Inspiration and Empty Calories in a Land of Plenty

[avatar user=”doller” size=”thumbnail” align=”left” link=””]By: Denisse Oller[/avatar]You know you have landed in San Juan when the islanders on the plane burst in applause as the aircraft touches ground. It is a traditional expression of love for Puerto Rico. I was home, invited to participate as a guest chef in “Saborea 2017,” the island’s internationally renowned four-day culinary extravaganza. The event is always over the top, even more so this year, in celebration of its tenth anniversary. There are visiting chefs and foodies from all over the world, and I am always inspired by the fresh local ingredients, the bold food choices, the beautiful presentations.

My first stop, in what has become a ritual, is to visit “La Plaza de Mercado de Santurce” or ” “La Placita” as the locals call it. This unpretentious open food market occupies a square in the heart of Santurce, a neighborhood only a few miles from Old San Juan.

Nowadays it is known as the heart of San Juan’s vibrant nightlife scene, a trendy hangout for young professionals, millennials and hipsters alike, where you find fine dining establishments for the well-heeled next to neighborhood bars, colorful cafes, and traditional eateries serving Puerto Rican specialties (fondas). On Thursdays and Fridays, crowds overflow the streets, partying and dancing in a nonstop, boisterous party.

As a child, my maternal grandmother would take me to “La Placita” to buy ingredients for her delicious soups and stews. I remember my delight as I moved from stall to stall, admiring the variety, the color, and the textures of so many vegetables and fruits neatly displayed in wooden boxes. Many years later, I still take delight in the unusual fruits – caimito, starfruit, guanabana, and mamey – and having them weighed by the merchants in their old hanging scales, just as they did when I visited with Abuela Juana.

I left “La Placita” wondering how, with such abundance of fresh and delicious produce, never mind the fresh fish, we had become an island hooked on processed foods. Just like on the mainland, highly processed foods are, plus or minus, 70 percent of what most of us eat. By processed food, I mean everything from deli meat, fast food, chips and snacks, and of course, sugary soda. These high-calorie salty foods contribute to obesity, which in turn is linked to so many chronic diseases, from hypertension to diabetes, from cardiovascular disease to asthma.

What I witnessed during this visit is a growing back-to-basics movement led by young entrepreneurs, including chefs, food enthusiasts, farmers, and lifestyle influencers, when it comes to food and farming. And chefs are making a point of finding local sources of produce for their foods.

Which leads me to my dish and my work at Advocate Community Providers, a network of neighborhood physicians working in underserved communities in the Bronx, Manhattan, Queens, and Brooklyn. We believe in food as medicine, as prevention, as fuel. To promote the idea that better nutrition is essential to good health, we promote a DASH nutrition plan that is easy to follow and budget friendly. Still, old habits are hard to change.

For my Saborea, 2017 presentation, I prepared a “surf and turf” of salmon, root vegetables, and my favorite fruit, the magical avocado, which provides nearly 20 essential nutrients, including potassium, Vitamin E, B-vitamins, and folic acid, and are a good source of fiber and folate. The island’s avocados are a creamy delight. I finished the dish with a cilantro sauce.

On the morning of my presentation, I checked all the preparations. Everything was perfect! The demo kitchen was so close to the Caribbean. I took deep breaths, smelling the sea breeze. I looked at it intently, asking the universe for serenity, guidance, light.  I breathed. I was in my own space. It was time to face the crowds.

I cooked, the audience was charmed, and I was proud of my beautiful final dish, thanks in no small part to my wonderful sous chef, Athaly Londono.  I hugged her, I thanked the sea, I thanked the earth, and I thanked life.