Michel Nischan co-founded the Wholesome Wave Foundation, which funds programs in 18 states to double the value of food stamp dollars at local farmers markets.
Michel Nischan is a chef, best-selling cookbook author and tireless promoter of fresh local produce. But he's also well aware that his favorite foods remain too pricey for many low-income shoppers.
So the New England chef co-founded the Wholesome Wave Foundation, which funds programs in 18 states (including California, Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Maryland and Virginia) to double the value of food stamp dollars at local farmers markets.
Nischan also is aiming for changes in the next farm bill that would build double value into 5 percent of food stamp dollars used to purchase fresh produce in stores too. The USDA says it's working on a test pilot to see if this kind of incentive would, indeed, spur more fruit and vegetable purchases among low-income shoppers.
In between his policy wonking and cooking at Dressing Room restaurant in Westport, Conn., the husband and father of five somehow finds time to write cookbooks. His latest is "Sustainably Delicious: Making the World a Better Place, One Recipe at a Time" and it's full of exquisite photography and simple recipes for meat loaf, sweet pea soup, smothered pork chops, kale with pork belly, and watermelon and arugula salad. In between recipes, Nischan guides home cooks with tips on sustainable shopping and cooking as well as finding the tastiest ingredients.
Nischan argues that taste and health make a natural pair, writing, "Where there is flavor, there are nutrients, and where there are nutrients, there is health."
We chatted with the chef about the book and his projects.
Q: So how did this book fit into your chef and advocacy work?
A: Dressing Room and the book are geared more toward those who can afford a $35 book and white-tablecloth restaurants that serve local sustainable foods. That's because those foods are not subsidized at all, and that may not change. So I do the Wholesome Wave work because it actually has the chance of making these kinds of ingredients available to everybody.
Q: Do you keep your recipes simple and flexible for a reason?
A: I love for people to be able to start with the recipe and then experiment. It keeps them close to the cooking process and then lets them discover innovations of their own.
Q: In addition to fresh local produce, I notice you use a lot of whole grains in your recipes.
A: I love whole grains — like barley, farro and grano — because you just boil them in salted water until they are the texture you like, and then you can follow the identical recipe for flavoring them with whatever's in season. And it's a way to keep those extremely healthy complex carbohydrates in your diet on a regular basis. Plus, things like farro and barley are so hard for pests to deal with, they need almost no pesticides. ...
You've got to try black barley. It holds on to its husk and by the time the husk opens up it's still creamy. You get it from Indianharvest.com in Minnesota. It's wonderful. You'll freak out.
SWEET PEA SOUP
Prep: 10 minutesCook: 25 minutesMakes: 6 servings
Adapted from "Sustainably Delicious: Making the World a Better Place, One Recipe at a Time," by Michel Nischan
1/2; pound Yukon Gold potatoes
2 tablespoons grapeseed oil
1 cup diced onion
4 cups shelled sweet peas (about 4 pounds in the pod)
6 cups vegetable stock, preferably homemade
2 to 3 tablespoons thinly sliced mint or Thai basil
1/2; teaspoon kosher salt
Freshly ground pepper
3 to 4 tablespoons softened unsalted butter
1. Cover the potatoes with a generous amount of water in a saucepan. Heat to a boil over medium high heat. Reduce the heat to medium; simmer briskly until the potatoes are tender but not mushy, 20 minutes.
2. Meanwhile, heat the oil and onion in a large skillet over medium heat. Cook until the onions caramelize lightly, 8-10 minutes. Add the peas; cook until just cooked through, 5-6 minutes. (If using frozen peas, heat them just until hot.) Transfer the onion and peas to a chilled baking sheet. Place them in the freezer until the peas are cold, 8-10 minutes.
3. Heat the stock to a simmer in a large saucepan over medium-high heat. Add the onion, peas and potatoes; heat to a simmer until heated through. Process in a blender in batches until very smooth. Or use an immersion blender to puree the soup directly in the saucepan.)
4. Return the soup to the pot; add the mint or basil. Season with the salt and pepper to taste. Stir in the butter. Serve; garnish with additional mint or basil leaves.
Per serving: 223 calories, 43 percent of calories from fat, 10 g fat, 4 g saturated fat, 15 mg cholesterol, 24 g carbohydrates, 7 g protein, 304 mg sodium, 5 g fiber