As roommates and friends at Yale University and later in New York, Dave Lieberman and Anahad O’Connor found themselves on opposite sides of a culinary divide. Lieberman was a cook who prized the finer points of European food and drink, O’Connor a health-food enthusiast who favored raw vegetables and whole grains.
They’ve since become media figures in their fields of interest -- Lieberman is a contributing editor at Saveur magazine, cookbook author, former Food Network host and chef; O’Connor is a New York Times science and health reporter and author of a bestselling health book. But today they’ve found a way to bridge their nutritional gap.
The two have collaborated on a new book of essays and recipes, “The 10 Things You Need to Eat,” that looks at foods considered extremely healthful -- superfoods, if you will. They sought out foods that met three criteria: “scientifically supported health benefits, extremely easy to find, and so versatile that we could easily build a complete and varied repertoire of home-style, satisfying, and delicious meals around them.”
Their picks include both everyday staples such as tomatoes and the often praised but not widely eaten quinoa. Others are avocados, beets, spinach, lentils, cabbage, super fish, nuts and berries.
Short chapters on each of these are written in a conversational style that gracefully blends nutritional science, cultural and historical details, food descriptions, personal stories, and cooking and shopping tips. O’Connor explains why he chose each food from a nutritional standpoint, and Lieberman describes what he learned while experimenting with recipes. Scientific studies asserting health claims are clearly described and neatly documented at the end of the book.
Their book carries a “food as medicine” message but is so beautifully written and designed that the medicine goes down very easily.
The chapter on tomatoes describes how the fruit, a member of the deadly nightshade family, was feared until perhaps the mid-1600s, when Italians were thought to have embraced it as an ingredient. It makes the case that pizza -- at least Italian-style pizza, which is heavy on the tomato sauce and light on the cheese -- can be protective against both heart disease and some cancers, if several relatively recent studies are to be believed. And by the way, cooked tomatoes are more nutritious than fresh, the authors say.
In their chapter on avocados, they point out that the fruit is high in potassium, fiber and monounsaturated fat and has fewer calories than you think (150 for a half-avocado). They broaden the discussion to talk about how fat can be good for you, if it’s the right kind (monounsaturated). To illustrate the point, they describe studies that looked at residents of post-World War II Crete, who were eating a Mediterranean diet with lots of olive oil and little meat, and residents of Finland, whose high-fat diet included a lot of meat, milk and butter. Guess who had the lower rates of heart disease, even though some smoked and drank heavily?
Several fairly simple recipes follow each essay, along with sidebars describing foods that rate “honorable mentions” (such as pomegranates) and providing additional health and cooking tips (how to cook and store spinach to retain its nutritional value). Recipes include the relatively familiar (Dave’s marinara, gazpacho and whole wheat triple-tomato pizza) and the experimental (chocolate avocado mousse and chocolate almond avocado brownies).
Because of its specialized approach, “10 Things” probably isn't destined to become most people’s go-to everyday cookbook. But if you’re looking for ways to get more healthful foods into your diet and recipes to perk up your cooking repertoire -- as well as some nutritional food for thought -- you may find inspiration here.
-- Anne Colby
Photo: "The 10 Things You Need to Eat," Dave Lieberman and Anahad O’Connor, illustrations by Bonnie Timmons, William Morrow, $19.99