NEW YORK (Reuters Life!) - Michel Nischan said in his latest book, "Sustainably Delicious," that eating locally-grown food is a tasty, healthy act of heroism that supports regional farmers and economic activity.
The 51-year-old chef demonstrates this view at the Dressing Room in Westport, Connecticut, a restaurant he opened with late American actor Paul Newman in late 2006.
Besides his restaurant and cookbooks, Nischan is the head of Wholesome Wave Foundation whose goal is to bring affordable, fresh, locally-grown food to underserved communities.
Nischan, a grandson of displaced farmers, spoke to Reuters about locally-grown food and his perfect Earth Day dinner.
Q: What do you want readers to learn from your new book?
A: "My book is geared toward helping people to understand the importance of buying locally and buying sustainably. The way they spend their money can have a huge impact on their enjoyment, the health of their family, the health of their economy, preserving and keeping farmers around so their kids can grow knowing what a farm looks like, what countryside looks like. By making small changes, you can be a hero. I'm not telling everyone in America to buy local tomorrow, my feeling is that you can do it one product at a time."
Q: Your Wholesome Wave Foundation is involved with a program that doubles the value of the U.S. food stamps when a recipient spends them at a farmers market. Has it worked to promote healthier eating among poor families?
A: "If they really like the choice of fruits and vegetables and can't afford them, we provide them with this extra money and they will take us up on this incentive. What we found in markets where we have gone in and have been accepting food stamps, their redemption rates increased 300 percent from the prior year when there was no incentive plan in place. Some places have even seen a 1,000 percent increase. Now there is an incredible desire in these communities for fresh fruits and vegetables."
Q: Are there other goals you achieve with this program?
A: "The money is recirculated in that community. From a stimulus standpoint we are doubling the food benefit and that money is spent on the local farms. So none of the money goes into the distribution system and none of that goes out of the state. When folks increase their fruits and vegetable consumption by one or two servings a day, that will eventually lead to a reduction in healthcare cost."
Q: Some critics charge programs like yours are not based on free-market concepts and come from elitists telling others what to eat. What is your response?
A: "There isn't a thing on the shelves in a grocery store that is free-market based because they are all subsidized. With conventional farm subsidies they actually create a negative food cost. They create an illusion that their cost is below the cost of production, which is not free market at all. That's the worst subsidy in my opinion. My hard-earned tax dollar is embellishing the bottom line of a multinational corporation that is not giving any jobs to my friends."
Q: Where does your passion for farming come from?
A: "My grandparents on both sides were farmers. It became not viable for them to farm, which is the reason why I'm interested in agriculture. I've also been a chef for 30 years."
Q: What is your perfect Earth Day dinner?
A: "I go back to the multigrain risotto. It's something a diabetic can eat. The body has to work so hard to break them down so it doesn't impact it like sugar and white rice. Two of my children have type I diabetes. Since it's spring, it should be green because that's the first color of spring. There would be peas, asparagus, rapes and fiddle-head ferns. A great salad, followed by that risotto. I would make some bread, spread on some butter with some homemade apple preserve. To me, that would be the perfect dessert."
Risotto-Style Summer Heirloom Farro (serves 8)
4 tablespoons olive oil
1 large yellow onion, diced
8 fresh zucchini blossoms, optional
1 cup uncooked farro (a type of grain)
4 cups chicken stock, preferably homemade
1 large zucchini, diced
1-1/2 cups fresh sweet corn kernels
1 pint cherry tomatoes, halved
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 lemon, sliced
1. Heat 2 tablespoons of the oil in a large, deep skillet over medium-high heat. Add the onion. Cook for 4 to 5 minutes, or until softened but not browned. Add the zucchini blossoms, if using, reduce the heat to medium, and cook for about 1 minute. Remove the blossoms to a plate and keep warm. Add the farro. Cook for 2 to 3 minutes just to coat with the oil and mix with the onions.
2. Pour the stock into the skillet. Stir the farro and onions. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce the heat to medium. Simmer, stirring frequently, for 40 to 45 minutes, at which time the farro should be tender and the stock evaporated. Add more stock if needed during cooking to keep the farro moist.
3. Heat the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil in another large skillet over medium-high heat. When hot, add the zucchini and corn kernels. Cook for 10 to 12 minutes, or until the vegetables brown. Add the tomatoes. Cook for about 1 minute to warm through. Add the farro and toss to mix. Add the butter and stir until melted. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
4. Spoon the farro onto each of 8 plates. Garnish each plate with a zucchini blossom.
Reporting by Richard Leong; Editing by Patricia Reaney