En español | Chef Nora Pouillon was organic before organic was cool.
For years, Pouillon's insistence on cooking with additive-free, sustainably grown ingredients put her outside the culinary mainstream. Today, after more than four decades eating and promoting organic foods, Pouillon feels healthy, fit — and vindicated by Americans' growing interest in health-conscious eating.
She knows that dietary habits, particularly those cemented over a lifetime, can be difficult to change. "But it's never too late to do better," says Pouillon, 67. "What you put in your body, that's who you are and what you become. So it's really important to put in good things."
When she moved from Austria to Washington, D.C., in the late 1960s, Pouillon couldn't find the fresh, healthful foods she wanted for her two young sons and her burgeoning catering business. To obtain the foods of her childhood — meat and chicken free of growth hormones, produce untouched by pesticides — the self-taught chef roamed the Virginia countryside, buying directly from farmers.
At a time when "organic" often meant unappealing, hippie-café fare, Pouillon's inventive, tasty dishes won her an avid following and the job of opening a restaurant in a popular Washington inn. Then in 1979, Pouillon and two partners opened Restaurant Nora with a menu emphasizing local, organic products served in season.
In 1999, Restaurant Nora became the first restaurant in the nation to be certified organic, meaning that at least 95 percent of ingredients used — from produce and dairy to coffee and spices — come from certified-organic sources. Today, Restaurant Nora is a Washington dining landmark, with a clientele that includes presidents, past and present, and other VIPs.
Pouillon knows many Americans have misgivings about going organic, and about adopting healthier diets and practices in general. She ticks off a list of common concerns, with advice on how to resolve them:
Cost: "When organic foods are more expensive than conventional foods, maybe you feel it's not worth the money — but it is," Pouillon says. "Basically it's a question of where to spend your money: on staying healthy by avoiding pesticides and additives, or on medicines and the doctor when you get sick."
Feasibility: "Going organic doesn't have to be completely changing your whole life," Pouillon says. "You could add one item at the start and then in a month, add the next. If you like chicken, commit yourself to buying only chicken that's organic. If you drink a lot of milk, make the milk organic. If you do that in a regular way, after one year you'll realize most of the important things you buy are organic."
Complexity: Under U.S. standards, foods earn organic ratings (see last page) based on how they were raised or grown, or the percentage of organic ingredients in processed products. Pouillon counsels shoppers to read labels carefully, and to bear in mind that foods marked "natural" are not certified organic; that foods marked "locally grown" aren't necessarily organically grown; and that many foods stocked in "whole food" stores may be grown and produced no more healthfully than similar items in traditional supermarkets.
Timing: "Organic food, especially organic produce, is not that much more expensive than conventionally raised produce if you buy it seasonally," Pouillon says. "If in the middle of the winter you buy strawberries or asparagus, then of course you pay a lot. But if you go like nature intended and in the winter you eat the root vegetables, the sweet potatoes and parsnips and beets, they're not very expensive."
Nutrition: "If you eat more nutritional foods produced and prepared in a more healthful way, then you don't need to eat as much food because you are satiated earlier," Pouillon says. "The older we get, the smaller our portions should get because our metabolism slows down. We can't, can't, can't become more sedentary and then get into snacking more."
An exercise buff who loves skiing and hiking, Pouillon stays in such good shape that in 2000 she was photographed for a "Naked Chefs" ad campaign, posing behind a strategically placed Vita-Prep blender. When people tell her they never could get fit or go organic as she has, Pouillon presses them to at least take the first step. Make the apple-a-day an organic one; take up swimming, dance, yoga.
"The big thing to remember," she insists, "is not to give up. As you adjust your eating and living habits, nothing will happen quickly. But slowly and steadily, the changes will have an impact on your health and how you feel."
Want a dish that uses organic, seasonal ingredients you can find at the grocery store? Pouillon suggests roasted chicken with winter vegetables, a recipe she adapted for AARP.org from her cookbook Cooking With Nora.
Roasted Chicken Legs and Winter Vegetables
Adapted by chef Nora Pouillon from Cooking With Nora (Random House, 1996)
4 whole chicken leg quarters (leg and thigh)
2 large carrots (3/4 pound), peeled cut into 1-1/2-inch pieces
8 small new potatoes (3/4 pound)
8 baby turnips, trimmed and quartered
8 baby beets (1/2 pound) or parsnips, peeled and quartered or sliced
4 ribs celery (1/2 pound) cut into 1-1/2-inch pieces
4 shallots, peeled
4 whole garlic heads, with 1/3 of the top trimmed off to expose a cross-section of the cloves
4 teaspoons olive oil
4 tablespoons mixed chopped herbs, such as rosemary, thyme, oregano and parsley
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 cup chicken stock or white wine
Celery leaves, for garnish
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Put the chicken, carrots, potatoes, turnips, beets, celery, shallots, whole garlic heads and 3 teaspoons oil into a large bowl. Season to taste with chopped herbs, salt and pepper. Toss to combine. Oil a 9-x-14-inch roasting pan with the remaining oil. Remove the chicken legs from the bowl and place them into the baking dish.
Pour 1/2 cup stock or wine into the baking dish. Roast the chicken for 30 minutes, turning once so it will brown evenly.
Add the seasoned vegetables and remaining stock or wine to the roasting pan with the chicken. Roast for 45 minutes or until the chicken and vegetables are browned and cooked through.
Assembly: Divide the vegetables among 4 warm plates, then place a chicken leg on each. Pour the accumulated juices over the meat and vegetables. Garnish with celery leaves. Serves 4.