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Drought-Friendly Recipes Kick Up The Flavor — And Cut Back On Water

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When television chef Nathan Lyon read about California's worsening drought earlier this year, he started thinking about the amount of water it takes to grow the food in recipes he creates.

That's when he and his girlfriend and culinary manager, Sarah Forman, decided to develop what they call "drought-friendly recipes."

"Instead of looking at a bowl of strawberries, I look at that bowl of strawberries and think, wow, that's like 20 gallons of water right there," says Lyon, who co-hosts Growing a Greener World on PBS. "I just want these recipes to start a dialogue that people aren't having right now."

With this idea of drought-friendly recipes in mind, the two went to a farmers market in Los Angeles, where they're based, and hit the kitchen to create meals with the smallest water footprint possible. To become more drought conscious, Lyon encourages people to use recipes calling for ingredients that require less water to grow or raise, less water to cook with and to use as much of a product as feasible to decrease water waste.

In order to measure how much water it takes to produce, raise or grow an ingredient, the couple use the online tool offered by the Water Footprint Network. They also turn to water footprint studies by the University of California, Davis.


"As a chef, it's sort of up to us to revolutionize what people have been doing in the past, bring attention to the amount of resources it takes to grow these things and say, you've already paid for it, so utilize that to the best of your ability," says Lyon, who previously hosted A Lyon in the Kitchen on the Discovery Health channel.

Even though Lyon's cooking shows reach a national audience, for now, the drought-friendly recipes at this point are only found in full on Lyon's blog. It takes several days, if not weeks, to develop a recipe, says Forman, and they plan to keep working on the project at least through the end of this year. The couple is currently planning a series of cooking demonstrations with the recipes to spread the word.

Sarah Forman and chef Nathan Lyon in the kitchen.
Sarah Forman and chef Nathan Lyon in the kitchen. (Courtesy of Forman and Lyon )

"We were just part of a Chef's Collaborative discussion" on fighting food waste, says Forman, referencing the nonprofit that advocates for sustainable food practices in restaurants. "People are excited about the recipes all over California," she says. "The recipes are made in Los Angeles, but people can decrease their water footprint all around the nation by cooking with our recipes."

One of the recipes the duo created is an Alaskan True Cod Taco with Pickled Radish and Radish Top Salsa.

"It's not a beef taco, so we're using fish," Forman says. "So it's going to be a lower water footprint to process this fish."

When creating a recipe, the couple looks at the relative use of water for each product, since water use ranges by each grower's practice. For example, a pound of beef can take up to 4,000 gallons of water to raise and process from farm to plate.

All of the duo's recipes tend to use more fruits, vegetables and fish over red meat.

Lyon says part of the idea behind drought-friendly recipes is to reduce food waste, which in turn reduces water waste.

"I think that's what Americans are looking for — something very simple, but also something they can do to actually make change," Lyon says. "Really be aware that when you throw food away, you're throwing away gallons and gallons of water that we desperately need."

Lyon also wants to expose consumers to food with a low water footprint that they may not know how to cook with, but that is readily available in stores and farmers markets.

Shoppers' "habit is to go and get the bananas and the apples," says Lyon. "When we bring different types of recipes to the general populous, then it makes it more accessible. ... It doesn't make them so stressed about using the vegetable they're experimenting with for the first time."

For example, Forman came up with the idea to use excess radish tops for a salsa on the drought-friendly taco. "The salsa, if you have a food processor, you can just wiz it up and that's really the end of it," she says.

While they don't expect people to cook "drought-friendly" meals all the time, they hope their recipes will get people thinking about how much water goes into growing the food we consume.

"It's just a topic we really want to bring awareness to and keep the conversation going and eat delicious food," Forman says.

Ezra David Romero reports for Valley Public Radio in central California.

Alaskan True Cod Taco with Pickled Radish and Radish Top Red Pepper Salsa

Alaskan True Cod Taco with Pickled Radish and Radish Top Red Pepper Salsa.
Alaskan True Cod Taco with Pickled Radish and Radish Top Red Pepper Salsa. (Courtesy of Sarah Forman )

Yield: 6 tacos

1 pound wild Alaskan true cod, 1-inch thick
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon grapeseed oil

Pat the fish dry and season all over with salt and pepper.

Place a medium nonstick sauté pan over medium heat and add oil.

Let heat for 2 minutes until oil is very hot.

Add fish and let cook for 3 to 4 minutes on each side. You will know the fish is done when the flesh becomes opaque and begins to flake.

Remove fish from pan and transfer to a plate. Flake the fish with a fork or fingers into bite-sized pieces. Season to taste with additional salt and pepper.

Assembling the Taco:

6 Corn tortillas, warmed through
2 avocados, pitted and sliced thinly
½ cup shredded purple cabbage
¼ cup fresh cilantro leaves

Place a cabbage on the tortilla, followed by avocado slices, fish, pickled radish and top with salsa. Sprinkle cilantro leaves and serve.

Radish Top and Red Pepper Salsa

Yield: 1 cup

5 large fire-roasted red bell peppers, drained and rough chopped (1 cup)

2 large garlic cloves, peeled and rough chopped

¼ cup roughly chopped fresh flat-leaf Italian parsley

¼ cup roughly chopped fresh mint leaves

1 cup roughly chopped (rinsed) radish greens

1½ tablespoons whole grain Dijon mustard

¼ teaspoon kosher salt

Zest of ½ small lemon (1/4 teaspoon)

Juice of ½ small lemon (1 Tablespoon)

1/8 teaspoon ground cumin

1/8 teaspoon ground coriander

2 tablespoons grapeseed oil

½ teaspoon granulated sugar

Place all ingredients in a food processor and process until smooth. Season to taste with additional salt, lemon and/or sugar. Let sit for 1 hour for flavors to meld before serving.

Drought-Friendly Spicy Mango Ginger Popsicle

Spicy Mango Ginger Popsicle
Spicy Mango Ginger Popsicle (Courtesy of Sarah Forman )

Yields: 6 popsicles

3 tablespoons freshly squeezed lime juice
3 tablespoons granulated sugar
1 tablespoon + 1 teaspoon fresh ginger juice
1/16 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper
1½ cups sweetened mango puree or pulp

Combine lime juice, sugar, ginger juice and cayenne pepper in a medium bowl. Stir until sugar dissolves. Add mango puree and stir to combine. Pour into popsicle molds and freeze.

For more drought-friendly recipes visit chefnathanlyon.wordpress.com.


Copyright 2015 Valley Public Radio.

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