Excerpt from Love in the Time of Broccoli
No Butter, No Eggs, No Problem: Vegan Baking
Lowly Greens Gain Sheen
Life lessons: A top chef teaches 16 lucky kids cooking and much more
The bread-baking roadshow: Bringing heart and history to South Florida
Author-cruise guru is on a food mission
Chrismukkah Comes to South Florida - It’s the Most Meshugganah Time of the Year
Home (Cooking) for the Holidays
Chili Tonight, Hot Tamale
Hooray for Broccoli


Introduction: Welcome to the Broccoli

“I want you to write a food book,” my friend said, eating an almond croissant.

“I want you to buy a stove,” I said, drinking mint tea.

We looked at each other and smiled. Stalemate.

My friend had been without a working oven for over a month and had been eating as though on an endless camp-out - summer sausage, chocolate, cookies, a diet rich in nitrates, fat and sugar, absent of fruit and vegetables and let’s not even talk about whole grains.

This is a girl who knows better. I’m thinking you know better, too. Knowing better is easy. Making changes armed with that knowledge is what’s hard, a bring-you-to-your-knees kind of hard. Sometimes it doesn’t even seem possible. But it is. I, a recovering soda junkie, speak from experience.

“You could help people eat better,” my friend said. “You could teach them how to shop, how to--”

“I hate being told what to do - everyone does,” I said. “And why would anyone listen to me, anyway?”

She set down her double mocha latte. “Because you’ve got a food column and you know all this stuff.”


“Because you genuinely like people.”


“Because you could eat anything you want and what you want to eat is broccoli.”

“Is that weird?”


My friend is wonderful, brilliant, beautiful, the best person I know. I, on the other hand, am ninety-six pounds and nervous. I just happen to love broccoli. In fact, all vegetables, the greener the better.

I am the world’s most unlikely vegetarian. I don’t remember green vegetables growing up. To this day, my father will manage to choke down a fresh asparagus tip then say the hell with it. Back in my childhood vegetables came in a frozen brick. They were something relegated. An afterthought. And yet, in one of those mysteries of life, I grew to love vegetables, fresh ones, preferring them to all things, yes, even chocolate. A plate of verdant, lightly steamed broccoli is my idea of a good time. I realize I’m in the minority here.

I would have written off my friend’s suggestion, attributing it to a caffeine and sugar rush, but
1) She’s brought it up many times since (over way too many almond croissants).
2) She’s right - I do like people and I worry many of us don’t know what real food is or where it comes from (hint: broccoli does not come from the frozen food section). Instead, you’re eating stuff that’s been processed, nuked, irradiated and/or treated to a cocktail of preservatives, additives and other nasties. This, friends, is no longer food.

Real food is composed of ingredients you can recognize, that are grown, not manufactured. It doesn’t have to be vegetarian, it doesn’t have to be organic, it doesn’t have to be fat-free, but it has to be real.

Why is real food important? For the same reason being alive is important. Because it is. Because you’re here, so you might as well go for the whole delicious, authentic experience. Perhaps you ascribe to Thomas Hobbes’ belief that life is nasty, brutish and short. Honey, I’ve had days where I’d find it hard to disagree. But the thing is, it doesn’t all suck. There’s you, right, and you’re not so bad.

And since you’re here, alive and kicking, you might as well feel good. My wonderful friend is one of several people in my life who despite their wonderfulness have stratospheric cholesterol levels yet have no interest in changing their eating habits. Bad combo. Being wonderful does not make you exempt from the troubles of life.

The good news is change is possible. It can be incremental (that is to say doable) and it can energizing and it can be yummy. Eating healthful food is the most fun way to make it happen.
By healthful, I don’t mean just broccoli. I don’t even mean just produce and whole grains. I don’t ascribe to a “veggies only” mentality. Many people who read my Edgy Veggie columns send me furtive e-mails beginning, “I’m not a vegetarian but-- ” But nothing. You’re welcome. C’mon in. When it comes to improving what we eat and how we live, everyone can play.

I married a carnivore (sounds like a horror film) and I gladly make him and all our meat-lovin’ buds braised lamb shanks, roast duck and as James Joyce put it, “the inner organs of beasts and fowls.” Feeding people is an act of communion, of giving, of sharing, of nourishing soul and stomach, and if I only served broccoli, well, I’d have fewer friends. I prefer the stealth method. Along with the meat, I provide a bevy of broccoli, salads or other veggie goodness and am mui pleased when I’m told wow, this is terrific.

It is. When the goodness of real food, fresh produce and lovingly cooked whole grains gets into you, it makes you feel terrific, too, in a way that a can of diet whatever can’t touch. It’s food that lets you know you’re being nourished, cared for - there’s not enough of that, as far as I’m concerned. I think it’s one of the reasons we’ve got a problem in this country.

You’ve heard of the French paradox, that mystery enabling the French to eat lavish, leisurely, artery-clogging meals while remaining svelte and chic with cholesterol levels that don’t make their doctors scream and hurl statins at them.

The American paradox, by contrast, is just depressing. We know more than we ever have before about nutrition and diet, yet we’re in an obesity epidemic. Obesity goes far beyond not being able to look hot naked. It compromises your health, period.

You know this. Everybody knows this. And what are people doing about it? Pointing fingers, filing suits against food manufacturers for making them fat, drinking soul-destroying diet meals-in-a-can or saying damn the torpedos (or scale) and ordering double-cheese pizzas. Eventually, though, the binges and the blaming, the purges and the pills lose their luster - and let’s face it, when it comes to instilling healthier lifestyles, not to mention joy, they just don’t cut it.
Eventually you’ve got to get back to yourself and get back to real food. There’s you. And there’s the broccoli. So let’s begin.

P. S. My friend finally bought an oven. I, in turn, wrote this book.

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No Butter, No Eggs, No Problem: Vegan Baking Comes into its Own
Miami Herald, August 27, 2009

When Becca Medvin went vegan at the age of 14, she had no trouble giving up meat. Or milk or cheese or eggs. What she missed was dessert.

`"I have the biggest sweet tooth of anyone I know,'' says Medvin, now 16. "I need dessert every day.''

Fresh fruit is lovely, but a girl's got to have her chocolate chip cookies. Alas, the vegan treats Medvin found "weren't as good as normal desserts."

They were flavor-challenged. They had texture issues. She took to the kitchen to create her own.

A junior at Ransom Everglades School who dreams of having her own bakery some day, Medvin came up with what people tell her is "the best cupcake they've ever had, vegan or non."

Don't take her word for it. Becca's Vegan Cupcakes are at outlets including the Bookstore in the Grove, where they sell briskly for $1.75 a pop.

"You don't need eggs and butter and all that to make something as good as it can be,'' says Medvin, who lives in Coconut Grove. "And it's fun."

Gaby Larrea, co-owner of Peace A' Cake, agrees.

"Being vegetarian doesn't mean you're eating grass all day,'' he says. "Eating healthy can be decadent and yummy'' -- like Peace A' Cake's signature chocolate chip walnut cake.

Since February, Larrea and his business partner, Veronica Menin, have been selling vegan cakes, muffins and cookies privately and to vegetarian eateries including Beehive and Om Garden.

"Vegan baking gave us a way to be healthy and still eat dessert," Larrea says.

Neither Medvin nor the Peace A' Cake pair claim their to-die-for desserts beat out broccoli when it comes to nutrition. Nor are they low in calories and fat. Peace A' Cake's two dozen treats range from 120 to 270 calories per serving.

The vegan bonus comes from replacing eggs, milk, butter and even white sugar with products like coconut oil, which adds richness and fat but no cholesterol, and agave nectar, which adds sweetness but is low-glycemic and doesn't make your blood sugar spike.

At the vaunted New York bakery BabyCakes NYC, Erin McKenna's bag of tricks also includes products like xanthan gum, a thickening stabilizer, and high-protein garbanzo-fava flour. They sound unlikely to produce anything you'd want to eat but figure in almost every knockout BabyCakes dessert, including Triple-Chocolate Fat Pants Cake.

Among BabyCakes' vegan and nonvegan fans are Natalie Portman, Jason Schwartzman, Zooey Deschanel . . . and Medvin, who has twice made the pilgrimage.

"I went there and I loved it. I just bought the BabyCakes cookbook, and oh, my God, it's one of my favorites."

Reproducing BabyCakes' treats requires a trip to the natural-foods store and a serious investment. The ingredients for McKenna's chocolate chip cookies, for example, price out at a gasp-worthy $30.

At Peace A' Cake, "our ingredients are expensive," says Menin, who charges $30 for a 10-inch cake or a dozen muffins. "But it's impossible to make the food any cheaper."

David Kalas, pastry chef at the Fort Lauderdale vegan mecca, Sublime, uses raw agave nectar in greatest hits like his Chocolate Nirvana, but wants to make vegan treats accessible and affordable for home cooks. That's why the scone recipe he demonstrated at a recent Vegan Baking 101 class uses sugar.

"That's OK if you do it in moderation," he says.

Ah, well. As Kalas can tell her, the path to vegan baking is not a straight one. He studied at the Cordon Bleu in Sydney, Australia, and made a detour to Yale University for a master's degree in theology before joining Sublime last year.

Kalas doesn't want to be too woo-woo about it, but he acknowledges that "the spiritual aspect does impact my baking tremendously. You want to prepare food as a loving offering."

Creating vegan desserts, he says, "is about baking with compassion."

Peace A' Cake's Larrea went vegan for health. Medvin did it "for health, the environment, everything."

Whatever their reasons, "We have the same goal, says Menin -- "opening the ways of the world and showing people they can live a healthy life and eat yummy foods."

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Lowly Greens Gain Sheen
Miami Herald, July 2, 2009

Rarely recognized as haute cuisine, collard greens are downright presidential these days, thanks to the White House vegetable garden. Michelle Obama's recent harvest of a healthy crop of collards and other greens occasioned many photo ops and gave the first lady a chance to talk of the garden as an edible lesson "about health and how delicious it is to eat fresh food."

This is not the first time vegetables have sprung from White House grounds. The presidential precedent dates back to 1800 and John Adams, who started growing vegetables, not to teach a lesson but to save money. While it's unknown what Adams grew, collards seem a good bet. They're easy to grow and forgiving, with thick but elegant paddle-shaped leaves that can withstand extreme temperatures -- even South Florida summer heat.

When it comes economy, collards deliver. They're fresh, local and just a dollar a pound in markets now. Julius Caesar (for whom July was named) is said to have treated collard greens as medicine, eating them after banquets for nutrition and digestion.

Like its relatives, kale and broccoli, collard greens are rich in cancer-fighting antioxidants as well as vitamins. One cup of cooked collards delivers your full daily vitamin A, half your C and more than 800 percent of your vitamin K, as well as significant amounts of minerals including potassium and zinc.

Southern tradition calls for collards to be braised or boiled with pig parts, but we veg heads know better: Try them, shredded and raw, in that July Fourth staple, coleslaw. Yet another president, Thomas Jefferson, would approve: He's reputed to have preferred salads to all other foods.

With so much nutrition for so little money, a cool plate of raw collards might become your favorite, too. Eat up -- one cup has but 11 calories. It's the all-American thing to do.

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Life lessons: A top chef teaches 16 lucky kids cooking and much more
Miami Herald, June 4, 2009


Back in March, chef Michelle Bernstein and a group of volunteers (me among them) set out to teach 16 youngsters from North Miami's William Jennings Bryan Elementary School how to cook. Over the next 10 weeks, as they rolled out waves of fresh pasta and got their first blasts of wasabi, they taught us that life is delicious.

Many of the students, ages 9 to 13, had never cooked before their encounter with Common Threads, a national nonprofit program dedicated to teaching ''the importance of nutrition and physical well-being'' and fostering ''an appreciation of cultural diversity through cooking,'' as its website puts it.

Bernstein, the award-winning chef/co-owner of Michy's and Señora Martinez, is a hands-on teacher. On Day One, the kids all donned chef hats and aprons, picked up knives and got to work, preparing grilled flank steak and sautéed corn.

''That was scary,'' recalls Catherine Gonzalez, 24, who, like most of the volunteers, was a student at Johnson and Wales University, where the weekly classes were held. ``I was amazed when the kids started using the knives and the stove.''

The youngsters learned about everything from table manners to tahini, all by making -- and eating -- food from a different country each week. It was a giddy global trip for all of us.

Bernstein says she ''fell in love'' with the program after cooking at fundraisers for Common Threads, which was started in Chicago six years ago by Oprah chef Art Smith.

Bringing it to Miami meant raising more than $50,000 (the Children's Trust and individual donors pitched in), vetting volunteers and securing kitchen space at Johnson and Wales (Bernstein's alma mater). Bryan Elementary, just six blocks away, was a natural partner.

''I couldn't think of anything better,'' Bernstein says. ``We need help with our kids. They need to learn to eat better.''

And that doesn't just mean more vegetables.

''Growing up in a Latin-Jewish home, every conversation we had, good or bad, was at the table, with food,'' the chef says. ``All I want is for kids to eat at home, with family and friends.''

Bernstein and her assistant, Melissa Cala, found they needed to adapt Common Threads' curriculum for Miami.

''We're so different culturally,'' says the chef. For example, ``everything has to be spicier.''

''I like spicy food,'' says Anedriana Franck, 11.

All the Miami Common Threads kids did. On India Day, there were no leftovers from their cauliflower with ginger, coriander and jalapeño peppers. (''It's like popcorn!'' fifth grader Roudy Francois said of the golden florets.)

On Jamaica Day, they eagerly tucked into habanero-spiked callaloo, a Caribbean leafy green most had never seen before.

Each Monday after school, the kids made an entire meal -- usually an entree and two substantial side dishes -- in 90 minutes.

''You just want them to soak it all up really quickly,'' Bernstein says.

The amazing thing is, they did. Wary of tofu by itself, they happily ate it when mixed with fresh vegetables, cilantro and mint in Thai spring rolls. The following week, on Italy Day, fifth grader Staphon Sawyer, dicing fresh mozzarella, made the connection. ``It's soft and white like tofu.''

''We were lucky to get these kids,'' said Cala. ``They're very attentive, very open-minded.''

Though the cuisine they prepared was often unfamiliar, the students never uttered the N word (``nasty''). On Turkey Day (the country, not the bird), 11-year-old Yvon St. Louis, who had never tasted a chickpea, became a convert.

Bernstein and Cala are working to increase the number of schools and classes next year, including advanced sessions for our beloved bunch from William Jennings Bryan.

''I wish I could bring them home. I'm really starting to fall for them,'' says Bernstein. ``The challenge is, are they really going to take this with them?''

According to the Common Threads website (www.commonthreads.org), 96 percent of participating students show an interest in healthier food.

That's a nice statistic, but not as nice as seeing the kids wrap up food they made to take home for their parents to taste, hearing that Roudy has been doing some of the cooking at home or learning that 11-year-old Judie Simon taught her mom to make tabbouleh.

And then there was the ease and attitude of fifth-grader Sheila Barthelus as she diced vegetables last week on Pizza Day, no longer so impressed by Domino's.

''You can make pizza pretty quick,'' she said, biting into the heart-shaped pie she had made from start to finish.

Ellen Kanner is The Miami Herald's Edgy Veggie columnist.

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The bread-baking roadshow: Bringing heart and history to South Florida
MIAMI HERALD, January 24, 2008

King Arthur Flour baking teacher Carolyn Hack.

King Arthur Flour sends an instructor around the country, giving free lessons in bread-baking basics. But for the 217-year-old Vermont firm, it's about much more than yeast and flour.

It's about heart. It's about history. It's about ''skill and art and joy,'' says Allison Furbish, spokeswoman for America's oldest flour company. All that used to be passed down, along with cherished family recipes, from generation to generation.

''Since we don't see that happening as much anymore, we fill in the gaps,'' Furbish says. ``We love to help people hold onto their heritage.''

Instructor Carolyn Hack brings the bread-baking roadshow to Florida Jan. 30-Feb. 2, with two-hour crash courses in Port St. Lucie, Wellington, Plantation and Coral Gables.

''We want people to come out and learn,'' Hack said in a telephone interview from her home in Thetford Center, Vt.

``The actual technique and recipes are fairly simple, but it's always a challenge to make them come out the way you want them to. . . . A little knowledge goes a long way with how your bread comes out.''

Classes are free and not Food Network fabulous. On cooking shows, ''Everything looks easy and is done very quickly. It's hard to absorb,'' Hack says. ``When I'm doing a bread demonstration, I try to make the dough floppier and gooier than what you'll make at home. If it looks easy and pretty when I do it but it's sticky and all over your kitchen, you'll feel like a total klutz.''

A King Arthur instructor for three years, Hack, 46, taught herself to bake as a child on her family's New Jersey farm. She can't remember the last time she bought bread, instead supplying her husband and four young children with oven-fresh loaves.

Yet she keeps her girlhood learning curve in mind when she teaches. ``I'm sympathetic to people trying to do this for the first time or with limited experience.''

King Arthur is No. 3 in flour sales behind Pillsbury and General Mills' Gold Medal, but when it comes to baking education, it leads the pack. The company launched its national baking program 25 years ago.

In 2000, King Arthur opened its baking education center in Norwich, Vt., which offers classes almost daily.

Its decade-old baker's hotline comes to the aid of panicked and frustrated bakers, sometimes even reverse-engineering a botched bread to see where it all went wrong. King Arthur's online community, bakerscircle.com, has more than 100,000 passionate members.

One of Hack's favorite community-building efforts is King Arthur's Life Skills program for middle schoolers. ''It's great to get kids at that stage when they're interested in trying new things,'' she says. ``They're amazed they really can bake by themselves.''

Spokeswoman Furbish learned to bake from her father.

``I grew up with King Arthur flour -- that's what we always had around the house, being a pure New England family. . . . It's high-quality, unbleached and all-natural, which I love.''

Not everyone adores those qualities, says Hack -- at least not at first. ``Many people grew up in the `70s, when whole wheat bread was dense and nasty. Some people don't like that strong, nutty flavor.''

That's why Hack pulls out a relatively new product: white whole wheat flour, with the same nutritional profile of the more familiar red whole wheat but ``a much milder taste.''

She approaches her classes brimming with passion -- and finds the feeling returned.

''The best part about teaching is how excited people are,'' she says. ``People don't come because they're bored, they come because they have a genuine interest in baking.

``. . . What a great enhancement it is to their lives to enjoy the process of baking and share it with their friends and family.''

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Author-cruise guru is on a food mission
MIAMI HERALD, January 21, 2008

He's gone from counterculture to cookbook author and cruise guru, but Sandy Pukel still sports the same look (shorts, floral shirt, Birkenstocks), drives the same car (orange '73 VW bug) and has the same mission (''to make everybody happy and healthy'') as when he opened Oak Feed Store 38 years ago.

The store, a Coconut Grove institution, did more than sell natural foods. It was a meeting place, a magnet for those into health, yoga, meditation or macrobiotics, and Pukel was the reason.

''Sandy is a real pioneer,'' says Alicia Sirkin, a longtime Oak Feed customer. ``He brought the preventive health movement to Miami, in my opinion.''

''The store worked not because of any business acumen,'' says Leon Matsil, who co-owned Oak Feed with Pukel. ``It was Sandy. He likes to spread the word.''

Oak Feed closed three years ago, but Pukel is still spreading the word. He works as a state-licensed nutrition counselor and, through his decade-old nonprofit foundation, A Taste of Health, promotes ''healthful foods and healthful lifestyles'' via Holistic Holiday at Sea cruises on Costa Cruise line. The cruises, in turn, gave rise to his new cookbook, Greens and Grains on the Deep Blue Sea (Square One, $16.95).

Most people come to Pukel for the same reason they come to macrobiotics -- ''They're on the last turnoff to the funeral parlor,'' says Pukel. ``It's very rare somebody comes to see me preventively.''

Macrobiotics, a holistic regimen with an emphasis on whole grains, can improve your health, he says, but that's not why he fell in love with it. Nor was it the brown rice. ``It was the lifestyle stuff -- getting along with each other.''

In 1969, the same year as Woodstock (which Pukel attended -- he's one of the famed naked people in the film), Pukel and Matsil, who'd grown up together in Queens, took a macrobiotics class taught by ''a little old lady on the Upper West Side of Manhattan,'' Matsil recalls.

''This thing clicked with me,'' says Pukel, who lives in Coral Gables. ``I went cold turkey that night.''

No more meat, no more dairy, no more sugar, no more booze, no more . . . youthful indiscretions.

Matsil, who'd graduated from dental school, and Pukel, who'd dropped out of law school, moved to Miami in 1970. They were 24.

''We stumbled into Oak Feed,'' says Matsil, ''a tiny thing on Oak Avenue,'' then operating out of a second-story law office. Pukel's father loaned them $4,000, they bought the store and made it the most happening place in the Grove. Eventually, they moved to bigger digs on Grand Avenue.

Looking back, ''I marvel,'' says Matsil, who today lives in Panama City, ``but you've got to know Sandy to know what's going on -- he's got a white light around him. He's a lucky guy. He expects things to happen his way. And they do.''

Call it luck, karma or white light, ''The best thing I have in my life is attracting wonderful people and positive things,'' Pukel says. ``My main thing is to turn people on to good things. Whether it's diet, exercise -- life is to enjoy.''

Enjoying life is why he embraces and advocates macrobiotics as much now as when it first clicked for him. 'Macro means great, bios means life -- macrobiotic means, `Have a great life.' People miss that part of it. Doesn't everybody want that?''

Evidently not. Almost 40 years after his macrobiotic awakening, Pukel has resigned himself to the fact that to many people, macrobiotics is a dirty word in many circles. Although the new cookbook is both macrobiotic and vegan, ``We don't use the words.''

The recipes -- featuring healthful whole grains, a bounty of fresh vegetables and even one for chocolate cake -- are delicious. They also happen to be good for you, and are what Pukel serves at his wellness seminars and on his cruises.

``Everybody kept asking us for the recipes.''

That's why he and Mark Hanna, macrobiotic chef for the cruises, created the cookbook. For Pukel, whose free spirit approach to life also extends to the kitchen, testing recipes was a lot of work. ``You have to be exact. You have to check every piece. I was very naive about it. It took longer than I ever imagined.''

Sirkin got a copy of the book ''right off the press. The recipes are fabulous,'' she says.

The cruises grew out of workshops Pukel hosted for 25 years at big Miami Beach hotels featuring top shiatsu therapists and macrobiotic teachers.

The problem was after he'd get people pumped about making healthier choices, they'd go home and revert to old not-so-healthy practices.

With a cruise, Pukel figured, ``you have them. They're living with you, breathing with you.''

He sold the concept to Costa Cruise line, and the first year had 400 people, including Matsil, his former Oak Feed partner.

''I don't like cruises,'' Matsil confesses. ``But I saw right away Sandy was the cruise. They've got this very good chef who puts out fabulous food. Some people lost 10 pounds. I came off the natural food cruise feeling like crap because I overate.''

Pukel's fifth annual cruise sets sail on March 30 for a week with close to a thousand passengers, leaving Fort Lauderdale for ports of call in the Virgin Islands and the Turks and Caico. Sponsored by A Taste of Health and Vegetarian Times, it will offer over 100 classes from feng shui to cooking taught by pros including Ann Gentry (Real Food Daily).

''More important than the food and the classes is the camaraderie and positive energy'' says Pukel, who describes the vibe as happy and healing, not ``hippy-head.''

''We're not looking to convert anybody.'' Pukel says with a laugh. ``Well, I am, but I want to everybody happy -- that's my goal.''

Pukel raised his five grown children that way. ``I have a grandson born a vegetarian.''

Divorced ''and in love with life,'' Pukel, 62, is up ''at 4 or 5,'' works out or goes for a run on the beach, fueled by macrobiotic favorites like brown rice with pecans and shiitakes, not to mention positive vibes.

Every so often, someone recognizes him from his naked Woodstock days.

``They say I don't look much different, maybe a little more mature. That's pretty nice.''

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Chrismukkah Comes to South Florida -
It’s the Most Meshugganah Time of the Year
Miami Herald, December 22, 2007

It’s hard to know whether to say ho-ho-ho or oy, but by some fluke of the calendar, but in three days, Christmas and Chanukah collide. This leaves interfaith types two options 1) have an aneurism deciding which holiday rituals to observe -- what’s known in the religion biz as the December Dilemma, 2) embrace them all in a merry mish-mash of faiths and traditions -- celebrate Chrismukkah.

Some people, including Marjie Aloni, president of the Broward chapter of the Interfaith Council, are bound to be offended by the latter, but Chrismukkah, according to its proponent Ron Gompertz, “celebrates what we all have in common. It’s a statement of peace on earth and good will.” How can you be offended by that? Plus, there’s food.

The Chrismukkah Cookbook ($15 and available on http://www.chrismukkah.com) shows how to make a matzoh bread house and matzoh ball snowmen and has hybrid holiday recipes like Good Cheer with a Schmear (bagels with cream cheese, smoked salmon and horseradish) and Kosher Fruit Cake.

Points for the most ingenius recipe goes to Mother’s Gefilte Goose, which combines roast goose and gefilte fish, the most labor-intensive, dish-dirtying recipes of both faiths into, well, you wouldn’t want to know. But the Kosher Cowboys Barbecue Brisket of Beef makes for good eating whatever your religion is, as does the Challah Sticky Bun Wreath.

The Chrismukkah phenomenon has spread far beyond Gompertz’s home of Bozeman, Montana which he shares with 64 other Jews. It made its television debut on “The OC” last season, Virgin Atlantic calls it by the even more all-inclusive name of Chrismakwanzakah and it’s the current exhibit at the Jewish Museum in Berlin. Gompertz, the guy behind the Chrismukkah website, sells not just cookbooks, but Chrismukkah cards, ornaments and t-shirts. He takes no credit for creating Chrismukkah. “We didn’t so much start it as we helped popularize it,” he says. He’s done a good job. Business, he says, has been brisk.

Chrismukkah isn’t just zeitgeisty, it’s chic. Select Loews Hotels, including Loews South Beach, feature a Chrismukkah menu for fab interfaith folk. Loews being Loews, however, has gone a little tonier than Gompertz. First of all, they spell it Christmukah, and those who’ve never gotten a handle on the spelling of Hannukah, Chanukah, Chanukkah, etc. will understand entirely.

Rather than The Chrismukkah Cookbook‘s eggnog, not-so-subtly called Yule Plotz, Loews chefs have developed Christmukah Cheer, a creamy mint cocktail with a hint of chocolately Sabra liqueur from Israel. Try it with Loews’ egg nog pudding in a dreidel-shaped chocolate cookie cup for the best of both holidays.

According to Emily Goldfischer, Loews vice president of public relations and an OC fan herself, “After seeing their Chrismukkah episode and how the American family is changing, with more interfaith marriages than ever before, we thought it would be fun to celebrate this year. It was a really fun thing to put together,” she says. “When the chefs have an opportunity to be creative and ironic, that’s a good time.”

The Interfaith Council is not against a good time. What it opposes, says Aloni, “is combining the holidays in any way. Both are religious holidays and have deep spiritual meaning. It’s lost when you secularize the observances.”

Aloni spoke with local ministers, rabbis, even a Buddhist leader. All agree Chrismukkah may sound cute but “it’s watering down the two traditions, making light of or poking fun at something of sacred and deep significance.” As for the idea of gefilte goose, Aloni just murmurs a barely audible, “Jeez.”

Wacky though it may be, Chrismukkah does not aim to make fun of Christmas or Chanukah. Nor is it kin to Festivus, the anti-holiday created by George Costanza on “Seinfeld.” “It’s not a snarky dis on religion,” says Gompertz, who grew celebrating Chanukah complete with Chanukah bush. Chrismukkah, he says, has historical precedent in Europe - Weihnukka, a secular celebration of the season no more offensive than Santa Claus.

“My German Jewish ancestors celebrated Weihnukka back in the 1880s. It was German Jews’ way of saying this goes beyond Christianity, we still believe in peace on earth. It’s very much what we hope Chrismukkah is these days -- a festival of the world,” says Gompertz. “Chrismukkah is still celebrating the holidays in a traditional way. It’s specifically designed for families of multiple religions.” Families like Gompertz’s.

Born and raised in New York, Gompertz, a Jew, is married to Michelle, a Lutheran, whose father is a minister. They and their two-and-a-half year-old daughter Minna celebrate both Christmas and Chanukah. They have both a menorah and a Christmas tree. There is, however, method to Gompertz’ mishigoss.

His mother Rita, who had a Jewish mother and Lutheran father, celebrated Weinukka as a girl “with peppermint sticks and Chanukah gelt. She had loved having a Christmas tree,” says Gompertz. “She grew up with a fondess for Christmas tradition and a relatively traditional reform Jewish family.”

She never thought about religion at all, he says, “until the Nazis made a big point of it. She was about seven when she was thrown out of school, was ridiculed and ostracized by her friends.”

He tried to put all this into his book and his website. “I got talking about Nazi religious hatred, the Inquisition, violence in the name of good, 9/11, all this stuff going on in the world. I got really dragged down.” Then he came up with the answer that saved his book, his website, his life - food. “It’s the great equalizer, the great diplomat,” he says. “Even if you have a bad attitude toward certain ethnic groups, you can still enjoy the cuisine.”

Some of The Chrismukkah Cookbook’s recipes, like the matzoh ball soup, are from Gompertz’s family. The matzoh ball snowmen, though, are the work of Kathy Stark, a converted Jew with blonde shiksa looks. “She’s a professional chef married to the vice president of our synagogue,” says Gompertz. Formerly an executive chef with Honeybaked Ham, she now runs Starky’s Authentic, Montana’s only Jewish deli.

Gompertz and Stark brainstormed recipe ideas, some of which are flagrantly not kosher, like lamb burger with yogurt sauce, like reuben bread pudding -- a corned beef strata with cheese, milk and eggs. If the recipes don’t conform to Jewish dietary law, they conform to Gompertz and Stark’s rules - they taste good (a gefilte ham recipe failed to make the cut) and fuse flavors of both holidays, things that shouldn’t go together, but somehow, deliciously do, thus creating something greater than the sum of their parts.

Oh, one last rule - the concept shouldn’t offend their grandparents. Someone’s grandparents are no doubt offended, but what about Gompertz’s?

“My grandmother would have loved the recipes with European roots, loved knowing I was aware of my background, my heritage,” says Gompertz, whose mother remains skeptical about religion in general. That goes for Chrismukkah.

She took her son’s book “with a dour look on her face,” he recalls. “Three hours later, I got a call - I got her approval. Which is amazing.” Mazel tov.

Christmas and Chanukah, do not, fortunately, coincide often. This is only the third time this century. But the holidays, whenever they fall in December, are always as Gompertz puts it, the most meshugganah time of the year. Call it crass, call it multitasking at its finest, it’s beginning to look a lot like Chrismukkah, a gumbo of traditions in the true spirit of tolerance. God bless us, every one. So let’s eat already.

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Home (Cooking) for the Holidays
The Edgy Veggie, Miami Herald, November 29, 2007

The first gift you ever made was probably some scrawl you did for your parents. You labored over it endlessly and -- no offense - most likely, it didn’t rock the art world. So what? You know - and your family knew -- exactly what you put into creating it - love, care and attention. Those same things belong in your Thanksgiving meal tonight.

I’m not going all misty and Hallmark on you - I know hosting Thanksgiving is a big, honking deal. It takes time to make a home-cooked meal, and on a weeknight, no less. It takes effort to remember and accommodate everybody’s food phobias. It takes patience to deal with last-minute surprises, whether it’s guests stuck in traffic or roasted vegetables stuck in the pan. And for what? So people can snarf their way through a lovingly prepared meal the way Sherman took the South. Do it anyway.

A home-cooked meal, from tonight’s sumptuous Thanksgiving feast to the rejiggered leftovers you’ll make over the next few days, is a gift. With frantic schedules, fast food and frozen entrees, Thanksgiving may be the one day of the year we return to the kitchen. And in so doing, we return to ourselves.

We connect with the people who matter in our lives by inviting them to our table for a special meal. We connect with the past by digging out treasured family recipes. We can also honor the present and future. Rather than making Thanksgiving a competitive eating event, it’s an opportunity to think about the food we make and eat (not a bad thing to do the other 364 nights a year, too).

With prepared food, takeaway, and drive-through, (which I always think of as drive-by food), you have no clue what you’re eating. With home cooking, you know just what goes into dinner - not just love, but the other ingredients. You know if the kale is fresh or frozen, if the pumpkin pie came from a box or from your oven, if there’s pomegranates in the cranberry sauce or preservatives.

Traditional or turkeyless, let this Thanksgiving meal be like your first gift, made with love and made by hand. If your pumpkin pie comes out less than lovely or the rolls get a little singed, so what? Perfection isn’t the issue. What matters is all the care you put into it. Happy Thanksgiving.

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Chili Tonight, Hot Tamale
The Edgy Veggie, Miami Herald, March 9, 2007

I’m going to win the chili cook-off. I’m going to do it with my long-simmering, bodaciously beany, chock-full-of-veggies, no-meat chili. But I’ll have to do it next year, because St. George Island’s chili cook-off was last weekend and the one in Naples is this weekend and like you, dear hearts, I am sorely stretched for time. So stretched, in fact, I haven’t had the chance to make my award-winning stew and have been drowning my sorrows with quick fixes -- canned or boxed veggie chili.

Health Valley ($2.69, 15 ounces) takes Best in Show with its 99% fat-free mild 3-bean chili. I don’t even like mild, but I like this beautifully thick chili, roasty and rich with beans, veggies, cumin and sage. This nutritional knockout has 160 calories per 8-ounce serving, 1 gram of fat, 320 milligrams sodium, 12 big grams of fiber and 13 of protein.

Best in Beans goes to Amy’s ($2.29, 14.7 ounces). Beans are higher in fiber than the whole grains the FDA wants us to snarf, plus they’re fat-free protein packets. Red beans are the primary ingredient in Amy’s chili and they’re cooked perfectly -- tender, not mushy. Amy’s spicy chili is jalapeno-happy, but with 190 calories, 6 grams fat, 590 milligrams sodium, 7 grams fiber and 8 grams protein per serving, it’s no nutritional match for Health Valley.

Neither is Fantastic ($3.79, 8 ounces). I love Fantastic’s instant oatmeal, but their microwavable chili in a box falls short. It’s got carrots and corn and beans, but no big chili taste. It’s also got 180 calories, 4 grams fat, 680 milligrams sodium, 5 grams fiber and 10 grams of protein. Pay the most for the smallest portion with the most salt and the mingiest flavor? No thanks.

All three chilis contain crumbled tofu bits which mimic ground beef to a disturbing degree in both looks and texture. Every time, I grabbed the can or box to make sure I hadn’t bought something meaty by mistake. Meaty chili is fine for others, but a lovingly-made, slow-cooked chili of vegetables and beans will always win my heart. And next year my chili will win first prize. I have hope. In the meantime, I also have Amy’s and Health Valley.

Nontraditional Very Veggie Chili

Most chili is made with ground beef and kidney beans. This has neither. If using black and white beans is outside your comfort zone, go for kidney beans -- it'll still be excellent and comfort is what chili is all about.

Beans need to soak overnight, so plan accordingly.

1 cup dried black beans
1 cup dried white beans
2 Tbls olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
4 cloves garlic, chopped fine
2 carrots, chopped
1 stalk celery, chopped
1 zucchini, chopped
1 red pepper, chopped
1 tsp coriander
1 tsp chili powder
1 Tbls cumin
1 28-ounce can diced tomatoes
1 canned chili in adobo, minced*
1 Tbls tomato paste
1 cup reserved bean liquid or water
1 tsp salt

Soak beans in water overnight. Drain.

Bring water to boil in a large pot. Add beans. Bring again to boil, then reduce heat to low, cover and simmer for 1 hour, until beans are just tender. Drain beans, reserving cooking liquid.

Heat olive oil in a large pot over medium heat. Saute onions and garlic over medium heat for 5 minutes, stirring, until soft.

Add all the other chopped vegetables, coriander, cumin and chili powder. Stir another 5 minutes, or until vegetables start to soften and spices become fragrant.

Add diced tomatoes, minced chili, tomato paste, beans and 1 cup of reserved bean liquid or water. Stir well. Bring to boil, then cover and simmer for 1 hour, stirring occasionally. Salt to taste.

Chili keeps five days in the refrigerator and its flavor improves over time. It freezes nicely, too.

* available in many supermarkets and in Latin and gourmet food stores

Serves 8.

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Hooray for broccoli: South Beach Diet founder puts his money where school kids' mouths are
Miami Herald, March 6, 2007

It's assembly time at Scott Lake Elementary, and the kids are going wild. They're not cheering Beyoncé; broccoli is the attraction.

''That's right,'' yells a grinning Jacy Gonzalez, 26, holding up the cruciferous green vegetable as if it were a game ball. ``Broccoli's a good, healthy food.''

It's an easy sell for the Scott Lake students. They're part of a pilot program begun in August that pairs nine Miami-Dade schools with the Agatston Research Foundation. That's Agatston as in Arthur, creator of the South Beach Diet.

The mission: Healthier Options for Public School children (HOPS).

''We're not doing the South Beach Diet in the schools,'' HOPS nutrition director Marie Almon explains for the umpteenth time. Instead, Almon, a registered dietitian and developer of many South Beach Diet recipes, is helping school food-service managers ramp up nutrition at lunch.

''I'm ordering whole-grain breads; there's more fruit and juice on the line,'' says Natalie Moss, food-service manager at Parkway Elementary, one of the schools in the program. (In addition to Scott Lake and Parkway, the other participating elementary schools are Bay Harbor, Biscayne, Hubert O. Sibley, Madie Ives and Ojus.)

Arthur Agatston, Mount Sinai cardiologist and creator of the South Beach Diet, founded the HOPS initiative in 2004 and launched it in six Osceola County Schools. It's in its second year in Osceola and debuted in Miami-Dade last fall.

The foundation had more than $200,000 in assets in 2005, thanks to the bestselling South Beach Diet, which has sold more than 21 million copies since 2003. Operating HOPS comes to about $9 per child. Roughly 9,000 children participate in the Miami-Dade study alone.

Agaston is glad to spend the money.

``I'm doing something. I'm making a difference. We'll spend whatever it takes because it's so important.''

Agatston began HOPS with a premise: ``If you give kids good food, they do better.''

To him, it's a no-brainer. To the HOPS kids, it's a new world.

''They don't even know where their food comes from,'' moans Sheara Schwartz, Parkway's guidance counselor and HOPS liaison. ``They think it all comes from Publix.''

For HOPS to succeed, it must be as much about education as it is about providing healthier foods.

''Every month, we create newsletters, information on nutrient-dense foods, activity packets for the children and new posters,'' says Danielle Hollar, HOPS principal investigator.

She and Gonzalez, her assistant, are the front women whose job entails visiting the schools to make sure they stay HOPS compliant. In effect, they're the HOPS cops.

Slip-ups occur. Take a recent breakfast at Parkway, which Gonzalez considers a model school. The French toast should have been made with whole-grain bread, not white. While the milk for the cereal was reduced in fat, the boxes of Frosted Flakes should never have made it through the door.

''There should have been Cheerios or Total or Rice Krispies or Raisin Bran,'' Gonzalez murmurs.

At her previous job as a Girl Scout recruiter, Gonzalez might have slapped the school with a demerit. These days, her bright smile only dims a watt or two.

''HOPS,'' Gonzalez explains, ``is a feasibility study.''

Among the tested variables: Because HOPS school menus have less sugar and fat than USDA guidelines specify for school breakfast and lunch programs, they risk being lower in calories. But if they don't comply with USDA regulations, the school system could lose millions in federal funding. Until the USDA releases its long-anticipated updated guidelines by the end of the year, HOPS has been making up the caloric difference by adding extra servings of fruits and vegetables. Moreover, cafeteria managers place their food orders at the beginning of the school year, and sometimes healthier options aren't available. When that happens, the HOPS schools are supposed to contact other Miami-Dade schools and swap HOPS-approved foods for contraband.


Sometimes, though, cafeteria managers have too much on their own plates, and the switch-outs don't happen. With school budgets squeezed, throwing out food isn't an option, and Frosted Flakes wind up on the food line. ''The first year of the program is a tough, painful learning curve,'' says Hollar, who experienced similar challenges when HOPS began in Osceola County. She and Agatston are determined, though.

''I'm convinced the kids in this country are overfed but undernourished, even malnourished,'' Agatston says. ``We're really headed for trouble.''

In 2005, the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention estimated that diabetes affects 151,000 children in this country. Seventeen percent of those between 6 and 19 are overweight, a number that could double.

But can healthier eating choices be learned? And how can you prove HOPS works?

HOPS schools weigh and measure their students and record their Body Mass Index percentiles at the beginning and end of each school year. BMI is an overall fitness measure that compares weight to height. The percentiles gauge the BMIs of HOPS students to those of other children of the same age and sex.

That information will be compared to similar student data at Gratigny and Feinberg/Fischer, Miami-Dade's two HOPS control schools. However, it takes at least five years for data to produce results, and Miami-Dade isn't even through year No. 1.

''If we end up not finding a statistically significant BMI, we're not going to say we failed and throw in the towel,'' Hollar says. ``We know good foods matter.''

Valerie Ward, principal of Scott Lake Elementary knows that, too.

``When I got here, the behavior was out of control. After a few months of HOPS meals, things are much better. There's better attendance and the children are focused.''


Ward was into HOPS from the beginning. She signed up when she was principal of Biscayne Gardens. When she was transferred to Scott Lake just before the new school year she made sure the HOPS program came with her.

She's just what Agatston had in mind for HOPS.

''There's no reason to go into a school with a principal who's not enthusiastic,'' he says.

Her enthusiasm is contagious. In Mary Garcia's Montessori kindergarten class, students count fresh strawberries -- HOPS food of the month for February.

The school's HOPS liaison, Emperatriz Maldonado, is a self-professed junk-food junkie, but she's become a HOPS believer, too.

''What's improved? Almost everything,'' she says. ``Student attendance, teacher attendance, parent involvement. We've gotten phone calls from parents -- they're addicted to the HOPS recipes.''

Still, there have been some blips.

''The reduced-fat milk, the whole-wheat buns and stuff is an adjustment, but the kids get used to that,'' says Regetta Cleare Bivens, Scott Lake's cafeteria manager. ``But when we took Frosted Flakes away, they went off the wall.''

Bivens figured pint-size anarchy was a small price to pay for better health. The students have happily taken to Raisin Bran.

Now the food line is bright with color -- cheesy, yellow macaroni; green peas and broccoli.

Scott Lake's 550 students file in.Kindergartner Roderick Latimore, 5, scowls.

''Broccoli is nasty,'' he says.

''I like broccoli,'' says classmate Symone Palmer, far more worldly at 6.

Roderick looks at her as if she's insane. First-grader Tamiya Roberts, 6, likes broccoli, too. She reminds Latimore of Gonzalez's message at the morning's assembly: ``You have to eat your broccoli to get strong.''

Roderick sighs and holds out his tray for a spoonful.

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