The Goodness of Raw Materials
Chef Mary Ann Kiernan calls it “the mystery box of produce.” Every Thursday at this time of year Kiernan and her husband pick up a carton of fresh vegetables at a local health food store, as part of a community-supported agriculture (CSA) program from a nearby farm.
A recent box yielded peppers, radishes, tomatoes, lettuce, carrots, kale, eggplant and beets. “We’re chefs, and sometimes we’re getting things in this box that we’ve never seen before,” Kiernan says. “To us, it’s fun. It’s Christmas every Thursday.”
But as a nutrition and food studies instructor in the Falk College of Sport and Human Dynamics, Kiernan has seen the trepidation in students as they face a mystifying selection of vegetables.
“People are afraid to jump in because they don’t know where to start. It might be intimidating to those who aren’t confident in the kitchen,” Kiernan says.
Kiernan will take the fear out of improvising healthy meals with a hands-on cooking class for faculty and staff Sept. 30 from 5:30-8 p.m. in 226 Lyman Hall. Sponsored by the University Wellness Initiative and Healthy Monday Syracuse, the class will combine cooking techniques for vegetables, information on CSAs and how to incorporate meatless meals into a regular diet, along with emphasizing the Mediterranean-style of cooking and eating.
Part of the Healthy Monday initiative, Meatless Monday encourages people to eat a more plant-based diet to reduce their saturated fat intake, which can help prevent chronic disease.
“We’re going to break down the box, but I’m not going to hand out menus and recipes. We’re going to wing it,” Kiernan says. “I’ll have a good idea of where to guide the participants but they are going to start the conversation about what to cook.”
Keep it together
Kiernan, who teaches a course in restaurant operations, emphasizes simple combinations when struggling with how to pair items. “I teach everybody if it grows together, it goes together. If it all came in that box, then you can’t go too far off,” she says.
Kiernan helps students understand the basics of food preparation and encourages them to experiment. “If you know the basic method, then you can open up the palate,” she says. For example, “Understand the difference between dry and moist heat. If you take something that’s spicy hot and you cook it in a dry method, it’s going to enhance the heat. If you cook it in the moist method, it will lessen the heat impact.”
Recipes need only be a guide. Kiernan might pull a flavor profile from a cookbook or a recipe online, but rarely does she stick to the recipe. With braised beef, she’ll gather herbs and onions and brown the meat before adding liquid, but she finds inspiration from what she has on hand.
“As you expand your profile and your own palate, you know what will taste good with something,” she says. “You open your cupboard and see what works, so you’re not running out to the store for every meal.”
Like they do in the Mediterranean
All of this good eating has a lot to do with Kiernan’s mindfulness about unhealthy consumption that has permeated the American diet, leading to obesity and related diseases. “If we can just be mindful of what’s going in and where it comes from, we can get away from the word ‘diet,’” Kiernan says. “It’s about doing good for our whole center of being, and I actually think that we’re on the tipping point of people realizing we can’t continue to eat the way we have been in the last 30 years.”
Kiernan emphasizes the basic tenets of Mediterranean cooking, and the proof from the populations that live it. “If you look at the cultures that live long in the Mediterranean, why are they able to eat cheese every day and great sauces, and not have the health issues we do? They eat olive oil; they eat lots of seafood; they walk a lot,” Kiernan says. “It also goes to how you are cooking things and consuming in moderation.”
Kiernan recommends checking out the nutritional website http://oldwayspt.org, which shows what portions to eat daily or weekly when following the Mediterranean style of eating, including cooking with olive oil or other unsaturated fats. It suggests the following:
- 2 cups of vegetables daily,
- 2 pieces of fruit daily,
- 2 portions of whole grains daily,
- 1 glass of wine for women and 2 glasses of wine for men daily,
- 2 portions of fish weekly,
- 2 portions of legumes/beans weekly,
- a small handful of nuts or seeds daily, and
- 2 or less portions of meat a week.
With these generic guidelines, you can mix with any flavor profile, not just Mediterranean. “It doesn’t have to be olive oil or certain vegetables,” Kiernan says.
This all takes time and preparation, but to Kiernan it’s worth it. “Instead of racing through life, slow it down and think about it,” Kiernan says. “Don’t make your food life an afterthought—make it a forethought, and the rest will fall into place.”
Kiernan’s class is limited to 20 participants and is available to faculty and staff only. A $25 program fee covers the cost of food. Click here to register for the class. For more information, visit the University Wellness Initiative website at http://wellness.syr.edu or email email@example.com.