Photography by Sasha Israel
“SUMMER IS THE BEST TIME TO HIT RESET ON YOUR DIET,” SAYS KATIE LEE FROM HER COZY TRIBECA HOME. “All winter long you’re eating heavier foods and hibernating and then all of a sudden, everything comes to life again. There’s a buzz in the air when the farm stands start loading up. It’s really easy to eat clean and to be healthy because it tastes so good with so little done to it.” To that end, the cookbook author, novelist and co-host of Food Network’s The Kitchen has released her latest cooking tome dubbed Endless Summer, which reads as one part photography book, one part cooking manual and one part love letter to her favorite seasonal dishes chockfull of mouth-watering recipes from green goddess-smeared corn on the cob to skillet paella. “A perfectly ripe tomato is amazing as a starter or side dish, just drizzled with olive oil and flaky sea salt,” muses the West Virginia native in a soft-spoken drawl as she whips up some of her signature quinoa parfaits while pup Finola stoically keeps watch. “You can steam corn and it’s perfect. It’s such an easy time. You get in the habit of eating more produce and as fall and winter come back around, you can continue that in that summer feeling.” Below, we caught up with Lee on her favorite way to prepare summer fruits (hint: it’s not in a pie), what her mother and grandmother taught her about eating vegetables and how surfing gave her the best abs– and outlook on life.
Endless Summer is all about highlighting seasonal produce. Were you always interested in eating with the seasons?
I grew up in West Virginia and my grandpa had this really awesome garden. He had a cousin who raised cows, another cousin who raised pigs and everybody shared their food so we ate seasonally and locally, not because it was a trend but because that was just the way that we lived.
How did your family incorporate eating seasonally into their diet?
My grandma preserved a lot of foods. I remember staying up really late having to string green beans so that she could can beans. She also canned tomatoes. She actually put a stove on her porch so she wouldn’t heat up the kitchen to do all the canning and everybody helped. We’d all sit around and string green beans and then she’d have to peel all the tomatoes, dip those in the boiling water and put them into the jars so we’d have that to eat all year. In the fall, my great grandmother would make apple butter. She would get this big iron kettle and build a fire outside. They would also make homemade molasses using horses that would walk over the sugarcane to extract the juices. That’s just the way that we ate and we would look forward to different seasons for what we were going to eat.
What are your personal top summer ingredients?
I love fresh corn on the cob and all stone fruits like peaches, plums and apricots. I love when it’s hot out and you bite into a ripe plum and the juices drip down your hand, it’s the best. I also get so excited for tomatoes. I really don’t eat tomatoes outside of the summer because you get so spoiled with the good ones.
Do you have different ways to incorporate the fruits you mentioned into your diet besides just eating them plain?
One of the hors d’oeuvres in the cocktail chapter is a peach and black bean salsa. When I was a kid, my mom made peach, peas and black bean quesadillas and ever since then I loved that combination. I use stone fruits a lot in salsas. I also make a nectarine cucumber salsa for fish. You can just think about salty/sweet when you’re cooking. A really easy thing to do is if you have a store-bought barbecue sauce, puree some peaches and just mix that in there and you have a kind of homemade peach barbecue sauce.
What is the best dish for entertaining during the summer?
It’s such an easy, carefree time. If you have a dinner party, you don’t have to think as much because you can really just put steaks on the grill and then do a little something to dress it up. For instance, I’ll make a green goddess dressing and slather that on corn or I’ll make a compound butter and serve that with the steaks. One thing I love to do is to chop up a bunch of tomatoes and put a little bit of lemon zest, lemon juice and some garlic on top of grilled fish. I also chop up a nectarine with red onion and jalapeño and put that on top of grilled meats.
How did the idea for a quinoa parfait come about? We love the idea of using quinoa instead of granola.
I love quinoa and I started eating it for breakfast instead of oats. I was having it as a hot cereal with blueberries, walnuts, little honey and cinnamon. I never loved oats. I always felt like it was the punishment breakfast that my mom would make when she didn’t really want to cook. When quinoa started becoming popular, I loved it so much so I started making big batches of it. I had it as a side dish with dinner or I liked to make a big batch of lentils and quinoa for dinner. One time I tried it for breakfast and I thought, why couldn’t this be cereal? It tastes really good with yogurt. You can really use quinoa just the same way you would with any kind of grain.
How would you describe your philosophy now on keeping healthy and balanced when it comes to eating?
When it comes to diet, I eat a plant-based diet. I’m not good at small portions. That is just a concept that’s never been something I could grasp. I have to feel really full. If I want to fit into my skinny jeans, I’m not going to be eat a lot of fried chicken but I can eat a lot of a farro salad. You can eat as many vegetables as you want and not have to think about it.
Did your mom or family teach you any valuable lessons about staying healthy when you were growing up?
My mom and grandmas were always really healthy. They were way into this book Fit For Life. It changed the way that they cooked and ate. One of the things that I’ve always taken away from it, is look at your plate and make 70% vegetables and 30% other stuff, whether that’s a protein or carb. So you can eat as many vegetable as you want and you’re ok. The other thing that my grandma used to do was she’d only eat fruit before noon. They also made these sandwiches called “good ‘wiches,” where would stir-fry a ton of vegetables to make wraps and we would have “good ‘wich” night.
Are there any other books that have influenced your philosophy when it comes to health?
Dan Buettner’s Blue Zones. Blue zones are the places around the planet where people live the longest in Greece, Sardinia, California, Okinawa, Japan and Costa Rica. . In each location, they’re all plant-based and they all have strong communities. Dan does a cocktail hour every night because that’s a building of a community and feeling social.
Summer is all about being social and you have great cocktails in the book. What’s the trick to making them healthy?
I try to use fresh fruit in all of my cocktails and not put a lot of sugar in them. For the most part they’re sweetened from fruit because summer fruit are so sweet you don’t need to do much to it. Honeydew margaritas are some of my favorites.
Take us through a day in the life of Katie Lee.
Every morning, I get the paper, make a pot of coffee and go back to bed to read. Sometimes I put coconut oil in my coffe, which makes it have a rich creamy thing. I need a good half hour to get started in the morning. If there are waves, I go to the beach and surf. If there are no waves, I go to Tracy Anderson and get my workout in. Before that, I’ll have a light breakfast, something that gives me some fuel but won’t weigh me down like these quinoa parfaits, some fruit or I have a recipe for spelt banana muffins that I keep in the freezer and just pop in the oven. If I have houseguests, then I like to lay around, make a big breakfast and not workout. On the way home, I stop at Green Thumb, load up on veggies and go home to make a big salad. I’m there just about everyday. They have the best eggs on the planet. Once you start eating farm eggs, going back to regular eggs sucks. I love that dark orange yolk, it’s so good. Sometimes I’ll go back to the beach in the afternoon. I’m really a beach bum at heart. Then I’ll go back and cook dinner for my friends. I love to fire my pizza oven, make pizzas, or just grill some steaks with some veggies.
What do you typically put in your salad?
Remember the Seinfeld episode with Elaine and the big salad? I always want a really big salad. I used to work at a restaurant in college and we had a salad called The Kitchen Sink and that’s what I make almost everyday in the summer. I use whatever vegetables I have on hand like purple cabbage, carrots and radishes, I love sliced strawberries or I’ll throw some blueberries in and sunflower or pumpkin seeds. I really load it up. Sometimes I’ll put salmon in it but for the most part it’s just vegetables for lunch. The dressing I always make is one tablespoon Dijon mustard, one tablespoon red wine or white wine vinegar and three tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil. You can always know three tablespoons of oil to one tablespoon of vinegar and you’re good. I really love red and white wine vinegar. I feel like balsamic is overused. I’d rather have balsamic drizzled on some grilled vegetables or roasted vegetables than as a dressing.
What do you do for lunch when you’re in the city?
I go to Sweetgreen all the time. I’m obsessed. When it went in by my apartment, I did a happy dance. I love their kale ceaser salad and I add avocado or I love the Rad Thai but I sub the tofu on that one.
In your book The Comfort Table, you cover all your favorite comfort foods; what is the most comforting food to you?
I love comfort food but it starts with knowing where it came from. I want to know how my food was raised, how it got to my plate and what its impact will be for the future. For me, that’s where comfort food starts. It’s a misconception that comfort food has to be big, heavy food. I can be really comforted by a great salad or bowl of soup.
But you must have a guilty indulgence…
I love French fries really salty with a ton of ketchup and I love Talenti ice cream–I can’t get enough. In the Hamptons, I always go to Buddha Berry for frozen yogurt. It opened last summer in Sag Harbor and it’s one of those make your own but it’s all organic. She has toppings like Chia seeds and maca powder. They do a lot of vegan soft serves too with coconut milk, it’s amazing. When I was out there during the week if I didn’t have anything to do at night, I’d go there for dinner and make a huge thing of frozen yogurt.
What do you make when you really want to detox?
I love to do just tons of veggies and lots of greens. If I really feel like I need to clean myself out, I’ll make a huge pot of vegetable soup and just have soup for two days. I eat as much as I want of it, it’s not like I’m having one bowl, but I’ll just have it for a few days. I feel like that’s a big help because it’s so satisfying.
What tools should everyone have in their kitchen?
You really only need three good knives: a chef’s knife, a paring knife and a serrated knife. Also, a mini food processor comes in really handy and a good iron skillet.
Your skin and hair is amazing. Do you have any secret wellness tips you can share?
I wish I was someone who got up and drank the lemon water. Whenever I read that somebody does that I’m like, ‘I’m going to start that!’ One thing I do is I love coconut oil on my face and in my hair. I have really dry, curly hair and especially when I’m in the salt water, it gets brittle so I put a ton of coconut oil in before bed. Sometimes I’ll put it in before I go workout so the heat at the gym will soak it in. I find that it’s helpful and it’s definitely good on the face.
How would you describe your workout routine?
When summer starts, I start surfing regularly everyday if I can. Within a couple weeks, the muscles change and I start seeing abs–it’s such a good workout. You do a lot of sitting around waiting for a wave but the whole time you’re engaging to stay balanced on a board that’s rocking back and forth. I also find that I can eat more when I’m surfing. Everything tastes better after you get out of the ocean. If there are no waves, I love the intensity of Tracy Anderson. It’s hard as hell but I have fun with it. You sweat so much, I love the sweating. I used to walk in there and be like, ‘Oh it’s so hot!’ Now I love the heat. It’s really hard but I see results and see them quickly. When I stick to her plan, I really feel like it’s making a big difference. Sometimes I’ll surf in the morning and do her afternoon class. I’m so happy at that time because I can really eat whatever I want.
Do you workout everyday?
Even if I can’t make it to the gym, I’ll go take a walk or do one of Tracy YouTube videos, even if it’s 8 minutes of doing her abs. If I don’t exercise, I feel like sludge. I need some kind of movement during the day.
In your novel, Ground Swell, you write about the healing power of surfing. How is surfing more than just a great workout?
Surfing changed my life. It was a way to let go. At the time, I was getting divorced and feeling really sorry for myself. I was sitting on the beach watching these guys surf and I thought, ‘Oh that looks so cool but I’m so afraid of the ocean.’ I had this terrible fear. I would never get in above my knees. That afternoon, I went to the surf shop, bought a wet suit and called the surf school. The next day at 9am, this guy showed up who was out of central casting: blonde, blue-eyed, tan. I was like, ‘This is exactly what I need.’ It was really a way to conquer fear.
That’s amazing. Are you more attracted to challenging things after conquering that fear?
Since I’ve started surfing, I try to do things to get out of my comfort zone because it makes you a more confident person to know that you can get over something. I really felt like that with surfing. It was a good way to get my confidence back. Since then, I’m afraid of heights so I took a trapeze class, which was really scary. I was afraid of getting up in front of a crowd so I auditioned for an off-Broadway play and I ended up getting the part. I just took an eight week improv class because I thought that sounded really scary. That really felt like therapy. For three hours your brain turns off, you become a kid again and you’re just silly and have fun. The whole principle of it is, “Yes and,” as in, what can I add to this? So if you meet somebody at a party and you’re nervous, you can use that idea and it propels you further. It’s all about finding ways to get out of your comfort zone.
FOR KATIE’S STRAWBERRY KIWI QUINOA PARFAIT RECIPE, CLICK HERE