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Saturday, May 30, 2009

Final Class On Sweeteners Is Bittersweet

It is Week #8 and most of us arrived at New Leaf Community Market a little sad because our two month culinary journey into the amazing world of natural foods is concluding.

About the only problem with this course was the subject matter was so extensive and encompassing that we only had time to scratch surfaces. Under the direction of our leader, Chef Jennifer Brewer we not only learned basic chef's skills but also how to make the absolute healthiest foods for our bodies taste great. Every subject we covered could be an entire course in itself.

Our final homework assignment was to bring in a recipe that we created or amended enough to put our own stamp on it. My propensity for show and tell dictated once again that I actually bring the dish for everyone to taste instead of just hand out the recipe. One of my favorite appetizers is a fusion of sorts where burritos meet aram sandwiches. This first picture shows my Mexican Roll Ups which MUST be served with guacamole and salsa. As comfortable as I am with my guac recipe I am the first to admit I don't do salsa. So I put the word out to my classmates and was rescued by Julie and Helda. At the bottom of this shot is Julie's tropical mix with mango and pineapple. Helda delivered four varieties (three green and one red) on which we all voted for our favorite. Jenny agreed that since it was the last day of school a party was certainly appropriate.

So after all of the fiesta frolicking I had started we finally got down to business and Jenny talked about the many choices of unrefined sugars out there. Jenny's main point was that not all sweeteners are created equal and she drove the point home beautifully by feeding us cookies. She baked four batches of her Gluten-Free Jam Dots but used a different sweetener for each one. The results were dramatic with no two versions being even close to alike. The moral of the lesson was to make sure you experiment with your sweeteners especially when the recipe calls for a granulated sugar.

And then came our final exam! We paired off in teams of two and were handed bags of secret ingredients prepared by Jenny and Lydia. The rules were as follows:

1. You must use everything in the bag
2. Your recipe should serve 6 to 8
3. Pantry and Fridge items are available but no shopping in the store
4. Make one dish or as many as you like
5. One Hour Time Limit

Along with the pantry and fridge Jenny had grabbed her usual stash of fresh organics which were also available to us and considered legal for our contest.

On one level this exercise is fun, creates team building and competitive spirit but it also defines cooking and exemplifies chefs. Anyone can simply follow the steps of a recipe but great chefs take it to the next level by interpreting them to maximize tastes, flavors and textures. I believe that you move from cook to chef when you are handed any ingredient and can turn it into something tasty.

Jenny was surprised but delighted by the our efforts. She said for the most part we created dishes that were unexpected for the ingredients but they were all in keeping with her methods and cooking philosophies.

So what's next? We were just half way though this great adventure and I was already having withdrawal symptoms. What will I look forward to now on Thursday nights? My suggestion is a dinner club for all of us who cherish this wonderful food. We will be cooking again and I will be back to tell you all about our new Natural Foods Dinner Club.

So here is one last parting shot of the entire graduating Class of 2009. Our sincere thanks to Jenny for sharing so much of her knowledge and serving such a truly great experience. Bon Appetite & A Santé!

Monday, May 25, 2009

"S" Stands for Sprouting, Sushi, Superfoods

Our mentor, Chef Jennifer Brewer, touched a lot of bases in our next to last class. The topic of sprouting kicked things off and we learned that whether a sprouting bag or mason jar is used the easiest things to sprout are wheat, lentils, sunflower, almonds and mung beans. Jenny had used this sprouting bag to prepare some French lentils for our Sprouted Lentil Spread.

The Soak-Rinse-Sprout steps seem easy enough with a little patience and most of the sprouts will come to life in one day with a good 8 to 18 hours in the bath. Jenny recommends the following websites as great resources:

1. Chet Day's Health & Beyond - www.chetday.com
2. Sproutpeople - www.sproutpeople.com
3. New Natives - www.newnatives.com

And just when I thought Sushi was only for highly skilled specialized Japanese chefs we learned how very easy it is to roll your own. The coolest thing about doing it yourself is that you can load it with only your favorite stuff. Here Jenny demonstrates just how easy it is to begin the roll as Bonnie and Kristin observe.

There was also no shortage of good stuff for inside our rolls including organic avocado, carrots, smoked tofu and cucumbers. Lydia also showed us how to make fresh rice paper rolls.

Although the term "Superfood" has become a little trendy we focused on five heavy hitters that are bound to make anyone's list. Miso, Chia Seed, Nutritional Yeast, Hemp Seed and Açai were all included in tonight's recipes.

Rounding out our menu tonight were Grilled Portabello Mushrooms made with a Ginger Infused Sherry Teriyaki courtesy of Julie who created the sherry and so generously brought a bottle for everyone to take home. Add a green salad with Avacado-Hempseed Oil Dressing, Grain-Free Chia Crackers with Sprouted Lentil Spread and this plate was absolutely jammed with tasty nutrition.

Although it was not very photogenic we finished all of this Superfood Sushi Sensation with a refreshing Açai "Ice Cream" dessert. But, of course, it was dairy free and got it's smooth sweetness from frozen banana, raw cashew butter, vanilla, raw chocolate powder and agave nectar.

If reading this blog is making you hungry, don't feel bad. I am signing off now and hitting my local New Leaf to grab the stuff I need try some of these Super recipes tonight.

Until next time, keep it healthy and tasty.

-That Carl Guy

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Eat It Raw! Healthy Culinary Method Uses No Heat

This week we had a substitute teacher. Her name is Lydia Simmons and she is no stranger to our class because every week she assists our regular teacher, Chef Jennifer Brewer. Lydia is a graduate of Bauman College in Santa Cruz and she is a personal chef who specializes in preparing meals designed for you body and health goals. Lydia's company is called Mindful Meals.

Lydia tackled the very trendy subject of raw foods. There is a whole movement of people who believe that applying heat to food removes or at least reduces the nutritional qualities. Lydia showed us not only how to "cook" without cooking but make the flavors really pop. This first shot is of her posing with a spiralizer device which really turned out to be an integral part of two dishes we made.

As usual there was a plethora of fresh organic ingredients available for us to prepare our evening in the raw.

Tonight's fare included a very satisfying menu and absolutely no heat was applied.

1. Angel Hair Squash Noodles in Sun Dried Tomato Marinara
2. Marinated Veggie Kabobs
3. Save-the-Tuna Wraps
4. Oriental Noodles
5. Pecan Sandies

Jenny offers a quick lesson in chopping herbs as Bonnie and Bill look on.

The other spiralizing machine made delicate angel hair like shavings of our fresh zucchini squash. This process was fun and it illustrated how textures play an even more important role in raw foods.

Looking more like a tool you'd find in a machine shop this spiralizer literally turned raw Daikon into wide noodles for our Oriental Noodle salad with dates, fresh ginger, snow pea pods and a tahini dressing.

My group prepared the Angel Hair Squash Noodles in Sun Dried Tomato Marinara. It was all ready to serve but we waited to combine it until the last minute in order to keep the consistency right. We also made a faux Parmesan topping out of cashews, garlic and salt.

As our dishes came together this shot shows the faux tuna wraps, oriental noodles and marinated vegetables. I still cannot believe how much like tuna it tasted with just a mixture of apples, celery, onion, parsley, garlic and sunflower seeds.

No Natural Foods Chef Training would be complete without dessert. Even the world of raw foods has a solution for the proverbial sweet tooth. Our completely raw meal was capped with Pecan Sandies shown here in a close up shot.

So whether you go full raw and never light a match to foods again or just experiment with this unique preparation the benefits of eating enzyme rich food in it's raw state is worth considering. Our meal was certainly not lacking in flavors or satisfaction.

Our thanks to Lydia for showing us just how great food can taste in its natural state.

-That Carl Guy

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Beans And Sushi Make A Surprising Match

The Class Five subject line was a little scary: Beans, Legumes and Sea Vegetables but we quickly learned not only about their nutritional punch but also how great they can taste with just a few readily available spices.

The protein power of beans is pretty commonly known but their ability to curb obesity was a surprise to me. A recent Real Age study found that bean eaters weigh about 6.6 pounds less than non-bean eaters. We also learned that the lowly bean is high in vitamins, minerals, flavonoids and other cancer fighting food components.

Speaking of minerals the amazing factoid of the class for me was about sea vegetables. Yes, that gnarly seaweed you hate to step on at the beach has some amazing nutrient power. It offers the broadest range of minerals of any food, containing nearly all of the minerals found in the ocean which are amazingly the same minerals found in human blood. Among the most popular are Arame, Dulse, Hijiki, Kombu (kelp), Sushi Nori and Wakame.

As unlikely as the bean and seaweed combination sounds our mentor,Chef Jennifer Brewer, explained that cooking them together tenderizes the beans and enhances disgestion without sacrificing fiber.

A trio of soups was on our menu tonight so we logically kicked things off making the holy trinity of aromatics that the French call mirepoix. This fancy sounding concoction is nothing more than two parts diced onion to one part each diced carrots and celery. It is the basis for nearly every traditional French stew and soup.

We used mirepoix as a base for three lentil soups. We served them as a trio in one bowl as they were as thick and delicious as stews. Shown here are Basic Red Lentil Soup, Indian Red Lentil Soup featuring garam marsala spices and Thai Style Lentil Soup with coconut and curry.

And to complete our super soup and salad bar we made a Sea Vegetable Noodle Salad that featured soba noodles and was just packed with fresh Asian flavors.

We had begun the evening by splitting into three groups and fencing off in a competition to see which group could build the tastiest hummus. We stretched the textbook definition of hummus a bit by using not only the traditional chick peas but a variety of beans as well. And for dipping into the hummus we actually made a gluten free Rice Flour Chapatis or flat bread. Chili peppers, cilantro and cumin made this little cakes just burst with flavor.

Things can get really hectic in our training because it is a hands-on class. This wide shot shows the dozen chefs-in-training going about their assigned tasks which all contribute to the complete menu.

But there is always time to take a quick photo break. Here from left to right pouring over the sizzling cook top are Cheryl, Patty and Kristin. That tasty trio of lentil soups did not come without some serious nurturing over the hot pots.

And finally there was dessert. Ten out of twelve of these students are women. So how do you win over this decidedly female class? You simply make chocolate one of the flavors for dessert. Only Jenny Brewer would not just stop at chocolate. In order to make this dish special and nutritious our recipe called for black beans in it. Yes, warm Black Bean Brownies topped with a raspberry sorbet had all the decadence of a molten cake plus some nutritional value.

My parting shot from Week #5 is of the chocoholics, Julie (left) and Erin who did not seem to mind much when presented with the task of making our dessert. The final portions were kind of small which might have been a factor of how much tasting they did during assembly.

Stay tuned for next week when we cook in the raw!

-That Carl Guy

Friday, May 1, 2009

Do The Local Motion With Seasonal Veggies!

At the midway point in our Natural Foods Chef Training it was all about seasonal and local vegetables. If you care about the sources of your food here are four great links to bookmark.

1. The Community Alliance with Family Farmers. Here you will find great information on buying fresh from local farms. www.caff.org

2. Food Routes is the place to learn about buying local, sustainable agriculture, grass fed and organic products and food safety. www.foodroutes.org

3. Locavores is a group of Northern Californians who are challenging themselves to eat only foods grown or harvested within a 100 mile radius of San Francisco for an entire month. www.locavores.com

4. Sustainable Table celebrates local sustainable food, educates consumers on food-related issues and works to build a community through food. www.sustainabletable.org

What better way to kick off our session on local produce than with a visit from Mark Mulcahy. Mark is the founder of Organic Options, a leading organic education and consulting company. Mark is a prominent speaker and moderator at natural food events as well as a regular industry columnist and producer of his own monthly newsletter, Fresh Perspectives. Mark also just happens to be the produce coordinator for the New Leaf Market so he gave us many insights on the Santa Cruz food scene.

Both our cart and counter definitely overflowed with super fresh, organic, locally grown veggies tonight. The aromas hit our noses and the essences sparked our senses the instant we walked into class.

However, Chef Jennifer Brewer made us earn our choice of dishes to prepare with a bit of a palette challenge. We broke into groups and were asked to identify eight mystery ingredients in a dip she made. This type of taste testing is a key element in cooking. It was also lots of fun to pick out flavors, some of which were obvious and many quite subtle in the mix. The benign celery sticks served as a logical scooping device.

And then the magic began when we performed a variety of cooking techniques on all these beautiful works of nature. My group came in second place in the taste test and we chose to make the Spring Vegetable Ragout over Grilled Polenta Wedges. We actually shelled the English peas and dismembered artichokes just to get to the hearts. The whole dish came together beautifully simmering in dry white wine, vegetable stock and fresh thyme.

There was also no shortage of Asian aromas filling the cook top as another group was tossing together a Shrimp Stir Fry while simultaneously making a Vegetable Coconut Curry. If those flavors weren't bold enough, they also made Thai Curry Paste.

And just when I thought we had hit all the flavor bases along came an amazing Composed Salad with White Beans in a Meyer Lemon Vinaigrette. A composed salad is such a refreshing way to serve and present. Rather than tossing the ingredients together in a traditional fashion they are arranged in separate mounds. It is both upscale and playful at the same time.

And speaking of playful, my parting shot catches Jenny (on the right) and her trusty assistant, Lydia Simmons partaking in the evening's fare. It always makes the students feel good when the pros dig in and enjoy our efforts.

Until next week from the Land of Nutritious & Tasty,
That Carl Guy