Cooking up a Fresh Feast
Zoe Helene interviews The Organic Gourmet, Leslie Cerier
Photos by Tracey Eller
|There’s a reason Leslie Cerier teaches at some of the finest spas and retreats, and there’s a reason her classes are so popular. Twenty plus years of wisdom and amassed expertise, authenticity, warmth and passion certainly help. Leslie’s classes are informative and fun Leslie specializes in whole foods and organic cuisine. Her cookbooks are packed with information about how to eat local, seasonal and organic foods that are delicious, good for you, and good for the planet. She’s the author of five cookbooks, including Gluten-Free Recipes for the Conscious Cook, Going Wild in the Kitchen, and The Quick and Easy Organic Gourmet. She has earned the trust of wellness professionals and students alike, especially for her expertise in healing foods, grains and gluten-free cooking, and transforming potentially dull special diets without sacrificing flavor and satisfaction.|
What exactly is ‘seed-to-table’?
Seed-to-table cooking is a celebration of the earth’s bounty. It’s about adapting to fit what’s fresh. It’s about creating recipes from what you just picked from the garden or what the farmer just harvested. It’s about composing a dish by walking through the organic farm or garden and letting the beauty and the bounty inspire you, then taking that happy feeling into the kitchen and cooking up something luscious. I love baking pies with fillings that reflect the bounty of the season. I just posted a blog about that.
What are some of the benefits?
You know your food. You follow the chain of the food from the ground to your mouth. You understand its origin, its quality, and its potency. I want to know what’s going into my body.
Then what would be the ideal food scenario?
The ideal is local, seasonal and organically grown.
OK. Let’s break that down. Why local?
Local is the most fresh you can get, and there’s nothing tastier. Plus, fresh is more nutritious. Also (and this is important) buying local supports local farms and people who love putting their hands in the soil. The heart and soul of the gardener goes into the food that goes into your body. And of course local also means you don’t truck it across the country, so next-to-no carbon footprint. The goal is to be part of the solution and respect the environment by making the lightest footprint while still feasting.
Feasting sounds great. OK, so why seasonal?
Seasons are different everywhere. In certain places in California you can harvest most of the year. I live in New England where seasons are distinct and often extreme. We’re seeing fascinating innovation in local greenhouses to prolong seasons, especially now we’re already experiencing climate change and weather is getting more and more unpredictable. There are some foods that store well, like root vegetables from autumn harvest and some things like parsnips and carrots that can be ‘over wintered’.
What’s that mean, ‘over wintered’? That’s new to me.
It means leaving ripe vegetables stored in the ground over the winter, because they do well there if you know what you’re doing. When the ground softens in April you pull them up and the ones I’ve had are super sweet and juicy.
And why organic?
Organic is essential when you’re looking at the highest good and the bigger picture. If you poison the soil you poison the planet and you poison yourself. That’s common sense. There’s plenty of scientific research proving that organic is better for you, let alone the planet and the other life forms living on it. If you’re interested in the science of organics, The Organic Center is a great resource.
So does it taste so darned good?
Because of the love and devotion that went into growing and cooking the food. The produce is coming from the heart of the Earth and the heart of the farmer. Then you put your heart into it when you make a meal and then the person who gets to eat it does so with love – so it is combined love, and you can taste that. There’s a lot of gratitude too. So its love and grace you’re taking into your body and that’s healthy.
I love the idea of urban gardens and kitchen gardens.
Sprouts, mushrooms, and herbs you can easily grow in your apartment. You can start from seedlings or seeds. Some like sun, some like partial sun, but you find that spot in your home. That’s an easy, inexpensive, incredibly abundant way to have fresh food right at your fingertips.
Your cooking class credits read like a wish list of eco-luxury spas and retreats. What is it about these places?
They’re about expansion and supporting authentic self. And they’re just so exquisitely beautiful that you just feel well. You get to that place of exhale—like coming home to yourself.
How do you see your role as teacher?
I show people that it’s easy and simple and they can do it. That it doesn’t have to be super complicated to put healing, healthy, delicious food in your mouth. It just requires being stocked with some great essentials and knowing how to work with those essentials. And people have fun in my classes.
And do you eat the food you make in class?
Of course! We make this amazing food in class and then we eat it together. At Esalen we eat outside on a deck overlooking the Pacific Ocean. How much better does it get?
I have to say, Esalen really calls to me.
My friend Charlie (who used to be head chef) calls Esalen an acupuncture point on the planet. And it’s true.
You’ll be teaching at Rancho La Puerta this month (March 10 – 17). Is it as beautiful as it looks?
Yes. Yes, it is. Everything is first class without being pretentious and in my mind that’s because it is earth-based. Same with Esalen and Kripalu and Omega. Your whole heart opens. It’s very special.
And Kripalu is more about yoga?
They’re a center for yoga and wellness. The yoga is gentle and deep. They’re renowned for their yoga. I’ve been practicing since I was a teenager so I love that. Yoga is about unity and wholeness and about being present. My way of teaching and cooking and eating is like that. Cooking and eating is a lot like yoga. It’s all about the Yum.
And Omega is more focused on integrating mind/body/spirit?
Omega was co-founded by a medical doctor who is a pioneer in the field of holistic medicine, so my classes there are geared towards working with health practitioners. For instance, I’m going to teach with a celiac nutrition expert, Melinda Dennis. Celiacs are people who can’t digest gluten so we help them learn to live gluten free without sacrificing flavor, satisfaction, energy, or overall health—that’s the sort of classes I tend to teach at Omega. My approach is about plenty. How can we find substitutions that work in place of what the person shouldn’t eat. So even if you have serious restrictions with diet, there’s still plenty.
You’ve got quite a lifestyle, Leslie.
I’m blessed. It’s true. I’m blessed and I’m grateful.
So how do we find all this glorious, locally grown organic food?
If not from your own garden, look for farmers markets. If you can’t get to farmer’s market it’s great that you can go to Whole Foods or Natural Retailers to get organic food. But the small scale, the artisan heart-to-heart connection is where it’s at, and buying direct supports your local economy.
Tell me about community supported agriculture.
CSA’s all work a little differently. With most, you commit to a fee so they can focus on growing the food and so they know what to grow. Some of them deliver, some don’t. I like to go to the markets and the farms myself, but whatever it takes to make sure you get the right food, do it. If that means you have it delivered, go for it.
Going to these places is fun for you—they’re destination points?
Absolutely! I love going out to the CSAs and chatting it up with the farmers and whoever else shows and just being in the scene. It’s a community, and they have community events around harvests like strawberry pick potlucks or potato dig potlucks. Ways to bring people together around food. This is true grassroots as in we’re going to make it our own.
Stainless steel cookware is light and versatile. Stainless steel ladles, tongs, pancake turners, measuring spoons and whisks are preferable to silicone- or plastic- coated kitchen tools.
Cast-iron is the original non-stick cookware. Griddles, pots and pans, and Dutch ovens cook food slowly and evenly while releasing small amounts of iron into the food, making it more nutritious.
Glass cookware retains heat for a long time and allows you to watch foods cook inside.
Wooden cutting boards are preferable. Keep them in good condition with a fine mineral oil.
Glass jars are great for storing grains, beans, salt crystals and leftovers.
Leslie’s favorite staples are made with wild-harvested and organic ingredients.
Bob’s Red Mill offers a wide variety of whole grains, whole grain flours and nut flours, including gluten-free products. bobsredmill.com
Frontier Natural Products Coop has a full line of Fair Trade, certified organic dried herbs, spices, vanilla and other extracts, flax seeds, sea vegetables and more. frontiercoop.com
Lotus Foods focuses on exquisite, exotic heirloom varieties of organic certified rice. lotusfoods.com
Maine Coast Sea Vegetables has certified organic sea vegetables such as dulse, kombu, kelp, wild nori, alaria, sea vegetable snacks and seasonings. seaveg.com
Navitas Naturals is a reliable source for gourmet organic cacao butter, cacao paste, cacao powder, cacao nibs, goji berries, maca powder, coconut oil, hempseeds and more. navitasnaturals.com
Nutiva products include organic hemp seeds, organic hemp oil, organic extra-virgin coconut oil. nutiva.com
Selina Naturally offers sustainably produced Celtic, Hawaiian and Portuguese sea salts, olive oil, ghee, nut and seed butters. celticseasalt.com
Shiloh Farms offers organic grains, beans, dried fruits, nuts, seeds, sweeteners and much more. shilohfarms.com
South River Miso has superb organic, aged misos. southrivermiso.com
Nori Rolls with Gingered Tofu
Makes 8 nori rolls
Grated beets and carrots combine with tofu, rice, and nori to create a beautiful mosaic pattern in every slice of this delicious roll.
4 cups Exotic Rice Blend (recipe follows)
1 tablespoon light sesame oil
1 tablespoon tamari
1 tablespoon grated fresh ginger
14 ounces extra-firm tofu, sliced into long rectangles about 1/2 inch thick
2 cups grated beets
1 cup grated carrots
8 sheets toasted nori
2 to 3 tablespoons umeboshi paste
2 tablespoons wasabi powder, or more as needed
2 tablespoons water
Make Exotic Rice Blend. While rice cools, heat oil, tamari and ginger in a medium-size skillet over medium heat. Add tofu and fry for 3 to 5 minutes on each side, until golden brown on both sides. (You may need to fry the tofu in a couple rounds.) Slice tofu slabs into thirds to make long strips.
Mix beets and carrots in a bowl.
Lay a sushi mat on a clean work surface with bamboo strips running horizontally. Place a nori piece on the mat, shiny side down. Spread about 1/2 cup rice on the nori, leaving the top 1 1/2 inches bare. Lay 2 or 3 tofu strips across the rice, horizontally, followed by some carrot-beet mixture. Gently press filling into rice. Spread some umeboshi paste over the top inch of the nori.
Starting at the end closest to you and using even pressure, use the sushi mat to roll the nori tightly and evenly around the rice and fillings. Be sure to pull the leading edge of the mat back so it doesn’t get incorporated into the roll. Once complete, give the mat a gentle squeeze along its entire length, then let the nori roll sit inside the mat for a minute to ensure a tight roll. Gently unroll the mat and use a very sharp serrated knife to slice the roll into 8 rounds. Repeat with remaining ingredients.
Put wasabi powder and water in a small bowl and stir to form a paste. For a thinner, less pungent dip, add a little more water.
To serve, place wasabi bowl in the center of a platter and surround it with the sushi rounds. Provide small bowls for tamari.
Exotic Rice Blend
Makes enough for at least 8 nori rolls
Cooking with black forbidden rice or Bhutanese red rice adds color to nori rolls, making them a feast for the eyes as well as the palate.
1 1/2 cups black forbidden rice or Bhutanese red rice
1/2 cup sweet brown rice, rinsed
4 cups cold water
Pinch of sea salt
Combine rice, water and salt in a large saucepan over medium-high heat. Bring to a boil; lower heat, cover and simmer for 30 to 40 minutes until all water is absorbed. Uncover rice and let stand for about 1 hour, until cool enough to handle, before making nori rolls.
Lemony Quinoa Salad with Toasted Sunflower Seeds
Serves 6 to 8
With its bright, sprightly flavors, this is a wonderful springtime dish. To make the sunflower seeds more easily digestible, soak them overnight.
3 3/4 cups water
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
2 1/2 cups quinoa, rinsed
1 cup raw sunflower seeds
3/4 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
Bring water and salt to a boil in a medium-size saucepan. Add quinoa, lower heat, cover and simmer for about 15 minutes, until all water is absorbed. Transfer quinoa to a large bowl and let cool to room temperature.
Meanwhile, toast sunflower seeds in a dry skillet over medium heat, stirring often, for 3 to 5 minutes, until they are aromatic and start to pop. Add sunflower seeds, lemon juice and oil to quinoa and stir until well combined. Taste and adjust seasonings if desired.
Reprinted with permission from Gluten-Free Recipes for the Conscious Cook by Leslie Cerier (New Harbinger Publications).
Makes about 1 1/4 cups
This light, refreshing dressing is great on green salads, coleslaw, steamed vegetables and cooked grains.
6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1/3 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 1/2 cups parsley leaves
2 scallions (white and green parts)
1 tablespoon chopped green bell pepper
1 clove garlic
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
Put all ingredients in a blender or food processor and blend until smooth and creamy. Taste and adjust seasonings if desired.
The Organic Center
Rancho La Puerta, Mexico
Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health, Western MA
Esalen Institute, Big Sur, CA
Omega Institute, Rhinebeck, NY
Melinda Dennis, RD
Nutrition Coordinator of the Celiac Center at Beth Israel