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CHOP CHOP: Making Healthy Kids

31 Jul

51cOOkEU-eL._SY300_Hardly a day goes by when you’re not brutally aware of the obesity crisis that’s overwhelming kids (and adults, too, for that matter. The most recent country to raise the alarm about extreme weight gain and processed food is Australia.) But it is children we should worry most about because good or bad eating habits and food cravings form early in life, and it is incumbent upon us all to steer children in healthier directions.

You read lots about the medical fallout, including diabetes and heart conditions – but the social stigma, and resultant poor self-esteem, can damage a child just as profoundly. One wonders how the psychological disconnect between scrawny fashion models on Project Runway and disappearing waistlines plays out in teenage behavior and achievement. The reality is that snacking is a great growth industry and virtually every packaged food company around the world is seeking ever more ways to sucker kids into consuming ever more unhealthful food – all the while telling them, disingenuously, to eat smarter. One company, Uncles Ben’s, has just launched their second annual “Ben’s Beginners Cooking Contest” where children in grades K-8, along with their parents, can submit home videos demonstrating the preparation of a rice-based dish. While rice is an important staple in many at-risk communities, I believe it may be a worthwhile effort to begin the conversation. That is, if rice is a small part of the equation (and preferably brown rice) and lots of fresh vegetables, a bit of protein, herbs and spices make up the rest of the recipe. It’s an appealing lure: The winner gets $15,000, an appearance on Rachael Ray, and a $30,000 cafeteria makeover for the child’s school.

Fortunately, there are valiant attempts to stop the scourge of junk food, processed food and fast food as a national diet. There is Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign, Lynn Fredericks’ innovative crusade to make kids healthier through hands-on, evidence-based FamilyCook programs in schools, communities, and farms across America; Katherine Newell Smith’s new project in Fairfax County Virginia called Real Food for Kids, that advocates for better school food with a pilot soup, salad, and sandwich bar that is slated to open in September. There is Nancy Easton and Bill Telepan’s formidable Wellness in the School (WITS) program, Liz Neumark’s brilliant Sylvia Center at Katchkie Farms in the Hudson Valley, and countless more initiatives across the country. There is even my own book, EAT FRESH FOOD: Awesome Recipes for Teen Chefs (Bloomsbury), reviewed in the science section of the New York Times (2010), which attempts to jump-start a solution by means of a very simple message (or plea, in my case) – to eat fresh food.

Now comes another wonderful approach that is already attention-worthy with a global platform. Sally Sampson’s CHOP CHOP is a quarterly non-profit food magazine that, since its inception in 2010, has distributed over four million copies to pediatricians, children’s hospitals, schools, and youth-based community organizations. In addition, the magazine is distributed in 12 countries and is published in both English and Spanish. ChopChop’s mission is to inspire and teach kids to cook and eat real food with their families. “Filled with nutritious, great-tasting, ethnically diverse and inexpensive recipes,” Ms. Sampson’s vision is to reverse, or better yet, prevent childhood obesity.

And just this week, her vision, and that of an impressive Advisory Board, including Walter Willett, Chair of the Department of Nutrition at Harvard’s School of Public Health, is illuminated with a brand new cookbook, published by Simon & Schuster. Chop Chop: The Kids’ Guide to Cooking Real Food with Your Family is a natural extension of the magazine which won a James Beard Award as publication of the year 2013. The magazine is $14.95 for four issues; while the attractive trade paperback, chock-a-block with great photos and more than 100 recipes (including an appealing sounding vegetable chili and yummy salmon burgers), is a bargain at $19.99.

Sally Sampson’s own story is also book worthy. A veteran cook and cookbook author, she is the mother of a child with a chronic illness who chose to do something “meaningful by using cooking as a way to address the obesity epidemic.” A girl after my own heart.

As I see it, cooking can be a valuable social connector for kids, teens and families — more delicious than any web experience could ever hope to be. Social networking, an obfuscation in presenting the truth about human relationships and experiences, much like the notion of reality TV, does nothing to strengthen real bonds between families and create meaningful memories of personal accomplishment and team play. The very act of cooking postulates an interesting idea that may ameliorate the growing concerns about healthy eating. If families started cooking together, and then eating together, there’s a good chance they can create healthy taste memories to last a lifetime.

ChopChop headquarters, located in Watertown, Massachusetts, is funded through sponsorships and subscriptions. Noble in its cause, ChopChop, the book, is endorsed by the American Academy of Pediatrics and will make its debut on August 13th. Put it on your shelf next to Eat Fresh Food, Liz Neumark’s upcoming Sylvia’s Table, and Lynn Fredericks’ just-published Get Your Family Eating Right! The revolution continues.

Cleaning out the Fridge

24 Jun

For the last four days I have been involved in a “secret project”– one that has required lots and lots of cooking and food photography. Sixty-two photos to be exact! My days have begun at 5:45 a.m. and have lasted up to 16 hours, at which time, the dishes would be washed (we have no dishwasher!), the shopping lists made for the next day’s shoot, and a final sip taken from a big glass of red wine. My house and kitchen, turned into a “studio” with simple lighting, an array of white plates, a cornucopia of fresh ingredients, and a very credible photographer whose work has graced the pages of magazines, books and food products for decades.

Part performance art, part circus, it required the best of spirits and the steady hands of an assistant, and at certain times two! — both of whom work as personal chefs. The rhythm to get so much done in a day was at times cool jazz and at other times a symphonic movement which could have been titled Heroica! (Beethoven). If the Marx Brothers had a theme song, that, too, might describe the mood, as we spliced and diced and chopped, steamed, broiled and sauteed, churned ice cream, and sipped and slurped the strongest iced coffee you can imagine. As a frame of reference, in advertising, getting three shots done a day is good work; in publishing a book, seven or eight shots is considered fabulous. We were pushing 16, if you do the math. The reward? Beautiful images and a refrigerator so full that it was getting warm. My fridge ‘runneth over! Up again at 5:45 a.m. this morning to sort out the wheat from the chaff, and to re-jigger odds and ends into dinner. That is, dinner for a week! Ground meat was turned into a meat sauce (I had lots of fresh tomatoes, basil and red onion), my gratin dauphinoise was re-layered with thin slices of roast chicken and asparagus; a multitude of vegetables from the farmer’s market were steamed and tossed with fresh fettuccine as a kind of room-temperature salad for lunch today; leftover poached pears, raspberries, fresh orange segments, roasted grapes and slivers of caramelized pineapple turned into a healthy dessert for tonight’s meal.

But nothing topped breakfast this morning — a slice of my husband’s dense homemade rye bread spread with leftover scallion butter (used for a creamy corn soup) and sprinkled with salt. I encourage you to visit your fridge and to visit a website called “expendible edibles” for inspiration. You may want to fry the carrot tops lurking in the vegetable drawer and scatter them atop a nice carrot-ginger soup. It’s time again to make lemonade out of lemons or better yet, make refreshing agua fresca from leftover watermelon, honeydew or cantaloupe. Recipe below (for carrot tops, too!)

Fried Carrot Tops

1/4 cup lacy green carrot tops
3 tablespoons olive oil

Wash the carrot tops and dry thoroughly. Heat the oil in a small skillet until hot. Carefully add the carrot tops and fry for 30 seconds. or until crispy and still bright green. Transfer to paper towels. Sprinkle very lightly with salt. Stays crispy for several hours.

Agua Fresca (adapted from Eat Fresh Food: Awesome Recipes for Teen Chefs)
This doesn’t require much sugar; just let the fresh fruit flavors shine through.

1/2 large ripe cantaloupe or honeydew (or leftover pieces)
1/4 cup sugar slices of lemon or lime

Remove any seeds from melon. Cut into large pieces and put in a blender with the sugar, 1 cup of water and a pinch of salt. Process on high until very smooth. You will have 3 cups of liquid. Put it in a pitcher and add 3 cups of cold water. Cover and refrigerate until cold. Pour over ice and garnish with lemon or lime. Add more sugar (dissolved in hot water), if needed. Garnish with pieces of melon, if you wish. Serves 4

Ten-Minute Cooking

13 Jun

Many years ago, Edouard de Pomiane wrote an engaging book called French Cooking in Ten Minutes.  I have loved that book for decades — more for its ideology than any recipe in particular.  Reading it gives you a sense of being “present,”  and at the brink of cooking-in-the-moment.  The book calls for quite a few ingredients culled from the cupboard, cans and such, but I was thinking of all the fresh recipes one could make gleaning the season’s best ingredients from the farmer’s market.  Those gorgeous tomatoes?  In ten minutes I sliced a whole platter of them, drizzled on extra-virgin olive oil, sea salt and ground cumin, then showered the arrangement with a blanket of freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano.  (I have recently discovered that umami-laden tomatoes have great affinity with cumin.)  Or how about a lovely pea soup laced with wasabi and mint, buttermilk and shallots?  I love the purple scallions now available at the Union Square Market and have taken to simply sautéing a pan full, with bits of prosciutto to pour over a filet of broiled bluefish.

My dear friend, Arthur (the food maven), has taken to eating “crudo” at home — thin slices of raw tuna drizzled with his best olive oil, lemon, hot pepper and salt.  You can make my 500-Degree Cod with Macadamia Butter & Radicchio in 10 minutes and roast an entire sheet pan of plump mussels at the same time.  And this is the season when nothing satisfies quite like a big juicy sun-dried tomato burger or a sirloin steak topped with Magic Green Sauce — you must try it — recipe below!  This sauce, which transforms almost anything — from a simple grilled chicken paillard to roasted asparagus to a pan full of soft-scrambled eggs (also from the farmer’s market), takes only minutes to make and four simple ingredients.

Ten-minute desserts are also exciting.  Soon will come the joy of pairing fleshy peaches with fresh basil (and a splash of peach schnapps), and fragrant strawberries under a blanket of freshly-made emerald green mint sugar.  I just brought home a quart of berries which my family loved — you can tell by their color — almost purple — that they were going to taste great.

With a nod to Pomiane, I offer, in my book Radically Simple, more than three dozen salads, perfect for this time of year, in a chapter simply called “10-Minute Salads.” ‘Tis the season.  Check it out.

Magic Green Sauce (from Radically Simple)
From a platter of tomatoes to a juicy charred steak, this is a sauce that transforms.  The flavors coalesce so that even guests who don’t think they like cilantro probably will.

1 cup packed fresh cilantro leaves with a bit of their stems
1/2 cup capers, plus 2 tablespoons brine
2 tablespoons chopped scallions, white parts only
6 tablespoons olive oil

Combine the cilantro, capers, brine, and scallions in a food processor.  Slowly add the oil and 2 tablespoons water; process until almost smooth.  Add salt and pepper.

Papaya Queen

8 Jun

You are all, no doubt, familiar with Papaya King — the famous stand-up dive known for questionable papaya drinks and hot dogs and such.  Do I sometimes go there? Yes.  Maybe even today as the temperature soars to above 90 degrees.  I am reminded of the place because of an article sent to me from an Israeli newspaper (Ha’aretz) by a friend.  The title?  The Power of Papaya.  The friend?  Gerd Stern.  A renaissance kind of artist-poet-foodie-past President of the American Cheese Society, who is currently finishing an opera and is “artist-in-residence” somewhere in the world as I write this.  The author of the piece, Rachel Talshir, writes that “it is reasonable to assume that people who say they hate papaya just ran into a bad one the first time around.”   While I am a huge lover of mangoes (really one of my favorite treats), I do not, as a rule, covet papaya.  Perhaps I ran into a bad one as a kid.  Whereas, my grandparents had a gorgeous old mango tree in their backyard in West Palm Beach (I can still remember the taste from 50 years ago! — I was very young), papayas were scarce and just not around.  No one talked about them much.  There are several varieties of papaya and they are nutritional powerhouses containing an abundance of vitamin A, B and C, calcium, iron, phosphorus, potassium and folic acid.  Perhaps we should all take another look.

Almost ten years ago, in my book Desserts 1-2-3, I created my first recipe using papaya:  Coconut-Glazed Papaya with Papaya-Lime Cream.  And all this using only three ingredients.  As it was written in the headnote, “There are many varieties of papaya available today, but the sexiest and most perfumed is one known as strawberry papaya. Graceful and tapered, about 1 foot long, its meaty flesh is bright reddish-orange.  Cream of coconut is used as a glaze — which not only sweetens the fruit but blackens a bit under the broiler, imparting a curious flavor note.  It is also used to make the lime-kissed cream.  And if you like the notion of exploiting an ingredient to the max, as I often do, then make a coconut sorbet to top off the whole thing:  mix an additional 1/2 cup cream of coconut with several tablespoons of lime juice and 1/2 cup water and freeze in an ice cream maker.”  Recipe below.  In the Israeli newspaper, other ideas using papaya were offered — as a carpaccio with pistachios, grated hard cheese, lemon and olive oil; as a salsa mixed with pineapple, red onion and red pepper, as a shake (with frozen bananas and cashews) and even as a soup.   I have even toasted the seeds until dry and then pulverized them to use as a “spice” over other tropical fruits.  Crazy, great.

As Ms. Talshir goes on to say, “Papaya’s basic influence and its ability to balance the body’s acidity noticeably enhance the wakefulness of those who eat it.”  An irresistible notion, for sure.

Coconut-Glazed Papaya, Papaya-Lime Cream (from Desserts 1-2-3)

1 large ripe strawberry papaya, about 3-1/2 pounds
1/2 cup cream of coconut
5 large limes

Cut papaya lengthwise into 5 wedges.  Remove seeds and discard.  Remove flesh from one of the wedges and cut into large pieces.  Place in the bowl of a food processor with 1/4 cup cream of coconut.  Great the rind of 2 limes to get zest and add to processor.  Cut limes in half and squeeze to get 6 tablespoons juice.  Add to processor with a pinch of salt.  Process several minutes until very smooth.  Cover and refrigerate until cold.  Preheat broiler:  Pour 1 tablespoon cream of coconut over each papaya wedge to coat completely.  Add a few drops of lime juice.  Slash each across the width into sections, about 1-1/2 inches apart.  Place on a broiler pan and broil several minutes until papaya is glazed and blackened in some spots.  Let cool.  Serve with chilled papaya cream and slices of remaining lime.  Serves 4

Chive Flowers

23 May

Running into Chive Flowers at the Park Slope farmer’s market last Saturday was like greeting a long-awaited friend. Every year in late May, I expect to see her spiky lavender hat atop her long spindly green stem, waving to me in the gentle breeze.  At that moment, for I am never sure exactly when she will arrive, I smile inside and sometimes outside, too. I buy a big bunch of chive flowers in anticipation of one of my favorite warm-weather soups:  Cauliflower Vichyssoise with Chive Flowers (and parsley oil).  Yet despite the lack of warmth, or sun, I still run to the store to buy a large cauliflower, vibrant flat-leaf parsley, leeks and light cream, to make a radically simple soup for supper. You may be astounded to know that the beautiful soup in the photo below is made with only six ingredients.  Four for the soup; two for the parsley oil.  This is the supreme example of what radical simplicity in cooking means:  “When things taste of themselves,” said the great French gastronome Curnonsky.  It is the philosophy that underscores each dish in Radically Simple — and all in 140 words or less.

Chives are the only species of allium native to both the New and the Old World.  Its name comes from the French word cive, from cepa, the Latin word for onion.  I’m smiling now, too, thinking of how once upon a time, a baked potato with sour cream and chives was the height of sophistication for me as a child.   Having recently seen the remarkable Werner Herzog film, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, about cave paintings dating back 32,000 years in France, makes the 5,000 year old use of chives seem rather modern.  Nonetheless, they have been deployed as both food and medicine since then.   You will find much chatter and many good ideas for cooking with chives and chive flowers at seriouseats.com.  In the following soup, which is classically made from potatoes and leeks, both the chive leaves (straws) are used and the edible flowers pulled apart.  It is a dish of many virtues and healthy as can be.

Photo Credit: Quentin Bacon

Cauliflower Vichyssoise with Chive Flowers (adapted from Radically Simple)
This more healthful riff on classic vichyssoise is still luxuriously suave.  For a stunning presentation, blanch a bunch of parsley and puree in a blender with 2 tablespoons olive oil, 1/4 cup water and salt; add a swirl to each serving to dance on the white velvet background.

2-1/2 pound cauliflower, or 1-3/4 pounds florets
2 large leeks
1 cup light cream
1 bunch chives with chive flowers

Break the cauliflower into small pieces and put in a 4-quart pot.  Add 5 cups water (water will not cover the cauliflower) and 2 teaspoons salt.  Chop the white parts of the leeks to get 1-1/2 cups.  Wash well; add to the pot.  Bring to a rapid boil; reduce the heat to medium.  Cover and cook until the vegetables are very soft, about 24 minutes.  Cool 5 minutes.  In 2 batches, puree in a food processor until ultra smooth, adding 1/2 cup cream to each batch.  Transfer to a bowl; add salt and pepper.  Cover; refrigerate until very cold.  Add water or additional cream if too thick.  Garnish with chopped chives and flowers, and optional parsley oil.  Serves 6

Crunchy Salmon with Wasabi Peas & Lime

18 Mar

A few days ago, my friend Lauren C. was browsing the web and came across a recipe she was crazy about, salmon with wasabi peas and lime. It was a recipe from Bon Appetit from a few years ago. It turned out that the recipe was mine — one of the few times that credit was given in the Internet’s vast virtual cookbook –which delighted her (and me) even more. In the true spirit of radical simplicity, this is a dish that requires only a handful of ingredients and can be put together in less than 15 minutes. Wasabi-coated peas — the 21st century’s new snack food — once the darling of specialty food stores and now available in every 7-11, get crushed to smithereens and packed onto thick fillets of fresh salmon to form a crunchy topping. Whereas these little peas are searingly hot, their spiciness lessens as it cooks. At the same time the salmon roasts in a 400 degree oven, slivers of red cabbage and sugar snap peas get flash-cooked in an oil-slicked wok, to form a gorgeous bed upon which the salmon sits. It is at once beautiful and delicious. My 14-year old daughter is still a bit squeamish about eating fish but she loves to crush the peas in a small plastic bag and then smash them with a rolling pin. Alternatively, it can be done in a food processor. This is a great warmer-weather dish, one that is inherently healthy, and gets you in and out of the kitchen in a flash. All you need to do is cook up some fragrant jasmine rice and pour yourself an icy glass of sauvignon blanc.

Here’s the recipe:
Crunchy Salmon with Wasabi Peas & Lime

3/4 cup wasabi peas, about 3 ounces
4 6-or 7-ounce thick salmon fillets
1 large lime
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 cups sugar snap peas, about 6 ounces
3-1/2 cups finely shredded red cabbage, about 10 ounces

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Put the wasabi peas in the bowl of a food processor and process until powdery, but still with tiny pieces. Sprinkle the fish with sea salt. Pat the crushed peas onto the fish, making sure that the top is evenly coated. Grate the zest of the lime and sprinkle onto the top of the fish. Drizzle with 1 tablespoon of the oil. Place the fish on a rimmed baking sheet. Bake for 10 to 12 minutes, until the fish is cooked through but still moist. Meanwhile, trim the ends of the sugar snap peas. Heat the remaining tablespoon of the oil in a work or large skillet. Add the red cabbage and sugar snaps and cook over high heat, stirring constantly for 5 minutes, or until the vegetables are crisp-tender. Add salt and pepper to taste. Remove the fish from the oven. Cut the lime in half and squeeze juice over the fish. Transfer the vegetables to 4 large warm plates and top with the fish. Serve with additional lime wedges, if desired. Serves 4

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