15-20 Story 2: Ethnic Cooking and Baking Without All the Guilt

 

Synopsis: America is a melting pot of many nationalities, races and religions, each with its own traditions and cuisines. Some of the food that is so loved by families across the country isn’t the healthiest, however, and can cause obesity, blood sugar problems and heart issues. We talk to two experienced cooks and an award-winning baker about how they are trying to make ethnic dishes and baked goods a bit healthier while maintaining the flavors and textures of the traditional dishes.

Host: Marty Peterson. Guests: Caroline Randall Williams, co-author of Soul Food Love: Healthy recipes inspired by one hundred years of cooking in a Black family; Leah Koenig, author of Modern Jewish Cooking: Recipes & customs for today’s kitchen; Joanne Chang, owner of Flour Bakery + Café, Boston and Cambridge, MA, author of Baking with Less Sugar: Recipes for desserts using natural sweeteners and little-to-no white sugar.

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Healthier Ethnic Cooking and Baking

Marty Peterson: Restaurant food is undergoing a big change these days. Diners are insisting on more fresh ingredients in their dishes, as well as healthy fats and lean meats in both American-style and ethnic eateries. Home cooks are also trying to create dishes for their families that are less fatty, use less processed ingredients and more locally grown vegetables. Although finding good ingredients is getting easier, sometimes creating your favorite dishes isn’t – especially if you come from a culture that uses heaping helpings of bacon fat, butter, refined flour and white potatoes in its cuisine. There are cooks who are trying to remedy that situation, however. Two of them are Caroline Randall Williams and her mother, Alice Randall, authors of the cookbook, Soul Food Love: Healthy recipes inspired by one hundred years of cooking in a Black family. Caroline Randall Williams says that cooking was important to her family through five generations, but the high-fat, high-calorie dishes they loved wreaked havoc on their health…

Caroline Randall Williams: Of the five women in the book, four of them – my two great-grandmothers, Dear and Alberta, my grandmother Joan and my mother – all in some point in their lives managed to reach over 200 pounds eating the kind of food that they loved and working within the confines of this history. And so my mother, when she wrote that Op-Ed for the New York Times on Black women and fat, she said that she wanted to be the last fat Black woman in our family. There was this spirit of wanting to maintain the memory and the spirit of the food, and some of the flavors of the food that these women cooked that I’ve found familiar and delicious, but then wanting to eat with that memory in mind that do better by my body than they managed to do.

Peterson: Those flavors include hot peppers, cayenne, chili flakes and even sesame seeds, which Williams says African mothers would hide in their hair so they could feed their children while traveling to the West aboard slave ships. She has several recipes for hummus and one for “Red Spread” that you don’t usually connect with American soul food…

Williams: A lot of the fun of researching this book is going all the way back to the foundational roots of where soul food began, where the Black experience in America began. And it began in Africa, and I love North African food. So the Red Spread is really closer to a Baba Ghanoush which is a Middle-Eastern dish that also is popular in Northern Africa, and together, again, with humus. So any of the eggplant, the red pepper, those are all vegetables that are very available to us. And I want to invite anyone with a preconceived notion about what soul food is, to allow those things to be claimed as soul food too.

Peterson: One soul food staple, fried chicken, isn’t in her repertoire. She says that there are lots of things that can go wrong when you fry the bird at home, and besides, you can even make a tasty version of Nashville’s famous “hot chicken” without all the breading and fat…

Williams: We like to say in my family that fried chicken is the “bad boyfriend” that tastes so good but you really gotta kick him out. And that roasted chicken one you can bring home to your mom. So I really encourage people to step away from the frying skillet and start contemplating their roasting pan. I have a spicy pepper chicken, but it’s a roasted chicken that I teach you how to crisp up the skin really well when you’re roasting it. Then I think that that’s a really, happy, delicious alternative to a fried chicken meal. You want to feed your family’s bodies as well as their souls.

Peterson: Leah Koenig says that Jewish cooks also serve a lot of chicken at their tables, and they use rendered chicken fat – or “schmaltz” – in their cuisine. In her cookbook, Modern Jewish Cooking: Recipes and customs for today’s kitchen, she shows how you can still cook traditional Jewish meals with these ingredients as long as they’re eaten in moderation…

Leah Koenig: Some of the dairy foods have a lot of full-fat sour cream and cottage cheese, and there are several recipes in the book where I say these recipes embrace those ingredients and don’t eat them all year around. But if you’re going to have – I have a noodle kugel in the book which is like a noodle pudding that uses full-fat sour cream, full-fat cottage cheese, sugar, eggs, the whole works – and in the headnote I say this is an amazing recipe, make it once a year, enjoy it with your friends, and then don’t make it again for another year. But keep it as part of the tradition. And then, the way that I sort of offset that and have a healthy outlook is the majority of the recipes use a lot of vegetables, and a lot of whole grains and lean proteins, so really it’s a balance.

Peterson: Balancing the higher fat foods with healthier ones like vegetables isn’t difficult, if you know how to cook them in interesting ways, like her Miso-roasted Asparagus and Pan-roasted Turnips. Koenig, who is in her early thirties, says that as a youngster she wasn’t a big fan of many vegetables because they were cooked in a way that made them rather unappetizing. The method of cooking is important because it can bring out the flavors and textures of vegetables that many people shy away from…

Koenig: A lot of people in my generation grew up with kind of soggy, boiled or steamed-to-death vegetables, and I think for good reason sort of shied away from them and sort of decided we didn’t like broccoli or Brussels sprouts or any of those things. And roasting is obviously and ancient way of preparing foods, but in the last 10 years or so, people have sort of rediscovered it for American cooking. And you’re starting to see people re-embrace the Brussels sprout or embrace the cauliflower in a way that they hadn’t before because when you roast a vegetable it really brings out it’s natural sweetness and gives it this little caramelized edge. So I think people are rediscovering vegetables, and that makes me really happy.

Peterson: Jewish holidays and their dietary traditions sometimes dictate the menu. Koenig says that frying foods during Hanukah, such as her Beet Latkes with Chive Goat Cheese, and all of the different fritters that are popular during this holiday, needn’t be high-fat dishes if you use the technique of “shallow frying” rather than deep-frying…

Koenig: The main difference between deep and shallow frying is, again whether or not you have to flip it. And so I was just making sure that when people were doing some frying, which comes up especially around the holiday of Hanukah in Jewish cooking because all the foods they eat around Hanukah are meant to be sort of “oil-focused” because of the miracle story that the holiday celebrates. So I wanted to make sure that people knew when they were either deep or shallow frying, the best ways to do it, the right temperature, what type of oils to use, and ways to, to splatter less, and how to be successful, and really how to have your heat at the right temperature so that the food is crisp without kind of soaking up too much oil and being really heavy and really soggy.

Peterson: Baking is a place where refined sugar is usually among the first items in the recipe, and you can’t really do much about it, right? Joanne Chang says that you can. Chang is the co-owner and pastry chef at Flour Bakery + Café in Boston and Cambridge, Massachusetts. She was also a nominee for the 2015 James Beard “Outstanding Baker” award. In her new book, Baking with Less Sugar: Recipes for desserts using natural sweeteners and little-to-no white sugar, Chang says that she laid out her book to show ways to reduce the amount of refined sugar and replace it with more natural types…

Joanne Chang: We have one chapter in which it was just less sugar. So we’re still using white sugar, but we were using up to a half or a third of the amount of sugar. And then the other chapters are, there’s a maple/molasses chapter; there’s a honey chapter; there’s a chocolate chapter, and then there’s a fruit chapter.

Peterson: Using these substitutes can be a little tricky. Chang says that sugar not only sweetens baked goods, it determines their texture and color as well…

Chang: One of the things that sugar does is it is hydroscopic, which means that it attracts moisture in the air. So when you have something that has sugar in it, it’s naturally going to remain moist for longer because it’s going to take moisture from the air, water from the air and then absorb that into itself and then make it stay moist. So when you’re baking with less sugar, then you have to recognize that things aren’t going to stay fresh as long, they’re going to stale really fast. Another thing that sugar does is that it caramelizes in the oven, and so it allows things to become crispy and crunchy and chewy. And another thing that it does is it colors the final product and so items made with less sugar actually come out really, really blonde. And it can be really difficult when you’re baking because a lot of times we bake by sight, and so we’ll look at something and thing, “Oh, that’s still too pale. I’m going to keep it in the oven.” But when you’re baking with less sugar the items will stay pale, regardless, so you have to be really careful with your baking times.

Peterson: Chang says that white sugar is refined to the point where all the nutritional minerals are removed and what’s left is just the “sweet.” Using reduced fruit juices, dates, maple syrup, molasses and honey will maintain that part of the baking equation and provide some valuable minerals in the mix. And, she says, you can make a lot of tasty baked goods by substituting natural sugars for white…

Chang: We did a lemon ricotta cupcake with a cream cheese frosting that’s made just with honey. I did a carrot cake with cream cheese frosting that’s made with just fruit juices. There’s a pecan-based shortbread cookie that’s made with just dates. There’s a gingersnap cookie recipe that’s made with just some molasses and a little bit of maple syrup. We have Double Chocolate Whoopee Pies that just uses the chocolate as a sweetener. And chocolate does have white sugar in it, but in this chapter we just used chocolate, we didn’t have any additional white sugar added to the recipe.

Peterson: All of our guests say that part of the joy of cooking and baking is watching people enjoy their products. With moderation, and a few cooking tricks, it’s not difficult to eat a healthy diet that’s also tasty and satisfying. You can find more recipes for low-to-no white sugar baked goods in Joanne Chang’s book, Baking with Less Sugar, and visit her website at Flourbakery.com. For traditional Jewish recipes with a contemporary, healthier twist, pick up Leah Koenig’s new cookbook, Modern Jewish Cooking, also on her website at LeahKoenig.com. You can find a history of cooking through five generations of African-American women along with updated, healthy versions of family favorites in Caroline Randall William’s cookbook, Soul Food Love. She also invites listeners to her website at Soulfoodlove.com. You can find more information about all of our guests on our site at Viewpointsonline.net. You can also listen to past shows there and on iTunes and Stitcher. Our show is written and produced by Pat Reuter. Our production directors are Sean Waldron, Reed Pence and Nick Hofstra. I’m Marty Peterson.

 

 

 

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