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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.

The Birthday Weekend

18 Apr

Asellina is a modern day tribute to the owner of an ancient Pompeii tavern operated by a “freewoman” named Asellina.

For those of you who remember the “scene” at Canastel’s (on Park Ave South and 19th St.) in New York City, decades ago, there is an equally hip (now slightly older) crowd at Asellina.  Located in the Gansevoort Hotel on 29th and Park, the Saturday night boasted good-looking guys in sports coats, and gorgeous women wearing, truly, the highest heels and shortest skirts we’ve seen in awhile.  Despite the teeming hook-up vibes, there was something quite refreshing about it all.  Like the good old days, where those kinds of impulses were palpable and desirable and it made you remember what sex was once all about –because it wasn’t the sex but the promise:  What was different about it all?  NO ONE was sitting with their iPhone — chatting, texting or pretending to be otherwise engaged.  Everyone was on the prowl, looking or begging to be seen.  They were drinking, eating and talking!  No wonder I loved it.  It was so old-fashioned.  Some of the guests were from the cool hotel perched above where an indoor/outdoor pool is nestled on the roof next to their popular bar.

We wouldn’t have experienced any of this if not for the 15th birthday of our daughter.  Our gift to her was an overnight in a New York hotel with a handful of her friends.  A teen-friendly place where there was a pool and a sense that you were someplace far away.  We loved telling our waitress that we had just arrived from…Brooklyn (!) with suitcases in tow.  Clearly we had come the shortest distance for such an adventure.  Despite the long wait to check into our room, the hotel staff was really accommodating and eager to please.  They outfitted the large room with a Wii for the girls to play with and encouraged their squealing and giggling at the pool.  Dinner (more about that) and a sleepless happy night amidst all those teens. In the morning we lit up a box of donuts, each with their own candle, and had a friendship circle in our pajamas sitting on the floor.  The girls drank organic lemonade and wished each other good things.  An afternoon movie, The Soul Surfer, proved that anything was possible. Not a bad message when you turn 15.  Happy birthday, Shayna.

But here’s an unexpected nod to the food at Asellina.  It was delicious.  It didn’t matter at the time; we were there and we needed someplace to eat.  But it was some of the cleanest, most authentically, Italian-tasting, unadorned, spot-on food we’ve had in awhile.  A great eggplant tortino with fresh ricotta and and cheese fonduta; top-notch meatballs with cannellini beans, culatello (prosciutto-like) and fontina, simple grilled calamari with sauteed asparagus and oven-dried tomatoes, and my husband’s happy-making thick spaghetti with perfectly cooked clams and various bits of seafood.  Not a gratuitous piece of parsley in sight.  We imagined ourselves in Sardinia, sunny and warm, despite the teeming rain and chill in the air that evening.  The restaurant glowed with fireplaces and libidinous energy and promises of birthdays to come.

A Balaboosta Brunch

9 Mar

In honor of the 100th year celebration of International Women’s Day yesterday, the Consulate General of Israel in New York sponsored a wonderful brunch at Balaboosta on Mulberry Street. Owned by rock star mom and chef, Einat Admony, over fifty fabulous women came to listen to music, drink pomegranate mimosas, and celebrate women’s achievements during the course of the last century.  We have certainly come a long way (and yet in some countries, Egypt for example, it is not so true.)  Yesterday was dear to my heart because it acknowledged the achievements of women in professional kitchens:  executive food editor Gabriella Gershonson of Saveur magazine, did an insightful job interviewing Einat “live” for Shalom TV.  Einat, very much her own woman, wearing chef’s whites and, instead of a toque, sported two long youthful ponytails, had worked in several of New York’s great restaurants, including Bolo and Tabla, when she decided to buck the system and become a mother and a chef — and do them both well.

This, I know from personal experience, is not easy to achieve.  Many women chefs have consciously, or not so consciously, chosen to follow their professional calling, often at the expense of having a family.  Einat has wowed New York’s young food passionistas (my word) with her restaurant Taim and more recently with Balaboosta, a word of soulful, joyful meaning.  It is a Yiddish notion that describes (in a respectful way) the proficiency of a woman as being a good wife and mother and ‘captain’ of the house.  It’s an old-fashioned concept, yet there are young women today who certainly fit the description.  Two women I’m thinking of in particular, Robin Adelson and Helen Kimmel, who run amazing households, also have impressive professional lives as well.  It is this dual aspect of balaboosta-ness that is very today.  And I shall now add Chef Admony to this exclusive group.   The food itself was also dear to my heart as I was the one, in 1986 (as Chef-Director of Baum + Whiteman worldwide), who created New York’s first pan-Mediterranean restaurant called Cafe Greco on the upper East Side. That was 25 years ago!  If you read the menu today, you would think it had just opened.  Bryan Miller, food critic of the New York Times, gave it a glowing 2-star review and said that “this was going to be the next great food trend.”  I called the cuisine “Med-Rim” — meaning a fusion of the “kitchens” of the Middle East and the countries whose borders hugged the Mediterranean coastline.

Balaboosta, along with Barbounia and Taboon, are restaurants in New York who do this kind of food well.  It is an exciting palate of flavors and colors, and much of the food is inherently very healthy.  I especially loved yesterday’s labneh (thick slightly salty yogurt) with its puddle of excellent olive oil and za’atar.  Other dishes included crispy fried olives, shakshuka (baked eggs in tomato and herb sauce), homemade pita, hummus, and pistachio baklava.  That, with some virtuosic clarinet playing by Anat Cohen, and spirited conversation among some awesome women, made it feel especially empowering to be a balaboosta — if only for a few hours.

In honor of the day, here is a recipe for my za’atar pesto.  It takes one minute to make!

My Za’atar Pesto
Za’atar is a khaki-colored spice mixture that includes dried hyssop, sumac and sesame seeds.   Use this as a great dip for cherry tomatoes and pita chips.

1/2 cup za’atar (buy it from a Middle Eastern food store)
1/3 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
1/3 to 1/2 cup olive oil

Stir everything in a medium bowl.   Makes about 1 cup.

Homemade Jams and Jellies

28 Nov

Homemade cream cheese and carrot marmalade

Writing about making homemade butter and cream cheese in yesterday’s post made my mouth water for the jams and jellies to accompany them. I have never learned how to properly “can or preserve” (although my sister-in-law loaned me a book about such things) and I don’t own a candy thermometer, which can be crucial for proper jam-making.  However, I have found various ways around this lack of knowledge with credible, and in some cases, unusual results!  One of my favorite recipes is for a jammy confection called Carrot Marmalade.  An old Egyptian boyfriend of mine taught me how to make it. “In Egypt,” he said, “jams made from carrots, dates, figs, even beets were commonplace.”  How divine they are with grilled pita bread, salty feta cheese and strong mint tea. And there are few things that I like better than fishing out chunks of hidden fruit suspended in the ruby murk of strawberry jam.  I had one of the best versions of this jam almost 30 years ago and I helped start a company called American Spoon (Foods) based on that experience.  Along with graphic artist icon, Milton Glaser, we named the company and got the first jars on the shelves of trendsetting New York food stores.  I have no idea what that product tastes like now, but I am grateful for that taste-memory.  Recently my dear friend Anu Duggal, who studied cooking with the venerated teacher Anne Willan, showed me the “french way” of jam-making — with results a close second to the one I remembered so fondly.  Again, no thermometer, just a keen eye for the proper “jell” in the pot and on the plate you put in the freezer for-a-moment to test the consistency.  It also helps if the strawberries you use are ripe and highly perfumed.  They were.  We bought them at the local farmers market up the street in Park Slope, Brooklyn at the height of strawberry season.

But the most delightful recipe of all is one I invented for kids in my book called Kids Cook 1-2-3.  It is called the Grapiest Grape Jelly.  Made with purple grape juice, honey and unflavored gelatin, it is the wobbliest, fruitiest, most delicious jelly you’ll ever eat!

Baguette, anyone?

Egyptian Carrot Marmalade (adapted from Radically Simple)
I adore this.  Serve as you would any marmalade.  It’s delicious with butter, cream cheese (see yesterday’s blog), and goat cheese, too.

1 pound carrots, peeled
2 cups sugar
grated zest and juice of 1 large lemon
1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom

Cut the carrots into 1-inch pieces.  Pulse in a food processor until coarsely ground (about 1/8-inch pieces).  You will have about 3 cups.  Put the carrots in a large saucepan.  Add the sugar, lemon zest, 3 tablespoons lemon juice, the cardamom and a large pinch of salt.  Bring to a rapid boil.  Stir and boil 1 minute.  Reduce the heat to low and simmer about 1 hour, stirring frequently.  To test if it’s ready, put 1 tablespoon of the mixture on a small plate.  Put in the freezer 1 minute.  If it becomes firm and doesn’t flow, it’s done (it will still look quite liquid in the pot).  Let cool, cover and refrigerate up to several weeks.  Makes about 2 cups

The Grapiest Grape Jelly
(adapted from Kids Cook 1-2-3)
2 cups purple grape juice
2 tablespoons honey
1 packet unflavored gelatin

Put the juice in a medium saucepan.  Stir in the honey and bring to a boil.  Lower the heat to medium and sprinkle the gelatin powder over the juice.
Using a small wire whisk, stir the gelatin into the juice until it dissolves.  Make sure there are no lumps.  Continue to cook and whisk for 3 minutes.
Remove from the heat pour the liquid into an 8-x-8 inch square glass pan.  Let cool.  Refrigerate for 3 hours, or until very firm.  Scrape up the jelly with
a spoon and put into a jar.  Keep refrigerated.  Makes about 1-3/4 cups

Ultimate Comfort

6 Nov

My 14-year old daughter loves “cabbage and noodles” as much as I did as a child.  She insists she wants to eat it every day of the year. Cabbage!  But Shayna is merely following in the footsteps of an ancient history — the one that connects generations through food and recipes. For more than 50 years my mother and I expressed our deep connection by cooking special things for each other all the time.  We used to derive the greatest pleasure by surprising the other with her favorite dish.  In my case, my mother made me cabbage and noodles — a homey Hungarian standard that she, too, ate in her childhood.  It was our ultimate comfort food and I never knew exactly when a steamy, buttery bowl would make an appearance on her dining room table.  Until the day she died, I delighted in its random offering and in the joy she showed in preparing it.  My mother would always say, “It’s not as good as the last time,” but it always was.

I have learned that some recipes, even more than photographs, provide the most intimate transfer of information from mother to daughter. As victims of a horrendous time in history, most of our Hungarian relatives never made it through World War II.  This simple dish is a witness to our past.  It is a poignant conduit of things unspoken.

Sometime in 1930, somewhere in Astoria, Queens, my maternal grandfather and great-grandmother (whose wedding ring I wear) opened a Hungarian restaurant that featured…cabbage and noodles.  Naturally. Sometime in the mid-90’s I had an epiphany:  It was the moment I realized that this complex-tasting, deeply satisfying dish was made with only three ingredients.

Marion Gold’s Cabbage and Noodles
My mother was gorgeous, inside and out.  More Zsa Zsa than Julia in the kitchen, she cooked her heart out and still managed to look glamorous. The goal in making her special dish is to squeeze the water from shredded cabbage after it is salted and left to wilt and then to “melt” it in sweet butter until it is transformed into dark golden strands.  It can be served as a first course or as a felicitous side dish with pot roast or roast chicken; or it can be eaten all by itself on wistful days.

3-pound compact head of green cabbage
1 stick unsalted butter
12 ounces wide egg noodles

kosher salt and black pepper to taste

Cut the cabbage in half and remove the core.  With a sharp knife, shred the cabbage into 1/8-inch thick slices.  Place cabbage in a large colander and sprinkle with 1-1/2 tablespoons kosher salt.  Toss well.  Cover with a plate and put a heavy object on it (a filled tea kettle) to weight it down.  Put the colander in a pan to collect any liquid or set it in the sink.  Let sit 4 to 6 hours.  Press down hard and squeeze the cabbage with your hands to extract as much water as possible.  Melt the butter in a very large skillet and add the cabbage.  Cook over medium-high heat for almost 1 hour, until the cabbage is very soft and dark brown.  Cover from time to time to help soften it. Add salt at this point, if needed.  Cook the noodles in a large pot of salted rapidly boiling water.  Cook until tender and drain very well.  Add cooked noodles to the cabbage and heat gently.  Add freshly ground black pepper.  Serves 4


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