“I’ve heard men of clergy say they were called by God,” said Orange County Register food writer Cathy Thomas to an adoring crowd at the Merage Jewish Community Center last month. “I was called to my profession by Roquefort cheese.”
Thomas, who has been named the best food columnist in America by the Association of Food Journalists, appeared at the JCC for a delicious sampling of dishes from her new cookbook, 50 Best Plants on the Planet (Chronicle Books, $35), her third teaming with Melissa’s/World Variety Produce, the nation’s leading distributor of organic and specialty produce.
“The topic resonates so much with my childhood,” she said, crediting her mom, whom friends referred to as a “health nut,” for awakening her interest in food and cooking. She recalled her bleu cheese vinaigrette, “the scent, the perky, sour taste. By the age of four or five I knew that I wanted to cook.”
The book’s subtitle says it all: “The most nutrient-dense fruits and vegetables in 150 recipes.” “Nutrient-dense” means that the 50 fruits and vegetables showcased here have the highest vitamin and mineral content when compared with total calories. “So it’s not a diet book, per se,” Thomas explained, “but more a guide to making fruits and vegetables delicious and healthful in a scrumptious way, so we are happy with what’s on our plate.”
Never before has there been more nutritional information available to us; yet as a nation we are plagued with adult and childhood obesity and alarming rates of type 2 diabetes. I asked Thomas why this is so.
“For one thing, people have a hard time consistently eating enough fruits and vegetables,” she said. “That’s really too bad, because they’re so delicious. People don’t realize that with a little effort you can make a dish so delicious you could serve it to the queen of England if she were coming to dinner.”
Case in point, the tempting lunch arrayed before us with recipes from the cookbook prepared by the JCC’s own caterer, Blueberry Hill: Cream of Mushroom Soup with Green Onions; Belgian Endive Boats with Green Olives, Parsley and Walnut Salad; Gai Lan (that’s Chinese Broccoli to you and me) and Cauliflower Frittata; Grilled Watermelon with Feta and Balsamic Reduction and Skinny Cheesecake Parfait. This is health food?
For people who don’t know their kale from karaoke, Thomas offered some easy tips for incorporating more high-density nutrients into their diet.
“Every night, make a salad and incorporate things you don’t ordinarily eat. Last night I threw in blackberries, which are one of the most nutrient-rich fruits, and it was so good. When I come home every afternoon, I put up water to boil, and by the time I get ready to cook, I can blanch green beans or whatever I want to have that evening in a few minutes. Then I have a bright green vegetable ready to go.”
What’s the most nutrient-dense vegetable on the planet? Would you believe asparagus? (You were going to say kale, weren’t you? It’s in the top ten.) The most nutrient-dense fruit is blackberries.
One of Thomas’s favorite recipes in the book (and mine) is this luscious take on Brussels sprouts, a popular vegetable on so many menus these days, from Broadway’s (Laguna Beach) Chef Santana’s version, deep-fried with sweet and sour sauce, she told us, to Chef Quinn’s of Playground (Santa Ana), roasted and then tossed in a mustard-honey vinaigrette. “The chefs in Orange County are warring it out over Brussels sprouts,” Thomas quipped. “They’re drawing a line in the sand.”
Thai-Style Carrot Soup with Chrysanthemum Leaves packs a nutritious punch with tons of flavor and only 120 calories per serving. Adjust the heat by adding dried red pepper flakes to taste.
The next chef luncheon at the JCC will take place on Friday, April 12, when Israeli clinical nutritionist Orly Zic will take us on a culinary tour of Israel, with photos and descriptions, from Tel Aviv, Galilee and Jerusalem, covering those off-the-beaten-track special wineries, restaurants and cheese and spice farms, followed by a delicious luncheon of Israeli specialties. For reservations go to www.jccoc.org.
Pan-Caramelized Brussels Sprouts with Pistachios and Dried Cherries
Sweet dried cherries and crunchy pistachios add a just-right spark to seared-and-steamed Brussels sprouts.
Yield: 4 to 6 side-dish servings
¼ cup coarsely chopped dried cherries
3½ teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil
14 ounces (about 25) small, tightly closed Brussels sprouts, trimmed, halved top to bottom
1½ teaspoons butter
Coarse salt (kosher or sea)
¼ cup coarsely chopped roasted pistachios
1 In a small bowl, combine 1/3 cup warm water and cherries. Set aside.
2 Put sprouts in a bowl; drizzle with 2 teaspoons of the oil and gently toss to lightly coat them.
3 Heat butter and remaining 1½ teaspoons oil in large skillet on medium heat. When butter melts, shake handle of skillet to swirl butter with oil. Place sprouts cut-side down in single layer (pan shouldn’t be sizzling hot, or exteriors will overbrown before interiors are cooked). When they begin to brown, sprinkle with salt and cover; cook until bottoms are nicely browned and interiors are tender-crisp, about 5 minutes, reducing heat if needed.
4 Add water and cherries to pan; increase heat to high. Cook until water evaporates and sprouts are nicely caramelized. Transfer to a platter. Scatter pistachios on top and serve.
Thai-Style Carrot Soup with Chrysanthemum Leaves
You may find chrysanthemum leaves in Asian markets. While they add a lovely floral scent, the soup is still delicious without them.
Yield: 8 servings
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 pound carrots, peeled and coarsely chopped
1 large yellow onion, chopped
2 stalks celery, chopped
2 garlic cloves, chopped
3 tablespoons chopped unpeeled fresh ginger
3½ cups fat-free, low-sodium chicken or vegetable broth
1 cup light coconut milk
1/3 cup fat-free evaporated milk
3 tablespoons fresh lime juice
2 tablespoons creamy peanut butter
2 tablespoons brown sugar or maple syrup
2 teaspoons seasoned rice vinegar
1½ tablespoons fish sauce
1 teaspoon Asian (roasted) sesame oil
½ teaspoon ground coriander
½ teaspoon ground turmeric
¼ teaspoon dried red pepper flakes
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
½ cup finely chopped fresh chrysanthemum leaves
1 In large pan or Dutch oven, heat olive oil over medium-high heat. Add carrots, onion, celery, garlic, and ginger; cook 5-6 minutes, stirring occasionally, until onion is translucent. Add broth, coconut milk, evaporated milk, lime juice peanut butter, sugar, vinegar, fish sauce, sesame oil, coriander, turmeric and pepper flakes; bring to a boil. Cover, reduce heat and simmer 25 to 30 minutes, until carrots are very tender. Remove from heat.
2 Using a ladle, remove 1 cup broth and set aside. Process remaining soup in batches in food processor or blender until smooth; hold lid down with pot holder if using blender. Taste and season with salt and pepper. If soup is too thick, stir in all or some of reserved broth.
3 If making ahead, refrigerate, covered, up to 24 hours. Gently simmer on low heat until reheated. Ladle into soup bowls. Garnish with chopped chrysanthemum leaves.