.
“In a way, I want people to feel like I’m in the kitchen with them, cooking beside them. I want them to be successful.”
To that end, Vegetables is a blend of stories and roughly 90 recipes. Soon after its release, the book received critical acclaim, including being listed among the Globe and Mail’s Top 100 books of 2021.
“This is what I wanted, for the book to be used and well-loved,” says Kohlman, who was once named one of Canada's best food bloggers by the National Post for sweetsugarbean.com and is a food columnist for the Saskatoon Star Phoenix. “This has been really fantastic.”
Nearly six years into her relationship with Simpkins, she feels Vegetables is a natural transition from her first book.
“It’s definitely a companion to All the Sweet Things in as much as there are several characters that make a repeat appearance in Veg. It’s an evolution of my voice. It’s an evolution of the stories.”
A really happy place
Kohlman’s own story continues to evolve as well. While she started more than 20 years ago, sharpening her cooking skills in a fishing lodge kitchen, then in bistros and cafés, she has enjoyed a culinary career that is leading her in new directions.
With the success of her books, blog and newspaper column, Kohlman has put her part-time job at a local café behind her. She is now fulfilling her dream of starting her own gourmet cookie business.
In a December 2021 post on her Sweetsugarbean blog, she writes: “Perhaps starting a business in the midst of a pandemic is a bit wacky, but heck, folks have done nuttier stuff. I love working for myself, and baking delicious cookies for awesome customers is just the best.”
A self-described introvert who enjoys the peacefulness of working from home or dancing around her kitchen whenever she feels like it, Kohlman says it pays to be to be open to opportunities for growth, and to follow your heart.
"Believe me, there was tonnes of tears and blood and sweat before I got to this point."
“I’ve been really fortunate to find a really happy place doing what I’m doing right now. Believe me, there was tonnes of tears and blood and sweat before I got to this point. But I never gave up because I knew I wanted to make a career of this somehow. So I kept at it and found what I really love to do and what I was good at.”
After celebrating the launch of her second book online due to local COVID-19 public health measures, Kohlman says the past two years with the pandemic have been a time of reflection on what is important to her.
“Just appreciating what you have and the people around you. That they’re safe and sound. Not taking anything for granted, whether it’s your health or your relationships. Telling people that you love them and appreciate them. Paying more attention to the little things that make you happy,” she says.
“Maybe it’s not that trip to France. Maybe it’s just snuggling on the couch with your partner watching Ozark and eating popcorn.”
White bean and kale chicken chili
From Vegetables: A Love Story by Renée Kohlman (TouchWood Editions, 2021)
Makes 6 servings
“One can never have enough delicious chili recipes,” writes Renée Kohlman, author of Vegetables: A Love Story. “While I love a good tomato-based chili, there’s something quite special about this brothy version with ground chicken and white beans.
“It’s also a good way to eat more kale. This hardy green loves to absorb the spicy and bright flavours happening here, while the sweet potato tames the heat of the jalapeño and the lime juice tingles with tang.
“And to really make the flavours dance, be sure to garnish with the toppings I’ve listed.”
- 1 Tbsp canola oil
- 1 onion, diced
- 1/2 jalapeño pepper, minced (for spicier chili, use the whole jalapeño, seeds and all)
- 1 lb ground chicken (substitute ground turkey or chorizo if desired; omit for a vegetarian dish)
- 2 garlic cloves, minced
- 1 Tbsp chili powder
- 1 Tbsp ground cumin
- 1/2 Tbsp dried oregano
- 1 1/4 tsp salt
- 1 tsp granulated sugar
- 2 cups peeled and chopped sweet potatoes (1/2-inch pieces)
- 1 sweet red bell pepper, chopped
- 1 cup frozen corn kernels (no need to thaw)
- 2 (19 oz/540 mL) cans white beans, rinsed and drained (substitute cooked lentils, black beans, kidney beans or chickpeas if desired)
- 3 cups low-sodium chicken broth (substitute vegetable broth if desired)
- 1-2 Tbsp your favourite hot sauce (I like the flavour of a mild jalapeño hot sauce in this recipe)
- 3 cups chopped kale, centre rib removed
- 1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro, stems okay
- Juice of 1 lime
- Optional toppings: pickled red onions, chopped cilantro, sour cream, shredded cheddar, lime wedges, sliced avocado, corn tortilla chips, more hot sauce
- In a Dutch oven, warm the oil over medium-high heat. Add the onion and jalapeño. Cook, stirring occasionally until the onion has softened, about 4-5 minutes.
- Add the chicken and cook, stirring occasionally, until it is lightly browned on the outside and no longer pink, about 5 minutes.
- Toss in the garlic, spices, salt and sugar. Cook for a few minutes just to toast the spices. Add the sweet potatoes, red pepper and corn. Stir to combine. Add the beans, chicken broth and hot sauce. Bring to a simmer, turn the heat down to medium-low and cook, stirring occasionally for 20 minutes.
- Stir in the kale and cilantro. Cover and cook for about 5 minutes. Stir in the lime juice. Remove from the heat and adjust seasonings with more salt, pepper and hot sauce.
- Divide into bowls. Garnish with toppings.
The chili will thicken up as it cools. Thin out any leftovers with chicken or vegetable broth.