food diplomacy through the story of a meal

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On Friday, I participated in my Southern California Leadership Network L.A. Leaders Fellowship.  The theme was art and culture.  There is plenty of content for this topic, but the specific speakers and site visits organized were simply engaging.  What each of us was charged to find is how we can incorporate art and culture in our leadership tool-box.  But, I also think that the more critical issue was looking at ways that creativity inform who we are, what we stand for, our civic values, and then how we engage with individuals in our personal and professional life.

From an examination of the creative sector in Los Angeles (for more information see the OTIS College of Design Creative Economy Report 2011), to arts and education or rather “art equity” from kindergarten to higher education to civil entrepreneurship in the business sector and finally community-based art and cultural experiences the underlying theme is that the huge cuts to the arts in Los Angeles (direct costs and elimination of programs) will severely put our communities at a global disadvantage.  For too many years, the decrease in arts funding and the lack of creative solutions were thought to be something that would “solve itself”, however, we are at the crisis point and there is nary a solution in sight.

From the growing global influence in higher education (South Korea, Asia, Gulf Region), to a third-world public education system, to communities who are too busy surviving and can’t afford (time or money) to participate in local art initiative, we have shifted from the creative innovators to “followers who cannot compete in a global workplace.

As sad as this is, the most troublesome aspect is the impact that the elimination of arts funding in K-12 education.  Art is not some ancillary aspect of eduction.  Having a well-rounded, critical thinking, civically engaged person must include all subjects from reading, math, art, sports, sciences, etc.  My site visit was to Inner-City Arts, a non-profit that brings art education to children in the inner-city (within a 3-5 mile radius from their site).  They have been visited by royalty (Prince William and Kate) and honored by governments.  Their sole focus is to bring arts to kids who would never have access.  While the origins of the organization came about in a very spiritual manner, they have not lost sight on what their core mission is and how creative leadership gets them to fulfill their mandate.

After a long day, the creative take-aways were succinctly shared by Charmaine Jefferson, Executive Director of the California African American Museum.  With arms like Michelle Obama and the energy-level of an impassioned and engaging politician, she wove a passionate narrative from her time as a public pool attendant to dancer to attorney to civic leader and how each of these points on her life’s timeline have been an act of creative engagement.  The most effective creative leaders know how to connect the dots in all aspects of their life and those connections create synergistic benefits.  When you begin to demonstrate creative leadership, then you are showing your authentic self.  Each job, action, civic role presents opportunities to find our inner-performer and then to show the world what we are good at.  It is at once personal and professional.

Lastly, Laura Zucker, Executive Director, from the L.A. County Arts Commission came to us to talk about how art (any kind of creative expression) makes us who we are, as citizens, producers, consumers, and moral citizens.  The County is undertaking a food diplomacy and cultural project with the organization, Fallen Fruit, to bring fresh produce to the diverse communities of Los Angeles.  Parts of Los Angeles are a food desert (area in the industrialized world where healthy, affordable food is difficult to obtain. Food deserts are prevalent in rural as well as urban areas and are most prevalent in low-socioeconomic minority communities. They are associated with a variety of diet-related health problems. Food deserts are also linked with supermarket shortages.  This certainly does not surprise the civically engaged Los Angelo.  However, to have an arts and cultural entity taking on both food issues and public art project is amazing.  The Del Aire Park arts project is an installation that functions as a public fruit park with a planting of over 400+ fruit trees.

Walking out of the session left me feeling inspired in so many ways.  From how I can implement the ideas into my blogs, my work, and in my kitchen.

I realized that my artistic expression comes from my cooking.  Like many other artists, I have to cook.  It is just something that I need to do.  I drove home thinking about what I could do at home to express myself creatively.  So here is what I came up with and the result was on park.

Leek Asparagus Ricotta Chick-Pea Fritters
Makes 8-10 Fritters

1/2 cup skim ricotta cheese
1 bunch of asparagus, trimmed of woody ends and cut into 1/2″ pieces
1 leek, cleaned and sliced from the white section only
2 TBL butter
2 eggs
3 TBL multi-grain pancake mix
3 TBL chick pea flour
1 TBL marjoram, finely diced
1/4 TSP salt
1/4 TSP pepper

Sautee leeks in (1) TBL butter until soft.  Add marjoram, salt & pepper and sweat down until leeks are soft and translucent.  Meanwhile roast asparagus is 400 degree oven and slice into 1/2″ pieces.  Put all vegetables in large bowl and let cool 20 minutes.

In a mini food prep, process the two eggs and ricotta cheese until smooth.  Add to the vegetables and mix together.

Add multi-grain pancake mix, chick pea flour to the vegetable mixture and incorporate until it is a thick pancake batter.

Heat large skillet with non-stick spray and remaining TBL of butter.  Using a 1/4 measuring cup, place (4) fritters in the pan and let cook under medium flame.  Watch the fritters to see when then begin to set-up.  Or you can sneak a peek at the underside to see if they have browned.  Flip them over (one flip is needed) and cook on the other side.  Make sure the inside of the fritter is cooked through.

Place on a paper towel and sprinkle with kosher salt.  Repeat with the rest of the batter.  Keep warm on a sheet tray in an oven at 200 degrees until ready to eat.

I eat them plain or with a bit of marinara sauce and parmesean cheese.  They are amazing for breakfast, lunch or dinner.

And that is how I was an innovative and creative cook after my leadership session


How many grandmas does it take to cook a meal?

I have completed my two-day orientation as part of Leadership L.A. with the Southern California Leadership Network and it was quite  informative.  Some takeaways that can be related back to food diplomacy surround the body.  Not just in the nourishment or caloric intake, but how does our food stories inform us as leaders in our jobs, volunteer organization, or with our family and friends.

Leading in the workplace takes a lot of skills, but to be an “authentic” leader, one cannot consider how it affects the body.  Between stress, inattention, and old scripts, these can take a toll. The word authentic is defined by individuals in leadership positions who demonstrate a passion for their purpose, practice their values consistently and lead with their hearts as well as their heads.   You must understand the story of your life.  Part of this knowing is how you came to be who you are.  Who and what were defining influences and what resonated the most.  Was it a friend, a teacher, a writer, an artist?  Was it a holiday, a vacation, a moment in time?  Throughout our life we are faced with situations that can inform us as authentic leaders, are we listening?

The body holds many clues for us.  With an increased multitasking society, are we giving ourselves the attention we need to have clarity of thought, creative ideas, or time to contemplate solutions for implementation?  Does the collective stress of job, home, family, friends, the world weigh on us so that our bones and bodies are collapsing in fatigue?  Can we sit still, in a chair, with our back engaged and our feet rooted into the floor so that every other muscle can relax?

Inattention, stress, fatigue affects us all.  For some we retreat to food, the fuel for keeping us going.  It is also something we do to remind ourselves of comfort, home, security, and joy.  Some of us do this in isolation, and others collectively.  However, I would believe that most of us reach back into our family food narrative in order to make sense of the chaos.  What does sharing a meal around a table with others give us–human connections.

For those who wish to share their leadership through food, we usually read about a chef or organization that tackles a large social issue such as poverty, homelessness, hunger.  However, there are those who work on the micro-level and one such person comes to mind.

Staten Island restaurateur, Joe Scaravella, wanted to create authentic home-spun place and bypassed “name” chefs when searching for the leader of his kitchen.  After losing his mom and sister, he missed sitting down with family for home-cooked meals. So he created something different.  A place that can reach right into people’s hearts.  A restaurant that you have to go out for a home-cooked meal.

Joe’s food narrative is the joy and deeply held meaning that home-cooked food meant for him.  Being Italian, he wanted to give others the experience of eating “nonna’s” food and the shared values that anybody’s nonna would bring to the family table.

As an authentic leader, Joe’s desire to share a piece of a family memory around food that was deep and profound and subsequently gave him deep satisfaction in his work.

Enoteca Maria doesn’t make a lot of money off the restaurant, he says. Instead, he does it for the homey — not to mention lively — atmosphere the eight or so nonnas create.

To  listen to the NPR story, click here.

Meet the “Grandmas

Make your favorite food based on a memory and toast the person that gave it to you.  Then, share that recipe with a friend.


First days, first meals

I arrived in Paris on Saturday to a grey and rainy city.  I am going to enjoy all it offers and make sure my food offerings and choices meet the usual expectations. 

I have visited both the Marche de Vanves and Marche de Clingnancourt this past week-end to see remarkably similar stuff to the fleas in Los Angeles.  We are all connected.  However, there is much more furniture and less of interesting jewelery.  Is it the economic times that is forcing sellers to keep back the good stuff to got a better price when needed?  The grey skies are looming large and they break away to rain on a daily basis.  Metro to Marais, for a Sunday of retail therapy as they are the only stores open in Paris and the people-watching will be good! 

The best falafel is found on Rue des Rossiers. However not eating the pita is a bit anti-climatic.  I have had less carbs in the last six months and nothing is as challenging as Paris.  I eat the falafel with a plastic fork and the lack of joy permeates the experience.   Perhaps dinner will give a sense of the foodie joy that is missing.   Walking around the Marais is like being in the most stylish shetel. I stopped into a fun Parisian store Zadig et Voltaire and found out that I can try on Parisian clothing now that I am about 64 lbs lighter. I am surprised that things fit.  Old images die-hard and the purses, which I was only able to buy until recently, still call my name. 

Dinner ended up being a warm bowl of mussels and frites as the rain was coming down cats and dogs.  The delicate mussels and warm wine broth were a perfect vehicle for the frites that have been sprinkled with salt and pepper.  Dunking them into the soup did make the frites soft, but sharing the spoon with the tender mussel was a traditional taste of Paris.

Tonight I am at Au Passage in the 11th.  It is s brand new restaurant off the Passage Saint Sebastien which serves tapas and regional fare.  I have started with a glass of rose from Corsica and roasted pumpkin with basil leaves and shaved ricotta salatta.  I spread the softened pumpkin and a mint leaf on the crust of multigrain bread.  It called my name!  The saltiness of the cheese and the floral note of the mint leaf is lovely with the warm roasted and carmelized pumpkin.

For the 2nd plate, I am having pan seared scallops on a bed of brussels sprouts purée.  These three scallops are topped with a bit of tapenade and mint leaves again.   The brussels sprouts purée is lovely, the scallops are crunchy on the top and soft on the underside.  I imagine that the entire scallops are cooked on the just one side and that residual heat cooked it through.

The place is packed and it would be wise to book in advance, however you can sit at the bar and enjoy the meal.  I finished my dinner with a mild blue and one last bite of the multigrain bread crust.

Not bad when you can only have 6oz per each meal.

Tomorrow is my cooking salon with Miss Lunch and I cannot wait until we plan, shop, and eat.  I plan to photo and post throughout the day.

J’aurais toujours Paris

I have been quiet of late on this blog as I have been taking care of the young man in my life and blogging about that on Tea and Sympathy.

As a treat, I will be traveling to Paris this December for a pilgrimage to my “holy land”.  I have never been in the City of Light in December, so I am looking forward to the beauty of the holidays and the cool winter air.  In addition, I plan to explore new parts of the city and to do participate in specialized cooking/foodie activities.

I want to still have the love of the city through these new eyes after the surgery.  I want to be able to sample and eat new and exciting meals and still be committed to this new chapter in my life.

This brings me to finding the balance between joyful abandon and adherence to a program.  I will be learning how to make the beautiful French macarons like they sell at Ladurée and Pierre Hermé.  Granted, they won’t be as stunning as those, but to learn how to make them in Paris is a special treat.

I also will be participating in a cooking salon with Miss Lunch again.  This time we will plan, shop, and cook together as we construct and deconstruct a meal while sharing the love of fresh and seasonal food sold at the local farmer’s market.

For the last few weeks, I have gone to bed dreaming of the trip, the food, and the possibilities.  I am giddy with excitement about my time wandering the streets of the city that will feed my soul, my heart and my mind.  Preparing for this trip, I have thought about what food means to me and how integral it is to the happiness in life.

It is not a small part, a take it or leave it element.  Cooking, planing, and creating gives me pleasure and meaning.  The senses are awakened and with that the heart is moved.

I will have seconds of that!

Here are a few Paris blogs that I have been following – may they inspire the Parisian in you.

Starting a new

This week was a big one for me.  I was able to transition from a pureed diet to the “soft” diet.  I brought me closer to food that I think is more humane and enjoyable.  It also allowed my palette to continue to normalize, rather than the required fake sugar in all the products such as jello, pudding, popsicles, Crystal Light, etc.

My first egg white over cumin-scented beans with a 1/2 teaspoon of goat cheese was utterly divine.  The salt, smoky, and tangy notes from the beans and cheese were a perfect backdrop to the neutral egg white.

My small and inconsequential deprivation showed me that I needed to  savor what I put into my body.  As clichéd as it is, the temple that is our body needs feeding from many sources (food, relationships, spirituality).  I relished the crunch from a cracker yesterday  in the way a parched person would do water.

Rediscovering food through this lens has allowed me to really just slow down and think about what is going into my body and what it will do.  I do worship at the altar of good food, but I also need to worship my body and its new relationship to food.

Today’s luxury was egg salad, something I ate only when I wanted to be naughty.  But the eggs were cooked perfectly and the yolk was a bit under done giving it a rich mouth-feel and creaminess that would not have been there had then been over-cooked and boiled to death.

Tomorrow will try cooking savory cream-of-wheat with parmesan cheese and butternut squash.  For Father’s Day we will be having Upma, a savory Indian breakfast dish that uses cream-of-wheat.

1 1/2 cups Cream-of-wheat
3 1/2 cups water
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1/2 tsp mustard seeds
1/2 tsp Urad dal/black lentil (optional)
1/2 tsp chana dal (optional)
1/2 cup chopped onion
1/8 tsp turmeric
2 red chillies or green chillies, broken into pieces
Cilantro or coconut for garnishing

Dry roast semolina on a low flame for about 10 minutes, or until the color of the semolina changes to pale gold.

In a wide pan, heat oil. Add mustard seeds, and when the mustard seeds pop, add urad dal and chana dal.

Once the color of the dals changes, add red chillies, and chopped onion. Fry for a few minutes. You can also add chopped tomatoes or any vegetables. Just make sure to increase the quantity of water if you are adding vegetables.

Put the water up to boil, reduce the heat and add salt and the semolina. Keep stirring so that there are no lumps in the mixture.

Cook until there is no water in the mixture. Garnish with cilantro or freshly grated coconut.

This week, it is all about something new and savoring the moment.

Butchery and the need to cook

Roux-en-y surgery reconstructs the size of the stomach and then bypasses the large amount of the small intestines to accelerate digestion.  My jeweler-like surgeon has a fine hand and immaculate precision.  You can look at him and see the exceptional detail work he does in his profession, but he was probably like that as a small child working on models and reconstructions of anything he could get his hands on.  Somewhat a fine butcher of sorts.

My new stomach and reconfigured small intestines are settling in nicely, they are responding to the amount of yummy liquids that nourish me, however my mind and heart are missing the diversity of food that living in Southern California provides.  I tempted myself today with a visit to Whole Foods.  Many may say, “what a stupid thing to do given you can’t eat.”  But I miss being around the food, the choices, the options.  Staying away for almost two weeks was all I could endure.

I walked the market, I purchased some items that can bring back to my love of food and cooking and to incorporate new ways of eating.  I will not tip the hat to the first dish, but let’s just say it takes me to India via the gastric bypass lens.

Part of this new process will bring me closer to the source.  I plan to take a butchery class so that I can learn how to carve protein and to learn something new.  Chicks with Knives is run by two women chefs with a commitment to sustainable, organic, local and ethical food.  They offer butchery classes, pickling classes, and a monthly supper club. From their website, they say they do what they do because, “We love food and care about where it comes from and how it is prepared. We do this because we think you think the same way and might enjoy what we do. Come join the party.”

Feeling sad about not being in the kitchen and cooking or baking until my heart’s content, I decided today to make dinner for my family.  Weird not being able to taste the pasta with sausage, carmelized onions and mustard cream sauce, but I also made a pureed wild mushroom soup to hold me over.  Happily, it was absolutely devoid of any of the canned food that I have had to live on since June 1st. Viva the sharpest knife in the kitchen and cook who knows how to use it.

Photo credit: David Lebovitz

Gardens that give way to success in multiple forms

What is a potager garden you ask.

A potager garden is a vegetable garden which is designed to be attractive as well as functional. Such gardens are designed to strike people with their beauty first, rather than being exclusively practical, and they can fit in a wide variety of spaces and climates.

The concept of the potager garden is French. In France, there is a long tradition of laying out practical gardens in a way which is also aesthetically pleasing. Along the way, gardeners often increase the yield of their gardens, and they may utilize advantageous plant pairings which help deter pests and enrich the soil.

In French potager gardens, you will need both edible and ornamental plants. The aesthetic value of each plant is the interplay between function and beauty.  I though that this interplay was a good overarching theme that also represents my new journey.

I am rarely moved by things that don’t involve food.  The sight, smell, taste, creativity, and individual cultivation of food for both nourishment and joy.  I travel to see and taste food.  I support individuals who are passionate about a healthy relationship to food.  Where they get it, how they use it, and what it means to a larger narrative in their life.  Fast, processed, industrial, and thoughtless engagement are just foreign to me.

Listening to Jaime Oliver’s TED talk, he quotes some numbers.  Even if he is completely wrong on the numbers (which I don’t think so), for obesity-related issues are not more expensive than smoking-related healthcare bills.  The United States is spending close to $150 billion dollars a year and it is estimated to double in 10 years to $300 billion dollars.  Staggering.

So what is moving me today.

Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution

I adore Jamie Olive and have for many years before the marriage and children came along.  He has a very basic belief in that we are killing our kids by the processed, fat-ladden, industrialized food that is so prevalent in our society.  A constant through Jamie’s work in the commitment to good, fresh, healthy food that sustains and nourishes a life was the show, Jamie at Home.

Please consider watching his TED talk and even check out his Food Revolution concept which, as he says,

“The [obesity] problem stems from the loss of cooking skills at home and the availability of processed foods at every turn, from the school cafeteria to church function halls, factories and offices. This Food Revolution is about saving lives by inspiring everyone: moms, dads, kids, teens and cafeteria workers to get back to basics and start cooking good food from scratch.”

Pressure Cooker (film) and Careers Through Culinary Arts Program (C-CAP):

Career and technical education encourages kids to graduate from high school and offers an alternative path to traditional post-secondary education. The Social Action Campaign for Pressure Cooker is designed to raise awareness and support for career and technical education programs, through initiatives with The Association for Career and Technical Education (ACTE); and the Careers through Culinary Arts Program (C-CAP), whose work served as inspiration for the film.

Determined to Succeed
“While teaching fifth grade at Brentwood Science Magnet Elementary School (NB: my son’s an alum of BSM), Sara Hahn was inspired by the resilience, motivation, and hope for the future she witnessed in her students–almost all of whom rode a bus for over two hours a day to avoid their neighborhood schools and receive a better education. Sara realized that if a passionate, caring educator supported the same group of students through middle and high school, the impact on them would be tremendous and life-changing. She determined that this commitment would provide an optimal level of learning, giving deserving students the tools and confidence to apply and be accepted to a four-year university.  In 2005, the program began with her current fifth-grade students as they transitioned into sixth grade, and, with the generous support of actor/activist Hank Azaria, co-founded Determined to Succeed.

Determined to Succeed’s comprehensive, year round program provides our students with the following:

  • Mandatory bi-weekly after-school tutoring/mentoring sessions during the academic year
  • College test prep, writing workshops, intensive single subject weekend tutoring as needed
  • Summer academic and enrichment programs specifically tailored to their needs and interests
  • Staff who advocate at school with their teachers, counselors and administrators and act as a liaison between students’ families and their schools

What’s next you say?  I will be looking into a formal butchery program to sink my hooks into . . .