L to R: Brad Farmerie, Lucien Vendome, Michelle Bernstein, Elizabeth Karmel, Paul Kahan, Lior Lev Sercarz
When Lean Cuisine, invited me to join them for their innovative Culinary Roundtable meet-up in Northern California a few weeks ago, I literally jumped (yes, up and down!) at the opportunity and was so excited for the chance to observe the brilliance of the best chefs, culinary experts and restaurateurs behind the brand (team pictured above). I just love an organization that embraces their story, and Lean Cuisine's line of creative and healthy frozen meals is truly a great example of a company who holds freshness, flavor & innovation at the forefront of everything that they do.
Keep reading for a full run-down of my experience (complete with lots of photos - including a farm-inspired outfit!), and stay tuned for more fresh and flavorful cooking features here on the site!
Rows and rows of pepper plants nestled at the foothills of Morgan Hill, CA
I'll be the first to admit that I'm not a huge consumer of frozen foods, and almost always reach for something fresh and local if I'm going to whip up something to eat. That said, not everyone has access to or time for sourcing, preparing & creating wholesome meals from scratch, and that's when I think it's more than acceptable (and in many cases completely necessary) to call in the back-ups for an acceptable stand-in. Perfect example: I know I've only got a few minutes for lunch today, so I'll be reaching for my favorite vegetarian option here, and I love knowing that it will fill me up and fuel my body with what it needs until dinner!
These lettuce fields had just been harvested,
but I couldn't get over the left-over colors and pretty hills in the background.
One of the most unique parts of our trip was actually getting to visit George Chiala Farms in Morgan Hill, CA, which is one of the resources that Lean Cuisine gets their fresh vegetables from. I really appreciated that we got a chance to spend some time actually in the fields, and sampling kale straight from the ground was quite a tasty new experience for me! Later that morning, we visited the processing facility where the fresh goods are flash frozen hardly minutes after being harvested (and sans preservatives) using some refreshingly basic concepts and very fancy equipment.
I was totally amazed by the technology used to make sure that every fruit and veggie that makes it into a Lean Cuisine is as deliciously ripe and nutrient-rich as possible, and I had no idea how closely the nutrition profile of the frozen ingredients used matches up with the items that you or I can find at the farmer's market each week.
Tasty Tidbit #1 // The average sodium level found across Lean Cuisine's 131 dishes is 650 mg... that's under 1/3 of the recommended USDA daily intake, and less than one tablespoon of soy sauce!!!
My attempt at in-the-fields fashion!!!
Kick-butt kale-pickers - I think they liked my outfit. :)
Such a beautiful spread!
The entire trip was filled with meals upon incredible meals, but this ridiculously gorgeous and delicious spread must have been my favorite. The table was set in the backyard of one of the Chiala Family homes, and the entire centerpiece was made from fresh fruits and veggies from the gardens. One of their main crops on the farm is garlic, and the dessert at this particular lunch was a chocolate and adobo chili torte with roasted garlic glaze on top... Definitely an interesting combination, but for this savory-spicy loving gal - it was legendary!
Loved the light fixtures laced with vines of homegrown hops and poppy colored peppers!
After our very fancy farmhouse experience, we left Morgan Hill for the Culinary Institute of America in Napa, CA. The kitchens there were something right out of my dreams, and that was where the "real" work began. :) Amidst lots of discussion about the value system of Lean Cuisine, and how it impacts every single aspect of the product, we managed to taste-test ourselves silly, and I honestly was full for days and days to follow.
The Lean Cuisine product development team and roundtable chefs
ready to dig-in and provide feedback on each others test dishes.
It was a pretty amazing to sample, discuss and watch the upcoming products be developed as the chefs prepared several different versions of sauce and garnish options for some of the new dishes that will be rolled out next year. The collaborative attitude of the chefs was incredibly humbling and inspiring, and it was such an honor to be able to brainstorm with and learn new techniques from some of the best in the nation.
Lior Lev Sercarz whipping up a custom blend for his special sauce...
The smells of the spices while they were toasting was just totally beyond!
Another element of the trip that I loved was getting to know one of my new favorite flavorful friends... In addition to being a chef, Lior Lev Sercarz is a Spiceologist (#bestjobtitleever) and the owner of La Boite a Epice here in NYC, and he has a line of the most amazing and creative spice blends you can imagine. I've been using three different jars of his best sellers ever since returning home, and they have seriously upped my cooking game.
The goods before getting toasted and ground into a tasty mix.
Tasty Tidbit #2 // Lior taught us that using a coffee grinder is the most efficient way to get custom ground spices, and only ever recommends using a mortar and pestle for muddling herbs or making pastes.
Tasty Tidbit #3 // Another fun trick we learned from my friend Brad Farmerie (of NYC's Public & Saxon + Parole), was to peel ginger by scraping off the skin with the blunt end of a spoon. It wastes much less of the good part than using a paring knife or veggie peeler does, and you're much less likely to cut yourself while navigating around those tricky bends and knots.
Stopping in the midst of the kale plant rows, we nabbed a quick photo op.
(Gotta love the unapologetically cheesy linked-arm pose!)
L to R: Kate Morin, Lucien Vendome, Brad Farmerie, ME, Michelle Bernstein,
Lior Lev Sercarz, Paul Kahan, Elizabeth Karmel, Robin Dorian
Overall, I can hardly believe that I was able to experience such an incredible time with the folks that help create such an iconic brand, and I'm excited to continue to follow all of the amazing and innovative things that Lean Cuisine has in store for the upcoming seasons and products. It was incredible to see that the team shares many key values with the very consumers who purchase their product, and it was a delight to make those personal connections over food and share a passion for cuisine in such a creative environment.
I'd love to hear about your own personal experience with Lean Cuisine's line of frozen dishes, and if you've got a favorite I need to try - be sure to tell me in the comments!
Disclosure: My travel and accommodations were generously provided by Lean Cuisine, but no compensation was exchanged for this post. All words, thoughts & opinions expressed are true-to-the-core and 100% my own, and I'm so thankful to be able to share about my trip with you in this way!