Cancer Treatment Centers of America

Homegrown nutrition

Author: Diana Price

When Larry Kessel, executive chef and director of culinary services at Cancer Treatment Centers of America® (CTCA) in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, talks about incorporating fresh herbs and vegetables from the organic gardens at CTCA® into the food he and his team offer patients, it’s hard not to notice the reverence in his descriptions. “As a chef, when you walk out in the morning and the sun’s just coming up and there’s still dew on the ground and you see the herb garden—filled with basil, thyme, mint, chives, parsley, rosemary, peppers, tomatoes—and when you can pick fresh herbs and then go back in the kitchen and cook with them, that’s the best.”

And if you’ve ever popped a cherry tomato into your mouth straight from the plant, warm from the summer sun, or if you’ve tasted the difference that fresh basil makes in a pasta dish, or just-picked lettuce in a garden salad, you know the magic that Chef Kessel is describing. There is no doubt that food that comes to the plate fresh from the field—or the windowsill herb garden or pots on the patio—offers a wealth of nutritional and taste benefits.

Chef Kessel says that the on-site garden at CTCA allows the culinary team to develop menus that provide patients with flavorful, healthy meals based around seasonal ingredients. As they come together to plan which herbs and vegetables they’ll grow, the team focuses on how the foods can help them create truly delicious dishes that highlight the produce. “We’re always looking at how we can serve healthier, more nutritious food,” Chef Kessel says, “and how we can eliminate unhealthy things in our recipes—butter, saturated fats, gluten, heavy sauces. We like to use lots of herbs because it helps accentuate the flavor of the food and allows us not to have to rely on a lot of sodium and saturated fat—and it incorporates a great fresh flavor.”

The tasty results of Chef Kessel’s efforts to incorporate the fresh, homegrown produce include dishes like beef tenderloin with chimichurri sauce and Maryland crab and corn vinaigrette with yuzu and garden thyme, along with many other creative recipes and comfort food favorites. Though some of the creative combinations may seem exotic, Chef Kessel says that fresh herbs can be used in very simple ways to delicious effect, and he encourages patients and caregivers to use fresh herbs when cooking at home. For instance, fresh basil can be pureed with garlic, pine nuts (or walnuts), olive oil, and parmesan cheese to make pesto (great on pasta and as a sauce for chicken and fish); and many herbs can be added in vinaigrettes or marinades for a quick punch of flavor.

For those who want to grow their own fresh ingredients at home, Chef Kessel says, there’s no need for major acreage—or time—to reap the rewards of flavorful fresh herbs and veggies. Herbs especially can be grown in pots on a patio or in window boxes, as can lettuces and tomatoes. “Growing herbs is very simple,” he says. “You can use planter boxes with grow lights and grow from seed, or you can buy starter herbs and let them grow outside on a ledge, deck, or windowsill and pick them as you need them—and once an herb garden starts to grow, it takes off.” Once you start cooking with these ingredients, Chef Kessel says, you will never go back. “There’s nothing like the flavor that you get from fresh herbs as opposed to dry herbs.”

Of course, if growing your own is not practical, remember that most grocery stores carry fresh herbs as do farmers’ markets. So, get your green thumb—or your green grocer’s bag—in gear and add some fresh herbs and veggies to your next meal.