In the spring, I attended the Building a Healthier Chicago conference organized by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. One of the ranking officers talked about the obesity crisis and his suggested approach to it. He proposed a multi front attack: Get em where they work, live, learn, and pray. I've worked in plenty of schools, given classes to people in their homes and occasionally their offices, but worship homes were a new frontier to me and to Purple Asparagus.
It's not surprising that I wouldn't have thought of it. While both my husband and I spent many a sabbath morning at Sunday school, religion has fallen a bit to the wayside for me and my family. I'm not proud to admit that weekend chores and the occasional opportunity to sleep late has interfered with attendance at our church. Nevertheless, both my husband and I have vivid memories from childhood of the strong community created within our individual congregations so I understand the powerful influence that churches can have on their parishioners.
The Building a Healthier Chicago conference planted a seed in my mind, but given my weak religious roots, I had no soil in which to plant it. Perhaps it was simply serendipity or something more directed in its unseen influence, but only a months after the conference, the bed revealed itself.
CLOCC (the Consortium to Lower Obesity in Chicago Children)is a nationally recognized consortium that brings together hundreds of diverse organizations and individuals to confront childhood obesity in Chicago. With big thinkers on their board and staff, they'd already concluded that engaging the faith community was a critical piece of the puzzle of public health. James Kenady, an ordained minister on staff at CLOCC, called me mid summer to explore a cooking component for their first ever FAITH Summit. He wanted to find a way to creatively engage the faith leaders around the issue of healthy cooking.
A few years ago, I attended the International Association of Culinary Professionals conference in New Orleans during which the Kids in the Kitchen section organized an amazing cooking competition. Only a few years after the devastation of Katrina, Sheila Crye, the head of the section recognized that among the precious possessions lost, family recipes were at the top of the list. Sheila, with the help of other section members, including Williams-Sonoma's Laura Martin Bacon, created a contest that combined writing and recipes to stir a powerful stew of family cuisine. The children connected with family members, many of whom had been displaced from the Crescent City, to resurrect a favorite recipe and then submit it with a story. The event was heart wrenching and heartwarming all at once. The event deeply resonated with me.
With this recollection, I suggested what ultimately became the Skillet Minister Cook-Off. We partnered Chicago chefs with church cooks and asked them to make over a congregation potluck favorite into a healthy option. Three teams competed, creating three completely different yet delicious dishes. They presented their dish to 20 judges selected by raffle at the FAITH summit. Each team explained what changes they made and how they felt their congregation would react to their recipe.
Were this to become a regular addition to the FAITH conference, I would draw upon lessons learned and refine the competition, but it was, for a first time, terrific. The teams were enthusiastic and the mentors passionate. The dishes were reflective of the rich diversity of the Chicago church community. We had a Episcopalian church resident within a Puerto Rican neighborhood that transformed a traditional rice, pea and pork recipe by substituting turkey bacon and removing the MSG laced spice blend. Another church, whose oven was on the fritz, made a deconstructed lasagne with rice pasta, bison, and a "bechamel" forged with low fat ricotta and pureed white beans. The winning recipe came from Obama's home church, Trinity United.
Not unlike the first couple, the three person team was made up of some serious overachievers, making not one but four dishes.
To level the playing field, we asked the judges to base their decision on only one of their dishes. Problem is, once the panel of 20 tasted their Crustless Sweet Potato Pie, I think it was all over.
All of the other recipes will be posted on the CLOCC website, but I do believe that this pie would be a delicious and healthier addition to any holiday table.
Special thanks go to Jill Houk, Lois Levine, and Mike Smith, our chef mentors.
Trinity United's Crustless Sweet Potato Pie Serves 8-10
1 pound peeled sweet potato cut into 1-inch cubes 1 stick unsalted butter, softened 1/2 cup condensed milk 3 ounces Splenda 1/4 cup egg white 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon 1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
Preheat the oven to 350 F. Place paper muffin cups into a muffin tin. Cover sweet potatoes with water in a large saucepan. Bring the water to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat to a brisk simmer and cook until tender, approximately 20 minutes. Drain and cool. Mix the cooked potato with butter, milk, splenda, and egg whites in an electric mixer until well blended. Add cinnamon and nutmeg. Pour into baking cups and bake for 45 minutes until just set. Let cool. Serve plain for a virtuous treat or with some whipped cream for a more devilish dessert.