Cooking with good health in mind

When Dr. Sherry Wheaton moved back to the area, a friend urged her to meet chef Jenn DiSanto.

“My friend knew I like to eat healthy,” explains Wheaton, an internist with a holistic focus who specializes in geriatric medicine and has also worked with Hospice. Folks in our region will remember Wheaton as a WHIO-TV health reporter in the 1990s.

“We are what we eat!” insists Wheaton, who says she’s been enjoying DiSanto’s tasty and healthy dishes ever since. “I’m very particular about what I eat and when food is made with love, it just tastes different.”

DiSanto, who has been pouring that love into her cooking since she was a child, is best known for her creative combinations and for her commitment to organic fruits and vegetables, antibiotic/hormone-free meats, and local farmers. Gluten-free recipes are a specialty.

Her creations range from Zaatar marinated chicken with grilled apricot chutney and shrimp and grits, to toasted pearl cous cous and roasted veggies on greens, and a roasted turkey panini with caramelized onions, greens, provolone and sun-dried tomato aioli.

You’ll find DiSanto in her little storefront kitchen, Fresco, that’s tucked in the back of Kettering’s Fountain Square Shopping Center. Pots of fresh herbs — parsley, basil, sage, thymes, oreganos — line the front door of the restaurant and catering establishment.

DiSanto believes it’s important to make every dish from scratch and says she’s often called upon to provide meals for an individual or family going through cancer treatment. This evening, she and five other chefs are contributing their talents to a fundraiser for the Cancer Support Community Western Ohio.

“I’m a firm believer that healthy food shouldn’t taste like healthy food,” she insists. “I mean, it can be healthy but it should taste great, too. Use local as much as you can. Food doesn’t have to travel thousands of miles.”

Because of her emphasis on healthy cooking and eating, we’ve selected DiSanto for Our Good Cooks during this month of October, Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

Q: What special advice do you have for someone facing cancer in terms of nutrition, and what about cancer prevention as it relates to healthy eating?

A: I’d advise them to get nutrient-dense foods. Appetites are so small when undergoing treatment so getting food that still tastes good but is healthy is really important. The ingredients in the kale salad recipe I’m sharing are great ingredients for cancer prevention as well.

Q: What would be your suggestions for meals friends might take to someone going through treatment? What should they avoid making?

A: Be careful with things that have a strong smell. The sense of smell can sometimes be heightened when going through treatment and something that has a really strong smell can be nauseating.

Q: What are some of your early memories of food?

A: I come from a large family of seven daughters. My father was a butcher and then in the meat and cheese industry all his life so I was always around good food.

I always cooked the family meal with my mother who at the time was a stay-at-home mom. She never really liked cooking and to this day always says “I don’t know whose daughter you are but there’s no way you got my genes!”

It was my father who loved to cook and loved to eat and he was the best of the improvisers. He was a weekend and party cook. He would get some meat from work and would whip up an amazing dinner and, boy, did he love the party!

He also really taught me everything about meat, seafood and most importantly, people. I still think of him when I cook — especially when I don’t measure. He thought measuring was silly.

Q: Where else did you learn cooking techniques?

A: I’ve learned a tremendous amount about food and cooking from traveling so much beginning in my early 20s — to Europe, South America, Mexico and all over the United States. I lived in Brussels, Belgium, for six years and traveled even more around Europe and Eastern Europe while living abroad.

I also think you can learn cooking techniques from absolutely anyone. There are tons of amazing home cooks out there.

Q: How did you decide to make a career of cooking?

A: I worked in restaurants through high school and college — first as a waitress and then in the kitchen. I started working for a department store and the regional manager groomed me to move up the ranks. I worked in corporate America for 18-20 years.

During this time I always worked in kitchens on the side and ran a small catering business and my passion for great food and the industry grew more and more. I realized that this was what I was meant to do so I resigned from my position and attended culinary school and graduated top of my class. I have never regretted this change.

Q: What are some of your favorite ingredients?

A: Kale, fresh herbs, saffron, arugula, seafood, passionately farmed ingredients — I love the care and hard work that goes into being a farmer.

Q: What are some of the dishes you are best known for?

A: The Mediterranean and eclectic global cuisine I’ve discovered in my travels: vegetarian dishes, seafood dishes, dishes with multi-layers of flavors My goal is for each bite to elicit all of the senses.

Q: What advice would you give to someone who is just starting to cook or bake?

A: If they want to do it professionally, they should work in a kitchen before going to school because it’s not for everyone. If they’re home cooks then they should just have fun with it and experiment.

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