By Alyssa Berkowitz
Leslie Cerier, who calls herself “The Organic Gourmet,” combines a holistic lifestyle with hands-on vegetarian cooking for health and vitality, as well as writing cookbooks and articles focusing on eating local, seasonal, organic foods. As Leslie will tell you, gluten-free cooking is not just for celiacs or people with wheat-allergies, but can inspire beneficial mood and health changes.
I recently had the opportunity to chat with Leslie about her newest cookbook, “Gluten-Free Recipes for the Conscious Cook” and the benefits of a gluten-free diet, and the importance of eating sustainably for both the mind and body.
Alyssa Berkowitz: Did you always want to be a chef? Any stories of cooking as a child?
Leslie Cerier: I didn’t plan to be a chef. I always loved to cook. In high school I asked my grandmother Ethel how to make her strudel dough. She said, “You take some flour and water and it should look like this.” And I said, “Grandma, how much?” She showed me again and repeated that you take some flour and water and it should look like this. She knew what texture she was looking for. Now when I teach hands-on cooking classes, I encourage people to follow their senses: taste, touch, smell, see, listen, and make it a total sensory experience.
How do you derive influences for your recipes? How does your Jewish background shape your recipes?
I get my inspiration from the local, organic harvest: the fruits, vegetables and herbs of the season; then mix and match a variety of whole foods: grains, beans, grass raised dairy and eggs, nuts and seeds to create globally inspired meals. My Jewish roots inspire me to create healthy twists on classic recipes. For example in my “Kasha Varnishkes” recipe in “Gluten-Free Recipes for the Conscious Cook,” I swapped Quinoa Corn spiral pasta for the classic white wheat bowties; also added sunflower seeds and even collard greens for a colorful and nutrient dense gourmet dish. Top it off with pesto for a yummy meal.
My Jewish influences are more about how to be creative and think out of the box. I guess thinking out of the box is a Jewish thing.
How do you see the relationship between a holistic lifestyle and the eating of whole grains and organic food?
I see it all as one really. I sleep on organic sateen sheets, use natural and organic soaps and cleaning products. I don’t use a microwave. I prefer to cook in cast iron, stainless steel, lead-free enamel and glass. I tune into the natural rhythms and the changing seasons. In cold weather, I cook long simmering soups and bake; in hot weather I make quick sautés and marinated salads I look at the interconnectedness of everything. Years ago, I gave up a promising career as a photographer to avoid toxic, chemicals in the dark room. I now print my photos on 100% cotton canvas. Even my artwork is about sustainability. My latest series, “Photographing the Jewels in the Water” is about sunlight on shallow streams that create natural jewel like patterns, like impressionistic paintings. I’m trying to connect all the dots, inside and out with my deep love of nature.
For some, gluten-free might seem like the next big health-fad. Why do you think eating a gluten-free diet should be something everyone is doing?
Gluten-free whole grains have been around for centuries — they’re not fad foods. They are delicious, loaded with vitamins and minerals, great for energy and stamina. I’m not gluten-free myself, but often prefer to eat gluten-free grains and flours for their taste and nutrition. Also since there is genetically modified wheat on the market, it might be that folks are really intolerant of the petrochemicals used to grow common wheat, which contributes to health problems. A diet rich in gluten-free whole grains can enhance everyone’s health and vitality; expand your cooking repertoire and celebrate the earth’s bounty.
Some people think that gluten-free dishes don’t taste as good. What would you say in response?
When I teach, I introduce people to many tasty gluten-free grains like teff, amaranth, rice, and quinoa. My recipes are simple, and when you use fresh seasonal and organic ingredients, they’re going to taste great. It’s like any kind of cooking: you have to understand how to use herbs and spices to create tasty dishes. My daughters aren’t gluten free either, but they prefer the Cinnamon Banana Pancakes made with teff flour instead of wheat. This isn’t about depravation. I’m using real foods, not processed food. Gluten-free grains are full of life and flavor.
While reading through your cookbook, I was surprised at how many ingredients seemed new or unusual to me, which makes gluten-free cooking seem like a challenge. What advice can you give to people looking to start cooking gluten-free who might be scared by the ingredients?
My suggestion: stay out of the supermarket. For the more rare ingredients in the cookbook, there is a mail-order section in the back of “Gluten-Free Recipes for the Conscious Cook.” Also, my mother taught me to ask for what you want. Ask stores to stock the ingredients you want. Make the products available. Start the real food revolution.
I taught my sorghum salad (one of the lesser known grains) in a recent class. I cooked it like a Mediterranean couscous salad, and everyone was like, “Wow.” I’m introducing people to different textures, flavors, and the fun of eating really well. Yeah it’s challenging if you’re just thinking of the challah you normally eat every Friday night, but if you’re thinking of variety you’re really going to have fun and thrive.
In addition to writing cookbooks and catering, you also teach classes. Do you have any exciting classes coming up?
I’m teaching several gluten-free classes nationwide, which also offer CEC, Continuing Education Credits for Dieticians. In addition to culinary nutrition and hands-on cooking classes, I offer telephone consultations. I also have an online course, “Wraps and Rolls.”
What’s an ingredient you think everyone should have in his or her pantry? Why?
Flexibility. But aside from that, I think everyone should stock a variety of whole grains. At least four to six different whole grains and most whole grains are gluten-free.
Any last things you want our readers to know?
Whether you’re gluten free or not, including a wide variety of gluten-free grains in your diet is good for you and good for the planet. Ecologically, gluten-free grains could be part of the solution for our changing climate: some can grow in drier climates; others in flooded areas; some use less seed for higher yields and all offer great nutrition. Eating gluten-free isn’t just about personal health; it could be part of the solution for feeding the masses during climate change.
Quinoa and Shiitake Pilaf
Serves 6 to 8
Leeks, celery, and mushrooms enliven this pilaf and give it a flavor reminiscent of a Thanksgiving stuffing. If you like, you can substitute other types of mushrooms for the shiitakes. White button mushrooms, criminis, or portobellos would all be great choices.
1 1/2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 1/2 cups chopped leeks (white and tender green parts)
2 cups chopped celery
1 1/2 cups stemmed and sliced shiitake mushrooms
1 3/4 cups quinoa, rinsed
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
3 1/2 cups boiling water
Heat the oil in a medium-size saucepan or skillet (one with a tight-fitting lid) over medium heat. Add the leeks, celery, and mushrooms and sauté, stirring continuously for about 5 minutes, until vegetables become fragrant and their colors brighten. Stir in the quinoa and salt. Lower the heat, then slowly pour in the water. Cover and simmer for about 15 minutes, until all of the water is absorbed.
Many of Leslie’s recipes can be adapted for Passover, but most of the gluten-free grains are considered kitnyot so those of Ashkenazic background may choose not to eat them.
Check out a video of this recipe here
Alyssa Berkowitz is a senior in the Joint Program between Columbia University and the Jewish Theological Seminary. She is currently the Food Programs Intern at Hazon.