Great Vegetarian Tastes
People are discovering how delicious vegetarian food can be thanks to the healthy ethnic foods from Expressly Leslie.
On a gray winter day on the Woodstock Square, Leslie Cook is like a ray of sunshine, spreading warmth to all who come to her. Petite with a bright disposition, she is a peaceful woman with an easy smile. The force behind restaurant Expressly Leslie, she believes in “eating joyfully, sitting down with people you enjoy, laughing, talking and eating good food.”
The Algonquin resident likes cooking so much that she put her passion to work at the small, colorful space opened three years ago in the Woodstock Square Mall.
Specializing in vegetarian, all-natural and Middle Eastern foods, it was named in 2012 “One of the Best Vegetarian Dining Experiences in McHenry County” by readers of the Northwest Herald.
Her journey to opening the space she calls “cozy” took the most unlikely alliance, a 45-year commitment and a whole lot of traveling.
‘Health Food Nut’
Cook’s passion for healthy eating started with a life-altering moment – becoming pregnant with her first child.
“I started reading about vegetarianism,” Cook said, because she wanted a healthier alternative for her family.
At that point, the late 1960s, “people who wanted to try a vegetarian diet were considered ‘health food nuts,’” she said.
A Surprising Audience
Turns out, even some hard core carnivores have a warm spot for her vegetarian creations.
In the 2000s, Cook would travel to barbecue contests in Illinois, Iowa, Missouri, Arkansas and beyond where her ex-husband would enter his recipe.
She tells the story of being at a barbecue festival in Tennessee. Her ex was selling his food, so she thought she would give some of her recipes a try. No one thought she would sell anything at an all-meat event. But as Cook recalls, she whipped up some of her vegetarian-style food and soon had a line as long as her then-husband’s.
After that experience, Cook knew she was onto something. She created a concession trailer that allowed her to travel to and cook at special events.
“I was seeing acceptance in places not normally associated with being open to vegetarian-style cooking,” she said. While at a festival in Dubuque, Iowa, she said once people found her, she was “clubbed” with business.
Woodstock was a stop on her fairs and festival tour. She settled her bricks-and-mortar business in Woodstock because it was a “mutual love affair from the first moment I drove into town.”
Cooking Away a Stigma
“American vegetarianism has a stigma attached to it,” Cook said. “It’s stodgy, boring. It’s not good food.”
The other stigma is that the food is not satiating. Cook countered that it is very substantial food. She serves dishes that are high in fiber so diners feel like they’ve eaten something.
“When people hear about [vegetarian food], their first reaction is to turn their nose up at it,” she said. Cook admitted she did the same thing at first only because she had no idea what it really was. Her message for those new to it is that it is terrific food. “If you are adventurous and you try it, you end up liking it,” she said.
Cook believes today, people are at a turning point in what they eat. “I see every age group coming through [here],” she said. “The biggest reason people are choosing to eat here is because it is healthier than most other fast foods, because they know more about it and because there are more dishes available that appeal to a wider range of tastes.”
Taste of the Mideast
Expressly Leslie celebrates the big flavors and exciting colors of what Cook calls “Middle Eastern street foods.” She said she loves Indian food and Middle Eastern food because it is healthier and it is beautiful.
Cook said she never feels comfortable serving dishes unless she has first eaten one that was cooked by a “native.” It’s one of the reasons she’s traveled to Israel several times – to taste the food as it is supposed to be. The flavors she creates in her restaurant are the same as those found on the streets of the Middle East.
Seeing herself as a guide who helps people find a dish they will like, she often gives out samples to help people decide.
“I like the quality of the food and that it is prepared with love,” said Vicki Doyle of Woodstock. “The food is good for me because it tastes good and I don’t have to worry about my food allergies.”
The restaurant can make most menu items vegan and gluten-free.
Kate Towers, Doyle’s friend who was visiting from Atlanta, said it was her second trip to the restaurant during her time in town. “I had to come back,” Towers said. “I like this kind of food. I’ve been eating it since I was a kid.”
Middle Eastern Food 101
These wonderful foods might sound a little strange at first, but they are oh so good! Give them a try when you visit Expressly Leslie.
- Falafel – Zesty, deep-fried fava bean or chickpea fritters. Try them alone, in a pita and/or with some tahini (paste made from ground sesame seeds) or hot sauces like z’hug or harif!
- Hummus – Creamy dip made of chickpeas and seasoned with tahini, garlic, lemon and cumin. Its pairing possibilities are endless!
- Ful – A favorite Egyptian street food, ful is fava beans richly seasoned with fresh garlic, lemon and cilantro.
- Sabich – An Israeli sandwich consisting of pita stuffed with fried eggplant and hard-boiled eggs.
- Baba ghanoush – A Levantine dish of eggplant mashed and mixed with virgin olive oil and various seasonings.
- Tabouleh – A Levantine Arab salad traditionally made of bulgur, tomatoes, finely chopped parsley, mint, onion and garlic, and seasoned with olive oil, lemon juice and salt.