WASHINGTON, D.C. — Step- ping into the garden to pluck a few vegetables doesn't usually inspire a flurry of snapshots from excited sightseers. But the crowd pressed against the fence along the south lawn of the nation's most famous home watched every move the tall chef made as he walked through the raised beds of the White House kitchen garden.
Pulling radishes and proudly showing off pods swollen with peas, Sam Kass, executive director of Let's Move! and senior policy adviser on nutrition for the Obama administration, spoke of the difference a plot of tilled ground can make, even for the country's first family.
Before he designed the famous food garden, Kass trained with renowned Austrian chef Christian Domschitz in Vienna, then worked at Chicago restaurants 312 and Avec. "I'm from Chicago. When I was there I didn't have a garden like this. But I definitely bought a huge amount of what I cooked from farmer's markets. I've always valued working closely with them, letting what they had decide the menu. This garden is an extension of that."
Joining the White House staff in 2009 as assistant chef, he still cooks for the Obamas five nights per week, and he's able to include freshly picked produce with every meal.
"The garden drives the menu. When you're able to cook out of a garden like this, you let it decide. Tonight I'm going do some of the Swiss chard. Last night I did spinach. I do a lot of kale. You get to come down here and see what looks good; that's the best way to cook. As chefs this is as good as it gets. We literally pick something and 20 minutes later we'll be cooking it."
In its fifth year, the garden produces 1,000 pounds of food annually, portions of which feed the first family while one-third is donated to local soup kitchens to feed those in need. The rest is used in state dinners and special events.
In the garden are two honorary Thomas Jefferson beds, planted with seeds the devoted gardener and founding father grew at Monticello. The first lady and Kass honor him by planting his varieties each season, plus nurture a Marseilles Fig tree grafted from original stock.
The beds are wall to wall with Jefferson's Brown Dutch, Paris White, Spotted Aleppo, and Tennis Ball lettuces, Bloomsdale spinach, Early Curled Siberian kale, and carrots. Tapping the blue-green lobed leaf of a plant at the edge of the bed, Kass said "this is called sea kale, very old, like collards, and over there are mustard greens."
Sea kale, a cousin of broccoli, was one of Jefferson's favorites, according to Pat Brodowski, vegetable gardener at the historic Monticello site. Bitter if left to grow naturally, the secret to sweet leaves is blanching them by placing clay pots over them as they grow. "Jefferson noted that they taste like a cross between asparagus and cauliflower. One year he planted 500 in the fall and 600 in the spring. He loved asparagus, so anything that tasted like it he grew," she said.
White House chefs preserve harvested produce through canning chutneys, sauces, and fresh vegetables, plus pickling. Enjoying the preserved bounty is a thrill for Kass, who grinned as he spoke of his current obsession.
"I've been addicted to these peppers. We pickled a bunch of our spicy peppers, and I've been making a sauce out of them that I can't get enough of. We grow jalapeño, habanero, and the Thomas Jefferson fish peppers."
African-American heirlooms dating back to the mid-1800s in the U.S., the green and yellow striped Fish peppers pack moderate heat and ripen to scarlet red. Popular as a secret ingredient of fish dishes, the trick is harvesting the spicy peppers when they're young. They start out with white or light yellow flesh that doesn't discolor cream sauces.
"The first lady's hope is that people would see this garden and try to grow their own food; to become more conscious about the food that they're eating, what they're feeding their families and their children. Try to take strides in putting healthier, more nutritious food on our plates," said the nutrition guru.
When asked how we can improve our diets, Kass suggested starting with c hoosemyplate.gov for tips on eating healthy.
"What we've learned is that simple, small changes can have an extraordinary impact. One thing to try and do as often as possible is to fill half your plate with fruits and vegetables. If you do that you're well on your way." Make the grains you eat whole grains by choosing whole wheat pasta, whole wheat bread, or brown rice instead of white. Control portion sizes by eating a little less, and choose water instead of sugary drinks.
"If you just did that, did those four things, everybody — the country — would be well on our way to living a much healthier life. And cooking — I encourage cooking. The more we cook the healthier we're gonna be." Gazing across the garden where two other chefs were busy harvesting, Kass grew thoughtful.
"We firmly believe that the future of our country, our prosperity, our vibrancy as a nation depends on us improving how we eat. This garden is a real testament to that, an ode to that and I think it's helped spark a national dialogue that's having a transformative impact on our country, due to the first lady's leadership," he said, brushing soil from the clump of freshly pulled French Breakfast radishes. "We hope its happening. We have a long, long way to go. There's only so much one garden can do. But we're seeing leadership from communities all over the country that's truly inspiring to us. We're hopeful, and we're determined."
Read Denver freelance writer Carol O'Meara's blog at gardeningafterfive. wordpress.com.
White House Grilled Garden Pizza
From obamafoodorama.blogspot.com, serves 4.
1 eggplant, cut into coins, ½-inch thick
1 red pepper, sliced, ¼-inch thick
2 tablespoons olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste
1 12-inch whole wheat pizza dough (it's okay to use frozen dough)
6 ounces tomato sauce, your favorite brand
6 ounces shredded mozzarella, lowfat
Chopped fresh basil, for garnish
Toss the vegetables in olive oil, salt and pepper. Grill until softened but still a bit crunchy. Set aside.
Flatten the pizza dough. Brush with olive oil. Season with salt and pepper.
Grill on both sides for about 2 minutes per side.
Top with the tomato sauce, mozzarella and grilled vegetables.
Garnish with basil.
White House Kale Salad
From obamafoodorama.blogspot.com, serves 4-6. Photo by Chuck Kennedy, provided by The White House
¼ cup red wine vinegar
Juice of 2 medium lemons, about 6 tablespoons
1 medium shallot, minced
1 cup olive oil
Freshly ground black pepper
2 bunches young kale, washed and spun dry, stacked and cut into thin slices
1 bulb fennel (fronds, stems and outer layer removed or reserved for another use), cored and thinly sliced
4 radishes, thinly sliced
2 jalapeño peppers, stemmed, seeded and thinly sliced
1 scallion, white and light-green parts, trimmed and thinly sliced
4 ounces Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, shaved or cut into slivers
4 ounces spiced Marcona almonds, about 1 cup (see note below)
Make the dressing: Combine the vinegar, lemon juice and shallot in a medium bowl. Gradually whisk in the oil. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
For the salad: Place the kale in a large serving bowl. About 10 minutes before serving, add the dressing to taste and toss to coat evenly.
Add the fennel, radishes, jalapeños, scallion, cheese and almonds, tossing to incorporate.
Note: Marcona almonds can be purchased with a similar coating, or made at home: Whisk one egg white in a medium bowl, add 1 cup of Marcona almonds and toss to coat. Combine 1 teaspoon brown sugar, ½ teaspoon salt, ½ teaspoon ground cumin and ¼ teaspoon smoked paprika in a separate medium bowl. Add almonds and toss to coat.
Spread the almonds on a baking sheet and bake at 350 degrees until lightly browned, about 15 minutes, watching carefully to make sure they don't burn. Cool before tossing in the salad.
The salad dressing can be made ahead, and refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 2 days. Whisk to recombine before serving.
White House Collard Greens
From "American Grown: The Story of the White House Kitchen Garden and Gardens Across America" by Michelle Obama, (Crown, $30) . Serves 4-6.
1 smoked turkey leg
1 bay leaf
1 onion, quartered
3 quarts water
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium onion, finely chopped
6 cloves garlic, minced
2 bunches collard greens (about 2 pounds), well washed, large ribs removed, torn into bite-size pieces
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Hot sauce, for serving
Apple cider vinegar, for serving
Place the smoked turkey leg, bay leaf, quartered onion and water in a large pot. Bring to a boil; reduce heat and allow to simmer for about an hour, uncovered. Strain the stock into a large container and then set the leg aside to cool. Discard the onion and bay leaf.
Drizzle olive oil into a large pot over medium-high heat. Add the chopped onion and garlic, and cook until translucent, 5-7 minutes. Add the collard greens and strained stock; bring to a boil. Lower the heat and cook for about 40 minutes, uncovered, stirring occasionally.
Remove the meat from the turkey leg and add it to the pot during the last five minutes of cooking. Season with salt and pepper.
Serve with your favorite hot sauce and a splash of apple cider vinegar.