So you think vegetarian cooking is all duty and no delicious? Not in this house! Pull up a chair and prepare to be surprised.
Rosie, a big black labrador, is doing her best to cadge a handout in the sunny kitchen of the Oz family's suburban New Jersey home. It's hard to blame her, given the aroma of cumin and cardamom toasting in a skillet and the scent of fresh cilantro being chopped by Lisa, Dr. Mehmet Oz's wife, on a cutting board next to the six-burner stove.
"Don't feed her -- she's a flabrador," says Dr. Oz. "She's flabby. She loves to eat everything. I told Lisa we have to put her on a diet."
One of the most respected cardiothoracic surgeons in the country, Dr. Oz has spent much of his career dealing with the consequences of his patients' unhealthy lifestyle choices. To teach people how to control their medical destinies, he launched "The Dr. Oz Show" and has published nine blockbuster books on everything from losing weight and eating right to staying young. No wonder he holds the family dog to such a high standard of health.
Simply put, Dr. Oz lives and eats the way he thinks everyone should. He exercises every day (a four-mile run and ten minutes of yoga, plus basketball in his basement court whenever he can), assiduously avoids simple sugars, and eats tiny "meals" at 60-minute intervals. His standard breakfast is yogurt and blueberries; he snacks on almonds and walnuts in the afternoon. Dinner is vegetarian because Lisa, who has not eaten meat since age 15, does almost all the cooking in the house. "I'm usually the person peeling or cleaning," Dr. Oz says.
Vegetarian food has a reputation for being bland -- more good for you than just plain good. But in the Oz household, the emphasis is squarely on taste. Lisa is liberal in her use of aromatics like onions, shallots, scallions, and garlic, along with olive oil, herbs, and spices, which enable her to make delicious vegetarian dishes ("without using a ton of salt," as Dr. Oz points out). And most of her recipes -- like quinoa with zucchini and herbs, and Turkish-style eggs scrambled with tomatoes and red peppers -- don't require a lot of prep time.
While he and his family are vegetarians at home, Dr. Oz does occasionally eat fish and meat. He loves what he describes as "undercooked" fish and admits to a weakness for barbecued ribs—perhaps because he grew up on meat and potatoes. Lisa, on the other hand, became a vegetarian when her mother brought home Frances Moore Lappé's classic 1971 book Diet for a Small Planet and announced that henceforth meat would no longer be served in their home.
Lisa runs her household pretty much the same way, and she makes sure her dishes are delicious enough that the family doesn't miss meat. "You have to massage the kale," she says, demonstrating at the 12-foot-long kitchen island how to make her vitamin-packed, no-cook salad. "Put the lemon juice and salt on and really rub it in. That's what makes the leaves tender."
As Lisa sets the salad bowl on the burnished-oak kitchen table, Dr. Oz calls the younger of their four children -- Zoe, 16, and Oliver, 12 -- to dinner. Late-afternoon sunlight streams through the window, which overlooks a gray stone parterre. Just beyond, the lawn of the sprawling, Mediterranean-style house terraces down to the Hudson River. When Lisa brings to the table a platter of mashed sweet potatoes with cornmeal-crusted tofu, the kids angle for the crispiest slices. "Hey, I wanted that one!" says Oliver, eyeing a piece that Zoe has nabbed.
Of the four children, Arabella, 20, and Zoe are vegetarian; Daphne, 25, and Oliver are not. "Oliver had been the most strict of all the vegetarians until we went to Italy and they served wild boar," Lisa says. "Mehmet thought it would be fun to let him taste it. Oliver thought it was like manna from heaven. So now he does occasionally eat meat."
Dr. Oz and Oliver tease Zoe for being the family member least likely to eat greens, but she holds up a forkful of kale and protests, "Yes I do! Look at this! I do eat greens!" and takes a big bite. This is the kind of healthy peer pressure Dr. Oz is fond of advocating. "You know, it takes kids about 12 exposures to a taste to begin to like it," he says. "So it takes a while for them to get used to the idea that broccoli actually tastes good -- and to admit that it does."
As for dessert, the Oz family rarely eats it. "Fat is an acquired taste," Dr. Oz says. "There's no taste bud for fat." The cravings for sugar and salt are in the same part of the brain, he says. "I'd rather my kids go for the salt, because they usually won't eat as much as they would with sweets." The family also serves only water with meals -- never soda and rarely alcohol. "We'll add slices of orange, cucumber, or lemon with mint to water -- we call it spa water," Lisa says. "The kids drink it all day long and love it, especially if they've gotten to choose what the flavor will be that day."
Dr. Oz understands how hard it is to get kids to eat well. "The most challenging one for us to deal with was Daphne," he says. "She had the biggest problem with weight, and she was the most resistant because she was the first. The genes load the gun, but the environment pulls the trigger." Only once she understood that eating healthy is as much about quantity as quality did Daphne change the way she ate. Following Oz family tradition, in 2006 she wrote a book for college students about conquering bad eating habits, The Dorm Room Diet, which became a national bestseller.
When they finish dinner, Oliver escapes to the pool and Zoe heads up to her room to finish homework while Dr. Oz and Lisa linger at the table, watching the light fade through the trees outside.
"The disintegration of the family meal can be directly linked to obesity, because that's when you pass along not just the lore of the family but the taste buds of the family," he says. And Dr. Oz knows how much he owes the ritual of the healthy family dinner to his wife of 26 years. On the nights he's taping his show, he gets home too late to eat with everyone else.
"The kitchen closes at 7:30," he says.
"You have leftovers out on a plate waiting for you," Lisa protests.
"Yes," he says sadly, "but it's not hot, and there's no one there to eat with."
The one thing Dr. Oz never misses is the family's weekly field trip to the Union Square greenmarket in New York City, where they stock up on organic produce. The family fridge is filled with leafy greens, raspberries, and apples; the pantry with beans, brown rice, and olive oil. "We are all creatures of habit, and junk food is not something I think about," Lisa says. "This is just the way we live."