Superfoods in play: We challenge chefs to design recipes using nutritious ingredients


Chilean-Style Avocado Salad. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

Editor’s note: This is the first of an occasional series in which Washington area chefs create simple dishes that incorporate nutritious ingredients.

Eating something that’s good for your innards is downright empowering — more about what you can have than what you must do without. In their unadorned state, “superfoods” deliver high levels of antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, fiber and/or phytochemicals; so says the International Food Information Council. They have been described by health-food guru David Wolfe as a way “to get more nutrition with less eating.”

Unless you don’t buy into the hype.

“I don’t believe there is such a thing as a superfood,” says Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition at New York University. “All plant foods — fruits, vegetables, nuts, grains — have useful nutrients. The whole point about diets is to vary food intake, because the nutrient contents of various foods differ and complement each other.”

The European Union even banned general use of the term “superfood” on labels in 2007, requiring scientific evidence to back up specific health claims — helps protect against heart disease! — for food and drink products made or sold within its member nations.

And yet, lists of what’s best and worst and in and out make 21st-century citizens feel plugged in. So a basic lineup of superfoods has morphed from a d’oh-inspiring, sensible 10 (salmon, beans, yogurt, sweet potatoes, broccoli, kiwis, quinoa, nuts, eggs, berries) to an annual forecast of trending ingredients.

Canary seeds, salsify and the Japanese spice blend known as schichimi togarashi showed up on Prevention magazine’s superfoods list for 2014. How many of us have those on hand?

“I like to look at nutrients and find foods that are different,” says Kristin Kirkpatrick, author of said list. She’s a media-savvy registered dietitian in Cleveland who heads nutrition services at the Cleveland Clinic’s Wellness Institute. Her 2012 prediction about chia seeds, the fiber-rific staple of the Aztec and Mayan Indians, is right on track.

Once the institute’s executive chef figured out that chia seeds soaked in wine or water created a moist, Omega-3 fatty acid-rich binder for turkey meatballs, Kirkpatrick relayed the technique to her patients and shared the recipe with millions via “The Dr. Oz Show.”

Enlisting professional culinary talent struck us as a smart way to go, which is how our Superfoods Chefs’ Challenge came about. Over the next few months — say, the average length of time it takes for New Year’s resolutions to lock in or dissolve like so much bicarbonate of soda in water — we will feature the results of local chefs who were game. They pick two ingredients from our own superfoods list, an amalgam of old and new, and agree to feature them in recipes that are relatively healthful and, most important, are well suited to home cooks. As the list dwindles, the chefs’ task will no doubt become more formidable.

First up: Nick Palermo, of Old Angler’s Inn in Potomac.

He describes himself as someone who likes to cook in his own castle and likes to modernize classic American comfort food, without going “crazy or super-chemical” in the kitchen. We found the boyish-looking, 32-year-old executive chef was already interested in incorporating a few superfoods into the inn’s specials — a somewhat undercover mission.

“You don’t really come to Old Angler’s to eat ‘healthy,’ ” he admits. “But you don’t really need a steak to feel fulfilled.” Palermo is especially keen on quinoa, lentils and greens: “I like the flavors of all that stuff.” He’s also on a buddy plan to lose 20 pounds, along with pal Luis Santiago, the inn’s general manager.

With the benefit of a wide-open field, the chef went with avocado and turkey.

The fruit makes the grade, of course, because it’s high in monounsatured fats, antioxidants and essential amino acids. It’s plentiful and often on sale in the runup to Super Bowl-guacamole fests, but Palermo was inspired first by a crisp, refreshing salad from Santiago that has been on the inn’s menu: hearts of palm, celery and chunks of luscious avocado dressed simply with lemon juice and extra-virgin olive oil.

The chef then applied the kind of two-star thinking that we were looking for. He roasted avocado quarters and used them to fill the side of the plate where a starchy carb might otherwise reside. The combination of a well-executed pork chop — which could just as well be a roasted chicken breast or piece of fish, he says — sauteed broccoli and a sherry vinaigrette that graces all of the components could seriously upgrade a weeknight meal without much fuss.

Turkey was not an obvious choice for him. “I don’t even really eat the stuff,” he says. The lean protein contains heart-healthy minerals that are said to aid our immune system and metabolism. Palermo managed to make it a flavor bomb in his turkey curry, bolstered by a quick-ish broth and brief infusion of kaffir lime leaves. The dark meat cooks just long enough to become pull-apart tender. His turkey cassoulet fits the season; leaner and less daunting than a three-page Julia Child rendition, it still manages to evoke the richness of the French casserole. He’d rather we use home-cooked beans than canned, but he appreciates the nod to convenience.

A chef’s deft touches, joining forces with the power of superfoods. We could get used to that.

Which superfoods would you like to see recipes for? Kirkpatrick and chef Palermo will join today’s Free Range chat at noon: live.washingtonpost.com.

Bonnie S. Benwick has the job most envied among cocktail-party conversations. If they only knew . . . . Cook with her each week at Dinner in Minutes: washingtonpost.com/recipes.
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