Delco Profile: Chef Char Nolan on Veganism, Food, Container Gardens and More — Bonus Recipe, Too!

To say that Drexel Hill’s Char Nolan is a quiet mover-and-shaker in the local food scene is a gross understatement. She’s everywhere spreading the good word about a vegan lifestyle as she supports the underserved while whipping up beyond-delicious, plant-based fare. Need proof? She’s been inducted into the Philadelphia chapter of Les Dames d’ Escoffier, a philanthropic organization of women leaders in the fields of food, beverage and hospitality.

We found some time in Nolan’s busy schedule to chat with her to learn more about her passion for the vegan lifestyle. And, we asked her to share her container garden tips, plus an easy recipe, too!

We must start with … when and why did you become vegan?

I was working for Whole Foods Market at the time and saw Rip Esselstyn’s book, The Engine 2 Diet. Something about the book registered with me. A few days later, I went to a regional marketing meeting where an administrator told me that Rip’s diet was exclusively plant-based. On my way back, I purchased Rip’s book and then went grocery shopping. On September 23, 2009, I had a bowl of oatmeal for breakfast and thought I’d give this “Engine 2 thing a try.” I was going to participate in my very own 28-day challenge, as prescribed in the book. Then, this happened: On day 10, for the first time in years, I woke up and was totally free of the osteoarthritic pain which had plagued me for years. At that very moment I thought to myself, “I’m staying with the pillars of Engine 2, no more meat for me.” I might add that, at the time, I was a few weeks shy of turning 60, so my motto remains, “You’re never too old for a lifestyle change.” 

Have you always had a love for food and cooking? 

I practically grew up in my grandparents’ Italian restaurant in New York. The back of the house was my “sandbox.” Throughout my lifetime, my uncles were involved with the restaurant business and my Mom was a restaurant purchasing agent. So, you might say that I was born into the food world. 

What’s your food philosophy?

Lean into plant-based eating, and find foods that you like. Try a new food every day! And remember that “progress is perfection,” because trying new things and being the best version of yourself is a personal victory. Learn to eat lots of leafy greens, and have fun cooking! 

Do you have any advice for someone considering, or just starting, veganism?

There are so many resources available; it all depends on what you are looking for. When I started eating Engine 2-style, I did it for my health. Now, everything has come together because I eat plant-based for myself, the animals and the environment. 

Do your best. I always tell people to follow 10 resources on social media and expose yourself to their information. If necessary, find yourself a medical provider who is plant-based, and seek direction from them. There are many online, plant-based telehealth resources that have helped many. 

What is Rouxbe — and why add educator to your list of talents? 

Rouxbe is the world’s leading online culinary school founded in 2005 to train people of all abilities to become better, more confident and healthier cooks. I was impressed that it provides certificate-level instruction not only to aspiring chefs, but also to serious home cooks and career changers. Bonus: Its programs are recognized by both the American Culinary Federation Education Foundation, and by WorldChefs, as approved training programs. 

In 2016, I completed Rouxbe’s six-month Plant-Pro Chef Certification. Since then, I’ve worked in product design, pop-up cooking events and taught countless cooking classes where audiences have included the Main Line Night School, Cases for Smiles and the Plant-Based Nutritional Support Group in Detroit. I’m also affiliated with the Culinary Literacy Center of the Free Library of Philadelphia and work at the South Philly Library with a kitchen on wheels called, The Charlie Cart.

How did you come to serving underserved populations?

I was a Peace Corps Volunteer, and I guess that spirit of helping and giving never escapes the heart. 

Locally, for 18 months I worked at Project Home at the Stephen Klein Wellness Center in the heart of North Philadelphia. I worked in a monitored program through the Centers for Disease Control that measured the impact of a whole foods, plant-based diet on participants who had various lifestyle related diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, cancer, etc. We saw many conditions reversed — including hypertension. 

I’ve also been a part of the South Philadelphia Library where I’ve worked with children and adults. Many of the adults are senior citizens with a myriad of medical conditions who are referred to me from the physicians in the library building. The first floor is the library, the second a primary care clinic by Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, and the third floor is Philadelphia Health Center 2. The building that the library is in is called the South Philadelphia Health and Literacy Center.

What does it mean to be a food literacy coach? 

The Cookbook Project is a nonprofit located in New Orleans that develops learning programs to reach all populations in an impactful manner. It includes writing lesson plans at appropriate reading levels and ease, creating hands-on learning activities, and using food as the catalyst of change by creating recipes that were the opposite of the standard American diet (which I call “SAD”!). As a food literacy coach, I act as a vehicle of change to supply the tools needed for all populations. 

How easy is it to do a container garden? 

Is there anything easier than easy? You don’t need a lot of land! I have one 4×4 patch, and another cloth 4×4 container. I grow a lot of cruciferous vegetables — kale, broccoli and Brussels sprouts are my favorites. I’ll get kale until November! I also grow tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, squash and herbs. I grew 24 tomato plants from two slices of tomatoes! 

Containers vary in prices from $10 to $60 for a “4×4 plot.” You need a few hand tools, like a shovel and trowel, water, good dirt and sunlight. And, yes, I talk to my plants!

My favorite tip is that I use Vicks VapoRub as my “repellent.” I rub it on popsicle sticks, and the eucalyptus aroma is a deterrent for squirrels and rabbits. Plus, I don’t think they’ve gotten a cold this season!

What are the easiest things for a beginner to grow?

Tomatoes and cucumbers are very easy to grow. Especially cucumbers — they keep growing and growing. 

What are your top 3 tips for a successful container garden?

As they say, location, location, location. My gardens get early morning sun, and that works well, especially when avoiding the high sun later in the day when air temps are higher. So location, sunlight and water, and good soil.

Would you please share with us a beginner-friendly plant-based recipe?

Here’s one better — two recipes for salsa and chips that are perfect any time of the year!

Recipes by Char Nolan, Plant-Based Chef:

Philly Salsa

Inspired by Ben Franklin.

Yes, it’s true, our very own Benjamin Franklin brought kale to America from Scotland! 

Ingredients:

  • 1 small Roma tomato, chopped
  • 1 small shallot, minced
  • 1 garlic clove, minced
  • 1 small jalapeno, without seeds, finely diced (optional) 
  • 2 leaves Tuscan (dinosaur) kale, finely chopped 
  • 1 lemon or lime, squeezed
  • 1⁄2 teaspoon low-sodium tamari 

Instructions:

  1. Add all ingredients to a bowl and mix well. Make certain ingredients are coated well with lemon juice and tamari. 

Note: The cuts (chop, mince and dice) are the most important parts of the recipe; the better the cut, the more flavor. 

Homemade Tortilla Chips

Delicious and fat-free!

Why spend lots of money on bagged corn chips that are filled with added fats and salt?

Ingredients:

  • 1 package of corn tortillas 
  • 1 lemon or lime 

Instructions:

  1. Preheat oven to 400°F.
  2. Cut tortillas, using scissors, into 8, equally sized pieces, like a pie. You’ll get about 80 (or more) pieces of tortilla chips from a full pack! 
  3. Place cut tortillas on a parchment-paper-lined baking sheet. Sprinkle with lemon or lime juice. Salt is optional. 
  4. Bake between 5-8 minutes, shaking contents twice during baking. They’re done when golden-brown and crispy. Buen Provecho! 

Serving suggestion — jicama! Peel and thickly slice 1 small jicama, sprinkle with Tajin (you’ll find it in the spice section of your favorite grocery store), and top it off with a squeeze of lemon.

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Want to know more about everything Delco? We’re more than just your source for good eats — we’re your source for where to stay, what to do and more in Delaware County, Pennsylvania. We’re Visit Delco, PA, and we’ve got you covered from Philly to the Brandywine. Contact us at (610) 565-3679, by email, or online.

Nina Malone

All photos courtesy of Char Nolan