Grilled Asparagus and Leeks with Romesco Sauce. Salted and Pickled Anchovies on Grilled Flatbread. Trout a la Navarra prepared with kale and Serrano ham. Confit of Duck Legs with Plums. I want to cook and eat all the dishes from Seamus Mullen’s first cookbook, “Hero Food: How Cooking With Delicious Things Can Make Us Feel Better” (Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2012). That he tells us these recipes are healthy is almost beside the point. They all sound — and look — delicious.
Mullen, chef-owner of New York’s acclaimed Spanish restaurant, Tertulia, (and also a bit of a star thanks to his performance on the Food Network’s “The Next Iron Chef”) was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis after excruciating pain in his hip made it hard for him to move. The flare-up may have been brought on by the harried schedule and intense stress of running a restaurant (it occurred a few years ago while he was executive chef at Boqueria), but Mullen was determined not to let RA keep him away from the work he loves.
“I know there’s no silver bullet, but I have discovered that some foods can make dramatic differences,” he writes. “And here’s the good news: In that great fatalistic way of Mother Nature, what I like turns out to be good for me!” That’s good news for us, too. Zeroing in on 18 “heroes,” as he calls these foods that make him feel better — parsley, olive oil and almonds among them, and treating them in the Spanish style, Mullen offers recipes we’ll make because they’re delicious. Their benefits, which I suspect apply to all of us, with or without RA, are secondary.
The moderate omnivore
This isn’t a book that banishes certain foods. There are lots of vegetables in it but there’s also some beef, a little butter, some gluten and eggs included in the recipes. Mullen, it seems, falls into the Michael Pollan omnivore camp and quotes nutrition expert Marion Nestle: “You are better off paying attention to your overall dietary pattern than worrying about whether any one single food is better for you than another.” He’s never militant, but recommends avoiding refined industrial foods, eating everything in moderation, listening to your body and enjoying yourself. Good common sense.
Mullen’s food is straight forward. He’s offers a lot of good research on nutrition, and he shares a lot of information about technique and his ingredients, too. He tells us what makes Bomba rice so special and why it’s the best for paella. We get lessons on cleaning squid and extricating a quail egg from its shell. (Cracking it on the counter doesn’t work.) After reading about anchovies, you’ll want to give them a second chance. And he makes a case for buying local lamb.
“Hero Food” is proof that Mullen isn’t letting his diagnosis get in the way of eating well and enjoying life. Photos, taken by Colin Clark, show him in his beloved Spain, making chicken and seafood paella with friends on his city roof, digging in the garden with a child, sharing a toast surrounded by family. “Even if that fresh ear of sweet corn were to cause me a bit of discomfort,” he writes, “for me it’s a good trade-off … After all, just how unhealthy could an occasional ear of sweet corn eaten only in season really be, compared to the life-pleasure it delivers?”
Photo: Pickled carrots from Seamus Mullen’s recip. Credit: Colin Clark