Life-Saving Hero Foods
An Edible Cure
All day and into the night, a chef uses his hands and stands on his feet.
Chop a hundred onions; peel a hundred pounds of potatoes; scale, gut and fillet 50 red snappers. And don’t sit down. Not for a second.
This was the life of Seamus Mullen, a rising star among Manhattan’s young chefs, before and after he opened Boqueria in 2006, an authentic Spanish restaurant in Nehew York’s Flatiron district.
Mullen had an athlete’s relish for pushing himself to the limit, but early one morning in his apartment, when Boqueria was just eight months old, he felt a blaze of excruciating pain in his hip joint. The agony was so fierce he could not even get to the phone to call 911. Finally, after hours of debilitating pain, he heard the footsteps of a neighbor and screamed for help. It took 10 days in the hospital, an MRI and much medical detective work before the doctor came to a diagnosis: rheumatoid arthritis. And the doc said the condition would almost certainly get worse over the course of Mullen’s life.
He was only 33 years old.
Looking back over the previous couple of years, Mullen began to sort out the times when his pain was most severe from the times when it lifted, and he eventually realized that certain foods were associated with the periods of pain relief. He started experimenting–eliminating this, adding that–until he discovered that at the heart of the traditional Spanish cuisine that he had been perfecting for years were a few simple ingredients that seemed to relieve much of his inflammation.
Parsley. Anchovies. Carrots. Olive oil. Almonds. The more he discovered and ate what he was now calling his “hero foods,”¯ the better he felt.
Mullen studied Spanish literature in college, learning about classical French cuisine on the side, and then, after several years of restaurant cooking in San Francisco and New York, he found himself drawn back to Spain. By the time he returned to New York to open his own place, the culinary customs of Spain were in his blood.
The traditions that Mullen was determined to honor brought him immense success in New York. When arthritis struck, those same traditions ultimately brought relief. And when that relief came, he became obsessed with sharing his discoveries. He left his two Boquerias behind and set to work at a full-time experimentation, developing “hero food” recipes from his restaurant experience that could work for home cooks.
The cookbook Mullen had in mind wouldn’t be a prescriptive gospel of miracles. “I am not a nutritionist,” he writes in Hero Food, his first book. “I’m a chef. And I’m unwilling to let so-called health food take the place of great food…I do not promise instant cures or make outlandish health claims, nor do I pretend that what works for me will work for everyone.”
But his hero foods play a starring role in his recipes. And their healing properties are well documented. The folate in parsley fights the buildup of uric acid that causes pain in arthritic joints. The omega-3 fatty acids abundant in dark-fleshed fish like anchovies and sardines have strong anti-inflammatory properties and have been shown in many cases to be as effective as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen and aspirin. “And beans!”¯ Mullen exclaims. “All that protein, all that fiber, all those minerals. Thanks to beans, and eggs, I’ve cut the amount of meat in my diet down to very little. Beautiful eggs from pasture-raised chickens have healthy fats, lots of beta-carotene, and boy, do they taste great. A little ham, very little, something dark and intense like a great Iberico, just an ounce or so is all you need — and even that can lower cholesterol.
With the exception of a few year-round staples such as olive oil and anchovies, Mullen’s hero foods are closely attuned to season and place. Each section of the cookbook begins with a little essay that includes some explanation of the health benefits of the particular hero food. How olive oil reduces joint swelling and lowers the risk of heart disease; the antioxidant properties of almonds; the cancer-fighting coumestrol and saponin in peas.
Mullen’s quest to elevate simple whole foods to hero status is vivid proof that the antiquated notion of “health food” — low-calorie, low-fat and, ultimately, dull — can be altogether forgotten.
Sardines, stone fruit and other hero foods have not single-handedly cured Mullen’s arthritis, but the days of heavy medication are over. “I’ve been trying to exert what control I can through diet, exercise and lifestyle,” he says. “Chronic pain and inflammation are a daily reality for me, but I take only one pain medication now to manage it. Recently I’ve begun taking a variety of natural supplements, including chlorophyll, beta food (essentially super-concentrated beets), probiotics (since the immune system begins in the gut), turmeric, cat’s claw, as well as krill oil and glucosamine for joint health.”¯
“Over the last 1,200 years,” he notes, “there’s been a shift to a sort of sterilized life, and now we’re realizing that that’s done us a lot of harm.
“Our gut needs a rich biological life — it affects every human ill. We need fermented foods, yeast and good bacteria to restore the life inside us. And I know now that part of fighting inflammation is joy versus stress. So, I try to express that as well in the restaurant — to celebrate food rather than think of it as just fuel.”
Sugar Snap Pea Salad
As soon as sugar snaps show up at the farmers’ market, I’m instantly happy. Sweet and crisp, this salad is all about the sugar snaps, with a pinch of Aleppo pepper for heat, some fresh ricotta cheese for richness and texture, and edible flowers for color. It comes together easily, looks gorgeous and is oh-so-easy to love.
- 1 lb. fresh sugar snap peas
- 1 bunch radishes
- ½ cup fresh ricotta cheese
- A few leaves of fresh peppermint
- Freshly ground black pepper
- Juice of one lemon
- Olive oil to taste
- Pinch of Aleppo pepper or red pepper flakes
- Handful of edible flowers, such as pea blossoms or nasturtiums
Trim the tips of the sugar snap peas on both ends, remove the strings if they bother you, and cut some in half lengthwise. Blanch the peas quickly, just about 30 seconds, and shock in ice water. Slice the radishes thinly. Combine the peas, radishes, cheese and peppermint in a large bowl. Season with salt and pepper and toss with the lemon juice and olive oil. Serve with a sprinkle of Aleppo pepper and garnish of edible flowers.
Blackberry and Almond Crumble
When I buy plump, tart blackberries at the farmers’ market, I usually devour them before I make it home. When I manage to save a few, I make this crumble. I like my desserts to be simple (mostly because I’m not much of a pastry chef and I don’t want to screw them up). Chopped almonds (I like to use Marconas) give the topping a great little crunch and, along with the berries, offset the pro-inflammatory effects of the sugar.
- 1 cup rolled oats
- ¾ cup sugar
- 1 cup almond flour
- ¼ teaspoon baking soda
- Couple pinches of salt
- 3 tbs. butter
- ½ cup almonds, preferably Marcona, chopped
- 3 cups fresh blackberries
- Zest of ½ orange
- Juice of one orange
- ½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Combine the oats, ¼ cup of the sugar, the almond flour, baking soda, and a pinch of salt in a food processor and pulse. Add the butter and pulse until combined. Move to a bowl and mix in the chopped almonds.
Mix the remaining ½ cup sugar, the blackberries, orange zest, orange juice, cinnamon and a pinch of salt, and arrange in a baking dish.
Spread the crumble mixture on top of the berries. Bake for 35 to 40 minutes, until golden and bubbly. Serve alone, or with vanilla or almond ice cream.
(Recipes reprinted with permission from Seamus Mullen’s Hero Food by Seamus Mullen/Andrews McMeel Publishing, LLC.)
By Thomas McNamee, From Experience Life