9 Ingredients Chef Jeremy Rock Smith Can’t Live Without
Food has defined the career of chef Jeremy Rock Smith. “I started working in restaurants when I was 14,” he told The Cheat Sheet. He started cooking when he was 18, trained at the Culinary Institute of America, and tried all avenues that food could take him — catering, fine dining, and types of venues. But in his early 30s, he was managing a place and started to get burned out.
“I think when you get to a management level of any craft, you lose touch of what you liked about the craft,” Smith said. As a chef, there isn’t always a need for consistent meal planning – you eat whatever’s in the kitchen that night. But around that time, Smith started to be more conscious about what he was eating, following the advice of a nutritionist friend of his. “Food and eating is such a sidebar thing,” Smith said. “We just kind of do it as we go.” When we view food as the nourishment it needs to be, the perspective changes a bit.
Eventually, that outlook is what led Smith to becoming the executive chef at the Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health, a retreat center located in the Berkshires of Massachusetts that offers programs about yoga, health, and holistic living. With Smith, moderation is the lynchpin of a healthy, satisfying diet. The center offers vegan, vegetarian, and gluten free options, but they also serve chicken and fish, along with more traditional comfort foods. Depending on the program people could be dealing with heavy issues, and “that’s why we have peanut butter and jelly,” Smith said.
Moderation is key, even with kale
Above everything else, Smith’s aim is to create dishes people actually want to eat. “It’s got to taste good,” Smith said. “People think that healthy food has to be something astringent or bitter, and it makes me cringe. That’s just so not sustainable.”
On top of that, Smith keeps health in mind at all times in the kitchen, but isn’t afraid to use sugar or other health food taboos when it’s appropriate. Again, moderation and a thoughtful process are necessary — even when you’re talking about preparing vegetables. “Even good things are not good if they’re not taken in moderation,” he said. “If you’re eating kale five times a day, you can guarantee something’s going to go wrong.”
And yes, it is possible to cook in moderation and make foods for yourself that taste good, but are also healthy. Smith recognizes a changing mindset among many people in how they cook for themselves. “Cooking wasn’t popular when I started cooking, and then it became a form of entertainment,” he said. But even with the deluge of shows on the Food Network and the rise of the celebrity chef, people didn’t find time to cook for themselves. That’s begun to change in recent years, however. “People are looking at cooking more as a practice,” Smith said, and are making more time in their lives to devote to it.
How to cook well for yourself
To start, take a hard look at where your products are coming from. “First and foremost, it starts with the product we’re using,” Smith explained. Kripalu puts a large emphasis on sourcing their food locally whenever possible, including meats, produce, and other ingredients. Using sustainable fish and chicken is important to Smith, and about 90% of the products used at Kripalu are organic, he said. When you’re following those guidelines, food will also end up being seasonal, as you’ll be cooking with what local growers are producing at the time.
If you’re looking to make some healthy changes in your diet, some simple substitutions might help. Smith suggests switching out typical oils and fats and cooking instead with coconut oil, or relying on foods like avocado to supplier a healthier fat component. If you’d like to eat bread without so much gluten, try sourdough, Smith suggests, or see if you can substitute sugar with maple syrup.
The chef’s pantry
Many of these principles carry over into what Smith cooks for himself, though he admits his three children impact what’s in his pantry at home. Smith always has a supply of coconut milk, lentils, and eggs on hand, along with spices like smoked paprika, garam masala, cumin, and coriander.
Capers and olives can be added to several dishes to bring flavor, Smith added, and he relies on Castelveltrano olives frequently both at home and to appease most tastebuds at Kripalu. “They’re the olives for people who hate olives,” Smith explained. Fermented foods are used often at home, Smith said, including kimchi and various types of sauerkraut. Smith uses maple syrup and pomegranate molasses as sweeteners at home, and sources the ingredients in his own kitchen as locally as possible, too.
In taking a look at his kitchen menu recently, Smith realized his dishes vary frequently, though not necessarily on purpose. One day the flavors were distinctly Korean; the next, the recipes were reminiscent of African traditions. Older cultural foods, “the originals” as Smith calls them, tend to rely on fewer processed goods and are often healthier overall. Classical French cooking can get a bad rap for using too much dairy, but the way dairy products were produced years ago was better than it is today, and those recipes can be updated for a lighter version, Smith said.
Recipes to try
Smith’s own comfort food is often a variation of braised chicken, complete with lentils, olives, and other ingredients added in to boost the heartiness. Smith sent The Cheat Sheet one recipe for the chicken, along with another recipe for punjabi dahl, which also features lentils. If you’re looking for a hearty new favorite comfort food, try one of these.
Braised Chicken with Za’atar Yogurt Sauce
- 1 pound bone-in chicken legs and thighs
- 3 tablespoons coconut oil
- 1 tablespoon garlic, minced
- 1 cup onion, small dice
- ½ cup celery, small dice
- ½ cup carrots, small dice
- 2 tablespoons sumac
- 1 teaspoon smoked paprika
- 2 tablespoons tomato paste
- ¼ cup red wine
- 1 cup French lentils
- ¼ cup green olives (Castelvetrano, if available)
- 4 cups vegetable/chicken stock
- salt & black pepper to taste
For Za’atar Sauce
- ¾ cup yogurt
- 1 tablespoon za’atar
- 1 teaspoon ginger
- salt & black pepper
- 1 tablespoon cilantro, chopped
Directions: In a pre-heated large braising pan heat coconut oil, season chicken with sea salt, and sear for 1 minute on each side or until golden brown. Remove and reserve chicken.
In the same pan sweat the onions, celery, and carrots on low heat with the lid on until tender. Add the sumac and smoked paprika and raise the heat to medium to allow the spices to bloom. Add garlic and cook for 30 seconds, then add tomato paste and cook on low for 2-3 minutes.
Mix in lentils and deglaze with red wine. Spread lentil mixture evenly across the bottom of the pan. Sprinkle olives across the mixture and place chicken on top. Add stock and bring to a simmer. Place a lid on the pan and finish in a 350-degree oven for 1 hour or until lentils are tender and chicken has an internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit.
To make the sauce, combine all ingredients. When chicken is finished remove from pan and reduce lentil mix to desired consistency. Adjust seasoning with salt and pepper. To serve, spoon lentil mixture onto a plate then place chicken on top and drizzle with za’atar sauce.
- 1½ tablespoons ghee or coconut oil
- ⅔ cup diced yellow onions
- 1 tablespoon minced garlic
- 1 tablespoon ginger
- ½ teaspoon brown mustard seeds
- ¼ teaspoon paprika powder
- ½ teaspoon turmeric powder
- 1 teaspoon garam masala
- ½ teaspoon coriander
- 1⅔ cups chopped tomatoes
- 4½ cups water
- ¾ cup red lentils
- 2 cups coconut milk
- Pinch of freshly ground black pepper
- 2 teaspoons sea salt
- 2 tablespoons chopped cilantro
Directions: In a large soup pan, sweat the onions in ghee or oil until translucent. Add spices and sauté for 2 minutes. Add garlic, ginger and cook for 1 minute.
Add the tomatoes, water, and lentils. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer until lentils are soft, and dahl is thick, about 20 to 30 minutes. Add coconut milk and bring to a simmer. Finish with the salt, pepper and cilantro.