We came for different reasons to find the same answers on the eternal quest: What are we supposed to eat? Did we need to follow a vegan, Paleo or Mediterranean diet? Or just go for the unchanging rule of moderation?
At the home of Elizabeth Johnson, founder, chef and owner of Pharm Table, we hoped we had found the answer, or at least a path that led in the right direction. Pharm Table has been offering weekly meals and snacks created as a form of culinary medicine since it opened in October last year. At a recent introductory dinner, Johnson explained the philosophy behind her meals, which are similar to community-supported agriculture food deliveries with the added benefit of pre-prepared meals.
Eight of us sat around a wooden dining table that was set in a thoughtful, artistic way – neither the contrived excessiveness of Martha Stewart, nor the rushed wasteland of foam containers and plastic forks. We were children who lost parents to cancer, mothers wondering what to serve our families for dinner, and young professionals who were too busy to cook and hoping to lose a little weight.
The glass vases decorating the middle of the table contained entire heads of cauliflower. Beautifully woven straw coasters and napkin rings provided a simple, elegant backdrop to the foods set before us. Tiny bowls, made from bark, held a colorful array of spices. Even the water looked enticing, poured into wine glasses and flavored with peppermint and grapefruit.
“As a chef-instructor and Latin cuisines specialist at the Culinary Institute of America, I thought I knew everything about food, but I knew nothing,” Johnson said. Even at culinary school, no one addressed the effects that ingredients have on the body. Johnson has made it her task “to change the way people eat and think about food.”
She also wants to re-define the stereotypical notion of health food. For Johnson, this means getting people to eat on an organic, local, and seasonal platform. The cauliflower centerpiece was no accident. It was February, the season for plants from the Brassica family, which also includes cabbage, radishes and turnips.
Everything in Johnson’s history seems to have led her to this point. Born in Central America, she was exposed to this cuisine at an early age. She pursued an education in anthropology and the culinary field, and traveled extensively throughout the Americas. Returning to San Antonio six years ago, she used her research and expertise to consult with the Center for the Foods of the Americas, the research arm of San Antonio’s CIA. She developed the CIA’s archive of Latin American foods and played a formative role in the teaching restaurant, Nao.
Johnson also worked with area farmers, the San Antonio Food Bank, and the Texas Department of Agriculture to implement the Latin Seed Research Project, an initiative to locally introduce the plants used in Mexican, Brazilian and Peruvian cuisine.
This anthropological perspective informs Johnson’s approach to food, and is fired by her creative, entrepreneurial spirit. While studying Asian cuisine at the CIA, Johnson began to notice the parallels between the Americas and various other food cultures, like Persia, India and China: they all had an emphasis on hot and cold. She began gathering wisdom from cuisines and philosophies from around the world, including “Indian Ayurveda, traditional Chinese medicine, and the concepts of hot and cold that pervade the indigenous cultures of the Americas.”
Our meal started with an abreboca, (like an amuse bouche) “to fuel the digestive fire.” We savored the salty, sweet, astringent, and floral tastes in this tiny serving of house-pickled ginger with lime juice, local honey, oxalis, and nasturtium. Johnson explained that aside from peppers, spiciness may also be found in herbs like nasturtium.
Food is one of the great luxuries of life, explained Johnson, but it also has the power to heal. What we eat can either keep our body in or out of balance. When we have a craving, it is not because of a weakness, but because our bodies are out of balance. If we study our very personal reactions to the types of food we put in our bodies, she said, we can learn what we respond to and how to correct the imbalance.
The first course was a warm, hearty soup, served in a vessel from the Amazon rainforest, a hollowed out gourd that natives used to drink a medicinal green herb. All of Johnson’s food has a story behind it. Reading her menus and lists of ingredients is like flipping through the passport of an exotic world traveler.
This particular soup, Butternut Squash and Kaffir Fish Stew, is a fusion of Thai and Brazilian cuisine. Johnson created a black drum and shrimp fume and seasoned it with tumeric, ginger, dinosaur kale, cashew cream, turnips, sweet potatoes, onions and garlic. We sprinkled the seasoning in our tiny bowls over our soup—a blend of manioc, coconut, and other warming spices.
There is a whole host of “non” features to Johnson’s food — it’s non-dairy, non-sugar, and non-gluten. Consistent with ayurvedic practices, Johnson does not use ice or carbonation. So we were delighted to see Johnson’s assistants, Phil, Caitlyn and Bianca, serve us wine. Johnson selected an organic grenache blanc for the first course, and a sauvignon blanc for the second course. The small Italian glasses we drank from allowed a trick of perception: our small glasses appeared full, whereas a large glass would appear to have only a splash.
Johnson’s food is also non-acidic; she selects and prepares foods so that they are alkaline. For that reason, she replaces vinegar with citrus.
Using a “root-to-stock” philosophy, Johnson incorporates every part of the plant in her recipes, in the same way a chef might use an animal from “nose to tail.”
For example, lemon scraps are packed into a glass container with kosher salt and aromatics like Sri Lankan cinnamon, cloves, star anise and fresh Texas bay leaves. Once filled, it takes ten days to cure. Johnson then uses the preserved lemon in recipes from Sephardic cuisine, which originated in the Spanish, Mediterranean and North African regions.
“These flavors marry very well,” she said, referring to the lemon, turmeric and saffron in these dishes.
The main course was a Roasted Grouper served with Carrot Top Pesto and Farro Risotto. Johnson made the pesto from carrot tops, fennel and pepita seeds. Cashew cream made the lemon-spiked farro taste rich and creamy.
“Think of the plants as the protagonists, and the meat as jewelry,” Johnson said. She explained that the American diet contains an inordinate amount of animal protein.
The current health epidemic stems from industrialized and processed foods; it’s a global concern, she said. Yet in studying the healthiest people on the planet, three similar attributes emerge: a plant-based diet, a strong spirituality and a respect for elders.
Eating is a multi-sensory experience, Johnson said. We also eat with our eyes. But instead of rainbow ice cream, our last course was simpson seed bibb lettuce and golden beets with ruby-red grapefruit. Johnson sources her vegetables from the local farmers, with whom she has built long-lasting relationships throughout her career.
She serves salad as the third course because she believes raw food is easier to digest after “firing the system.” When citrus is paired with a green, it allows the body to absorb more of the nutrients, Johnson explained. The salad was topped with a house-made dhukkha, containing chia, sesame, pecan and pepitas.
Johnson’s prepared meals are made up of what she calls “clean food” – organic plants, sprouted grains and legumes; and grass-fed and organic animal proteins. Her program covers 50% of the food a person eats during a week. What does she recommend for the rest of the time?
“I tell people that I hope the food inspires them to go to their local farmer’s market and buy more local, seasonal food to experiment with, cook for their family, and share ingredients they’ve been exposed to,” Johnson said. “It’s part of the acculturation. People need to take it into their own hands so they may graduate to another level.”
If her clients go out and eat whatever they want, she encourages them to take note of how their body reacts. Do they feel a difference? The typical processed and/or fast foods like pizza, fries and hamburgers are high in sugar and saturated fats, which produces inflammation, and can lead to heart disease, obesity, and cancer.
While her philosophy is informed by extensive research and a long list of resources, Johnson breaks down the reason to eat “clean” by stating this simple fact, which she heard at a recent Thrivewell Cancer Foundation event:
“Research shows that if you implement a solid nutrition plan of eating unprocessed, primarily plant-based foods, as well as foods with a lot of anti-inflammatory qualities, then you will reduce your chances of cancer by 50%. So much of your health and wellness depends on the food you put in your body. It may not give you a Superman shield against the unpredictable nature of cancer but gives you a good probability to work with.”
*Featured/top image: Dinner is served during a recent Pharm Table event. Photo courtesy of Pharm Table.