Saturday, September 12, 2009

Kass & Effect in The First Lady's Food Agenda: Men's Health Interview With Sam Kass is Now Available. & A New White House Recipe...

Mark Bittman finds out what's cooking at the White House
The October issue of Men's Health magazine featuring White House Food Initiative Coordinator Sam Kass went live on the internet and hit news stands today. Mark Bittman's excellent interview is the first long piece about Kass that's appeared in any media, and Bittman writes about a day spent with Kass in the White House kitchen and garden as a way of getting a first-hand look at First Lady Michelle Obama's food policy agenda.

Men's Health is a mag that's devoted to fitness and nutrition, so their editorial take on the story is eat like they do at the White house, and you'll never diet again!

Mrs. Obama has spent months encouraging people to eat more fresh, seasonal fruits and vegetables, foods that are minimally processed and simply prepared, with low fat, low sugar, and low salt content. Currently in the Obama White House, there's no hard line between cooking and gardening and nutrition policy; it's a seamless, integrated project, which Bittman discovers during his visit.

Cooking and gardening are the policy, as is teaching America how to do it all to maximize nutrition and health. It's a bid for lifestyle balance, rather than dieting, and Mrs. Obama and Kass have turned into the public faces of "choice architecture." Men's Health is a title from Rodale magazines, and Mrs. Obama talks extensively about the same issues of balance--and her family's journey with food--in Children's Health, which also just arrived on new stands. She suggests a 90-10 balance; be healthy ninety percent of the time, so that ten percent of the time when you're not, it's fine. For Mrs. Obama, that ten percent includes French fries and what she has dubbed "dangerous pie" from White House Pastry Chef Bill Yosses (photo above is the front page of the print version of the Kass story)

Waaaay back in April, your intrepid blogger asked Bittman (at left) for his opinion on the White House Kitchen Garden. Bittman is a bestselling cookbook author, he teaches cooking on TV, and he has a regular column in the New York Times--but he hadn't written a word about the garden at a time when other writers were heaping praise on it (on Earth Day 2009, bestselling author Michael Pollan called the garden "the most important event in sustainable agriculture this year"). And back in April, the First Lady had yet to go on the record with her opinions about processed foods and eliminating junk foods from the diet, or school lunch reform, and the White House was still playing everything fairly close to the vest.

Bittman's April take on the Kitchen Garden:

"I think it's a fine idea, because right now the battle is between Cheetos and carrots," Bittman said. "There are schools everywhere in the country where if you walk in kids will not know what a carrot is. But to me, cooking is where it's at. It's the biggest agent of change."

Bittman added that he hadn't written about the garden because he didn't have anything constructive to add to the conversation...he just really wanted to know what was cooking at the White House.

From cooking to Congress
Given that, it's pretty amusing that Bittman is the first writer/cook to end up in the kitchen with Kass, experiencing the game change first hand. Teaching kids cooking has been a big part of the food agenda all along--but it just wasn't made public in the early days, although student interns started working in the kitchen at the first State Dinner in February.

Now that the Obamas have been in the White House for eight months, Bittman notes that the food agenda has permeated the Executive Mansion: The call for nutrition reform seems to be echoing off every wall...everyone I meet with in the administration is talking about it. He adds that Kass "could be a politician."

Bittman also interviews senior adviser Jocelyn Frye and domestic policy adviser Melody Barnes, who are the rest of the First Lady's food policy team (Barnes, above). Barnes tells Bittman that the food policy agenda is a coordinated effort that includes the West Wing, too, and that the goal is to go beyond the White House.

"Next year," Barnes says, "we'll be ready to properly engage with Congress on legislation."

During Bittman's visit, he and Kass harvest produce from the Kitchen Garden, and then head into the kitchen to cook. That politician thing goes on even when Kass is in the middle of cooking; he manages to include one of the President's favorite ideas, personal responsibility, as he describes the ideal practice of any chef:

"The responsibility of all chefs, of all people who cook, is the care and well-being of the people they're feeding," Kass says. "Whether it's in a restaurant, at home, or here, it's the same: You have to nourish and sustain. Whenever we put food on plates, we have to take that into account."

Bittman notes that Kass doesn't have the typical pedigree of a Washington mouthpiece--or of a highly trained chef. That's true: Kass doesn't quote hardcore Ag stats or economic figures in Men's Health, but if he wasn't in the White House kitchen, he could just as easily be on the Hill, going head-to-head with the wonkiest policy makers in DC.

Despite this being the first big Kass interview, he remains as sphinx-like as before; the background info Bittman writes about is old news for those following Kass's career--educated at University of Chicago, globe trotted for half a decade & attained enlightenment, then worked at Chicago's Avec restaurant before joining the Obama household.

Kass remains equally sphinxy about what the Obamas themselves actually eat for dinner when questioned by Bittman, who notes that it's clear that if the Obamas want to set an example by their diets, they don't want to do it badly enough to violate their own privacy. (Small pic, above, is with the Kass interview online at Men's Health)

Bittman does get some new Kass info, though: Kass thinks recipes that can be cooked quickly are swell; he knows about sustainable fish; and he says couscous should be a staple in every kitchen. Below is the recipe for the dish Kass created while with Bittman. Kass notes that sardines are a swell choice as the fish because they're "cheap and sustainable," but says that any sustainably sourced fish will work, too. And Kass used Sun Gold tomatoes, but you can use whatever you'd like.

Couscous With Chard, Fresh Sardines, and Tomatoes

1 cup couscous
1 Tbsp butter
Salt and pepper
20 or 30 chard leaves, washed (don't bother to dry) and chopped
1 Tbsp minced garlic
5 Tbsp olive oil
1 lb of any fish fillet
1/2 cup finely chopped onion
1 pint cherry tomatoes, washed
5 to 10 tarragon leaves

1. Whisk the couscous into 2 cups of boiling water, along with the butter and a large pinch of salt. Cover and let stand.
2. In a large pot, combine the chard and garlic with 1 tablespoon of olive oil and some salt. Cover and cook until the chard is tender, stirring occasionally, 10 to 15 minutes.
3. Saute the fish in 2 tablespoons of olive oil with some salt and pepper until the flesh flakes with gentle pressure from your finger.
4. In a separate pan, cook the onion in the remaining olive oil until softened. Add the tomatoes (crush a few to release their juice), tarragon, and salt and pepper. Cook until everything is warm and the tomatoes are about to burst, about 5 minutes.
5. Now assemble: Make a bed of couscous, top with the chard, then the fish, and finally the tomatoes.
6. Makes four servings, and takes about 30 minutes.

*The produce Kass and Bittman harvested from the White House Kitchen Garden included Japanese eggplant, okra, banana and bell peppers, chard, Hercules carrots, onions, shallots, deep-yellow Sun Golds, yellow-striped Red Zebra tomatoes, basil, parsley, and sweet mace.

*Mark Bittman is the bestselling author of How To Cook Everything and Food Matters, and writes The Minimalist column in the New York Times as well as the Bitten Blog. Kass photos by Coral von Zumwalt.

Related: Rodale, the publishers of Men's Health, has turned into rOBAMAdale. Read about all the Obama coverage they have in their magazines this month, including two cover stories with the President and First Lady.