A chef, cookbook author, spokesperson, and food reporter, Chef Leticia Moreinos Schwartz has dedicated her life to food and creating healthy cuisine. We spoke to her about why food is such an important cultural element and how Americans can make preparing their own meals more appealing.
How have you used food to embrace your culture?
Growing up in Brazil, I was exposed to a variety of cultures: the Portuguese, the native Indian, and the African. The result is a delicious combination of exotic dishes prepared with techniques and ingredients from all three cultures meeting in the same pan.
When I moved to the United States, I missed the taste, the flavor, the people, and the energy from Brazil. Cooking and writing about cooking were the ways I found to reconnect with my country after I left, and my tribute to Brazil couldn’t be contained to just the plates on my table. I wanted to share my passion and my joy of cooking with the rest of the world. I went on to write two cookbooks about Brazilian cuisine (“The Brazilian Kitchen” and “My Rio de Janeiro”) and later wrote a third book called “Latin Superfoods” (fall 2019).
How does healthy eating and cooking help those suffering from diabetes?
Having a personal connection with type 2 diabetes — my grandfather died from complications of the disease — I’ve learned to pay attention to nutrition, eating habits, and lifestyle. I’ve been on an incredible journey as the spokesperson for a healthy living campaign, and having participated in the documentary A Touch of Sugar, I see firsthand that unhealthy eating habits can contribute to serious health issues.
If your unhealthy diet bothers you but your eating habits persist, then you should relocate dinner preparation to the kitchen, rather than relying on takeout — that’s because the kitchen is the scene of a daily healthy victory!
But I do realize immigrants — including myself — are especially vulnerable to dietary and lifestyle diseases. Once we move to the United States, our habits change for the worse, along with our health. We no longer shop at farmers markets or cook homemade meals. Instead, we buy takeout and pre-packed foods.
The road from a healthy Latin culture to the North American table became a tough one somewhere along the way. That’s why we need to give ourselves an ultimatum! No more buying takeout meals starting right now!
What advice would you give someone who has diabetes but is hesitant to make changes to their diet?
Most people associate healthy cooking with boring taste and flavorless foods. I’m on a mission to prove that healthy eating can not only be absolutely delicious, but also that food is medicine, and that by living a healthy lifestyle, you can take control of your health and your life.
With the possible exception of medicine, nothing exerts more influence than diet and exercise in controlling type 2 diabetes. And by diet, I’m referring to healthy home cooking.
But to cook, we need time, and nobody has time. We make time. Time is a gift, like cooking is a gift. These are some of the most valuable gifts you can give yourself: taking time to be responsible for your own well-being.
“Time is free, but it’s priceless. You can’t own it. But you can use it. You can’t keep it, but you can spend it. Once it’s lost, you never get it back.” Words to live by, spoken by New York Times bestselling author Harvey MacKay.
How can food help to bring different cultures together?
Food is a language in a way, and when we bring other foods into our kitchen, we have the chance to bring the habits and tastes of that culture into our lives without having to physically travel. There are many ways of traveling and the kitchen is one of my favorite ways to visit different countries.
When you cook a feijoada for example, there is a piece of you that goes to Brazil. When you cook a beef bourguignon, a piece of France comes to your kitchen. When you cook pasta cacio e pepe, a piece of Italy lands in your home.
As we talk about the dishes, the places, and the people from that country, we connect with them. That’s why cooking is also a language, a way of communication, not just something about the way we eat, but the world we live in.
Cooking is a democratic art. We all eat a few times a day and it remains the single most effective way to connect body, heart, and soul with health. What we choose to eat is part of what we are and part of what we would like to be.
How do you incorporate your heritage into your everyday life?
My goal is to use small, daily habits to help people shift their attitudes about coming home from a full day of work and having to prepare dinner.
Instead of looking at the kitchen as a burden, where you have to prep, cook, eat, and clean, I encourage people to incorporate habits and traditions from their own culture and look at time through self-improvement, using healthy cooking as a tool for that.
I like to enter the kitchen with a different perspective: turn on the music (in my case Brazilian music), put on an apron (usually a green apron with lots of Brazilian colors), and see cooking as a source of health, a way of relaxation, family gathering, and therapy. For me, it’s a place where I can sing and dance some samba, talk in Portuguese with my kids when they cook with me, and even exercise, all while cooking an amazing healthy meal!
I also try to keep in mind that portion control is here to help us. The size of the food plate in Brazil is very different than here in the United States. There is even a saying in Brazil for this: “Um é pouco, dois é bom, três é demais,” which translates to, “One is too little, two is just good, and three is too much.”
I also try to visit the farmers market often. This is one of my favorite programs in Brazil and just about anywhere I go. It seems so trivial but, in reality, most of the food we buy from a regular supermarket travels an average of 1,500 miles from the farm to our plates. Food loses a lot of nutritional value along the way.
In Brazil, we also use a lot of herbs and spices. I notice that a lot of people are intimidated to cook with herbs and spices, thinking there must be a rule of items that go together and make good combinations. The truth is that there are no rules!
There are some classics, sure. Mushroom and thyme? Delicious. Pumpkin and cinnamon? Of course! But when it comes to taste, you only need a handful of spices and a few simple techniques for extracting their flavors to surprise and delight your palate.
Add spices early in the cooking process so they have a chance to toast and bloom. Spices are naturally fragrant, but to reach their full flavor potential you need to apply some heat (toasting in a dry pan or blooming in oil while cooking garlic and onions) and your recipes will taste completely different, a lot deeper, and have a profound taste of seasoning. It’s a great way to boost flavor in a healthy way. And because there is an abundance of flavor, it reduces the need for more salt.