From wannabe pop star to vegetable champion. Livia Solustri talks her latest project, what to consider when choosing your veg, and makes our mouths water with some recipe suggestions.
Like a lot of music lovers, Livia Solustri wanted to be a pop star when she grew up. It didn’t happen in the end, but she now dedicates her considerable energy and talents to educating and inspiring people to eat more veggies (which is better, we think).
Her beautifully illustrated Periodic Table of Veg breaks down no fewer than 90 vegetables, some of which will probably be new to you, into the nutrients that make them so healthy. It also gives helpful guidance around buying, cooking and seasonality. We caught up with Livia to talk about her project and pressed her for a favourite.
Hi Livia, welcome to A Good Community! Tell us a bit about yourself, where are you from?
I was born and raised in Rome (Italy) in a hippy household: no TV, lots of music, lots of sports and lots of healthy food. Growing up, I wanted to be a pop star! I was the little girl carrying her cassette player around school, choreographing moves to the latest Spice Girls hits. At the age of 19, I moved to New York to study music and pursue this dream. It was during this time that I started cultivating a true passion for food and cooking, as I tried to recreate the feeling of home through familiar foods. When I realised I had outgrown my pop star dreams, food was there for me. I then moved to London and started working in food startups.
We love vegetables and your Periodic Table of Veg is a thing of beauty. How did the idea come about?
My mother was a vegetarian for many years, so I always had veg on my plate. When I started working in the food startup scene, I became increasingly aware of the impact of our food decisions. What really struck me as a no-brainer was the need to reduce our meat consumption. For a long time, I’d been reflecting on the fact that one of the main hurdles in getting people to eat more plant-based foods is the perception of the tradeoff in taste. I had my epiphany this summer: I would create a fun and engaging way to put veg in the spotlight, giving people the tips, tools and inspiration they needed to make more veg dishes. I want people to look at the pack of carrots in their fridge and feel like they can create something amazing!
Apart from inspiring people to eat more delicious greens, what are the other aims of the project?
There are so many factors that determine whether or not we are eating “sustainably”: carbon emissions, land use, water use, pollution, but also issues around the exploitation of local communities and socio-economic impacts. Project Drawdown - the world’s leading resource for climate solutions - has found that across all the initiatives we can undertake to reduce heat-trapping gases, reducing food waste is number one. That’s massive! I added tips about food waste on the website for this reason.
Another important food aspect is provenance. Buying seasonal veg means eating more nutritionally dense food that is usually less impactful on the environment, supports local farmers and reduces food miles (the distance food travels before we eat it). For these reasons I also made it a point to include UK seasonality for each veg. We can’t always get to the local produce market, but we can always seek out more seasonal veg at our local supermarket.
"Pumpkins are high in vitamin A, vitamin C and Copper. Seasonality (UK) is October - Dec."
What’s your favourite vegetable and why?
This is a tough one! I’d probably say courgette. In Italy we eat and cook loads of courgette. They are so sweet, so versatile and truly delicious. During the summer months, a simple “pasta con le zucchine” (pasta with courgette) is unbeatable. If you are lucky enough to buy courgettes with the flowers, you can also make a typical roman dish which is a deep fried courgette flower with mozzarella inside… to die for!
"If you are lucky enough to buy courgette with flowers, make sure to hold onto the flowers - they make wonderful dishes."
Are there any vegetables we need to avoid, or maybe be conscious of before buying?
This is a difficult question. The short answer is we should try to buy seasonal veg, which usually results in buying more local and lower impact. The locally-sourced topic is generally a tricky one. Tomatoes harvested in greenhouses in the UK can have a far greater footprint than those flown over from Spain, given how energy-intense greenhouse production can be. This is all to say: local is not always better but seasonal generally is, so try to buy in-season veg as much as you can.
You feature some of your favourite recipes as well, are you taking recommendations?
Absolutely! Anyone who has a delicious recipe posted online should get in touch and share it with me. Curating a set of yummy recipes for each veg is key to the Periodic Table of Veg being a helpful resource for years to come, so suggestions are most welcome. You can reach out on social @PeriodicTableOfVeg or email me at email@example.com.
"When buying, look for firm, crisp bell peppers that feel heavy for their size and are clear of spots and blemishes."
What’s next for the project, more countries perhaps?
I’ve had so many great suggestions pour in! Some people have requested seasonality for more countries, others have asked for printable posters and educational materials, others have asked for a Periodic Table of Fruit! I’m carving the path as I go, but my focus is to continue to inspire people to eat more veg. I’ve just launched a new section of the website called “Veg Stories” in which I interview folks I believe have fascinating veg-related journeys. The path to a more sustainable life is not always a straight line, and I want to capture an honest snapshot of how people have navigated it in their unique ways.
Lastly, who else should we interview for A Good Community?
I would recommend interviewing Jenny Costa, founder and CEO of Rubies in the Rubble, a company tackling food waste by creating delicious condiments with wonky fruit and veg. She is an inspiring leader and an overall wonderful human.
Grazie mille, Livia! Can't wait to try "pasta con le Zucchini". We'll keep eating our greens and looking forward to getting more veggie related stories, recipes and tips!
We hope this gave you plenty of food for thought and inspired you to get in the kitchen with some new seasonal vegetables. Got a similar story to tell or project you'd like us to share? We'd love to hear from you! Hit is up at firstname.lastname@example.org.