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The ‘Obama Foodorama’ and other tales of cooking

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In the spring of 2009, first lady Michelle Obama and students from Bancroft Elementary School broke ground on the White House lawn to create a vegetable garden  —  the first of its kind since Eleanor Roosevelt’s wartime Victory Garden in 1943.

The garden was an immediate success and became a symbol of Obama’s ongoing efforts to promote a healthy lifestyle for all Americans. By the end of the calendar year, an estimated 1,007 pounds of produce  —  more than half a ton  —  had been harvested from the 1,100 square foot garden with only $180 worth of seeds and fertilizers. And by the anniversary of the garden’s ground breaking, 43 million American households had followed the first family’s lead in planting vegetables, a nearly 20 percent rise from the year before.

Some of the garden’s harvest includes lettuce, spinach, onions, snap peas, kale, okra, sweet potatoes, cucumber, tomatoes, mint, parsley, basil, blueberries and raspberries. In addition to the garden, a beehive and a compost system were also installed to produce honey and chemical-free fertilizers.

Now, Boston author Clara Silverstein offers an inside look into the first year of the garden in her new book, “A White House Garden Cookbook: Healthy Ideas from the First Family for Your Family.” Silverstein’s delightful work features stories from the first year of Obama’s garden, bits of presidential culinary history and dozens of recipes straight from the White House and community gardens across America. Each of the recipes, Silverstein says, is family-friendly  —  healthy and delicious.

Although abandoned in the later part of the 20th century, vegetable gardens are not new to the White House. John Adams, the first president to take up residence in the White House, requested a plot of land to grow vegetables on. Thomas Jefferson, who succeeded Adams, was a devoted gardener, having grown 250 kinds of vegetables at his Virginia home, Monticello. Paying homage to the third president, Obama planted seeds descended from plants in Jefferson’s Monticello garden.

Silverstein also honors Jefferson by including a recipe for “pink ice cream with a glorious past,” an updated version of the president’s 1784 instructions for French ice cream. During his stint as U.S. ambassador to France, Jefferson discovered ice cream, a dessert he excitedly introduced back home. Years later, Sallie Shadd, a free black woman from Wilmington, Del., experimented with the treat by adding berries to it. Shadd’s concoction was so successful that she was invited to prepare the berry ice cream for James Madison’s inaugural party.

The cookbook highlights modern presidential favorites as well, like Ronald Reagan’s hamburger soup, George W. Bush’s guacamole and Barack Obama’s chili.

In addition to recipes from the White House kitchen, Silverstein also features a recipe with local ties — collard greens with rice. The simple recipe, which calls only for collard greens, an onion, olive oil, rice, dill, salt, pepper and water, comes from Boston’s CitySprouts program. The dish is so tasty, Silverstein writes, that CitySprouts interns “even got a retired science teacher, who claims not to eat green things, to eat a whole bowl and even declare he liked it!”

Silverstein, a Boston-based food writer, is also the author of “The Boston Chef’s Table,” “The New England Soup Factory Cookbook,” and “White Girl: A Story of School Desegregation.” Formerly a writer for the Boston Herald, Silverstein also contributes to Health magazine, Prevention, Runner’s World and the Boston Globe.

Speaking at the National Archives last week, Silverstein said that her favorite recipes in the cookbook include the pizza  —  which she serves to her young children  —  and the rhubarb and buttermilk cake. In addition to cooking  —  which she did a lot of  —  Silverstein said that she also learned a lot about growing when preparing her book.

The White House garden, she continued, is “such an important part of Michelle Obama’s platform,” and has become the “staging ground and backdrop for all these things she’s doing.”

Speaking to the fifth-graders who helped her start the garden in 2009, Obama said, “And we’re looking to you guys to help educate the country, not just in your own homes, but other people as they think about how to plan their meals for their kids, to think about the importance of making sure that we have enough fruits and vegetables.”

“And doing this garden is a really inexpensive way of making that happen.”

Barack Obama’s Chili Serves 6-8

1 large onion
1 green bell pepper
Several cloves of garlic
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 pound ground turkey or beef
¼ teaspoon ground cumin
¼ teaspoon ground oregano
¼ teaspoon ground turmeric
¼ teaspoon ground basil
1 tablespoon chili powder
3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
Several tomatoes, depending on size or
1 (15-ounce) can of diced tomatoes with juice
1 (15 ounce) can red kidney beans

1. Peel and chop the onion. Wash the pepper, remove the seeds and chop. Peel and chop the garlic.

2. In a pot over medium heat, heat the olive oil. Add the onion, green pepper and garlic. Sauté until the vegetables are soft.

3. Add the ground meat and sauté until it browns.

4. In a small bowl, mix together the cumin, oregano, turmeric, basil and chili powder. Add to the ground meat.

5. Add the red wine vinegar to the pot and stir to combine.

6. Chop the tomatoes and add to the pot. Simmer until the tomatoes cook down.

7. Drain the kidney beans in a colander in the sink and rinse with cold water. Add the beans and cook for a few more minutes.

8. Serve over white or brown rice. Garnish with grated cheddar cheese, onions and sour cream.

Recipe courtesy of The Obama Foodorama, as featured in “A White House Garden Cookbook,” by Clara Silverstein.