In the Kitchen with Susan Sampson
In the Kitchen
August 27, 2013
Susan Sampson is a food writer, recipe developer and blogger. Born in Budapest, Sampson grew up in Toronto’s “Goulash Archipelago” and worked for three decades as a newspaper journalist. In the Toronto Star’s Test Kitchen, she stirred the pot as an editor, columnist, news and feature writer, recipe tester and product reviewer. We talked to Sampson about the nutritional benefits of leafy greens, fresh ingredients and simple home cooking.
What is the main focus of your cooking?
My parents ran a Hungarian restaurant in Toronto. However, I decided to become a journalist and my tastes range far beyond Hungarian cuisine. During my time as food editor of the Toronto Star newspaper, I tested cuisines ranging from Tibetan to Spanish and cooked everything from classics to modernist dishes. Nowadays, I work from home. I’m a self-taught cook and prefer to develop my own recipes.
I’m definitely a dabbler in the kitchen. I’m fond of multicultural mashups with ethnic ingredients. (Curried spaghetti, anyone? Really, it’s delicious). You’ll also often find me experimenting with comfort foods and classics, searching for definitive versions of, say, osso buco or guacamole or angel cake. (Right now, I’m on satay and bran muffin binges). The keepers, or best of the best, earn a place in my personal recipe collection. If there were a fire, it’s one of the items I’d grab before fleeing the house.
Over the years, I have spent so much time cooking for business and pleasure that I became somewhat of a kitchen efficiency expert and amassed a huge collection of tips, tricks and techniques. I crammed as many as possible into my first book. I am still obsessively collecting kitchen secrets, which I share, along with original recipes, on my website. I love cooking and baking of all kinds.
Is there a particular nutritional focus of your menus?
It’s a cliché nowadays, but everything in moderation is a good motto. I’m an equal opportunity eater. For instance, for me, a vegetarian or vegan dish is just as valid a meal option as a grilled steak. The only thing I’m allergic to is bad food. Portion control, however, is vital.
I’m a big advocate of home cooking. When you prepare a dish yourself, you control what’s in it. Packaged foods are full of chemical additives and sodium. Restaurant dishes are high in fat and come in huge portions. As a better alternative, I encourage people to get their hands on fresh ingredients and make full use of the kitchen.
Because of TV shows and celebrity chefs, cooking has developed a mystique and many people have the impression that it’s difficult or time-consuming. Not so. With a little practice and reliable recipes to guide them, people can prepare delicious, healthier meals from scratch. For example, in my new book I focus on greens, which offer a lot of nutritional bang for your buck.
What is your relationship with local farmers?
I love farmers. At the Toronto Star, I often introduced readers to local farmers and their endeavors. Some popular articles included a culinary tourism series and a farmers’ market guide, as well as stories about locavores, farm-to-table businesses, unusual produce and niche agricultural products. Every summer, I take a tour with a busload of food writers and meet many of the farmers who feed our cities – from Berkshire pork producers to growers of organic greens to agricultural scientists experimenting with ethnic produce.
Many consumers don’t realize they are spoiled by the abundance of food choices and the relatively low cost of groceries in North America. We have come to expect food to be “cheap,” but it is the farmers who pay a steep price for that. Farming is a precarious way to make a living. I am amazed by how farmers persevere.
Are you incorporating locally grown foods into your dishes? How?
Good food starts with good ingredients. The shorter the distance from farm to table and the closer to time of harvest, the fresher and tastier the produce. When shopping, I always look for the source. However, I am not dogmatic, as I am way too fond of world cuisine to give up exotic greens, vegetables and fruit that are imported. Luckily, farmers locally and in other parts of North America are now growing ethnic produce and greens, including a cornucopia of Asian and Indian vegetables.
What are the major concerns today of your readers when it comes to incorporating more vegetables, and leafy greens in particular, into their diets? And how are you addressing them?
There’s a green revolution going on. The kale craze is the most prominent example of changing tastes. However, people are enjoying leafy greens of all sorts, from specialty lettuces to bok choy, microgreens to nettles.
Greens are so good for you, body and soul. Unfortunately, many people don’t know what to do with them. My new book is a guide to the wide world of leafy greens – buying, storing and preparing them. It covers the usual suspects, such as spinach and savoy cabbage, as well as exotic greens, such as amaranth, bitter leaf, nettles and fiddleheads. I heartily encourage people to eat an abundance of healthful greens and my recipes cater to a variety of tastes. There are 250 recipes in the book, ranging from comfort foods (such as creamed spinach) to world cuisine (such as callaloo), as well as a section devoted to refreshing green blender drinks.
How important is sustainability?
Sustainability is a balancing act. The goal is to ensure the availability of accessible, nutritious food from land and sea while remaining kind to the environment. Unfortunately, because of rampant consumption and waste, we may be meeting the needs of the present, but we are compromising the future. We need to slow down and scale down.
What steps do you take toward conservation in your meal planning?
According to recent studies, up to a third of the food in North American households ends up in the garbage. Not only is this food wasted, so is the energy used in growing, packaging and shipping it. And to top it off, the food garbage in landfills creates harmful greenhouse gases.
We buy more food than we need – that’s the norm nowadays. It languishes in fridges, crispers, cupboards and fruit bowls, then gets tossed out. This may be hard to believe, but studies specify that a large portion of wasted food is still edible and/or has never been opened. Amassing household scraps like stalks or rinds is inevitable. Discarding stale bread, rotten apples and spoiled leftovers is not.
Waste is a problem not only with individual households, but also all along the food chain. For example, plenty of produce is rejected at farms and supermarkets because it’s not attractive enough for finicky consumers. (Ironically, organically grown or preservative-free food is more likely to appear blemished or unappealing.)
There are small steps we can take to reduce food waste. Avoiding impulse buys and sticking to shopping lists and menu plans is one. Properly storing food and learning about freezing and preserves is another.
A third factor is psychological. We need to think quality vs. quantity. And we need to expand our culinary horizons. The current nose-to-tail cooking trend harkens back to our frugal grandmothers, who made the most of the food they had (everything but the oink, famously, in the case of a pig). Many leafy greens are the vegetarian equivalent of nose-to-tail cooking. Dandelions, for instance, are usable, from flowers to leaves to roots. Then there are the vegetables that I like to call two-fers – because you get two for the price of one. Some examples are turnips and their tops, beets and their greens, radishes and their leaves. It’s time to take advantage of the wide world of wonderful greens. Why feed the compost bin when you can feed your family with delicious green nutrition?