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Global Charming: Jefferey Saad

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Cooking Channel’s United Tastes of America star continues his exciting global culinary adventures with a tasty new cookbook

Jeffrey Saad has got the whole world in his hands through his spice cabinet. The successful restaurateur, chef and food consultant—who is also currently the executive chef and partner of The Grove restaurants in San Francisco—introduced America to his “cooking without borders” point of view while earning the runner-up position on the fifth season of The Next Food Network Star in 2009. Seeing the potential in him, Food Network gave him his own web series, Spice Smuggler, which ran online for a year. In 2010, Saad became the culinary-curious and charming star of Cooking Channel’s United Tastes of America, where he takes viewers on trips across the country to discover how classic foods have risen to their iconic statuses.

Now, with his newly released cookbook, Jeffrey Saad’s Global Kitchen: Recipes Without Borders, the fun-loving food fanatic continues his insatiable quest to inspire people to ramp up their kitchens with vibrant international flavors, bringing global expansion of palates without a passport. Brimming with almost 100 recipes, Saad’s colorful new cookbook makes it easy for the tastes of Spain, Mexico, France, India and more to permeate the meal repertoires of many American home cooks. New Orleans Living had a hunger-inducing chat with the enthusiastic new author about his cookbook, his everlasting love for traveling the world and a delicious recipe well-suited for those prepping for the 2012 Ochsner Ironman 70.3 New Orleans on April 22.

Your first cookbook, Jeffrey Saad’s Global Kitchen: Recipes Without Borders just made its debut. As a chef, you must be living your dream come true with it.

Thank you. It is truly exciting for me because it’s like a diary of my cooking, traveling and family pleasures with food. To hold your cookbook in your hand is such a cool feeling because you have all these food ideas swirling in your head for years and to have it all together in one place is the best.

Your passion is to teach home cooks to cook locally and eat globally.

Right. The idea is to drag your tongue across the globe without ever leaving your kitchen. People don’t often get to travel all over the world but everybody these days seems to have an insatiable appetite to taste new cuisines. My book is 10 chapters and each is broken down by the flavors and spices of different countries plus eggs and dessert. Cumin, coriander, and dried ancho chilies with a little tomatillo mixed in—that screams Mexico. In the Indian chapter, you keep the cumin and coriander, drop the chilies and add cardamom and turmeric. Spice cabinets are essentially maps of the world’s flavors and you might not understand where the borders are or how to cross them, so my goal is to add a ton of flavor and excitement to what people cook and eat by showing them how.

Your passion for journeying around the world in search of exciting tastes and spices even led you to pack up your wife and children and take them through five countries in Eastern Europe with no map or directions.

Yes. A few years ago we had plane tickets to Germany and a car rental, and that was it. We landed and we just drove. It was the most amazing adventure and the greatest things happen when you don’t know what’s going to happen. You just go with the flow and laugh a lot together; the kids loved it. All I knew about paprika growing up was that it was in everybody’s spice cabinet. …All they really knew what to do with it was sprinkle it on deviled eggs. Going into these markets in Hungary and Budapest and seeing piles of paprika was great; it looked like the paprika deserts of spice dunes. It was great trying all these dishes, goulash, sauces and stews that were permeated by paprika. I felt like a drug dealer packing these bags of paprika under my clothes and underwear and in my suitcase. (Laughs). I felt like I was doing something wrong but it was so exciting.

You are so committed to spices that you’ve even put together your own blends that people can try at www.jeffreysaad.com. Once you get comfortable with using spices, you can take a singular chicken breast and transform it into an interesting, spectacular meal. You can take your chicken to India or Italy on any particular day.

You got it. Poultry has a passport. My stance is that the whole world can grab a chicken breast or a piece of anything out of their fridge, take two or three spices, toast it in a little oil or a dry pan and make this tasty chicken with not much effort. They can also go crazy and do one of the longer recipes. I have five spice blends—Indian, Mexican, Mexican BBQ, Chinese and Italian—and they’re a lot of fun and convenient as well.

America is a melting pot and places like San Francisco, New York and New Orleans have always embraced different cultural tastes, but it seems as though exotic global foods and tastes have only come into vogue in recent times across more of America.

You’re exactly right. It used to seem like spices and world flavors were fusion cuisine and nobody really knew what that meant. It usually resulted in every country in the world being involved and the food being a “fixing.” Now I think it’s more of an appreciation of flavors that go well together. Thanks to Food Network, Cooking Channel and all the amazing chefs and cooks around the country [that] I’ve been so privileged to meet, people now more than ever enjoy tasting those flavors from around the world. Like the Internet, our palates have gone global as well.

We’re gearing up for the Ironman Triathlon in New Orleans this month, and the Chicken Tikka Sandwich in your cookbook looks like a hearty and healthy meal to eat while you’re training.

It is. What makes it exciting is that the spices, yogurt and the marinade are so visually beautiful. When you see it on the plate, the chunks of juicy, tender chicken are bright yellow and the red pepper and onion strips have been flash-sautéed so they still have some crisp to them. It’s such a visual and textural experience [that] you can’t believe you’re just eating chicken. I am a huge exercise fanatic; I just came down the mountain this morning on my bike. I love surfing and I do martial arts so I appreciate what your readers will be doing. It’s like a fantasy for me to do the Ironman. I think what’s good about this sandwich is you’re getting nourishment and the right amount of protein from the chicken and not too [many] carbs from the bread because naan and pita are thinner. You’re getting tons of flavor and you’re not charging yourself with empty calories.

I guess part of your goal is to have people consider global cuisines like Indian food as comfort food. Americans have mac ‘n’ cheese and hamburgers to rely on, but why not derive comfort from a Chicken Tikka sandwich as well?

You must be my long lost sister or something because that’s exactly right. That’s what we’re doing at The Grove in San Francisco. For the BLT, we take smoky, sweet applewood bacon and put harissa mayo on it. People ask, “What is that beautiful, earthy-red chili burn I’m getting at the end?” It changes their eating experience, but yet it’s comfortable.

Tell me about your experiences filming United Tastes of America in New Orleans. I hear that you think that Donald Link’s Cochon and Butcher are the coolest places ever.

I love both those places. Cochon has these little morsels of juicy alligator that have been fried perfectly and are so flavorful. Cochon and Butcher are two great examples of being either totally refined or totally rustic and still capturing all those flavors. I’ve got to say that I love your city; we started the first season here and we just finished the third season in New Orleans, so it’s symbolic. To me, you guys just embody the spirit of life and living. Some of the best memories I have were made in your city.

What did you think about the Oak Street Po-Boy Festival?

Oh my gosh, the Po-Boy Festival was amazing. It’s amazing to take one thing and see how many ways people can change it. To me, the food is also about the people, the languages and traveling, and the Po-Boy Festival is really about amazing po-boys and amazing personalities. All the wild people there are hilarious. I loved it all, from the retired policemen doing their donut po-boys to the classic oyster po-boys and the po-boys that were more like a banh mi. It’s the spirit of the people putting their thing out there with all the passion in the world. The energy in New Orleans is so brilliant and, of course, so is the music. I’m thinking about Kermit Ruffins playing right now.

It’s true that food in New Orleans has about as much character as its people.

Yes. One of our funniest moments was when we shot the crazy Jacques Leonardi from Jaques-Imos for our sandwich episode in season one; what a riot he is. And oh man, that deep fried sandwich he does. I was out in the street and the camera was rolling and he comes running out and jumps on my back and basically swings around to my front and I’m carrying him like a baby; he’s hilarious. That’s the [type of] characters you’ve got. Then you’ve got the refined places like John Besh’s August. Every time I go there, I go to the bar alone, hide and savor each plate. And you always want to go to Mother’s no matter how touristy it is; there’s something about the debris you just can’t resist.

What is the key to having a successful restaurant? You’ve been involved in quite a few.

I was lucky. After culinary school, I started off by opening three Mexican restaurants called “Sweet Heat,” which was gourmet Mexican and a dream come true. I lived and slept there, met my wife there and had our kids during that time. I think the key to success is truly bringing your passion to the plate; people taste your passion and they get it. At the end of the day, your palate knows the truth. I can talk all day long but when I put food in your mouth, that’s when you go, “I get it!”

It’s Easter and time for the venerable and humble egg to take center stage. You are the spokesperson for the American Egg Board. What’s the latest, greatest and most delicious thing you’ve done with an egg in the kitchen?

I did a whole chapter on eggs in my cookbook because I truly love them, even before I got with the American Egg Board. They are the ultimate, affordable powerhouse protein staple. I would say one of the simplest things to do is just to char shredded radicchio in a little olive oil so that the bitterness mellows out a bit, add little chunks of bacon or pancetta for a smoky sweetness, add a squeeze of lemon to brighten the whole thing up and just fold that into some fluffy scrambled eggs. Eggs will go with anything because they are the ultimate world traveler, more than I am. I challenge you to name one spice, ingredient or herb that doesn’t go with eggs. And [when] you add a friend egg to anything, it makes it more exciting.

What are some countries that you have yet to explore and relish in their cuisines? You and your wife both have Middle Eastern heritages, so maybe someplace there?

I’m dying to go to Lebanon because my body, soul and mind are marinated in the flavors of Lebanese cooking because of my Sittee—my grandma—and my childhood. Beirut is a must [as are] Turkey, Greece and that whole Mediterranean section; I want to experience the flavors there.

And I hear you want to go to Morocco too; you’ll have to pack your tagine.

Yes, definitely. The spice markets in North Africa, are you kidding me? I have to brace myself so that my head doesn’t explode (Laughs).

-CHRISTINE FONTANA

Ginger-Spiced Chicken Tikka Sandwich with Cumin-Tomato Mayo

Serves 4

3 teaspoons ghee Kosher Salt

1 tablespoon garam masala ½ cup mayonnaise

1 tablespoon finely chopped ginger 1 teaspoon cumin seed, ground

1 tablespoon finely chopped garlic 1 red bell pepper, thinly sliced

1/3 cup plain yogurt 1 cup thinly sliced yellow onions

3 tablespoons tomato purée 1 teaspoon ground turmeric

1 pound skinless, boneless chicken breasts 4 naan or pita breads

1 cup fresh cilantro, roughly chopped

1. In a small pan over medium-high heat, add 1 teaspoon of the ghee. Add the garam masala, ginger and garlic and cook for 30 seconds to bring out the flavorful oils of the spices. Transfer to a medium bowl large enough for the chicken. Stir in the yogurt and 2 tablespoons of the tomato puree.

2. Slice each chicken breast horizontally into 3 or 4 slices. Place in yogurt mixture and coat thoroughly. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 6 hours overnight.

3. Wipe the marinade off the chicken. Season the chicken with salt. In a large, nonstick skillet over medium-high heat, add 1 teaspoon of the remaining ghee. Once the ghee is hot, sauté the chicken until golden on both sides, about two minutes per side. Set aside.

4. In a small bowl, mix together the mayonnaise, the remaining 1 tablespoon of tomato puree, and the cumin. Set aside.

5. In a medium nonstick skillet over medium-high heat, add the remaining 1 teaspoon ghee. Once the ghee is hot, add the bell pepper, onions and turmeric. Sprinkle with salt. Sauté until golden, about 3 minutes. Remove from the heat.

6. Spread the bread with the mayonnaise mixture (if using pita, split it open). Add the chicken, peppers and onions mixture. Garnish with the cilantro. Serve immediately.