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A recipe for better health

Home economist Mairlyn Smith shocked by how little many people know about cooking

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Mairlyn Smith is a home economist who likes the glow of the footlights -- and studio lights. But while her heart may belong to the stage, she keeps it healthy in her kitchen.

The Second City alumnus says getting into the kitchen was a survival tactic because her mom was such a terrible cook.

"My mom is English-Irish-Scots -- so not to slag anyone but, you know, pretty boring food. And overcooked," she says in a phone interview from Toronto. "We had a beautiful vegetable garden but everything had the living daylights cooked right out of it.

"When I took home-ec in Grade 8 it was like: 'Wow! Look at all the fun things I can do!' We made pizza and I begged my mom to let me make pizza and her final word was 'No, we don't eat Italian food.'"

She stuck with the class, knowing that cooking was what she wanted to do. Well, that and one other thing. After a few dance lessons at age eight she really wanted to be an actor. So she did her degree in home economics and she studied theatre, too.

She went to California to acting school and then off to Toronto, where she landed an audition with Second City. The combination of knowing and understanding nutrition and the ability to think on her feet as an improv artist paid off. Smith could deliver the message about healthy eating without the fear of people nodding off. She was good enough to be nominated for her Food For Thought segments on television's Harrowsmith Country Life. Along with writing cookbooks, she is a busy media commentator on healthy cooking. Her latest cookbook is Healthy Starts Here (Whitecap Books, $29.95

As an educator, Smith says the biggest problem is that people don't know how to cook anymore and that has had a huge impact on health, a problem she says is a direct result of limiting or eliminating home economics classes from school curricula. She says that after she tested the recipes for this latest book, she farmed them out to "real people" so she could see what they did and didn't know. She was shocked.

"What you may think (as a cook) is obvious, things like sauté or simmer or mince -- they didn't know what that meant," she says. "And that was a real eye-opener. And I really believe that if you know some basic skills in cooking, and you have a book that works, then you have the impetus to make those recipes."

She made sure that Healthy Starts Here included full colour photos of basic equipment (her own battle-worn implements, dents and all) and good simple instructions on basics like mincing onions, cleaning leeks and segmenting citrus fruits. Along with her beautiful recipes, (with photos) and her humorous stories, she's produced a good-time guide to a healthy kitchen.

All three of these great recipes are from Healthy Starts Here. You can find Smith at her website




Asian Barley Salad


Plan ahead and cook the barley the night before. Use red-skinned peanuts if you can. Smith says they contain loads more antioxidants.


250 ml (1 cup) pot barley

250 ml (1 cup) cooked fresh or thawed frozen peas

2 large green onions, thinly sliced

250 ml (1 cup) red-skinned peanuts


Peanut dressing

30 ml (2 tbsp) natural peanut butter

30 ml (2 tbsp) rice vinegar

30 ml (2 tbsp) lower-sodium soy sauce

10 ml (2 tsp) wasabi paste


For the salad, the night before you want to serve it, place the barley in a wire-mesh colander and rinse it under cold running water. Put the barley in a medium saucepan. Add 750 ml (3 cups) water and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to a simmer and cook, covered, until the barley is tender but chewy, 45 to 55 minutes. Stir once or twice to evenly distribute any remaining liquid. Remove the saucepan from the heat, fluff the barley with a fork to separate the grains, and let sit, covered, for 10 minutes. Fluff the barley again, then let cool for 30 minutes. (Store in an airtight container in the fridge for up to 3 days.)

The next day, toss together the barley, peas, and green onions in a salad bowl.

For the peanut dressing, whisk together the peanut butter, vinegar, soy sauce and wasabi paste in a small bowl. Pour the dressing over the barley mixture and toss well.

Spoon the salad into bowls. Sprinkle each serving with 60 ml (1/4 cup) peanuts. Serve right away. (Any leftover salad can be covered and refrigerated overnight, but the barley absorbs the dressing so you may need to add a little more before serving.)

Makes four 250 ml (1 cup) servings.


Good-for-You Chicken Fingers


Smith adapted this recipe from the Ontario Apple Growers' website ( It uses chili sauce to help the crumbs stick to the chicken.

For a plainer (kid-friendlier) version, omit the paprika, sage, and pepper, and reduce the amount of onion powder to 2.5 ml (1/2 tsp).


Chicken fingers

500 g (1 lb) skinless, boneless chicken breast

500 g (2 cups) Nature's Path Organic Flax Plus Multibran cereal or other whole-grain cereal flakes

15 ml (1 tbsp) paprika

7.5 ml (11/2 tsp) onion powder

2.5 ml (1/2 tsp) garlic powder

2.5 ml (1/2 tsp) ground sage

2.5 ml (1/2 tsp) dried oregano leaves

2.5 ml (1/2 tsp) dried basil leaves

2.5 ml (1/2 tsp) cracked black pepper

60 ml (1/4 cup) chili sauce


Dipping sauce

60 ml (1/4 cup) low-fat creamy Caesar or ranch dressing

60 ml (1/4 cup) low-fat plain yogurt


Accompaniments: Carrot and celery sticks, and cherry or grape tomatoes.


Preheat the oven to 200C (400F). Line a large rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper.

Wash your hands and cut the chicken breasts lengthwise into chunky, finger-width strips. Try to make them all the same size for even cooking. Set aside on a clean plate.

Wash your hands and cutting board really well. (Smith keeps a separate cutting board to use for raw meat and fish.)

In a food processor, or in a bowl and using a potato masher, crush the cereal until it looks like small crumbs.

Mix together the cereal, paprika, onion powder, garlic powder, sage, oregano, basil, and pepper in a medium bowl.

Pour the chili sauce into a shallow bowl.

Dip the chicken fingers in the chili sauce. Don't overcoat them with the sauce; you just want a light coating. Roll the chicken fingers in the cereal mixture until completely coated. Discard any leftover crumb mixture and chili sauce.

Arrange the chicken fingers in a single layer on the prepared baking sheet. Bake until the chicken fingers are no longer pink inside and the crumb coating is browned, about 20 minutes depending on size.

While the chicken fingers are baking, make the dipping sauce by mixing together the salad dressing and yogurt in a small bowl.

Divide the chicken fingers evenly among 4 plates. Serve with the dipping sauce and raw veggies.

Chicken Fingers makes 4 servings of 3 to 4 each. Dipping Sauce makes four 30 ml (2 tbsp) servings.


Black Bean Tortilla Chip Soup


If you're an organized cook, prep the green onions, cilantro, avocado, and lime while the soup is simmering, you can have this heart-healthy soup on the table in 15 minutes.



750 ml (3 cups) lower-sodium chicken or vegetable broth

540 ml (One 19 oz) can diced tomatoes

540 ml (One 19 oz) can black beans, drained and rinsed

250 ml (1 cup) frozen corn kernels (no need to thaw)

60 ml (1/4 cup) mild, medium, or hot fresh salsa (from the deli)

15 ml (1 tbsp) hot sauce (or to taste)

250 ml (1 cup) thinly sliced green onions (about 5)

250 ml (1 cup) chopped fresh cilantro

1 ripe avocado, peeled, pitted, and thinly sliced

1 lime, scrubbed well and cut into quarters

40 unsalted whole-grain corn tortilla chips


1. Heat the broth in a large saucepan over medium-high heat. When it comes to a boil, add the tomatoes, black beans, corn, salsa, and hot sauce. Bring the broth back to a boil. Reduce the heat to a simmer and cook, covered, for 5 minutes. Stir and remove from the heat.

2. Ladle the soup into 4 deep soup bowls. Sprinkle each portion with the green onions, cilantro, and avocado, dividing evenly. Squeeze a lime quarter over each bowl. Crumble 10 tortilla chips into each bowl and stir gently. Makes four 500 ml (2 cup) servings.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 22, 2011 D1

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