Chef Monica Pope writes about eating & cooking where your food lives

Red Necks and Wilting Lilies: My Visit to The White House July 19, 2010

I know it’s been a long time since I’ve posted anything but this one will get us back on track.  I’ve got more Green Plum Cooking School blog posts coming very soon.  Thanks for being patient!  MP

Gracie Cavnar & me at The White House

When people ask me what it was like to be invited to the White House by Michelle Obama, I tell them, “It was HOT!”  I do mean that figuratively, but mostly literally.

It all started with a call from Vermont.  Gracie Cavnar, founder and director of Recipe for Success, calls me from Vermont to laughingly chide me, “I invited you to the White House and I want to know why you haven’t responded!”  Truth be told, I’ve been so busy I missed that email.  Gracie tells me that Michelle Obama is launching Chefs Move to Schools, the second part of her Let’s Move campaign to fight childhood obesity; the event is in less than a week on the South Lawn of the White House and the First Lady wants 1,000 chefs from all across the country to show up in answer to her call to action.  She knows that a group of chefs is a powerful thing, and not just because we all wear white jackets.

I have been working with Gracie and Recipe for Success since its inception over four years ago.  The Recipe for Success Foundation’s mission is to combat childhood obesity through dynamic, interactive programs that bring chefs and gardens into schools.  The way I see it, we’re not just fighting obesity, we are also fighting hunger – the kids I teach are starving for real food with real nutrition.  Recipe for Success reaches 3,500 kids in Houston each month, all 4th graders, and changes their relationship to food by connecting them to the sources of real food.  I help by teaching in the classroom once a month.  The kids’ first question always is, “Have you been on TV?”  And when I tell them I have, they want to know if it was Iron Chef, or Chopped or… (fill in any reality TV show involving food here).  That is their slim connection to food when I start the school year with them.  But, somewhere in the middle, they become thoughtful, informed, curious eaters and cooks; every year, even though I know it is going to happen, this transformation continues to astound and move me.

Gracie tells me that she is bringing six Recipe for Success chefs and six Board members to the White House and she wants me to join them.  I have some schedule adjustments to make, and I want to bring my daughter, Lili.  I regretted not bringing her to Terra Madre three and half years earlier in Turino.  But, for more than a couple of days, I am actually debating going, which is ridiculous.  It’s an opportunity of a lifetime.  A friend who works for Continental Airlines arranges our flights.  I reschedule my Thursday night gig.  I am starting to get excited, but Lili is nervous. Scared, is more like it.  I know how she feels.  When I go on the “circuit” and have to perform like I did on Top Chef Masters, it’s nerve-racking, but I’m not sure why Lili is nervous.  I tell her she doesn’t have to perform.  It’s her first week out of school and her summer is looking really exciting!

We arrive in D.C. and Lili and I head to the Native American museum because Lili is part Native American and I had heard it was a new and fabulous museum (although, to be honest, Lili was more interested in the gift shop where she got a traditional [but made in China!] beaded necklace and bracelet; she only wants to wear the bracelet as an anklet.  I buy some traditional beef jerky.)  The cafeteria there serves good food from different native Indian regions like traditional South American or New Mexican.  Lili is more excited about room service and movies back at the hotel than exploring D.C.  And she’s still nervous about going to the White House.

Weather-related delays cause the rest of our group to arrive at odd times, so Lili and I are hanging out with Rahm Emmanuel at the Sofitel bar.  We’re supposed to get together with our group at 8:30pm, but it’s not until three hours later that Randy Evans and Michael Kramer arrive.  Lili is disappointed because she is looking for Marcus Samuelsson.   He tweeted that he was going to be here.  We would see Barbara McKnight and Kiran Verma the next day at the breakfast.  It’s off to bed, though, because we’ve got to meet in the lobby at 7:45am tomorrow to get to the breakfast of champions (or chefs, that is) at the Marriot just down from the White House.

The next morning, the breakfast room is a-buzz.  Everyone is in chef uniforms, starched more than usual, and unusually cordial.  I run into some old chef friends like Ann Cooper, Kim Muller and Marcus Samuelsson.  Some young chefs come up to take a photo with me since I had just been on Top Chef Masters.  Most of the chefs can’t believe Marcus and I hug after he said those things about my game playing on the show.  They can’t believe we are friends – but we really are.  He grabs Lili by her shoulders and says, “Your mom was the best chef.  The best chef!”  And Lili is looking up at him and replies simply, “I know.”

Monica & Marcus...yes, we're really friends!



Delicious Drama May 14, 2010

Green Plum Cooking School – Saturday, May 1st

Moroccan-Style Grilled Cheese Sandwich

It has been crazy wild around here since my appearance on Top Chef Masters.  As you may know, I managed to win the Quickfire challenge with a Moroccan-style Grilled Cheese Sandwich.  The best part is that I won $5,000 for the charity I was playing for, Recipe for Success.  Of course, this is the season that the Quickfire Challenges don’t contribute any points towards your final score.  Kind of like when, back in 1996, I won Best New Chef from Food & Wine Magazine, and the next year was the year they started putting the Best New Chefs on the cover.  For some reason, this kind of thing always happens to me.

The night my episode aired, we had a watch party at t’afia; a good customer told me that, if I won anything, she was going to match it as a donation to Recipe for Success (ooh, I hope she can afford $5,000!).  Since then, I have been overwhelmed by how supportive and generous people have been — my wallet is full of checks for Recipe for Success…$50, $100, $150.  I am excited that people were moved to give and are stepping up to make change in the lives of our children.  Both Gracie and I say thank you from the bottom of our hearts!

The actual Top Chef Masters challenge was to do a grilled cheese sandwich that reflected me as a chef, that really represented “my” food.  Some folks are having trouble connecting the Moroccan Grilled Cheese to what they perceive as “Monica Pope food.”  But Coastal Mediterranean cuisine has always been my thing.

In the Top Chef Masters studio kitchen, they take you around to the pantry and coolers so you can assess the ingredients on hand; there’s a cheese fridge, a lettuce fridge, a miscellaneous pantry, breads, etc.  We were also allowed to bring some signature ingredients with us as long as they fit in a 17” x 24” metal bin; I stuffed my suitcase with all sorts of things, including pomegranate molasses.  From the start, I had my eye on the loaf of date-walnut bread and I immediately came up with this Moroccan-style grilled cheese with feta, farmer’s cheese and a melt-y white cheese.  I made a cumin butter (to toast the bread with), sprinkled some cinnamon, used more fresh dates and voila.  I also grabbed three micro herbs — cilantro, basil and mint — to make a little accompanying salad with an orange blossom water-honey dressing.  I finished the plate with a swizzle of a pomegranate molasses-maple syrup mixture.

So, for class today, I am going to re-create my TCM Quickfire Challenge sandwich.  Luckily, I’ve got a posse of women sous chefs today that I motivate to grate and slather all these grilled cheeses and to pick and clean and dry lettuces because we’ve got a full class!



To The Top of the Class You Go, Joe! May 3, 2010

Joe's Twice-Baked Cauliflower

Green Plum Cooking School – Saturday, April 17th

After being judged on Top Chef Masters, it’s now my turn to judge.  I’ve judged two kids’ events this month:  Sharpstown High School’s Teen Iron Chef competition and Travis Elementary’s “Chef’s Night” contest.  At Travis Elementary, all grades were involved and their assignment was to make a healthy snack or meal, with extra points for those who used the most items from the school’s incredible garden or other locally-sourced ingredients.  The kids did great, surprisingly so.  Lance Fegen (from The Glass Wall in the Heights) was also one of the judges as was Scott Tycer’s wife, Annika (owners of Textile and Kraftsmen Bakery; Scott was at home nursing a basketball injury).  The garden at Travis Elementary is really wonderful and was spearheaded by our friend and Houston photographer, George Hixson.  My only wish is that the kids would have done more with the food from the garden. The kids did focus on using less than five ingredients and made healthier substitutions (like low-fat dairy, whole wheat pastas and yogurt instead of mayo), which was good.

Local Cauliflower

For today’s class, I was inspired to make one of the dishes from a student at Travis Elementary:  Joe’s Twice-Baked Cauliflower.  I loved how brave Joe was to use cauliflower and make it in a way that kids would love it (who can resist anything mac n’cheesy?).  Of course, he did a healthy version with low-fat milk and cream cheese, kind of a like a bechamel.  I autographed his recipe and gave him two thumbs up.  I’ve adapted Joe’s recipe, Pope-style:  I’m ramping it up a bit by using Cabot’s cheddar powder and the three cheeses I used in my Top Chef Master’s Quick Fire-winning grilled cheese sandwich (feta, Monterey jack and mascarpone).



Local Food, Trendy? Whatever It Takes… April 11, 2010

Mild Coconut Curry with Local Vegetables

Green Plum Cooking School – Sat, April 3rd

Today, I’m making a mild coconut curry with local vegetables.  Just so you know, the Pope don’t do “mild,” or so I’m thinking.  I’m afraid it’s going to be boring.  The recipe calls for green peppers, squash, eggplant, corn, green beans — you get the idea, summer vegetables, most anywhere.  Here in Houston, we’re smack into spring, which anywhere else would be summer, but the whole point of this dish is that you can utilize any vegetables you find at the farmers market right now — pick five or go for the sky as your limit.

The recipe also calls for lentils, of which I have four varieties down in the t’afia kitchen, so I bring them all up.  The only thing I’ve prepared ahead of time is to roast some small beets, mainly to see if I could actually get them to cook in an hour and I also didn’t want them to discolor the curry by cooking them with the other vegetables.  Pink curry is… well, pink…and sometimes that color doesn’t quite translate.  Also, when we did beets last year when we were “cooking with Alice,” trying to fully cook beets during a one hour class was one of my only failures; we ate very al dente beets that day!

We start with lilies, of which I have many (that’s why I did a five-lilies soup for Easter). You know, we named our child after the lily because she makes us cry with joy, in Yiddish the word is kvell. But, of course, we chose the Lili Taylor (indie actress) and Lili Fini Zanuck (Hollywood producer) spelling because I’m a little bit country and a little bit Hollywood!

The allium genus consists of hundreds of varieties commonly known as onions, garlic, leeks, scallions, ramps and so on.  They are of great importance in the kitchen and form the base of most stocks and sauces, the aromatics of braising liquids, the underpinnings of well-made soup – basically, all things good in the kitchen.

I open the first bag of lentils and promptly drop the crimson legumes.  I take a deep breath and decide not to cry over spilled lentils, but mention my crying on Top Chef Masters.  I begin to cook the lentils and the potatoes together — I have local red potatoes and four types of lentils (crimson, black, white and green).  The black lentils are referred to as beluga because they resemble beluga caviar, that’s great marketing when you can make a lowly legume seem like an extravagant ingredient, right Oleg?

Potatoes & Lentils



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