Those who know me may legitimately ask why I’m reviewing a cookbook. Never having a strongly felt desire to follow manuals, “how-to” guides, or any kind of recipe for that matter, the thought of plodding through a complicated collection of cooking directions with long lists of ingredients is about as exciting as buttering toast. That is why Mark Bittman’s minimalist opus How To Cook Everything remains the source of 95 percent of my culinary improvisations.
But every now and then I come across an assembly of thoughtful cooking advice that seizes my attention because it makes a compelling argument. By that I mean, a cookbook that is written by a chef who has something unique and important to say about food and health without bludgeoning you into submission with excessive zeal. Such is the case with Chef June Pagan’s Purple Earth Cuisine (June Pagan’s Purple Earth Cuisine : Includes 23 Amazing Recipes – Kindle edition by Pagan, June. Professional & Technical Kindle eBooks @ Amazon.com.) which puts forth a modest and tasty proposal for eating closer to the purple band of the plant color spectrum. After considering the 23 easy but yummy recipes, trying some, and drooling over the book’s scrumptious photos, I found myself being seduced into a state of purpleness. As a gardener, I was a bit upended by discovering just how prolifically purple the plant world is. From broccoli to beans, tomatoes to potatoes, basil to beets, carrots to corn, blueberries to plums, kale to kohlrabi, and on and on, it seems as if botany’s desire has a decidedly purple blush.
As we know, Nature doesn’t just dazzle us with Her color variations, like baubles and gauds, or tantalize us with a heavy coat of lipstick to gratuitously seize our attention. Her devil is in the details which, believe it or not, follows a grand design. Purple foods are rich in polyphenols, which, according to Healthline, “may help prevent blood clots, reduce blood sugar levels, and lower heart disease risk. They may also promote brain function, improve digestion, and offer some protection against cancer, though more research is needed.” Anthocyanins are antioxidants and anti-inflammatories also found in red, blue, and purple foods that, again according to Healthline, “may benefit your brain and heart, as well as reduce your risk of type 2 diabetes and certain cancers.” Chef June brings the botany, health, and known science together when she says, “I discovered that purple plants are survivors by their very existence […since] the color purple develops in plants as a survival instinct against adversity such as drought, cold, pests, viruses, and bacteria.”
So, I’m drawn to purple cuisine for its aesthetic value, for its ease of implementation in my under-resourced kitchen, and for its purported health benefits. But I’m also drawn to June Pagan, both chef and human being, who I said was modest. I emphasize her humble nature to set her apart from much of the Chef-as-God crowd whose career arcs are often one long preparation for prime time. You might say that her modesty is magnified when you discover that she is a Los Angeles-based chef who has been a cook for celebrities. As if to go out of her way to downplay the Hollywood throb, Chef June tells me in a voice I can barely hear that she has cooked for Al Pacino, Sally Field, Diane Keaton, and Elizabeth Taylor. While such encounters have certainly provided her with enough material to pen a tell-all book the equal of Kitchen Confidential, she reluctantly shares but one proud moment when her food skills enabled Elizabeth Taylor (“she was a generous and beautiful person,” June said) to lose 15 pounds in three weeks. Given the extraordinary actress’s legendary weight battles, that feat might make Chef June a candidate for a James Beard Award.
But she’s not just a chef to the stars, she’s a star as well to those who inhabit more ordinary firmaments. For instance, Chef June has kept herself busy in the greater LA community teaching classes at the Venice High School’s culinary program and Learning Garden, St. Joseph’s Culinary Program in Venice Beach, the Boys & Girls Club of Venice, and at numerous community gardens. She tells me, “I dragged my electric pizza oven out to many locations and made purple pizza with purple corn flour for groups from 10 to 150 people.” To reinforce her commitment to community, I found it noteworthy that her beautiful booklet is graced with endorsements from Frank Tamborello, the head of Hunger Action Los Angeles, as well as Al Pacino.
Since pesto making season is upon us, I happily remembered that I had a nice little crop of purple basil waiting for me in my garden. This gave me a chance to apply Chef June’s “California Walnut and Purple Basil Pesto” recipe. While pesto making is an easy process that even I am not likely to dismember, Chef June’s commentary on both the health benefits of purple basil as well as her walnut advocacy sent me on a pleasant detour. Her directions made me examine the place of origin for both the pine nuts and walnuts that I purchased. The pine nuts were from China and the walnuts from California. Sticking with my loyalty to the “home team” as Chef June recommended, I went with the walnuts which produced a rich, nutty, and purplish pesto that easily beat out the non-domestic and green basil version.
If pesto is too prosaic for your tastes, maybe you should try Purple Earth’s puttanesca sauce. According to Chef June, “I learned this recipe from a real live mobster” who taught her a real life, purplish Sicilian version. I was particularly impressed with the substitution of gluten-free or zucchini pasta as a healthier option (even the Mafia is trying to slim down these days). I can say that, either way, the recipe produces a beautiful sauce.
Other features of Chef June’s purple manifesto include her ten tenets of Purple Earth Cuisine. These include the preparation of simple dishes that have an artistic flair so as to excite the eye, the consistent inclusion of purple polyphenols, and food that is created from the heart and delivered with compassion. Of particular interest to me is a short section about where you can find some of the less common ingredients like specialty olive oils and select varieties of walnuts. But even in these cases, it appears as if the more plebian versions of the ingredients can be used.
What makes me most enthusiastic about Chef June’s work is her quiet passion and her own characterization of Purple Earth Cuisine as a “call to action.” One part culinary journey, one part spiritual quest, and one part empowering others to be awake and alive when it comes to food, earth, and health, she sees this booklet as but one stop on the road to healthy, sustainably sourced food for all. June told me her next step is a similar publication that will focus on affordable farmers’ market-sourced ingredients that can reinforce our natural defenses against chronic disease. But what she has made abundantly clear so far, is that there is no reason why we can’t all be people purple eaters, and chances are we’ll be a little bit better for it.