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Of Iron Chefs and Healthy Eating

White House Executive Chef Cristeta Comerford discusses healthy eating and the White House Kitchen Garden following her appearance on the "Iron Chef" competition.

This past Sunday, I gathered my family around me and together we watched the Food Network's "Iron Chef America." I never imagined myself in Kitchen Stadium and couldn't help but laugh as my daughter pointed me out on TV.

It was such an honor to participate in the "Iron Chef" competition. I had the privilege of working with great chefs to prepare healthy dishes using fantastic local, sustainable ingredients.  

But as impressed as I was with Kitchen Stadium, I don't know if it quite compares with the awe that Bobby Flay, Emeril Lagasse, Mario Batali and even Alton Brown felt while visiting the White House, meeting the First Lady and working in the White House Kitchen Garden.

The chefs were all surprised when Mrs. Obama revealed that the "Secret Ingredient" was the White House Kitchen Garden and that our challenge was to create meals that were fresh, healthy and uniquely American – we knew we had our work cut out for us!

Iron Chef at the White House

(Courtesy Food Network)

The White House Kitchen Garden is a perfect example of how easy it is to grow your own fresh fruits and vegetables. It costs less than $200 to plant the garden and in the past few months it has already yielded over 1,000 pounds of produce. We use this fresh produce in meals for the First Family, in dinners for foreign leaders and we donate a good portion of it to Miriam’s Kitchen, a nearby soup kitchen.  The garden is a constant reminder for me that fresh fruits and vegetables really do taste better!

For this competition, I had the good fortune of teaming up with Bobby Flay – who is a White House veteran. He joined our team here at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue last year for a Father’s Day event to help the President barbeque for a group of young men who had joined us from local schools to discuss the importance of being good fathers and good role models.

Because this competition was about fresh fruits and vegetables, but also about the American experience, Chef Flay and I decided to cook to our strengths and to our heritages. To highlight the diversity of culinary traditions and flavors that define our country, Chef Flay cooked with his southwestern flair, I brought in recipes from my native Philippines, and we blended it all with unique takes on classic American recipes.

White House Executive Chef Comerford and Bobby Flay on Iron Chef

(Courtesy Food Network)

The other team was made up of Emeril Lagasse and Mario Batali. These formidable opponents cooked amazing dishes reflecting their own styles and backgrounds!

The competition was close, and each team created delicious meals in a short amount of time and I am thrilled that Chef Flay and I were chosen as the winners.

As great as the honor it was to compete in Kitchen Stadium with such creative and talented chefs, the greatest honor is still coming to work every day, walking through the White House gates and serving my country by serving the healthiest, freshest food we can provide for the First Family and their guests.

Mrs. Obama's challenge to use fresh fruits and vegetables in a healthy way wasn't just for "Iron Chef."  It's a challenge that we should all try to meet in our daily lives – whether it’s cooking for ourselves, our friends or our children. 

Here are a couple of recipes from the dishes that Bobby Flay and I used in our Iron Chef Battle...


Broccoli Chowder

1      tablespoon butter
6      garlic cloves, sliced
1      lemongrass, smashed
4      shallots,  sliced
1      leek, white part only, sliced
1      sprig of thyme
1      small onion, sliced
2      heads of broccoli, slice the stem, reserve the green tips for purée
8      cups clam stock
1      bay leaf
        Salt and pepper to taste

For the garnish:
36 clams, steamed  (reserve juice)
16 grape tomatoes, fried and peeled
6 fingerling potatoes, sliced
1 bunch broccoli rabe
2 tablespoons olive oil
salt and pepper  to taste

In a medium size sauce pan,  create the soup by sautéing the garlic, shallots, leeks, onion and thyme in butter until fragrant.  Add the broccoli stem slices and sauté until the broccoli is softened.  Pour in the chicken stock and bay leaf.  Simmer for about 20 minutes.

In the mean time, blanch the broccoli tips until they turn a bright green color.  Blanching can be done by boiling water with generous amounts of salt, placing the chopped broccoli in the boiling water for 1 minute and removing them from the boiling water. Then, “shock” the green tips in a bowl of iced water.  Drain and purée the broccoli in a blender and set it aside.

Purée the soup in a blender and strain it through a fine sieve or strainer.  Add the green broccoli purée to the soup and season it with salt and pepper.  Set aside.

In a separate pan, sauté the potatoes in olive oil to cook. Add the broccoli rabe and sauté until it is softened.  Season with salt and pepper.  Add the tomatoes and clams to heat through.  Spoon the vegetables and clams to the soup plate or bowl and pour the broccoli soup around.  Enjoy.

Sweet Potato Pie

Dough Ingredients:
1 cup butter
½ cup sugar
1 teaspoon  salt
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 teaspoon  lemon zest
2 egg yolks
2 ½ cups flour

Filling Ingredients:
3 sweet potatoes, cut in half lengthwise
4 sticks cinnamon
5 star anise
1 orange  quartered
2 tablespoon melted butter

Custard Ingredients:
3 cup crème fraiche
4 whole eggs
1 tablespoon vanilla
2 teaspoon cinnamon
½  teaspoon nutmeg
½  teaspoon salt

Pre-heat the oven to 350 degrees.

For the pie dough,  mix the sugar and butter until it is light and fluffy.  Add the dry ingredients and gently mix.  Incorporate the vanilla, lemon zest and egg yolks.   Form the mixture into a ball and let it rest in the refrigerator for 30 minutes.   With a lightly floured rolling pin on a lightly floured surface, roll the dough out into a quarter inch thick circle. Lightly drape the dough over a 12 inch tart or pie pan. Fit the dough and trim any remaining dough. Cover with parchment paper and let rest in the refrigerator for another half hour. In a pre-heated oven, bake the pie shell covered with parchment paper topped with baking beads (or you can use dry beans or rice) for 12 minutes.

For the filling,  place the sweet potatoes, cinnamon, star anise and orange on a baking sheet and drizzle the melted butter over everything. Bake at 350 degrees until the sweet potatoes are tender.  Scoop out the potatoes and pass it through a sieve or strainer so it turns into a potato purée.  Discard the spices and orange. Set the potato purée aside to cool. 

Mix all the custard ingredients until blended and fold it into the potato purée until fully blended. Pour this mixture into the cooked tart shell and finish cooking until set, about 35 minutes.

Honey Meringue Topping:
3 egg whites
2 cups honey reduced by half

Whip the egg whites until stiff and incorporate the hot reduced honey. Top the cooked sweet potato pie and broil until the meringue gets a toasted color.  Enjoy.

Cristeta Comerford is White House Executive Chef