Thursday, May 3, 2012

Napa Valley: Healthy Kitchens, Healthy Lives, the Dessert Flip & Toasting Quinoa

Did you think I’d forgotten to post about the remaining days at Healthy Kitchens, Healthy Lives (HKHL)? Definitely not.  I’m a bit of an in-the-moment person and the intervening posts were just that.  With the piece published in the New York Times recently, thoughts of HKHL were brought back to the fore.  However, separate posts devoted to each of the four days after the fact seem too lengthy, so I’ll give you just enough detail about the remainder of the conference to whet your appetite.  Maybe you’ll be in the group of attendees in one of the years to come?  (Not so well kept secret: each year, there is talk of expanding to different locations, so if you’re not near Napa, attending may not be as far-fetched as you might now imagine.)

As mentioned in the previous HKHL post, the conference is geared toward a variety of professionals including physicians, nurses, dieticians, other healthcare professionals, chefs, insurance and healthcare executives, school foodservice directors, teachers, journalists, lawyers, business people, etc.  For this reason, there were full group events (aka. plenary sessions) that touched on interests of most and then breakout sessions to either discuss topics of more specialized interest (or just discuss them in a more intimate way) and, of course, to get our hands dirty in the kitchen!  It’s no surprise that the hands-on kitchen sessions were the highlight for most.  A close second - the winemakers in attendance who happily lubricated the conversation at tasting events throughout the weekend.   In my opinion, this was key.  While the group was technically international, the majority of folks were from two camps – laid back West Coast vs. suit and tie (and lots of Harvard professor types) East Coasters.  As someone that has now been part of both worlds for nearly 6 years each, I appreciated the age-old ability of wine and good food to erase (or at least blur) the line between the two camps.

A few well-received plenaries and workshops included: “What We Know About Opportunities to Optimize Our Diets” with Dr. Walter Willett, “The Latest Online Tools for Weight Management” with Dr. Mark Berman and “Food, Health, and Sustainability: A Range of Emerging Perspectives” with Dr. Christopher Gardner and a variety of other presenters.

The kitchen sessions covered everything from “Vegetables: Inspiration from World Cuisines” to “Healthy Cooking with Nuts & Legumes.”

Click here to see an example of the most recent schedule.

Pastry Chef Steven Durfee’s demonstations on the “dessert flip” have been a perennial favorite since the first HKHL conference in 2007.  What is a dessert flip?  It is the welcome invitation to do away with low-fat, fat-free, sugar-free, tasteless chemical-ridden substances that masquerade as desserts in supermarkets across the country and embrace the delicious, rich versions that the aforementioned are poor imitations of. 

How is this healthy?  Well, for starters, there are no 2,000 Calorie portions of cheesecake a la Cheesecake Factory.  The point is to have small portions of a decadent dessert you actually crave and serve it alongside a larger portion of something healthier, like berries, instead of the traditional large dessert with a mint leaf and single berry added for garnish.  For example, a bite-sized piece of cheesecake and a bowl of mixed berries, a couple chocolate-covered strawberries or dried fruit dipped in chocolate and nuts.  Another option is to reclaim a French standard – the fruit and cheese plate. 

Fruit and Cheese Plate
Photo courtesy of Salad Style
Does this really work? Sure it does.  Think of the last really amazing dish you ordered at a restaurant.  Which bites tasted the best?  The first ones.  I don’t know about you, but I’d much rather have those first two amazing bites of the real thing than a whole plate of an unattractive cardboard-like dessert.  The bonus – absolutely no guilt, because you didn’t gorge yourself.  Definitely a win-win.

Here are a couple pictures: (insert dessert flip pictures here – one with berries, one just showcasing small desserts)

Fresh Fig Tart with Blackberry Sauce and Cinnamon Cream
Photo courtesy of Diary of a Sweet Tooth

Mini Vanilla Cheesecake with Raspberry Couli and Fresh Raspberries

Photo courtesy of desertculinary
On to a more savory topic - Whole Grain Additions to Every Meal with Chef Tucker Bunch.  More specifically, quinoa.  I remember teaching cooking classes and looking out on blank faces when I said, “quinoa.”  No more.  It seems this grain has permeated menus across North America.  Quinoa originated in the Andes.  It was held to be sacred by the Incas.  Quinoa is gluten-free, high in protein and cooks quickly.  Unlike other wheat and rice, it contains all of the essential amino acids and thus is an especially good choice for vegetarians and vegans.  When I chatted with attendees of Chef Bunch’s class, the thing that most intrigued them was that grain could be toasted.  As someone who loves quinoa and lives with a skeptic who disliked the slightly vegetal flavor of plain quinoa, I’ve found that toasting the grain in oil to a medium brown before cooking in water or broth completely eliminates the vegetal quality and brings a savory earthiness to the grain that gives it wider appeal.  Below is a picture of quinoa toasting in a pan. 

Quinoa toasting in a saute pan

To toast, preheat the pan over medium heat, add a small amount of bland flavored oil that can stand up to some heat (like canola oil) and coat the pan with it while allowing the oil to heat, then add the quinoa to the pan in a single layer and stir occasionally until toasted.  You only need enough oil to barely coat the grains.  Below is a picture showing the difference in color between toasted and untoasted quinoa.

Left: Toasted quinoa, Right: Untoasted quinoa

The bonus: if you toast quinoa, there’s no need to rinse it ahead of cooking.  For those of you not accustomed to preparing quinoa, the raw grain has a bitter, naturally occurring, compound called saponin which makes it unpalatable to birds and insects and limits the need for pesticides.  It is easily removed by rinsing thoroughly prior to cooking in liquid or inactivated by toasting.  After toasting, add the appropriate amount of water for the amount of grain you’re making (to find grain to liquid ratios of most of the grains you’re likely to encounter, see the post on Cooking Whole Grains.  Quinoa, unlike most other whole grains, cooks quickly – generally in about 10-12 minutes.  Yep, that’s faster than white rice!  It’s no wonder that this grain - originally the fare of poor farm workers in South America - has now become so valuable that those that grow it can rarely afford it. However, it has also brought more money to those same workers.  Here's an article that gives more information on the nutritional benefits and political controversy surrounding the grain.  Since I started cooking with it in 2001, the price has increased by ten times.  Come to think of it, my frequent teaching about quinoa is not helping me hold down the price of my dinner!

Speaking of dinner, the picture below shows finished quinoa that I made for dinner the other night.

Quinoa Pilaf (made from half toasted and half untoasted grain) 

It is half toasted and half untoasted quinoa cooked in seasoned vegetable broth.  Quinoa is done just as the center of the grain is turning from opaque to brownish-clear and the curl around the edge is just beginning to unfurl on a few grains in the pan.  If most of the curls are unfurled, it’s a good bet that the quinoa will be on the mushy, overcooked side.  My approach is usually to bring the liquid to a boil, stir in the quinoa, cover the pan and immediately turn heat to the lowest setting, cook for 10 minutes and then pull the pan off the heat and let it rest at least 10 minutes while I’m finishing the other parts of the meal (or whatever else you feel like doing).  I then fluff the quinoa with a fork to break up any clumps of grains before serving.  This method usually produces perfectly cooked quinoa.

The final day was bittersweet, filled with thankfulness to have met new and caught up with old friends, made new business contacts, reconnected with the part of medicine I’m most passionate about, wined and dined, and, for me, returned to the part of the country that I consider home. It was hard to believe that the time had passed so quickly and it was time to return to the day-to-day responsibilities of being a medical resident in Boston.  For all of these reasons, Healthy Kitchens, Healthy Lives is a bit of a magical experience for those interested in changing lives for the healthier. 



  1. Hi Michelle, I've been really interested in your chef methods and I have a unique few ideas in my head regarding a concept restaurant I am aiming to open. Would it be possible to get in touch with you somehow perhaps via email or skype? Please let me know right away, thanks and regards.

  2. You can send me an email if you click on my user name in case I can't see your response here, thanks again.


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