WASHINGTON – It took 10 years baiting corporations to buy software for chef Tania Mercer to realize that,instead of selling project management programs,she wanted to cook professionally.
That's what she revealed during a recent cooking demonstration at the U.S. Botanic Garden. The chef shared the secrets of a wheatberry and corn salad,gumbo with okra and coconut rice pudding.
As she prepared the dishes,Mercer offered advice on selecting the certain ingredients for her recipes for tourists who wandered by the Botanic Garden's terrace.
“When preparing your own salad dressing,I always use the darkest olive oil that I can find because the darker it is,the better. … I decided to use the Indian spice,cardamom,in the rice pudding because it blends well together and has a savory taste different from cinnamon,” she said.
The San Diego native,32,was born into a family of cooks and remembers countless evenings spent in the kitchen watching her mother and grandmother prepare what she calls “big,but good meals.”
“My love for cooking definitely came from family,” she said. “They instilled a custom of eating at home and getting the most nutrition from what you eat.”
But for a long time,she never considered it a career option.
“I just realized one day that I loved to cook and that I can take what I've learned in the kitchen to help people eat better,” she said.
And that's exactly what she did,attending the Living Light Culinary Arts Institute in Fort Bragg,Calif.,and becoming a certified chef and instructor,specializing in vegetarian,vegan and raw cuisine. Three years ago,she started her own healthy eating enterprise,Nourishing You,which offers cooking classes and nutritional advice in the metropolitan D.C. area.
Of course,Mercer didn't stop there. She continues to experiment in the kitchen,browsing through recipe and culinary history books,one way her dishes gain new direction.
Mercer's experimentation has paid off,too. The health-conscious chef appeared on daytime talk show “The View” as a finalist in its “Next Celebrity Chef Contest” in January 2005.
“I was surprised to be picked for the show because I prepared hummus,which is such a simple dish,” she said. “It was a spur of the moment thing to apply and I think they chose me as a finalist based off of personality.”
Mercer's next television appearance is scheduled for WTTG Fox 5 Morning News on July 6. She will discuss the benefits of buying organic produce and provide recipes.
International influences have also inspired the chef,who says it's the one way to keep healthy food from becoming too bland.
“My recipes typically have Asian,Latin and Mediterranean influences,” she said. “The Asian influences come from my time living in California when all I was eating was Thai,Japanese and Vietnamese food. The Latin influence comes from time spent in those West Coast communities,too.”
Mercer credits her Lebanese roots for the Mediterranean ingredients in her dishes. “They use the freshest ingredients,” she said.
Using fresh and organic ingredients is something the chef encourages everyone to do. “Natural ingredients are minimally processed. I like to use products that are as raw as possible because they come from nature. Plus,I think it tastes better,” she said.
For more information about Mercer's classes and nutritional advice,visit http://www.nourishingyou.com.
Wheatberry and Corn Salad
252 calories and 8 grams of fat per serving
By Chef Tania Mercer
1 cup wheatberries (the whole grain of wheat,before it is made into flour)
15-ounce can garbanzo beans,rinsed and drained
1 cup corn kernels (preferably off the cob,especially in the summer)
1 cup radicchio,chopped
½ cup roasted red peppers,sliced
¼ cup fresh basil,cut into a chiffonade
¼ cup flat leaf parsley,chopped
4 stalks green onions,chopped
1 teaspoon dried oregano,optional
Juice from one small lemon
2 tablespoon red wine vinegar
2 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste
In a small saucepan over high heat,add the wheatberries,about two cups of water and a pinch of salt. Bring to a boil,cover and simmer about 50 minutes. Add more water if necessary. The wheatberries are done when they are plump and tender. Drain any excess water. Set aside to cool.
Meanwhile,in a large bowl,combine the corn kernels,roasted red pepper slices,radicchio,basil,flat leaf parsley,green onions and optional oregano. Add the cooled wheatberries. In a small bowl,whisk together the lemon juice,red wine vinegar and olive oil. Stir this into the wheatberry mixture. Season with a bit of salt and pepper. This salad can be served at room temperature.