Summer Cooking With Melissa Lanz

When most people think of cookouts, hot dogs, hamburgers and potato salad usually come to mind, but there are healthier options. Melissa Lanz, founder of The Fresh 20, talked to JET about her new cookbook, healthy eating and even provided a quick and easy recipe you can use this weekend!

JET: How long have you been cooking?

Melissa Lanz: I’ve been cooking since I was 8. I quickly became the cook in my house. It was important to me, since I was raised in Minnesota, which is the meat and potato capital of the world. I continued to cook all throughout college and lived in Paris for a couple of years. I started going to cooking school out there after college. I taught courses in Pasadena in my early 20s, entered the corporate life of marketing and left cooking behind.

JET: What made you get back in the kitchen?

ML: After 15 years of marketing and branding, I had toddlers and a husband who gave me an ultimatum. I was working 60- to 70-hour weeks and always with my BlackBerry, ready to travel within 48-hours notice. I wasn’t happy or healthy and I took a look at that. I realized my husband was right and I made a life switch.

JET: How did The Fresh 20 come about?

ML: I quit my job and utilized the skills I’d developed in online business to cooking. The whole idea was to design a life for myself that was healthier and happier. The Fresh 20 was the product of soul searching. We’ve grown into a community of 100,000 and we publish meals every Friday in several different categories, including vegetarian, gluten-free, Fresh 20 for one and dairy free.

JET: So what, exactly, is The Fresh 20?

ML: The Fresh 20 is a meal-planning service using 20 fresh unprocessed ingredients a week to create five weeknight dinners. It eliminates waste, saves money and time. It’s modern meal planning. You’re eating delicious food with fresh ingredients.

JET: And how does it work?

ML: I think it’s all about planning. We all want to eat well, we just don’t necessarily know how because society doesn’t really teach us how. We’ve been bombarded with processed products. They’re quick and convenient, but they’re not healthy. So I needed the idea that I could buy a limited amount of ingredients on a budget and not go to a farmers market on a weekend and buy beautiful veggies and let them rot in my fridge because I didn’t know how to cook them.

JET: Tell us a little bit about The Fresh 20 cookbook.

ML: The cookbook is an extension of the meal plan with full-color pictures for every single meal. It’s a cookbook for 16 weeks and each week includes 20 ingredients and a prep guide. There are even sidebars for how to shop at farmers’ markets, deal with picky eaters and all kinds of issues. There are five recipes for the week that all play on each other. For example, you prep on Sunday, eat grilled chicken on Monday and have grilled chicken pesto pizza on Thursday.

JET: That sounds really good!

ML: It is! You make the pizzas on pita bread, toast pita bread on the grill and layer of pesto and traditional pizza toppings with strips of grilled chicken. And it’s easy. You’re not making pizza dough and you’re using pita bread in a different way.

JET: Why should people check out The Fresh 20 cookbook?

ML: Well one, the food is delicious! And two, it’s a different kind of cookbook with a lot of different resources. I like the fact that it helps people get to the dinner table. It’s not just picking a recipe, it’s about putting it all together to cook for yourself and cook for the week. It helps people reduce the consumption of processed foods and, for me, that’s the biggest benefit and reward.

JET: What advice do you have for our readers who want to start eating healthy?

ML: I think what’s important is to take it step by step and not beat yourself up over the habits that you have. It’s about making small changes and making the best choices on a day-to-day basis. Everybody can do this, it’s not just for health freaks. It’s a choice we can all make. That’s how I started, too. It’s as simple as switching from white rice to brown rice. It’s a small change, but it makes a difference. You have to educate yourself and be conscious of what you’re eating.

Strawberry Gazpacho with Feta Cheese Crostini

Traditional tomato and cucumber gazpacho, which originated in Spain, is a great quencher on a hot day. Here strawberries add another layer of flavor. Some people like their gazpacho chunky, others like it smooth—adjust it to suit your taste. Don’t be tempted to add more red onion, as it can overpower the soup. I love the way the creamy feta cheese complements the sweet acidity of the gazpacho.

For fun, serve in teacups and sit outside on the patio on a hot evening, sipping away.

Serves 4: 25 minutes preparation time

For the strawberry gazpacho

3 pounds medium ripe tomatoes, cored

1 medium cucumber, peeled

1 medium red bell pepper, cored and seeded

¼ medium red onion

2 garlic cloves

½ bunch fresh flat-leaf

parsley, long stems removed

1 pint fresh strawberries, hulled

Juice of 1 lemon, or to taste

1 Tablespoon white wine vinegar, or to taste

1 teaspoon kosher salt, or to taste

Up to ½ cup water, if desired

1 Tablespoon olive oil

For the feta cheese crostini

2 whole wheat pitas, cut into quarters

1 Tablespoon olive oil

¼ teaspoon black pepper

3 ounces feta cheese, crumbled

For the strawberry gazpacho

1. In batches, combine the tomatoes, cucumber, bell pepper, red onion, garlic, parsley, and strawberries in a blender or food processor and

puree until relatively smooth; for a chunky version, pulse instead of puree.

2. Add half of the lemon juice, vinegar, and salt and blend. Taste and adjust the seasoning as necessary by adding lemon juice, vinegar, and/or salt. If the gazpacho is too thick, add some or all of the water. Refrigerate for at least 10 minutes.

3. Transfer the gazpacho to a large bowl. Drizzle with the olive oil.

4. Serve in bowls, teacups, or glasses.

For the feta cheese crostini

1. Toast the pitas under the broiler or in a toaster oven until slightly crispy.

2. Combine the olive oil, pepper, and feta cheese in a bowl, mixing until smooth.

3. Spread the cheese on the pita triangles.