Chef Alia Dalal taught her first hands-on cooking class at The Chopping Block this past Saturday, and it was a total success. Clean Eating Boot Camp was a fun-filled, educational day of learning how to make a healthier lifestyle accessible and easy to implement.
Our full crew included Alia, Chef Maria Clementi with a background in raw and vegetarian cuisines, Ida Dolce, resident vegan expert and myself, a certified tree hugger who used to scold classmates about picking leaves off of branches. Suffice to say, I've been obsessed with grains and greens since I was very young and was very excited to work with guests on their own health eating journeys.
The day began the way any other class does at The Choopping Block, with prep time. Ida took her time making fresh almond milk from almonds that we had let soak the night before. Maria and I got everything else ready for our guests, including organizing pantry ingredients for a recipe challenge that would be later in the afternoon. Chef Alia wanted the pariticipants to get some experience with experimentation under their belts instead of just sending them away with recipes.
Here are 5 things I learned from Clean Eating Boot Camp:
- Making fresh almond milk is not as hard as it sounds -- it just takes some time. Ida began by taking almonds that had been soaking overnight (a key step!) blending them up in our Vitamix blender, and then straining them through cheesecloth (although nut milk bags are preferred). The resulting almond milk was delicious—creamy, smooth and blended like a dream into coffee. Best of all, there are no additives or thickeners! Fresh almond milk lasts about 3 days in the fridge. We used this milk in turmeric lattes for our students to start their day.
- Experimention is the key to success. Alia shared with me her reasoning behind having an "experimental" hour and a half toward the end of the day. She provided her students with a template for building their own healthy meals, and a flavor adjustment graphic so they could ask themselves the key questions to figure out what was missing from a dish. At first, some of the students were hesitant to throw out their ideas, instead asking me what I thought was best. Although I was happy to share my ideas, I wanted my group to get in the habit of not just creativity in the kitchen, but within this particular context of eating. Not just "figs and proscuitto sound really good on pizza" (um, yes!); but more like "how do you think we could best prepare this sweet potato? What's the best way to bring out the crunchy texture in broccoli?." Our thought experiment turned into a vibrant and healthy bowl of textures and flavors that we all collaborated on. I really felt that the students took away some ideas from our brainstorming session that I hope they'll apply the next time they want to make a healthy meal.
- Clean Eating does not mean going without sweets. Although I've made enough ice cream in my life to fill a freezer, sometimes just turning to fruit as the sweetness in one's life doesn't feel like enough. It could be the texture, the nostalgia, the comfort -- who knows, but there's just something about a nice brownie or blondie that is irresistible every so often. I've had Alai's black bean brownies before, and they were really delicious, but also packed with fiber, more nutritionally rich sweetneres (honey; maple syrup) and iron (thanks chocolate). In Boot Camp, we made some sweet bites that were not only portable and sweet (everyone loved them)-- they were a burst of energy to boot. The real guiding principle here is that empty calories don't really have a place in Clean Eating (well maybe sometimes) but if you're craving something sweet, instead of turning to junk, find a way to satisfy your craving while also providing some nutritional value.
- Knife skills, knife skills, knife skills. Mastering knife skills makes cooking faster and more fun. It takes "but I don't have time to cook" to "I can chop these mushrooms in 15 seconds, wanna see?". Cooking without knowing how to handle a knife is like watching TV in black and white and suddenly you discover technicolor. I've seen people's own "ah-ha" moments when they finally get proper form and technique, and whether you're taking Clean Eating Boot Camp or Steakhouse DIY, having mastery of how to wield the most essential kitchen tool is the foundation to efficiency. Alia provided a primer on knife skills to her students, and we made sure to give individual attention to our groups throughout, but our most popular class Knife Skills is a great way to focus on this essential skill set.
- Don't guilt trip yourself if you don't love something. They say that tastebuds change when you've been eating the good stuff for a while. For me personally and many of my peers, that's absolutely true. Eat healthy for awhile and your body starts going "jeepers creepers that's sweet!" when you take a bite of a frosted cupcake. In a way, it kind of makes you want to put the cupcake down. Crazy, I know. But some things don't change. And you're an adult, so there's no need to let guilt govern your grocery list. Some things are worth waiting for that magical tastebud change day (if you just hate salad, I'm talking to you) but if you have always hated the texture of chia seeds, then don't buy them. Those things are expensive. There are other ways to get those complex amino acids and protein. Try hemp hearts or flax powder. If cannellini beans aren't your favorite, then sub in garbanzo beans. If you hate bananas, use mangos in your smoothies instead.
There are a million ways to get nurtritonally dense food into your body-- most recipes are just tried and tested suggestions on how to do so, so you're not hamstrung by indecision when filling your pantry with the good stuff. And yes, recipes are just suggestions. Feel free to swap out one pulse for another, or one spice for its cousin. Once you've got the knowledge on what is healthy for you, you'll know if the swap is legit or not. What ultimately matters is you enjoy the food you're eating so that you actually eat it and can then reap its health benefits. If not, that's a pretty pricey guilt trip.
We'll be holding another Clean Eating Boot Camp in January 2017, so stay tuned for the deals. In the meantime, Chef Alia offers Clean Eating classes at both of our locations. Right now, all of her classes this year are already sold out, so be sure to sign up for our newsletter to be the first to know about new classes added to our calendar. We also have our Clean Eating: Get Started downloadable guide which is packed with recipes to get you started.