Q&A with Cookbook Author and NGI Certificate Program Grad, Rebecca Ffrench
New York-based cookbook author Rebecca Ffrench is a graduate of the former Natural Gourmet Institute's Culinary Nutrition Certificate Program. Her book, "Whole Protein Vegetarian," seeks to dispel the myth that one must eat animal products in order to have enough protein in one's diet.
When she's not writing cookbooks, she hosts unique food-focused gatherings in the Catskills through her venture, The Upstate Table. Read on to learn more about her story.
How did you become interested in food and cooking?
I have always loved to eat and began cooking when I was young. As far back as I can recall, I remember wanting to try new flavors and textures. Food has always made me happy. It’s not just the physical act of eating, or the creative process of cooking, but the joy I experience sitting down to big family meals—the excitement of conversation and new ideas. I love big celebrations - the more people at the table, the better. Both my mother and grandmother have greatly inspired me in the kitchen. They both spent a lot of time cooking for family and friends. Although my mother worked, she still made dinner every night. I cherish my childhood memories of time spent at the dining table. I’m curious by nature so unfamiliar foods have always intrigued me, whether it’s experimenting with sea vegetables or trying a berbere spice blend. Having a garden and access to local produce has taught me a lot about sourcing food. While I used to just be concerned with what tasted best, I now consider the environmental and social impact of food, how it’s grown, used (or not) and consumed. I am fortunate that my work grew to incorporate my passion for food.
What drew you to NGI’s Culinary Nutrition Certificate Program?
I was very interested in deepening my understanding of nutrition. I am a food writer and I wanted some type of base knowledge about the particulars of different diets and specifics of the scientific functions — basically a foundation to draw from. Other than four-year college nutrition programs, there were very few options. I had already taken classes at NGI, and when I saw they offered a nutrition program, it seemed like the right fit because I feel a strong synergy with NGI’s philosophy.
What was your favorite part of the program?
There were several. I liked the general syllabus, covering a wide variety of subjects. I also really enjoyed the guest speakers. The teachers were very accessible and open to discussion. The environment is highly collaborative and I loved connecting with the other students, who came from different backgrounds but shared a common interest.
Your third cookbook, Whole Protein Vegetarian, just came out – congrats! What inspired you to write about plant-based protein?
My daughter wanted to explore being a vegetarian when she was 11. When I told my mother, the first thing she said was, “but how is she going to get enough protein?” While I knew there were loads of plant-based foods that provide protein, it prompted me to investigate the question. This led me on a nutritional journey. I worked to educate myself about the fundamentals of nutrition and how to optimize nutrition through food, including the NGI course. Whole Protein Vegetarian was written to show how you can undoubtedly meet the recommended amounts of protein through a plant-based diet.
What are some nutrition misconceptions you are trying to dispel in this book?
Myth 1: That you need meat in your diet to get enough protein. I feel in 10 years, people will understand the value of a plant-based diet and vegetarian meals will be much more widely accepted. Myth 2: When you want to eat healthier, you need to go cold turkey and throw away everything in your cupboard that’s processed. Going cold turkey rarely works for anything, including healthy eating. If you are used to eating white flour and white rice, you may feel cheated if you cut out refined foods completely and at once. Start by making a batch of white and a batch of brown rice, and mixing them together. Eventually move to eating all brown rice. Myth 3: There is a magic bullet for weight loss or feeling good. Surprise surprise, there isn’t. Don’t think “diet” - think of food as fuel for life. Looking at food as fuel, and really understanding the goodness that comes from whole fruits and vegetables and other plant-based foods is a huge motivator. When you really think about the nutrition that a bag of pretzels provides, you realize your cells aren’t getting what they need. If you think about a green smoothie loaded with fiber, vitamins and other essentials, you realize your cells are getting what they need to function, repair and do what they should, and you feel better in turn. It’s as easy as that. You don’t need a master’s degree in nutrition to eat healthfully. You just need to eat whole, plant-based foods, and be patient. If this is a new way of eating, it takes time. Find healthy dishes you like and use those to replace less healthy options in your dinner rotation.
We know you have a love for entertaining. What is your favorite dish to prepare for guests?
I DO love to entertain! It’s about making people happy, nourishing their bodies and souls. It’s sharing conversation and good food. I feel it’s better to keep it simple so you can spend more time with guests. I like meals you can prepare in advance so you only need to heat up a dish. I’ve grown my passion for entertaining into pop-up dinners and events through The Upstate Table, a collective that hosts gatherings celebrating food, community and local producers. As for a favorite dish, I switch it up so much, always wanting to try new flavors and seasonal produce. One of my favorite meals to cook up for a crowd is an Indian-inspired stew or curry. If I had a few people over this weekend, I’d probably make an asparagus-pea and goat cheese crostata, and serve it with a pea shoot and radish salad.
Savory Spring Crostata
Yields 4 servings
Recipe from Whole Protein Vegetarian, Countryman Press, 2016
I adore the rustic feel of a crostata. The dough is quite forgiving. Just be sure you use parchment paper when you roll it, to prevent sticking. The addition of quinoa flour here adds a nutty, coarse texture to the crust. You may also want to use this crust and goat cheese as a base for other vegetables, perhaps roast squash in autumn or fresh tomatoes in summer. Adjust the herbs accordingly.
For the crust:
- 3/4 cup white whole-wheat flour
- 1/2 cup quinoa flour*
- 1/4 cup finely grated Parmesan cheese
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1/2 cup (1 stick, 4 ounces) unsalted butter, chilled, cut into 1-inch pieces
- 1 large egg, lightly whisked
For the filling:
- 4 ounces goat cheese, softened
- 1 teaspoon lemon zest
- 1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
- 1/4 cup chopped fresh chives
- 2 teaspoons chopped fresh mint
- 1/2 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves
- 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more for seasoning asparagus
- 1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 1/2 cup shelled fresh peas
- 1/2 bunch asparagus (about 1/2 pound), trimmed
- 1 teaspoon extra-virgin olive oil
*Cook’s Note: You may use white or whole-wheat flour if you don’t have quinoa flour.
To make the crust:
- In the bowl of a food processor, pulse the flours, Parmesan and salt together. Add the butter and pulse again several times until coarse crumbs develop. Then, add the egg and run for 15 to 20 seconds, or until a ball of dough forms.
- Pat the dough into a 5-inch round disk and cover it with plastic wrap. Put the dough in the freezer for 10 minutes.
Meanwhile, make the filling:
- Preheat the oven to 400 F. In a bowl, mix the goat cheese with the lemon zest and juice, chives, mint, thyme, salt and pepper. Set aside.
- Bring a small saucepan of water to a boil and add the peas. Cook for 2 to 3 minutes, or just until tender. Drain, coarsely mash, and set aside.
- In another bowl, toss the asparagus with the olive oil and a good sprinkling of kosher salt.
- Place the chilled dough disk on a piece of parchment paper, and using a rolling pin, roll out the dough into a 12-inch round, dusting with wheat flour as needed to prevent sticking.
- Transfer the dough round, with its parchment paper, to a baking sheet. Spread the goat cheese mixture carefully on the dough round.
- Gently mash the peas into the goat cheese and top with the asparagus. Fold the edges of the dough up around the asparagus, creating a 1-inch border.
- Bake the crostata for 35 to 40 minutes, or until the crust is golden and crispy.
*Making Nut and Grain Flours: Flours are astonishingly simple to make, so instead of writing out the directions as a recipe, I’m just going to tell you how to make them. You put the nut or grain from which you want to make flour into a high-power blender jar and run it on high speed for 30 to 60 seconds. Scrape the sides down with a spatula and run it once more quickly — that’s it, you’re done. Easy, right? Just to name a few types of flour, you can make: almond flour, quinoa flour, oat flour, and wheat flour. In general, 1 cup of whole nuts or grains yields just over 1 cup of flour, usually the amount is increased by about ¼ cup.
This post was originally published by the Natural Gourmet Institute. Learn more about today's Natural Gourmet Center.