I first met Chef Louisa Shafia at the New Amsterdam Market last November. Her new cookbook, Lucid Food: Cooking for an Eco-Conscious Life (Ten Speed Press 2009) was on display at the Basis Foods table (which is always my first stop at New Amsterdam), and the beautiful photos and mouthwatering recipes were too gorgeous to resist. Her Persian background comes through in her recipes and also in the beautiful swirling designs that decorate the pages of her cookbook. Now that the farms are popping with fresh fruit and vegetables, I wanted to write about Louisa’s innovative yet timeless approach to eating locally grown foods and eating with the seasons, with a special focus on incorporating environmentally beneficial practices to our daily lives.
A graduate of the Natural Gourmet Institute in New York City, Louisa has extensive experience as a chef and a writer. But the inspiration for “Lucid Food” was her experience as a green caterer, carefully managing the environmental impact of her food. She buys as many of her ingredients as possible from farmers markets. You may find her wandering through the Union Square Greenmarket on any given day, looking for specific ingredients or savoring the produce of the season. She uses eco-friendly habits in her business, including composting and using recyclable containers.
One of Louisa’s ideas that resonated with me is that while many people argue that eating locally produced and organic food is too expensive, the fact is that the true costs of eating inexpensive processed food is actually much higher on a macro level, from both a health and an environmental perspective. Seemingly cheaper foods “carry a catastrophic price tag in epidemic health problems like obesity,” and many more. I personally had an experience purchasing frozen shrimp from the grocery store recently. When I got them home, I saw that they were produced in Vietnam. Living on the Atlantic coast, I shuddered to think of the environmental cost of shipping these shrimp literally across the world, when I could have bought fresh shrimp from Long Island at my farmers market.
Lucid Food encourages us to work with the seasons. Spring and summer are always a delight, with fresh leafy greens, plump tomatoes, strawberries, peaches, and many more ingredients overflowing at the markets. Among the luscious recipes, you will find stinging nettles pesto with seared scallops; orecchiette with morel mushrooms and garlic ramps; and baby artichokes with fresh chervil. Summer recipes include a watermelon, apple and lime shake; chilled cucumber soup with avocado, cumin, and mint; and blueberry cobbler with oat scone topping. Each recipe is carefully written, and the personal notes from Louisa make the recipes seem personal and possible, even to the most cautious of cooks like yours truly.
Reading Louisa’s recipes for fall and winter opened my eyes to the wonderful possibilities of the seasonal produce during these times of year. Sometimes in the dead of winter, my mind starts to worry about things like scurvy and rickets from an apparent lack of fresh fruits and vegetables. Of course I know that’s ridiculous in this day and age, and so the real question is this: “How many ways can I possibly cook a yam?” Louisa’s first fall recipe is elderberry cold tincture, which will cure what ails us with elderberries, vodka, and honey. Chickpea cakes, red lentil and spinach soup, and charred eggplant and polenta torta, topped off with a fall fruit focaccia is the perfect fall meal. For winter, warming Asian rutabaga soup, lemony gold beet barley risotto, and red cabbage, apple, and dulse salad recipes will definitely keep the rickets far away.
Louisa acknowledges that some of the ingredients in her recipes are indeed from other parts of the world, particularly the spices, and exotic fruits like pomegranates. The idea is that these items should be used sparingly as treats, with an understanding of their true value.
There are many other special aspects to this book, such as the section on “Eco-Kitchen Basics,” which includes a list of tips and guidelines. There is also a section on why organics may not always be the best option, as well as a list of those that are absolute musts. In the section “Eco-Foodie Words to Watch,” Louisa defines the term “wild foraged.” I asked her if she had ever gone foraging for food in New York City. Yes, in fact, she has gone foraging in Central Park, where she found an amazing array of foods: quince, apples, pears, wild garlic, clover, epazote, chestnuts, and much more. “The world around us is so alive,” she says.
Whether you are inclined to forage for your food or find it at your local farmers market, Lucid Food: Cooking for an Eco-Conscious Life is a must-read addition to your kitchen bookshelf.