Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Raw Food Weekend in Santa Monica

Morning in Santa Monica

I travel to the Los Angeles area a lot for work and over the last few years, the west side of LA has become my second home. There are great hotels, a wide array of restaurants and just plenty to do and see. With average temperatures hovering at around 70 degrees, Santa Monica is simply an outdoor lover’s paradise. From surfing to sailing and biking to hiking – there is simply always something to do outdoors here.

My friend, Kirsten Gum lives and works here – so, I always have a real place to call home when I am in the area. Kirsten and I worked together on Cash and Treasures for Travel Channel. While Kirsten is great on-camera as the host of Cash and Treasures; what most people do not realize is that she is also a Raw Food Chef! Kirsten strives to live a completely green lifestyle in Santa Monica; getting around town by bike or bus (she does not own a car), composting her kitchen scraps and recycling wherever she can. So, whenever I come to visit she puts me through what she calls “K-Camp” where she coaches me on how to live a more healthful, green, and peaceful life. She called this weekend "Raw K-Camp" where she was going to teach me a few all-raw recipes that I can make at home.

Our first stop was over to the Santa Monica Farmer’s Market to pick up some fresh ingredients to create an all raw Italian menu for dinner. Raw cuisine is all about preservation of the naturally occurring healthy nutrients found in foods. So, buying organic ingredients is key and there is no better place to find fresh, locally grown, organic produce than at your local farmers market. We walked through the stands and picked up some zucchini, fresh herbs, mushrooms, heirloom tomatoes, spinach and a bushel of fresh flowers for the table before heading back to the kitchen.

In my family there has been a constant battle over whether or not to pre-boil your noodles before you build lasagna. There is also a discussion about whether or not to use ricotta – which I will firmly state that ricotta is a sure way to ruin a perfectly fabulous lasagna. I suggest using a béchamel sauce and layering that with a homemade red sauce that I simply call “gravy” (never a marinara). But alas, this is raw lasagna and there wasn’t a single noodle or a slice of cheese to be had.

We sliced the zucchini using a mandolin and then soaked the strips in a salt water brine to help with the drying process. The strips then get laid out on tea cloths for an hour or so to drain the remaining liquid. While the strips are dry, they are still flexible which will allow us to use them as our noodle in the dish.

Meanwhile, we prepared a quick raw pesto by tossing a bunch of fresh basil, some raw olive oil, pine nuts, miso paste ,some chopped garlic and a dash of Himalayan salt into a food processor. A few pumps on the processor and we have a vibrant green sauce that will tie this lasagna together.

Kirsten had already prepared a fresh raw marinara sauce and some pine nut paste for the dish. She told me that the pine nut paste will serve as our cheese. (I snickered to myself thinking about what my Italian Father-in-Law would say to that one!) We also marinated some fresh button mushrooms in some lemon juice and garlic and sliced up a few heirloom tomatoes for the build.

Using a small spring pan, we started by coating the bottom with a tablespoon of the pesto. We then placed the zucchini slices just as you would a pre-boiled lasagna noodle (notice that I will never give up on that fight). Then a little marinara, some mushrooms, a handful of fresh spinach and then the “cheese.” The pine nut paste is squeezed through a cheese cloth around the sides of the round pan to hold everything together.

We continue with the layering process, ending with a latticing of pine nut paste on top for presentation. Ok, so now you have what looks like a lasagna pie and since there is no cooking, I couldn’t help but ask, what’s next?

Kirsten walks me over to a dehydrator where she tells me that we will warm the lasagna to 105 degrees. Raw foodies believe that heating foods over 115 degrees is a sure fire way of cooking away all of those healthy enzymes that allow your body to absorb nutrients and aid in digestion. Kirsten sticks to 105 degrees to make sure that her foods never hit that dreaded 115 degree mark. An hour later, we are ready to eat. We made a few of the little lasagnas so we invited a bunch of friends over for a raw dinner party.

Raw Lasagna

Before everyone arrived, I dug a bamboo fork right into the center of one of those little lasagnas for a bite and I have to say… it was really good. Now, I will say that a pine nut paste is no replacement for any cheese let alone a nice mozzarella. However, if you just remind yourself that this is not traditional lasagna, you will be able to appreciate this nice healthy take on the original.

Dinner with Kirsten and friends in her backyard in Santa Monica

As I stepped on the flight back to the East Coast on Sunday afternoon, I was inspired to bring my new raw food education home with me. In a way that’s exactly what happens every time I travel. I take home bits and pieces of a destination and bring it home with me. Will I now argue with my family that we should use pine nut paste instead of mozzarella in lasagna? Probably not. But it’s not really about having to change anything; its about opening your mind to new ideas and flavors to inspire your taste buds and your cooking.

Travel On.