ONE OF THE HIGHLIGHTS OF MY CAREER has been to cook for longtime Santa Fe resident and actress Shirley MacLaine. We met years ago when she had come to Las Cosas Kitchen Shoppe, where I teach cooking classes, to stock her home. Since I was in my chef’s coat, she marched right up to me and said, “You look like you know something about cooking—would you help me shop?”

I helped the five-time Oscar winner fill her kitchen with some basics and offered my services for future meals. Now and then I get a call to cook dinner at her house for visiting guests or her birthday celebration. I even did a holiday feast one snowy Christmas Eve. For her 89th birthday last year, she called and apologetically admitted that her out-of-town guests were vegan. I knew what to do. They would get a risotto with marinated grilled portobellos, charred tomatoes, and asparagus, while Shirley was served a favorite dish of hers: a marinated smoked salmon filet topped with a zippy mustard sauce on a bed of mild green chile polenta. I knew she would love that. The challenge was the birthday cake.

A friend recommended the two-year-old Plantita Vegan Bakery on Lena Street, in Santa Fe. I had heard folks rave about Plantita’s bagels, pies, empanadas, and cupcakes, but I needed a special cake. Knowing Shirley to be a big chocolate fan, I called and asked what they had to offer. My one requirement: The cake had to thrill both vegans and non with the first bite. Baker Thomas Kamholz suggested an orange-chocolate-cayenne cake with candied pecans. Asking him to go easy on the cayenne, I placed an order.

Owner Soma Franks stands in the cheerful dining room of Sweetwater Harvest Kitchen, in Santa Fe.

Not only was the cake gorgeous, but the guest of honor applauded its deliciousness, as did her visitors. Vegan success was ours that evening.

It’s been years since gluten-free and vegan lifestyles seemed like passing trends. Ten years ago, it was slim pickings for vegans and celiacs on menus and in grocery store aisles. Now the options have improved. Gone are gummy or dry gluten-free breads and pastries, and we’ve bid adios to frightening meat substitutes containing a list of unfamiliar ingredients. Whether you need to avoid certain foods or just feel better when you cut them out of your diet, the eating world is easier to navigate now.

For clean eaters, I usually settle on options that naturally lack wheat or animal products. Our New Mexico diet is heavily focused on corn, which makes masa-based items like tortillas and tamales a tasty place to start. If a thickening agent is needed in soups and sauces, I swap out the wheat flour for rice flour and potato starch. Masa made with blue or white corn is excellent in green and red chile sauces. One thing I advise new vegans to do is to eat plenty of legumes and complete proteins—in the Land of Enchantment, we’re talking beans and rice. (When I was a young cook in New York City circa 1978, whenever we heard vegetarian, we simply sent out a plate of grilled vegetables and grumbled about having to do it. We’d never even heard the word vegan.)

Plants take center stage at Sweetwater Harvest Kitchen.

Now it’s easier to find wonderful restaurants serving nutritious vegan and gluten-free options. In Santa Fe, Sweetwater Harvest Kitchen was ahead of its time on both fronts. When Soma Franks opened the restaurant in 2012 with her friend Fiona Wong, they aspired to create a café around clean and healthy eating, not jump on any burgeoning trend. Their early menu denoted all the different realms each dish inhabited: gluten-free, vegan, dairy-free, and so on. More than a decade later, Sweetwater is completely gluten-free and frequently recommended to those with celiac sensitivities who cannot dine where flours are used in any capacity. One bite of the chocolate pie—a go-to dessert for frequent diners—has convinced me that in some cases, no one will ever miss the dairy or gluten.

Even comfort-food restaurants are getting in on the vegan and gluten-free action. One of my favorite dining haunts on trips to Las Cruces is Salud! de Mesilla. Co-owners Russell Hernandez—who is also the new mayor of Mesilla—and Christopher Schaljo-Hernandez offer a large and eclectic menu that ranges from Spanish tapas to tacos and burritos. Pastas and other main courses round out the offerings, which are roughly 25 percent gluten-free, and they use separate fryers to avoid cross-contamination. Hernandez admits that more of his customers are requesting special dietary options. The kitchen is always happy to create a vegan version of many dishes (Vegenaise is used in some sauces), while the menu is user-friendly, with GF dishes highlighted in turquoise.

Decorate Sweetwater’s chocolate pie with mint and berries.

At the charming Adobe Rose Restaurant, in Artesia, chef Chloe Winters confesses that she doesn’t get many requests for vegan dishes, but given notice, she can customize a dish from her pantry inventory. In this meat-loving part of the state, the Adobe Rose is a good example of a small-town eatery that has a menu that is flexible with dietary restrictions. Winters’s large, creative roster has many vegetarian options and always has gluten-free buns on hand for her burgers. The zesty red chile smothered on her stacked enchiladas is also gluten-free.

Sean Sinclair has manned the stoves at many upscale restaurants, including Albuquerque’s Farm & Table and Las Vegas’s former Kin at the Castañeda Hotel, but his next act as the corporate executive chef for Heritage Hotels & Resorts means he must appeal to even more palates in working with staff at each property’s restaurants. Sinclair says his method for creating a vegan dish that can hold its own on a menu that also features duck, foie gras, and Wagyu beef is to use the absolute best products that are local, organic, and in season.

Sweetwater Harvest Kitchen's farmhouse-style adobe cafe.

His signature vegan main course shows a dedication to execution rather than just plating a bunch of veggies, as we did in the dark ages. He starts with a head of local cabbage that is cooked over coals for 10 hours until it is charred. The blackened outer leaves are then peeled away to expose a smoky head that is sliced and sauced with a rich vegan demi-glace made from a mélange of slow-roasted mushrooms, onions, carrots, celery, and various vegetable trimmings, then finished with red wine. This dish, served with a side of mashed potatoes, is for carnivores and vegans alike.

Here’s my way of thinking almost every new year when I start to reevaluate my diet: If we’re focusing on health, we must remember to make sure whatever we feed ourselves is still delicious. Don’t just eat to live. Eat to enjoy.

Sometimes folks think that to make cornbread gluten-free, you skip the flour and use only cornmeal. Sadly, that makes for dry and crumbly cornbread. Try this moist version instead.

  • ¼ cup butter, softened, and 2 tablespoons, divided
  • 3 tablespoons sugar
  • 2 large eggs
  • ¼ cup sour cream
  • ½ cup grated sharp cheddar
  • ½ cup buttermilk
  • 1 cup gluten-free flour, like Cup4Cup or Bob’s Red Mill
  • 2/3 cup yellow cornmeal
  • 2 teaspoons gluten-free baking powder
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • ½ cup roasted, peeled, seeded, and chopped New Mexico green chile

Serves 8-10

1. Heat oven to 425°. Combine ¼ cup
butter and sugar in large bowl. Beat at medium speed, scraping bowl often, until creamy. Add eggs; mix well.
Stir in sour cream, cheddar, and buttermilk. Reduce speed to low and add flour, cornmeal, baking powder,
and salt. Beat just until mixed. Fold in green chile.

2. Place a 9-inch cast iron skillet in the preheated oven and heat for 5 minutes.

3. Carefully remove skillet from oven and melt remaining butter in hot pan. Swirl butter as it melts to cover pan bottom. Spoon batter into pan and spread evenly.

4. Bake for 18 to 22 minutes or until golden brown. A toothpick inserted in the center should come out clean. Serve warm.

You can also make this tasty soup with other squashes like acorn, delicata, and kabocha.

  • 1 medium butternut squash, or large acorn squash
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil and 1 tablespoon to oil a cookie sheet
  • 1 medium onion, finely diced
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 2 ribs celery, minced
  • 1 ½ teaspoons toasted and ground cumin seeds
  • ½ teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • 2 teaspoons hot New Mexico red chile powder
  • 4 cups vegetable stock
  • ½ cup oat milk
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 18 fresh sage leaves, fried in 2 tablespoons olive oil

Serves 6

1. Cut squash in half. Place face down on an oiled cookie sheet and bake in preheated 375° oven for 40 minutes, or until squash is very tender and nicely browned. Allow to cool and scoop out flesh, placing it in a medium bowl.

2. Place remaining olive oil in a medium soup pot and saute onion, garlic, and celery over medium heat until onion has become translucent. Stir in the squash. Add cumin, nutmeg, and chile. Saute for 4 minutes.

3. Add vegetable stock and cook over medium heat for 10 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in the oat milk.

4. Puree soup carefully and season with salt and pepper.

5. Serve hot, garnished with fried sage leaves.

The secret to a successful recipe that is both vegan and gluten-free is that it’s so delicious, your guests will never miss the butter or flour.


  • 4 tablespoons and 1 ½ teaspoons warm water
  • ½ cup flaxseeds
  • 2 tablespoons maple syrup
  • ¼ cup coconut oil
  • 2 ¼ cups almond flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • Pinch of salt


  • 8 ounces pitted dates
  • 3 cups coconut cream
  • 3 tablespoons coconut sugar
  • 6 tablespoons cocoa powder
  • ¼ cup coconut oil
  • 1 ½ tablespoons vanilla
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • Fresh mixed berries
  • Mint leaves

Serves 8


1. In a medium bowl, soak flaxseeds in water for 5 minutes. Stir in maple syrup and coconut oil.

2. Mix in flour, baking soda, and salt. Combine to form a soft dough.

3. Flatten dough into a 1-inch-thick disc, cover with plastic wrap and freeze for 10 minutes. Roll out dough to 11-inch diameter and place in a 9-inch pie plate. Bake in preheated 350° oven 50 minutes. Allow to cool completely before filling.


1. Chop the dates and place in a blender with the coconut cream. Blend until smooth. Push mixture through a medium sieve into a medium-size bowl and reserve puree.

2. Add sugar and cocoa powder to puree and then mix in coconut oil, vanilla, and salt. Whisk until smooth.

3. Pour filling into cooled pie shell and refrigerate for at least 6 hours or overnight. Serve garnished with berries and mint.