It’s fair to say that Seamus Mullen is obsessed with what he eats. Not only is he one of New York’s most prominent chefs and the author of two cookbooks, but he credits his approach to food with saving his life. After he developed rheumatoid arthritis and ended up in the ER exhausted (his doctor actually called him a “hot mess”), Mullen had to seriously reconsider his lifestyle and his food choices. “I knew that something had to change, or the next time this happened, I wouldn’t survive,” he writes in his latest book, Real Food Heals: Eat to Feel Younger and Stronger Every Day. So, under his doctor's supervision, Mullen completely overhauled his lifestyle to overcome his illness and regain his health through diet and exercise. But don’t go thinking he lives on nuts and raisins; he is a chef, after all. “Cooking and eating are all about pleasure,” he writes. Never lose sight of that priority.”
We spoke with Mullen about his personal journey (including his recent partnership with Sunsweet), as well as his best shortcuts in the kitchen, seasonings beyond salt and pepper, and his favorite post-workout snack.
Sarah Whitman-Salkin: So many of the recipes in your new book are vegetable-focused. For people who may not be used to cooking with vegetables as the centerpiece of a dish, what are the vegetables that you recommend starting with?
Seamus Mullen: I’m a big fan of getting people to adjust their palate to liking bitterness. That’s something you’ll find in a lot of vegetables that you won’t necessarily find in starches or in meat or fish or poultry—vegetables like broccoli rabe, bitter greens, mustard greens, Brussels sprouts, all those good things. The best way to do that is to create some sort of point-counterpoint where you have a natural sweetness to balance that out. I’m a big fan of prunes because they work really well with bitter greens to create this relief from the bitterness—and in the same way, the bitterness gives a relief from too much sweetness within a savory dish.
SWS: Are there shortcuts that you’ve developed as a professional chef that home cooks can incorporate on a smaller scale?
SM: One of the things I do a lot, if I’m making a braise or a soup or a stew, is I’ll use my food processor to cut the vegetables really quickly. If I know they’re all going to be pureed or broken down in the braise, I’m not so concerned with really beautiful knife work. And that will really save a lot of time.
Also, planning in advance. If I know I’m going to do a braised lamb shanks tonight, in the morning, when I have a moment before leaving the house, I prep out all the ingredients I need and put them in containers ready to go, so when I’m ready to cook all I have to do is pull the containers out and I’ll have everything already measured, organized, and prepped. And then I just have to start adding it into the dish in the right sequence. If you break things into smaller tasks, it just makes the job of cooking that much easier.
SWS: Salt and pepper are the most well-established ways to add flavor to dishes. What are other ingredients you like to use to brighten up your food?
SM: One of the things I’ve been into for a while now that I cook a lot with is sumac. Using sumac as a final garnish or incorporating it within a braise will do a lot to make a dish really sing.
SWS: What is one skill that you’ve honed in your kitchens as a professional that you think home cooks should develop?
SM: I would say make sure you have point-counterpoint. Most food, most dishes, want some acidity in them. I can’t think of very many dishes that don’t benefit from at least a little bit of acidity. There’s something that happens when you eat sour food: your taste buds dilate, particularly towards the back of your tongue, and then as they dilate you salivate. That salivation does two things: There are enzymes in your saliva that start to break down food so that you can digest more easily, and then you can taste more easily; you can taste the spectrum of all the flavors in the food. That’s why sometimes just a little bit of acidity will completely change the nature of the food in your mouth and the way it tastes because it will bring out the mushroominess in the mushroom, the beefiness in the beef, the bitterness in the bitter greens. It does so much to bring everything to the front of the palate.
SWS: What’s your go-to snack?
SM: I fell in love with prunes in Spain when I worked in Catalonia. We used a lot of prunes in our cooking, not so much as a snack but we used them in a lot of dishes, we did a lot of braised dishes with prunes. I kind of forgot about them and have recently rediscovered them and have been using them a lot, both in my cooking and as a snack on the bike. I’m a cyclist and I’m constantly looking for really good, easy to transport, easy to consume energy for the bike. Prunes have become a go-to for me recently, whether smearing them with almond butter or just having them on their own.
SWS: Is there a recipe in the book that has emerged as a sleeper hit? A recipe you didn’t know everyone was going to love a much as they do?
SM: There’s one that was surprising to me because I thought I was going to be the only one who loved it but people are really digging it. And it’s avocados that are crushed with anchovies and served with sliced kohlrabi—sort of a take on guacamole, if you will. I’ve been amazed by the number of people who make this, love it, take pictures of it, and post it on social media and talk about it. I didn’t think people were going to be excited about eating raw kohlrabi and smashed up avocado with anchovies, but people are really digging it.
What are your favorite kitchen shortcuts? Share them with us below.