The sneaky side of healthy eating

Sure, adding vegetable puree to your batter would make homemade brownies more nutritious. But, realistically, who has time for that?

By Janet Keeler, Times food and travel editor
Published October 31, 2007

Perhaps the best thing that ever happened to cookbook author Missy Chase Lapine is that comedian Jerry Seinfeld's wife wrote a very similar book.

Jessica Seinfeld's Deceptively Delicious: Simple Secrets to Get Your Kids Eating Good Food (Collins) hit the No. 1 spot on Amazon.com last week and has attained the same ranking on the New York Times' Advice, How-To and Miscellaneous list. Helping to catapult the book was the author's appearance on The Oprah Winfrey Show earlier this month. To thank the starmaker, Jessica Seinfeld sent the host 21 pairs of shoes, mostly red-soled Christian Louboutins, at about $1,000 a pair.

Lapine's book, The Sneaky Chef: Simple Strategies for Hiding Healthy Foods in Kids' Favorite Meals (Running Press), shot up Amazon's bestseller list, peaking at No. 13 last week after bloggers and the media reported on the books' similarities. Ancillary publicity is good publicity, it seems.

Lapine, the former publisher of Eating Well magazine, raised a flag herself. She told the New York Times it could be coincidence that Collins rejected her book twice in 2006, then in June of the same year won an auction to publish Seinfeld's book on the same topic.

I saw Seinfeld on Oprah and she was charming. I can see why Collins would publish her book. She's quite promotable.

Running Press published Lapine's book in April; Seinfeld's came out this month. Deceptively Delicious and Sneaky Chef are hot sellers thanks to the cult of celebrity. Lapine herself was on the Today show in April when her book was first released.

Seinfeld decribes herself as a dedicated cook for the "Kitchen Cabinet" made up of her three young children and her famously vegetarian husband. She's not the first person whose celebrity has convinced a publisher to green light a cookbook. Poet Maya Angelou, rocker Ted Nugent, R&B singer Patti LaBelle and country crooner Barbara Mandrell are just a few entertainers whose well-known names are attached to cookbooks.

Hiding the good stuff

Both Seinfeld's and Lapine's books take a slightly disingenuous approach to cooking for children. Baking brownies? Add pureed broccoli and carrot to the batter. Lasagna can be made more nutritious with butternut squash puree. Fool them with cauliflower puree in deviled eggs or smooshed-up northern beans in their ranch dressing.

The premise is that kids hate vegetables and what they don't know will help them stay healthy. What they don't know is that Mom has sneaked spinach into their blueberry oatmeal bars.

As a food editor, I received a copy of Deceptively Delicious from the publisher before it hit the bookshelves. The cute pink cover drew my attention, as did the name. I was, and still am, a fan of the sitcom about nothing. I leafed through the book quickly and placed it on the pile of possible stories.

If I got a copy of Sneaky Chef last spring when it was first published, I don't remember.

Initially, I was intrigued by Seinfeld's recipes but then wondered how realistic it was for busy parents to make pancakes from scratch AFTER they puree beets to go in them. A recipe for more guilt, perhaps? Honestly, if I'm going to take that kind of time on a recipe, I'd rather hunt for a really delicious vegetable dish where the veggies are recognizable.

To retain as much nutrition as possible, vegetables must be steamed or roasted before pureeing. Nutrients leach into the water when veggies are boiled. Purees can be made in advance and frozen. Another weekend chore.

Regardless of the publishing brouhaha, both books are bothersome. I know that many kids (and probably their parents) don't like to eat vegetables. But will putting avocado puree in their chocolate pudding help kids become better-eating adults?

How can they learn to like vegetables if they don't know they are eating them? Wouldn't it be more instructive to offer interesting raw vegetables such as jicama and pea pods for snack time with a tasty bowl of guacamole? Not tricky, but true.

I do like the idea of adding more vegetables to savory dishes. For instance, Seinfeld adds carrot puree to the broth of meatball soup and potato puree to the meatballs. That makes sense.

I have thrown cooked cauliflower into the blender to use as a thickener for soup rather than adding cream. But, for me, it's too much subterfuge to mix it into vanilla frosting.

Janet K. Keeler can be reached at (727) 893-8586 or jkeeler@sptimes.com.


Meatball Soup

3 ounces whole-wheat pasta shapes, such as bow ties or wagon wheels
Nonstick cooking spray
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 small onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 28-ounce can whole peeled tomatoes with juice
1/4 cup carrot puree (see note)
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
3 cups reduced-fat, low-sodium beef or chicken broth

For the meatballs:
3 slices whole-wheat bread, cubed
1 large egg, lightly beaten
1/4 cup sweet potato puree (see note)
1/4 cup nonfat milk
3 tablespoons grated Parmesan, plus more for serving
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1/4 teaspoon paprika
1/2 pound lean ground turkey

- Cook the pasta in a large pot of boiling salted water according to package directions until al dente. Drain in a colander and set aside.

- Coat a large pot with cooking spray and set it over medium-high heat. When the pot is hot, add the oil and then the onion and garlic. Cook, stirring often, until the onion is softened but not browned, 3 to 4 minutes.

- Puree the tomatoes and their juice with the carrot puree in a food processor or blender, then add to the pot along with 1/2 teaspoon salt. Add the broth, reduce heat to low, and simmer, covered, 10 to 15 minutes.

- Meanwhile, put the bread in a large bowl. Add the egg, sweet potato puree, milk, Parmesan, 1 teaspoon salt, the pepper and the paprika. Let soak until the bread is very soft. Stir to break up the bread, add the ground turkey, and mix until smooth. Form into mini-meatballs 1/2inch in diameter.

- Add the meatballs to the pot. Simmer, covered, until the meatballs are no longer pink in the center, 12 to 15 minutes. Stir in the pasta. Serve sprinkled with Parmesan.

Note: To puree carrots, peel, trim ends and cut into 3-inch chunks. Roast for 20 minutes at 400 degrees. Let cool slightly, then puree in food processor or blender for 2 minutes. Add water if too stiff. Freeze unused portion.

To puree potatoes, peel and cut in quarters. Roast for 40 minutes at 400 degrees. Let cool slightly and follow the same instructions as carrots.

Serves 10.

Source: Deceptively Delicious by Jessica Seinfeld (Collins, 2007; $24.95)