Since Sam Kass took off his apron as the White House chef and left his post as senior policy adviser nutrition for the Obama administration nearly four years ago, he’s continued to devote himself to helping people eat better.
He’s involved in food-focused startups and firms such as Innit and Acre. And this week, he sees the release of his first cookbook, “Eat a Little Better.”
In addition to offering up shopping tips and answering questions like “Should I avoid sugar?,” the book features more than 90 recipes that value healthfulness as much as flavor.
“I don’t think health and flavor are in opposition in any way,” Kass, 38, says. “The choice between flavor and health is a false choice.”
amNewYork spoke with the West Village resident — and new father to a 9-month-old — about the book.
What’s the through line with the recipes in the cookbook?
I think the things I was focusing in on were really simple, accessible recipes. Basically every ingredient you could find at a totally standard grocery store, though I do have one octopus dish. Besides that, I did all the shopping in very mainstream, kind of middle-of-the-road grocery stores. They’re both tasty but simple dishes that you could put together with a week’s planning in mind. I’m just trying to make better eating really easy for people.
There’s no dessert section — how did you arrive at that choice?
It’s not that I don’t love some nice ice cream or piece of peach pie, but I don’t really make desserts. I don’t tend to finish my meals with a dessert. And I just thought it would be inauthentic to have a bunch of recipes there that aren’t the ones that I would really make. I don’t have a problem with people having a little bit of dessert. But one way you can cut out a lot of calories is not eating dessert every day.
There seems to be a new trendy diet every year or season, like keto and Whole30. What are your thoughts on those?
I think most of those diets have benefits for people because they essentially end up getting them to eat more whole foods and get them to eat less. But they’re not easily attainable for the long term. I would say to take some of those principles and try to implement them in a way where you can have some real sustainability in the way that you approach it. Smaller steps to me seem to be a more effective way to do this.
Where do you shop for food?
I have a great butcher around the way, Hudson & Charles. I order through something called Thrive Market. It just launched a great meat program, I get a lot of sustainable meats from there. I have a garden, I try to grow a lot of my food during the summer. And I go to regular grocery stores.
How do you balance eating out?
We’re in New York City, so you tend to eat out with some regularity. But we cook a lot. One of the best things you can do is to cook a little more. So that’s a good way to start.
What are your go-to snacks?
I basically never leave home without some Kind bars. I think they’re tasty and they’re convenient. I think the key, especially on snacking, you just have to have some good snacks around, because that’s when you can really fall off the wagon. I really rely a lot on dried fruits, or nuts. I have a little beef jerky.
Has having a child affected your diet at all?
It hasn’t. He just makes me understand just how important all the work around child health and nutrition is, all the things we’re working on, because you just see so clearly how what you’re giving them early on shapes their preferences. Just getting them off to the right start is so important for all kids, and making sure kids are getting the basic nutrition that they need. This book is trying to take what we learned and the work we did [in the White House] to help families and parents implement those strategies in their own home.
From reports, there appears to be a lot of fast food and soda in the White House now. What are your thoughts on and reaction to that?
The majority of the things that we did are still intact, so I’m happy about that. But I think the president sets an example, and on many levels I think he’s setting a terrible example for young people especially, and for everybody. That’s also true when it comes to food. Food is [a leading] cause of preventable death and disease in this country. To have a president who glorifies junk food and lives off of it is not what this country needs. But I’d say that’s the least of our challenges right now.
“The book is a reflection of how I eat,” Kass says. A recent dish he made from “Eat a Little Better” is this recipe for beans, which works for any dried beans and doesn’t require any soaking. You can also save the cooking liquid for a broth for soups or to moisten cooked grains, he notes in the cookbook.
Makes about 6 cups beans, plus leftover bean broth
1 lb. dried beans
Several peeled garlic cloves
2 or 3 dried bay leaves
A couple chunks or slices of bacon (optional)
Water, low-sodium chicken stock, or a combination of both, as needed
1. Pick through the beans and look for stones. It’s rare, but you’ll occasionally catch something. Give the beans a rinse.
2.Put the beans, garlic, bay leaves, bacon (if using), and a few generous pinches of salt in a large pot. Pour in enough water and/or stock to cover the beans by 2 inches or so. Bring to a boil over high heat, then reduce the heat to low, cover, and cook, adjusting the heat if necessary to maintain a very gentle simmer. Cook until the beans are soft and creamy but before they begin to burst. The timing differs according to your beans and how old they are, but I’d start checking after about 1 1⁄2 hours. When they’re just a touch firmer than you like, season the broth with salt until it tastes great and continue cooking until done.
3.If you’re not using them right away, let the beans cool in the cooking liquid and store them and the liquid in an airtight container in the fridge for up to 5 days.
Reprinted from Eat A Little Better. Copyright c 2018 by Sam Kass. Photographs copyright c 2017 by Aubrie Pick. Published by Clarkson Potter/Publishers, an imprint of Penguin Random House, LLC.