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For Nina Planck, keeping it simple when it comes to food doesn't mean boring or unimaginative - but it does mean getting back to healthy basics and bucking what she sees as food fads masquerading as healthy - namely low-fat, no-cholesterol, and no red meat.
The daughter of a Virginia farmer, Planck, who describes herself as a reformed vegetarian, is the creator of London's first farmers markets and the author of the best-selling "Real Food: What to Eat and Why."
Planck lives in New York City and Stockton, N.J., with her husband Rob Kaufelt, proprietor of Murray's Cheese, and their three young children. She will appear at Bank Square Books in Mystic on July 10 to talk about her just-published "The Real Food Cookbook: Traditional Dishes for Modern Cooks" and enjoy a potluck supper with attendees.
The following is an exclusive Daybreak interview with the author about her new book.
Q. What was the turning point, the catalyst, that made you realize 'a low-fat, vegetarian diet with perhaps a bit of fish' wasn't the only healthy one?
A. I was walking the London Farmer's market and saw that 'the eaters' were eating everything nature gave us: butter, cheese, beef, pork, lamb, raw milk cheese. And I saw that they were not only enjoying themselves but appeared very healthy. So I began to wonder if I was mistaken about the low fat diet and cholesterol hypothesis.
Q. How is this new cookbook different from your previous books?
A. It tells 'the eater' what the farmer knows about fruits and vegetables - how to cook all the real foods nature made and why to do so. Why the whole milk? Why the grass-fed beef? Why wild spot prawns? There's no nutrition in this cookbook, but it's the cookbook I needed when I moved from low-fat vegetarianism to conscious omnivore.
Q. Why do you think, as David Kamp (author of "The United States of Arugula") says, your book is "The antidote to the faddists, alarmists and kooks who all to often dominate American food discourse"? What irks you/do you feel is unhealthy about so-called healthy eating?
A. The raw kale craze is completely kooky on two counts. One, kale is one of the vegetables that's more nutritious when cooked. Two, I don't have four stomachs and don't want to chew my food all day. It's tough, not a tender leaf. God or nature did not intend for you to eat a pound or two of kale in one sitting, which is what juicers do. I'm keen to see the kale food craze pass. You could eat chicken broth for a week and get much more nutrition than from juices that cannot supply all the necessary nutrients. I have a candidate for the next kale: Purple sprouting broccoli. It's easy to grow, has outstanding flavor, chefs will love it, and it keeps nicely in the fridge and it makes a nice green, leafy vegetable with qualities that are so healthy.
Q. You describe your recipes as simple yet sophisticated? People often think the ingredients and/or preparation needs to be complex to be sophisticated. Can you give a few examples of simple yet sophisticated recipes in the book?
A. I think that 'White Chicken Stroganoff with Dill' is simple yet sophisticated. It's easy to make but crème fraiche and dill and a good chicken with white breast meat will taste great. It's simple and tastes and looks sophisticated. And then there's the method of cooking. 'Beef Burgundy,' 'Ossoboco,' and 'Beef Tacos' are the three braises in the book. Three spins on the same method. 'Zucchini Carpaccio' is simple yet sophisticated. People love to get a plate of this as a first course or side dish. It could not be easier. You shave the zucchini with a vegetable peeler.
I also mean by 'simple' that it's the opposite of fussy. I don't like fussy preparation or displays.
Q. What is your philosophy about cooking /eating vegetables?
A. Buy, cook, serve, eat lots of vegetables, and let a lot of vegetables rot. That is my secret. Vegetables are like a river, you need a good flow of vegetables through your kitchen or you're not eating vegetables. Vegetable needs salt, a fat and a flavor. I like butter or olive oil for vegetables - I particularly like butter on carrots and it does help you convert the beta-carotene into Vitamin A. I love olive oil on greens. And vegetables need a flavor - herbs or garlic or a spice - or a flavor like pork fat or bacon. These are not earthshaking culinary inventions. People who come to our house for dinner love my vegetables. I treat them with respect; they're not an after thought.
Q. Why is high-fat butter OK?
A. It tastes better than lower-fat butter. Most European butters and good American butters have higher fat. Also cultured butters are very nice-they have a slight tanginess and more complex flavor that would compare with sweet cream butter. To a wider point, it just turns out that natural saturated fats don't affect your cholesterol in unhealthy ways. We know with certainty that man-made saturated fats - the trans fats in margarine - can give you heart disease.
Q. What is the secret behind finally coming up with a chicken soup that your husband approved of and rivaled the one his mother made?
A. Good pastured chicken meets with a lot of flavor and stock with a lot of gelatin in it and hence, a lot of flavor, and also you get a silky texture. (Also), lots of onions, carefully softened, and, when you're sick, ginger, which is nice for a cold.
Q. What do the desserts in the book have in common?
A. I am not a baker - that's important for everyone to know - although there are some simple breads and cookies. The desserts really represent my personal favorites: fruit, dairy and chocolate.
Q. Why do you think your health has never been better since you began eating and cooking this way, using traditional foods?
A. My mental health has never been better because I'm a liberated omnivore. My physical health has never been better because I have all the nutrients I need, especially the fats, the complete proteins, and the fish oil. I always ate a lot of vegetables- I was never a junk food vegan.
Q. You have young children. How do they take to this kind of cooking?
A. Our children love to eat and they love to cook. They love to participate in the culture of food in the house. And our children know there is real food, there are treats, and there is junk food ... I have my own rules for sober and healthy eating.
Q. Anything you'd like to add?
A. My cooking is really foundational cooking in that I start with good ingredients. I want to be able to feed everybody well so they all take pleasure in it. I do consider cooking a form of service ... this book is suitable for both the novice and the experienced home cook.
"The Real Food Cookbook" (Bloomsbury) by Nina Planck is $32, hardcover, illustrated.
Cream of Corn Soup with Red Pepper Sauce
Nina Planck notes that fresh corn is easy to get this time of year and frozen corn is very high quality, so this soup can be made all year long with equally great results. Serves 8.
2 pounds fresh or frozen sweet corn kernels
4 tablespoons butter, olive oil, or a mix
2 cups milk (plus more for thinning optional)
1/4 cup cider
1/2 teaspoon salt
Cream or stock (optional)
Sweet bell pepper sauce or hot red pepper oil (see recipes below)
If you're using fresh corn, cut the kernels off the cob into a bowl, reserving any liquid. For more flavor, simmer the stripped cobs in the milk. If you're using frozen corn, defrost and drain the kernels.
Dice the onion.
In a large pot, heat the butter and/or olive oil and sauté the onion until it's quite soft.
Add the corn to the onion and sauté until it's just soft.
Add the milk, cider, and salt to the onions and corn. Cook until it simmers. Do not boil.
Combine it all in the food processor and season with cayenne to taste. If the soup is too thick, thin it with more milk or cream or stock to taste.
Dribble pepper sauce on the soup or serve it on the side.
Sweet Pepper Sauce
Slice a sweet red pepper and saute it in olive oil until very soft. Whiz in food processor until completely smooth.
Hot Pepper Oil
Dice and gently saute a hot red pepper in olive oil until soft but not brown. Let it sit in oil for at least one hour. Strain. You can also whiz a raw hot pepper to make a nice thick orange oil. The flavor will be quite different.
Rob's Ricotta Pesto
This is Nina Plank's husband's recipe. "I love cold herb sauces of all kinds. Rob's ricotta pesto is mild, smooth, creamy, summery, and, like any pesto, easy," she says. Serves 4.
2 cups loosely packed basil leaves
2 cloves garlic
1/2 cup ricotta
1/2 cup olive oil
1/2 cup Parmigiano-Reggiano
Salt and pepper
1 pound pasta
Boil lots of salted water for the pasta you prefer.
Put all the ingredients in the food processor and whiz until very smooth.
Taste and season with salt and pepper.
Cook and drain the pasta, leaving it a little moist, and toss it with the pesto while it's still warm. Serve at once.
What: An evening with cookbook author Nina Planck
Where: Bank Square Books, 53 W. Main St., Mystic
When: July 10 at 6:30 p.m.
Also: If you would like to cook one of Planck's recipes to share in a potluck style dinner, visit the store for help picking one out; or, just attend for a meal and a discussion with Planck about her cookbook
Info: Call (860) 536-3795 or firstname.lastname@example.org