by Julie Ryland
“Cook for taste, eat for health.” That’s cooking guru Karen Lee’s mantra, and it seems to work. The 60-something Lee has a soft face with a healthy glow, and not an age-revealing sign of either wrinkles or facelifts.
As the owner of Karen Lee, a New York City-based company offering catering and cooking classes, Lee has been teaching people how to cut, slice, sautée, fry and taste for over 40years.
While some people prefer to connect with their body in the yoga studio doing downward dog, Lee connects with her body in the kitchen – eating and cooking healthy, often Chinese-inspired, food.
While she talks about how to properly cut and slice vegetables (no sawing, simply push forward with the knife), she passes around a cup of boiled chickpeas. She wants each of us to pick one up and feel it between our fingers before we taste it.
Then she wipes some sand and mud off an organic yellow turnip, also known as a rutabaga. She passes it around, and lets each of us roll it between our hands and inhale the earthy, organic smell. “Don’t peel it,” she says before she gives it a thorough rinse under cold water. “It will strip it of the most important nutrients.”
There’s plenty of nutrients in the first of five dishes, a chunky vegetable soup. It takes only about an hour to prepare, but is packed with vegetables and spices that, she says, can add years to your life.
For instance, Lee explains, turmeric is one spice known to prevent acid reflux, cancer and inflammation. It can easily be added to rice, soups and stews, or be used as an inexpensive substitute for saffron (careful, too much and it might give off a bitter taste according to the expert). Cayenne pepper is also believed to be anti-inflammatory, and if you really want to maximize your daily dose of veggies – add some kale. Whatever broccoli has, kale has that much more.
While the soup simmers, we all move into the dining area where Lee has set up a long working bench flanked by bar stool type chairs and set against a wall covered with pans, pots, saucepans, strainers, skillets and utensils. A wall of window affords a sweeping view of Upper West Side Manhattan. In the living room – framed photos of her travels in China and a clipping from an article about her in The New York Times.
We’re in a real home, and it sounds like a real home. The five couples who signed up for the class seem to have forgotten that they’re both students and strangers, and are chatting, laughing and helping each other cut, peel and pass over tastings. The fact that Lee’s classes are taught in her home definitely helps ease the mood, and makes the atmosphere more intimate and relaxed, without sacrificing professionalism.
One assistant is constantly helping us speed up the cutting process and cleaning the dishes as Lee doles out her healthy eating tips. Hold the processed dressings, ketchup or pre-packaged items, she suggests, and spend the extra five minutes it takes to cut up fresh herbs or whip together a light, flavourful dressing.
Each class is about four hours long, and they all follow the “cook for taste, eat for health” theme. But always with a different menu. Some days she focuses on meat, others on seafood. Most classes are Chinese inspired, but also change depending on Lee’s own inspiration and local market selection. Usually a class consists of no more than 10 people and are fully participatory, which allows everyone to take part. Private classes can also be arranged.
In four hours, we manage to prepare – and eat – the vegetable soup, penne arrabiata, chopped salad with lemon sherry vinaigrette, three kinds of pan roasted steak (including a melt-in-your mouth prime filet mignon), and pearl balls – a different side dish with rolled and steamed balls of ground pork, ginger, scallion, sherry, water chestnut powder, soy and sweet rice.
Lee reveals that the items used in today’s class were gathered and carefully chosen during a five-hour shopping spree at local markets and specialty stores, and that every vegetable, piece of meat or pack of pasta have been turned, watched and weighed. “I interview every peach,” Lee says. “I feel very intimidated in department stores, but vegetables I know. Bring it on!”
You can sign up for Karen Lee Cooking Classes online.
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Julie Ryland is a former contributer to Travel to Wellness