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Looking Past the Cookies

Healthy holiday (and everyday) eating with BFS chef Shaw Rabadi

by B.A. Nilsson on December 14, 2011

Norway needs butter. The country’s consumption of it has increased this year because of a surge in fat-laden, low-carb diets, and last month’s butter demand was up 30 percent over the same period last year. With Christmas ahead, there’s going to be a cookie crisis.

Of course, it can be argued (and is argued, in my house) that the holidays are themselves a cookie crisis—a crisis of abundance, also covering all manner of snacks and sweets. Having already indulged ourselves to a fare-thee-well at Thanksgiving, is there a way to enjoy the rest of the year without making pigs of ourselves?

I sat down with Shaw Rabadi, chef-owner of BFS Restaurant in Guilderland, and author of Savor the Spices of Life, a terrific collection of personal history and favorite recipes emphasizing the Mediterranean diet, complete with science and chemistry and, because we need to know these things, calorie counts and other nutritional info. But it’s a friendly guide, reflecting Rabadi’s own charming way of conveying very serious info.

So how do we deal with the Christmas cookies?

“First of all, there’s moderation,” Rabadi says. “Maybe you can have a few less. We’re all going to indulge this time of year, but there are certain things, with a whole lot of science behind them, that we can do to keep it healthy.”

Awareness is the first step. “We have to pay attention to what we eat and what effect it has on our lives. We can practice dietary displacement, for starters. If you want French fries, have them baked instead of fried. Or make your own: Just don’t salt the heck out of them. I grew up doing them with olive oil in a sauté pan. We sliced them nice and thin so they cooked quicker and you didn’t have that deep-fried effect.”

Then there’s the phenomenon of processed food, “the seemingly endless seas of stuff in the middle aisles of your supermarket,” he says. “I talk about eliminating the four S’s, and that is where you find them: salt, sugar, saturated fat, and snacky stuff. By snacky stuff I mean chips, cookies, cake flour, those kinds of things. We refined them, took all the good stuff out of them, because we want to make sure they can sit on the shelf for a long time.”

The mention of salt brings out the passion in this chef. “There are studies that suggest it’s as addictive as alcohol and nicotine. Addiction to salt is chemical and triggers the release of dopamine, which makes us feel good. When you’re eating addictive salty food, you’re going to have more. So your desire to have something that’s good for you is diminished, and there’s no opportunity for displacement.

“We eat six or seven times the amount of salt that’s needed by our bodies,” he adds. “We OD on salt every single day.”

Rabadi illustrates an alternative in the tastiest way possible: with a sample of a tomato sauce served with a slice of grilled salmon. “This is my take on a puttanesca sauce. It’s a rough mix I threw together to show somebody that you can make it without artichoke hearts and roasted red peppers. This has absolutely no salt added to it. What’s in there is only what comes from the olive brine—and we washed the olives—and the capers.” It was impressively full-flavored, with a hint of also-satisfying sweetness. “On the salmon is a bunch of herbs. Dill, rosemary, thyme, oregano and more. We dry our own herbs and use that. You can make your own blend. It’s cheaper, and it’s salt-free.”

Another effect of salt is thirst. “So what do we reach for? Mostly sugary stuff, like soda. Now you’re doubling up on the problem of sodium, because sugary stuff and even diet stuff has sodium in it.”

Which brings us to sugar. “It’s just as deadly as salt,” says Rabadi. “And we can’t even find out when it’s in our food. A nutrition label may say there’s no sugar, but they don’t indicate what kind of sugar they’re talking about. By law, they’re not obligated to mention sugar substitutes. Caramel coloring—what do you think caramel is? What do you think aspartame is? Sugar. And we end up consuming 68 pounds of various sugars per person per year just from the various sodas and fruit drinks. Most of the time, our bodies can’t get rid of it.”

What do you do with a recipe that calls for sugar?

“Use honey, cider, applesauce. Refined white sugar is the worst, so there are a whole bunch of substitutes. But remember—they’re still very sweet. I’m not saying don’t have sugar. I’m saying don’t have as much sugar. And don’t have refined sugar. Or refined carbs, for that matter, because most of them will turn into sugar.”

There’s a wonderful sweetness about a serving of spinach korma that he’s prepared. “All it is is spinach, roasted red peppers, sweet onions, a little bit of garlic and our marinara sauce. All the sweetness comes from the food, but it has a little bit of zing to it, which is cayenne pepper.”

As a native of Jordan, Rabadi grew up with the Mediterranean approach to food. “Mediterranean people had this idea,” he says. “We cook with good fat—olive oil—and we have an abundance of fruits and vegetables most of the time because the climate isn’t as harsh as here in the Northeast. That gives people a chance to look at things and smell things the way they’re supposed to smell and taste things the way they’re supposed to taste. Unless you have that experience, you’re not going to appreciate it.

“We have all these taste buds in our mouth to taste different flavors, but they go dormant if we don’t eat certain things. If all you eat are salty burgers, that’s all you’re going to taste.”

Color dictates taste, he explains, thanks to the function of the phytochemicals that impart those shades. “You need color on your plate. I recommend having five to seven different colors per meal.” Which is nicely illustrated by the food in front of us: Alongside the pink salmon and red puttanesca and green korma are servings of orange marinated carrots, pale hummus and an earth-toned strip of za’atar-seasoned chicken.

It turns out that we’re also sampling this the Mediterranean way—by conversing. “You should put your fork down and chat for a while. Take a breather. Food is also about company and conversation.” Which brings us back to what the holidays are all about, even if fewer cookies are involved.