Healthy eating did not come naturally to me. Maybe that’s because my mother’s idea of healthy eating consisted of sitting us around the TV like cowboys by the fire, drinking 3‑liter bottles of diet soda and eating crispy kosher chicken skin. The first time I ate salad that wasn’t iceberg lettuce, I was astonished. Arugula? What! Salad has flavor?! Who knew?!
It’s not like I’m a fakakta nutritionist or a healthy-eating guru. I didn’t move out of the house and start juicing watercress. My spin on healthy eating had nothing to do with choice.
Twenty years ago, I went to a naturopathic doctor to find out why I bloated like I was 9 months pregnant every time I ate a meal. I’ll be honest; I just assumed it happened because I’m Jewish. The doctor told me I was allergic to wheat, and since no one was talking about gluten two decades ago, I was in disbelief.
“Allergic to wheat?! No pizza, no pasta, no bread, no cake?! Couldn’t I be allergic to sex instead?!”
We didn’t have the 5,000 gluten-free substitutes we have now. I was forced to get creative. I substituted roasted cauliflower for macaroni. I swapped lettuce leaves for sandwich bread. Have you ever tried a burger in a collard greens wrap? Tasty! After I got used to it, I did feel and look a whole hellava lot better. Downright sexy, if you ask me.
Healthy eating means a lot of things to a lot of people. Cooking and eating healthy food required extra effort when our lives were relatively normal. “Relatively” being the operative word for me; I’m a punk rock caterer, after all. In this pandemic, with most of us on lockdown, long lines at the grocery and many of the items we love to eat sold out, it’s a LOT harder.
You probably want to go grocery shopping as infrequently as possible. In my Manhattan neighborhood, grocery shopping has been a fairly horrible experience. After waiting in line forever, I’m allowed in; then I try to get down an aisle without getting within six feet of another shopper. OY VEY, not easy. I’ve taken to growling at people who get too close to me.
I don’t mind being the crazy lady in Aisle Four.
To make your grocery trips count, let’s talk about some great things to buy when grocery shopping. With the pandemic, I think before I cook.
1. Chicken on the bone. IF THEY HAVE CHICKEN! In my Latino community, the grocery store sold out of chicken. I thought there was gonna be a riot. WE HAVE TO GO THROUGH ALL OF THIS, AND NO ARROZ CON POLLO?!But my neighbors shrugged and figured pork was close enough. Pork? For me? Nyet. My mother, Harriet, would turn over in her grave. Chicken on the bone makes a glorious chicken soup, which can be the base for a fantabulous chicken stew. Make a bunch and stock up; soups freeze well.
2. Get to the root of it. Parsnips, potatoes, and sweet potatoes last forever and are a fabulous way to turn a snack into a meal. You can boil or roast, toss into a soup or a curry, work into a salad, use as a side dish or just as a snack. In the ’80s when I briefly attempted to be a bodybuilder, the muscle gang roasted a pile of sweet potatoes one day a week, then snacked on them during workout breaks as a yummy healthy energizer. Load up on carrots, celery, and onions. These are the secret to a thousand dishes of wonder. Yeah, yeah, I know; celery is not a root. But it makes great soup.
2. Load up on eggs. When I was preparing for my Zoom Passover Seder, I wanted to hard boil a few eggs. I thought, “Why don’t I just hard boil twenty of them instead and have a nice source of protein for the next two weeks?” If you don’t peel the eggs, they last forever. I love adding sliced hard-boiled eggs to a salad and turning it into a meal. If I have tuna and potatoes, I’ll make a glorious nicoise salad. I love to eat a hard-boiled egg with salt for breakfast, but it’s a great protein boost at any time of the day. Everyone loves deviled eggs, but for something new the kids might love, try toasted cheese eggs. Peel the hard-boiled egg. Cut in half. Lay on a baking sheet and top with grated cheddar, Monterey Jack, (or whatever cheese you have) and stick in the oven at 375 degrees until the cheese melts and it looks toasty. I like to sprinkle mine with a little paprika, but you don’t have to.
3. Unprepped salad. I have made the mistake of loading up on prepped and washed salad, but by the time I got to eating it, it was salad swamp. Salads you prep yourself last a lot longer. I know, I know; what a pain in the tuchas! HEY! DO YOU HAVE SOMEWHERE ELSE TO BE?! I’m partial to kale, arugula, and romaine. Added bonus: If your kale, arugula, or romaine starts to get funky, you can pan-fry it in a little olive oil and garlic. Delicious! I made a warm romaine salad the other day. I cut my romaine into spears and briefly sautéed it in olive oil and then hit it with a drizzle of apple cider vinegar, kosher salt and fresh ground pepper. So nice! If you throw a little grated parmesan on that, total Yumtown.
4. Frozen produce gets a bad rap, and it’s undeserved. Just watch out for those concoctions that are full of salt and sugar. Frozen spinach should have one ingredient: SPINACH! Frozen produce is picked at its peak and then frozen. It’s always fresh. Never funky like some of the stuff I’ve been seeing in the produce aisle lately. My favorite frozen vegetable items are peas and chopped spinach. If you are picking peas right out of your garden, you may get that gorgeous sweet pea taste, but a week later? NOT! Frozen peas keep their just-picked sweetness. You’d have to prep a sink full of spinach to get what’s in one tiny 10 oz. box of frozen spinach. All that nutrition smushed into that one little box? No wonder Popeye got so charged up from it.
5. Dry legumes are a great source of vegan protein and a fantastic thing to load up on. I’m talking about beans and chickpeas. Soak them in water overnight. Chickpeas like a pinch of baking soda in their soaking water. It softens their skin, and we all need that. When you’re ready to cook, cover the legumes of choice with water and bring to a boil, then lower to a simmer and cook till soft.
6. Can-do canned tomatoes. Generally speaking, I’m not fond of canned items, but canned tomatoes are a big exception for me. Unless you’re harvesting tomatoes at their peak, you will not find tastier tomatoes for cooking than what’s in the can. I always stay stocked on cans of whole tomatoes.
I know, get to the recipes already. During a recent Corona cooking extravaganza day in my commercial kitchen, I had onions, carrots, celery, garlic, ginger, chicken on the bone, frozen spinach, canned tomatoes, chickpeas and potatoes.
Rather than get all fancy and proportionate for you civilized folks, I’m just gonna give you the recipes as I cooked them. This is a big portion for a home cook, but honestly why not cook a ton of it and freeze? You’ll thank me later. Want to scale down, be my guest. Who am I to judge?
Big Ass Batch of Chicken Soup
I covered 10 pounds of cut up chicken on the bone with 5 inches of water, brought it to a boil then simmered forever. (“Forever” is Jewish for “OY VEY, I’m suffering here.” At least an hour.)
Then I threw in my famous 10/10/10; 10 peeled and chopped onions, 10 chopped carrots and 10 sliced celery stalks. I added a heaping plop of minced garlic and a smaller plop of minced ginger, and seasoned well with celery salt, kosher salt, paprika, and Old Bay.
When the chicken was well cooked and falling apart, I took it out of the broth with tongs and put it aside to shred when cool. My mother would add guilt as her primary seasoning, but I’ll spare you. Simmer forever again.
I washed, cut into cubes and boiled 8 potatoes. I left the skin on. That’s where most of the nutrition is anyway. Right? Plus it gives me a great excuse for being lazy. Peel potatoes?! Not for this gal! Health first.
When I was ready to rumble, I filled a dozen quart containers 1/3 full of shredded chicken, a handful of boiled potatoes and a handful of carrots, onions, and celery (that I spooned out of the broth with a slotted spoon). I tasted the broth, adjusted seasoning with fresh ground pepper and salt, and then poured into the containers.
If you want chicken soup and not chicken stew, skip the potatoes. If you have fresh parsley, that is also super nice to throw into this soup. So is dill, but I hate dill anywhere that’s not a pickle, so don’t invite me over. I’d drink all your wine anyway.
Big Ass Batch of Vegan Curry
I covered the six bags of chickpeas I’d soaked overnight in water. I brought them to a boil, then simmered till soft. This took about an hour. I have made this dish when I forgot to soak the chickpeas overnight. Still works, but lordy, that really does take forever. Took me almost three hours to get those chickadees soft. I tried everything. I even sang them Barry White. Three hours! Try to remember to soak your chickpeas overnight, and remember the baking soda.
I sautéed my 10/10/10: 10 peeled and sliced onions, 10 chopped carrots and 10 chopped celery stalks. When the veggies were cooked, I added a heaping handful of garam masala, curry powder, salt and pepper, cooked that for a spell, then tossed in a big can (28oz) of tomatoes. I threw in a few heaping plops of minced garlic and minced ginger, then I cooked for a spell (a spell is about a half-hour). Meanwhile back at the ranch, I thawed out six packages of frozen spinach by running hot water over them in a colander. When my tomato curry base was delicious, I tossed in the spinach, then added in the drained chickpeas and cooked till it was all soft, lovely, and aromatic. A half-hour later, I tasted one more time, added a few pinches of salt and pepper, and it was showtime.
If you have it, tossing in a heaping handful of fresh chopped cilantro is glorious. I also love to throw into this same curry recipe cut up cauliflower. Sweet potato is fabulous, too. If you like your curry spicy, add powdered chili pepper or cayenne.
I wound up with 12 quarts of vegan curry. Chana Saag to be exact. Not a bad cooking day at the Raging Skillet.
All the items froze fabulously.
That was two weeks ago. My pals and neighbors are still eating.
One last little tip, because I really have kvetched too long, the biggest part of healthy cooking is how much love you put into it. Love for yourself. Love for whoever you’re cooking for. Love for the food itself.
Oh, carrot! How I honor thee! I honor the farmer who raised thee and the cashier at the grocery store who charged me double by accident. I honor thee, oh carrot. Now get the hell into my soup!
As the owner and executive chef of The Raging Skillet, Rossi has earned a reputation as the one to call when it’s time to do things differently. The Raging Skillet has been described as a “rebel anti-caterer” by The New York Times and “the wildest thing this side of the Mason-Dixon line” by Zagat, and has been named one of The Knot’s Best Wedding Caterers for the past five years. Rossi has written for Bust, The Daily News, The New York Post, The Huffington Post, Time Out New York, and McSweeney’s. She is the host of a long-running radio show called “Bite This,” and has been featured on The Food Network and NPR. Rossi’s memoir The Raging Skillet, was adapted for the stage and is touring the country. Her second memoir Queen of the Jews will be out soon!
Chef Rossi is available to be booked for speaking engagements through Read On. Click here for more information.