Cookie Till is on a mission.
The owner of Steve and Cookie's By the Bay in Margate comes by her restaurant's fine cuisine honestly. A nutrtionist, Till has employed professional chefs trained at prestigious schools such as the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, (Chef Kevin Kelly) and the local Academy of Culinary Arts at Atlantic Cape Community College in Mays Landing (Warner Christy) for decades.
But Till, who "created my own major" before there was a proper nutrition program at the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey, isn't just here to serve up scrumptious shore cuisine to tourists. She wants to share with diners a different perspective on food - one that doesn't hold tasty food and healthy food as mutually exclusive.
The menu at Steve and Cookie's "is not, by any stretch of the imagination, health food," she says. "But we do have healthy options, healthy grains like quinoa and stuff."
Till and Chef Kelly have been "playing around" with fresh, seasonal produce for about 30 years, coming up with new and fun ways to incorporate things such as butternut squash, kale, collard greens and Swiss chard into her menu.
"Forget everything you thought you knew about Brussels sprouts," she says. "I get people to eat Brussels sprouts that never order them, and they like it."
Two factors are key to popularizing unusual vegetables and flavors for the average diner.
One is technique: You have to know what you're doing and be willing to take risks when preparing the much-maligned Brussels sprouts. You have to cut off the bitter ends before you even think about baking or broiling, silly. And a little butter in the steamer may not be the first thing that comes to mind when thinking "healthy" but as a part of a balanced diet, it's OK.
The second is quality of ingredients.
"When you start with good quality ingredients, it still takes skill, but you're not trying to mask anything," Kelly says.
"Don't cut corners," says Till. "Kevin stays on top of quality; he's diligent about grilling our purveyors to make sure we're getting the best quality. All our purveyors know how picky I am."
Chef Kelly says it's not hard to spot good produce.
"It's pretty black and white, in a way. It should be crisp, clean and good-looking," he says. "Examine what you buy, pick it up and handle it. If it's wrapped in plastic, you probably don't want it."
Till tries to use produce from local suppliers, such as B.F. Mazzeo's in Northfield, as much as possible. But getting produce at its seasonal peak is more important, even if it comes from further away. So the menu at Steve and Cookie's changes with the seasons.
In summer, the most popular things on the menu are an "addicting" tomato salad with cherry vinaigrette, bleu cheese and crispy shallots; and a cold seafood platter with a half Maine lobster, super jumbo lump crab and shrimp.
"People love it because it's fresh," Till says. "It's not major gastronomy going on, it's just really good."
In fall, crab cakes are served with the restaurant's original "seasonal veggie slaw" with Napa cabbage, julienned carrots and colorful bell peppers in a remoulade sauce, instead of just regular mayonnaise. Of course, menu favorites such as pork chops and strip steak as good as any steakhouse's always are on the menu. But so are unusual veggies, such as those Brussles sprouts.
"I don't think that's a conflict," Till says, returning to her personal mission to change the way people look at food, especially in her hometown of Atlantic City. "What's more concerning is kids, when all they're eating is processed and chemical-laden food because that's all they're exposed to. Where we're at, in Atlantic City, good, healthy food is not so available. The information and education are not available to kids, so they're making poor choices because they don't know they have a choice."
That's why Till and Kelly got involved with AtlantiCare Foundation's Chef's Council, along with other area chefs concerned with advancing nutrition education in Atlantic County. They "adopted" Atlantic City High School's alternative school, The Viking Academy, where they expose the teens to healthy foods and teach them how to prepare them.
"If we can get the kids, while they're young, and get them cooking, they're more trainable. That's why school lunch is so important, at least they get one healthy meal in the middle of the day," she says. "It's important, not just for the privileged, even though our restaurant is in Margate, but to expose all these kids to things like different job opportunities and the etiquette of fine dining in a restaurant."
Contact Felicia Compian:
Cookie's Crab Cakes with Seasonal Veggie Slaw
Remoulade sauce ingredients:
•2/3 cup mayonnaise
•1/8 cup ketchup
•2 tablespoon dijon mustard
•1 tablespoon horseradish
•1 tablespoon chopped red onion
•1 tablespoon capers
•1/2 teaspoon worcestershire sauce
•1/2 teaspoon Tabasco sauce
•Pinch of salt & pepper
•1/3 head Napa cabbage,
•1/2 red pepper, sliced thin
•1/2 green pepper, sliced thin
•1/2 carrot, julienned
•2 ounces remoulade sauce
Place all remoulade sauce ingredients in food processor and mix until smooth. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Put slaw ingredients into a mixing bowl. Add remoulade sauce to coat the vegetables.
Crab Cake ingredients:
•1 pound jumbo lump crabmeat
•6 ounces mayonnaise
•2 ounces dijon mustard
•Zest of 1 lemon
•1 cup Japanese bread crumbs (Panko)
•Pinch of Old Bay seasoning
•Crab cake directions:
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Mix all ingredients for crab cake, except for crabmeat. Gently fold crabmeat into mixed ingredients, making sure not to break up all the lumps. Form into four cakes.
Pan sear on medium-high heat on stove top until both sides are golden brown.
Transfer to oven for approximately 5 to 7 minutes in order to heat through. Serve with remoulade sauce and vegetable slaw.