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Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Natural Foods Cooking Retreat – Day 2

On the second day of our Natural Foods Cooking Retreat Chef Jenny had the perfect segue from Day 1 into our early start on Day 2. She had made sure that we poached some extra pears from the previous night's dessert and turned them into a beautiful breakfast beginning. The sweetness of the poached pears and tartness of the Greek yogurt made for perfect contrasting flavors in my book.

Poached Bosc Pears with Tart Greek Yogurt and topped with Ginger Crumble
We got very busy building breakfast at the beginning of Day 2
I was thrilled to get some new healthy breakfast recipes because so many cookbooks and other resources for natural foods often ignore this important first meal of the day. One group made Spiced Apple, Buckwheat and Oat Porridge. It was very thick, satisfying and the perfect comfort food to warm up a cold winter's morning. We served it with our own handmade nut milk using almonds that were soaked overnight then blended in purified water. Chopped Brazil nuts topped it all.

Spiced Apple, Buckwheat and Oat Porridge simmered and filled the kitchen with great aromas
Scrambled Tofu was the beginning of our spicy Fijoles recipe that had all of trimmings to make your own breakfast tostadas.

Tofu Scramble with onions, red bell peppers and lots of Mexican spices.
Tofu Frijoles Bar
Breakfast of Champions plate with Tofu Frijoles Tostada, Porridge and a Breakfast Bar Bite
We also learned how to make our own High Protein Breakfast Bars with only the healthiest ingredients at a fraction of the cost of commercially produced energy bars. These snacks are sweetened with honey and loaded with flaxseeds, hemp seeds, almonds, and fruit. We call them "Breakfast Bars" but they make a great snack anytime of the day.

High Protein Breakfast Bars disappear very quickly
For the egg lovers we made a great Chard and Leek Frittata. It tasted right out of a pricey restaurant menu but had inexpensive wholesome ingredients. Chopped thyme and oregano kept it really fresh. I could eat this every morning and even make sandwiches out of it hot or cold!

Chard and Leek Frittata
It was time for a break as Day 2 involved two complete meals. As great as breakfast tasted it was just the first half of the day's menu. We returned to some knife skills tips and quickly put them to work making the classic Holy Grail of all soup starters, Mirepoix. We diced carrots, celery and onions as the base for a trio of soup recipes.

Basic Lenti Soup (right), Moroccan Red Lentil Soup (left) and Thai Style Lentil Soup (rear)
Mike works the greens in the food processor
Jenny did a really interesting experiment with flavoring. We all started with the Basic Lentil Soup and she passed around a plate of seasoning options. We added each individually and noted their impact on the soup. Surprisingly, salt was neither the one that was preferred nor even the most interesting. For me it was fresh lemon juice that hit it out of the park.  I now plan have lemon wedges for squeezing right next to the salt and pepper shakers accompanying more of my meals.

Clockwise: Lemon Juice, Parsley, Sea Salt, Miso and Balsamic Vinegar flavoring add-ons.
Hands down for me the Moroccan Red Lentil Soup was the winner. When red lentils are well cooked they melt and get an incredibly creamy texture. It is rich in both taste and protein. Just before serving we tossed in some chopped chard which added color, freshness, texture and another layer of flavor.

Moroccan Red Lentil Soup
The next recipe pleasantly surprised me because I was introduced to Delicata Squash. We were all talking about the popular Butternut variety and how it tastes great but is also very hard. Delicata is not only easy to cut but you can also leave the skin on. I love how its stripes almost resemble grill marks.
Maple Roasted Delicata Squash
Here Rebecca and Nancy cut the squash into crescent shapes for even roasting in the maple syrup.

Freshly Toasted Pumpkin Seeds stand by to provide crunch
We tossed Arugula in a vinaigrette that included some maple syrup, folded in the roasted squash and topped it with toasted pumpkin seeds for crunch. This salad was super simple to make but was unique, colorful and a certain guest dazzler.

Maple Roasted Delicata Squash Salad
My closing shot is another Jenny gem for dessert. Never forgetting how many chocolate lovers and those with a serious sweet tooth are out there she capped another great day of food with Chocolate Mousse Parfaits. This dessert was decadence with a difference. The secret ingredient that added great texture and healthy fats was avocado. Yes, you read this correctly. You CAN sneak veggies into a dessert that will delight and impress. We topped it with a fresh Raspberry Coulis and chopped Brazil nuts. YUM! More will follow in my recap of our final Day 3 coming soon.

Chocolate Mousse Parfait

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Natural Foods Cooking Retreat – Day One

In the spring of 2009 I took a great Natural Foods Cooking Class in Santa Cruz, California from local natural food guru, Chef Jennifer Brewer. It was such a great experience that I made seven posts about it that you can read right here. So when Jenny contacted me recently to try her new three day condensed version of the program I knew I just had to be there to see the redux.

Baked Sweet Potato Fries with Garlic Chipotle Aioli Dipping Sauce
WHAT!?! Since when did fries and aioli dipping sauce make it onto a list of healthy foods? Since Chef Jenny Brewer has come along to show us how foods that taste great can also make you feel great. And that bit of word smithing is exactly how Jenny began our three day journey into more healthy cooking that really appeals. She asked all of us to make two lists and bring them to the first class:

 1. What are your three most favorite foods?

 2. What are the three food that make you feel GREAT when you eat them?

The difference between these two simple questions is not only profound but exemplifies a huge contradiction in our diets. So many of the foods that people crave and make them happy to eat actually make them feel awful after consumed because of their high fat content paired with lack of nutrients. Jenny put our answers to these questions into two columns on the white board.

Jenny Brewer's Taste Great vs. Feels Great Foods Chart
I kept flashing on the popular the Miller Lite Beer campaign from a few years back, "Great Taste, Less Filling." Most of the foods in the left hand column called Taste Great are comforting because they are so high on the flavor scale. But with that flavor normally comes runaway fat content so our body isn't nearly as happy as our mouths. Notice all of the whole foods that are rich in vitamins and minerals on the right hand column called Feels Great. What I love about Jenny Brewer's approach is that she never denies that the Taste Great foods are delicious. Jenny is the first to admit she too has a weakness for many of them, especially great breads. So instead of preaching to us or scolding anyone for loving tasty foods she focuses on bridging the gap between the two lists with her three "F"s: Fat, Flavor and Fun. When you know how to combine a little fat, a lot of flavor and make it fun then a nutrient rich diet of natural foods is not always a compromise.

After a short lecture we broke into groups to make our Day One Menu. Clockwise from the bottom of the plate here was the fare:

1. Nori Rolls filled with Sunflower Seed Paté, carrots/cumcumber/avocado/sunflower sprouts
2. Baked Sweet Potato Fries with Garlic Chipotle Aioli dipping sauce
3. Twice Cooked Tempeh Chunks with Cilatro-Hemp Seed Pesto
4. Kale with Avocado Salad and simply Olive Oil and Lemon Juice
5. Kale and Tahini Salad with Brown Rice

Natural Foods Cooking Retreat – Day One Sampler Plate
The other thing I really like about Jenny Brewer's classes is the heavy emphasis of hands-on. Jenny had two assistants and seven attending this retreat so the ratio of staff to students was almost one to two. Everyone got lots of hands-on time.

Chef Jennifer Brewer in the middle flanked by her assistants, Erin (left) and Elizabeth (right)
The staff had all of the recipes nicely prepped for us upon our arrival. Prepping ingredients and tools makes cooking half the battle. One really cool advantage of taking a class at New Leaf Market on the west side of Santa Cruz is the kitchen right is inside their incredible store. Any ingredient you could possibly ever need is just a few steps out the door of the kitchen.

All recipes are good to go and ready for execution.
"Fries" right out of the oven with just a pinch of potato starch to give that crunchy "Fry Feel"
Steve and Nancy from Sacramento work all the veggies for the Cilatro-Hemp Seed Pesto sauce
Dueling Kale Salads – Tahini/Miso on the left and simply Olive Oil/Lemon Juice on the right

Victoria peels a Bosc pear for our nutrient dense dessert.
Even though we were all completely satisfied by our first five courses of vitamin and mineral rich recipes there's always room for dessert, right? Jenny came up with a real winner that included two classic cooking techniques, poaching and reducing. First we poached Bosc Pears in their own juices, cinnamon and vanilla bean and then reduced the cooking liquid to a thick rich sauce. We also made a Cashew Date Cream by just blending soaked cashews in water and giving them a good pulverizing in the blender with filtered water, dates and vanilla. It was 100% dairy free and tasted unbelievably rich. Topping both these tasty sweets was a Ginger "Crumble" combining walnuts, flaxseeds, coconut, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger and dates. It was the perfect texture punch to create a really decadent dessert that was actually nutrient dense.

Poached Bosc Pear with Cashew Date Cream and Ginger Crumble
After learning, cooking and eating all of this great food there was not an unsatisfied customer in the house. But as Jenny says NSNS..."Never Starved Never Stuffed" is the way of the healthiest diet. And all of this tasty food left everyone with the same great feeling. We were completely satisfied but also eager to return for Day Two and so the story will continue in my next post.