"Shelf Health"

Story Published in Longevity

Jeanne Jones portrait

Want healthy, delicious, even elegant food fast?
According to spa chef Jeanne Jones, you have
all the fixings ready to go in your fridge and cupboards

by Patricia Lynden

In the world of low-fat cookery, Jeanne Jones is often called the Queen of Lean. That's because, as she accurately describes herself, she was "the first person to marry classical gastronomy with nutrition." Largely because of her efforts in the last 20 years, spa food has become delicious, and top restaurant chefs -- as well as 12.5 million readers of her weekly syndicated column -- have discovered the beauty of the clean, clear tastes that come through when they cut back on cream, butter and other fats.

Yet Jones is no food snob. Despite her extensive training in the rigorous tradition of long-simmered stocks and sauces and the use of only the freshest ingredients, Jones is now telling us that we can make wonderful, healthy meals out of the cans, bottles and boxes in our pantries. "People are coming back to a lot of very important family values," says the 57-year-old Jones, whose hairdo makes her look like a sophisticated Kewpie doll. "And what they want at the end of the day is quality time with each other during the evening meal. Often there isn't time to spend two hours preparing a healthy meal. If you can put one together that's also delicious in less than 30 minutes and the whole family can sit down and enjoy it -- well, that's why I'm calling my new cookbook Healthy in a Hurry [to be published this fall by Surrey Books]. All you need is a can opener, a knife and a bottle opener." Of course, she adds: "I'm not talking about opening a can of chili and heating it. I'm talking about a little more imagination, and five more minutes, and that's all."

Jones calls pantry food "anything that will keep two weeks or more." That includes eggs kept in the refrigerator; vegetables like potatoes, onions and hard winter squashes that store well in a cool place; boxed, bottled and canned goods with long shelf lives; and frozen foods. And she's not thinking only of convenience. With the floods, storms and earthquakes that have hit various parts of the nation in recent years, Jones thinks everyone should have enough pantry food on hand to sustain a family for two weeks.

While Jones does not argue that processed foods are a substitute for fresh, she says there is no need for processed food to taste processed. "When I was working on recipes for Healthy in a Hurry, I gave fancy, black-tie dinner parties where none of my guests had the foggiest idea that everything they were eating was put together out of cans, bottles and boxes. I had an artichoke dip that people just flipped over. Then I did a salad of hearts-of-palm and canned mandarin oranges in orange juice with a lime vinaigrette. I did a marvelous soup that was a crab bisque made of a can of tomato soup, a can of pea soup, crab and a little sherry. Divine. And a pantry paella with canned clams, canned crab and frozen shrimp. And the other night I did crab cakes for [my husband] Don and me, with horseradish sauce and canned asparagus that took less than 15 minutes, and it was perfectly delicious."

Jones has some simple principles for people who have never stocked their pantries for emergencies. "Think through what you like," she advises. "Just use common sense. For example, always have on hand a canned fruit or vegetable to use for salads, and some pasta, rice and beans, and some prepared sauces for an entree. You can either mix the legumes and grains for a vegetarian entree, or you can add a can of clams or tuna or chicken to it for a non-vegetarian entree. With just those few pantry staples, you can always create something delicious. Make sure things get used and replaced before they go bad. Use your garage as an extension of your pantry so you can buy things you use a lot by the case when they're on sale -- like bottled water. But don't buy stuff you'll never use just because it's on sale."

Jones learned to cook from her family's classically trained German chef while she was growing up in wealthy Newport Beach, California. (Her father invented the rotating concrete mixer.) But she didn't get interested in nutrition until years later. That was after her adored second husband, a physician, died suddenly and unexpectedly at the age of 40 from a massive coronary. "When they did a postmortem," Jones recalls, "they said he'd been living on borrowed time for several years. Yet he looked like the healthiest person you'd ever seen. He played tennis, he was not overweight. Nobody thought about cholesterol then. It was partly genetic -- his father had also died young of a coronary -- but then I thought of all the butter and cream that we had used with abandon in our cooking."

Shortly after her husband's death, Jones became diabetic, brought on, said her doctors, by the stress. That's when the University of Southern California graduate decided it was time to learn nutrition, and she returned briefly to school. Today she is a "diet-controlled diabetic. I don't take any medication, but I keep my fat intake at about 20 percent, I'm careful not to take in too much sugar, and I get an enormous amount of exercise, which I think does more to control diabetes than anything else." Wherever she is, she fits in a daily hour to an hour-and-a-half of aerobics. She also drinks as much as 16 glasses of water daily, which she calls "the single most important and overlooked nutrient."

Diabetes caused Jones to make two major changes in her life. She quit smoking, and she quit a fashion career to become the writer of 24 low-fat cookbooks, a syndicated columnist and a $2,SOO-per-diem spa and restaurant consultant. It was Jones who designed the highly praised first menus for Canyon Ranch spa when it opened in Tucson in 1979. Today, a still grateful founder-owner Enid Zuckerman says of Jones's input, "I don't think we could have done it without her." This fall PBS plans to start airing a 26-segment series of Jones demonstrating her method of cooking, which is in line with the American Diabetes Association's Diabetic Exchange List -- "the guideline for every major diet in the country," Jones points out. Like her column and many of her books, the TV program will be called Cook It Light.

Today, Jones lives with her fourth husband, Don Breitenberg, a tall, chipper businessman. (A third husband, whom she married in 1972, died in 1978 of a heart attack.) Breitenberg often travels with her as she logs over 100,000 miles a year showing her cooking techniques to professionals and lay groups across the country. He likes to take a front-row seat during her demonstrations, where he nods and chuckles in all the right places. It doesn't seem to bother him that, as Jones says, with so much travel, "sometimes I feel like I'm on another planet." But then, why should it? No matter how crazy their schedule gets, there's always a delicious meal to look forward to. And it can be ready in a jiffy.



Copyright © Patricia Lynden 2010. Site designed by Bruce R. Jaffe.