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Getting Medical Students into the Kitchen

“This appetizer is one of my favorites,” says Julia Nordgren, MD (’99), of the goat cheese dip she’s starting to make. “We’ll mix the goat cheese with a bit of Greek yogurt and milk, then add herbs de Provence—smell this, delicious!—and serve it with toasted whole wheat pita chips sprinkled with herbs.”

It’s a cold spring evening and 10 Geisel School of Medicine students, along with Dr. Richard Simons, are gathered at his Vermont home to learn how to cook. Developed by Nordgren, this innovative, elective pilot enrichment class, “The Doctor is IN . . . the Kitchen,” is designed to give students information, skills, and practice in preparing healthy and delicious meals. Each cooking session also explores topics such as celiac disease and gluten-free foods, the Atkins diet, the Mediterranean diet, and vegetarian/vegan foods, along with related recipes.

The philosophy and science behind each of the diets is also discussed, “we consider a variety of issues, such as how the diet works, the research supporting it, and what a meal looks like,” Nordgren adds.

A Sample menu from the class

Green salad with apple, cranberries, and maple-glazed walnuts

Rustic ratatouille over grilled polenta

Kale and cannelini bean soup

Broccoli-cheddar quinoa


Chocolate-almond bark

Peppermint tea

According to Nordgren, many doctors are not equipped to give their patients solid advice regarding eating, given the plethora of options, and there’s a disconnect between, “what we as physicians feed ourselves and how we help our patients feed themselves healthfully in a way that’s neither judgmental nor preachy,” she says.

Passionate about the power of good food, Nordgren is out to change that. She’s on a mission to arm physicians and medical students with the culinary literacy necessary for them to comfortably discuss the relationship between nutrition and health outcomes with their patients.

“My goal is for physicians to be able to give educated advice about each of these diets to patients who may want to try them,” she says.

As with many diets, there are both healthy and unhealthy ways to follow them. For example, someone who wants to follow a gluten-free diet for perceived health benefits, might do better eating naturally gluten-free foods—fruits, vegetables, and a small amount of lean meat—rather than eating highly processed foods that are gluten-free. “Many people think of a gluten-free diet as being restrictive, but in reality so many amazing foods are gluten-free,” Nordgren notes.

Tonight’s menu is based on the Mediterranean diet, which is rich in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. But before cooking begins, everyone gathers for an olive oil tasting and a discussion of the benefits of this time-tested diet, with its colorful foods rife with a variety of scents and flavors.

“The oils here are beautiful and made with different fruits—the two I want you to taste are similar, but from two different types of olives,” Nordgren explains. “When selecting olive oil, it’s important to think about its flavor.” Choosing the right olive oil can be as complicated and selecting the right wine, both should be budget appropriate and complement the food. For example, light, fruity oils complement vegetables and work well in a dressing.

Students hungrily dip chunks of fresh bread into the oils and compare flavors while Nordgren extolls the fruit’s antioxidant benefits.

Satisfied, everyone heads back to the kitchen to review the evening’s recipes and to cook dinner.

“You can work on whatever appeals to you—walk around to see what you want to prepare,” Nordgren tells the class as she walks around the kitchen. “We’re going to make a Greek salad, a couscous and quinoa dish with lots of vegetables, and we’ll be using blood-orange-infused olive oil to sauté the vegetables. We’re also having a pesto and pasta dish, a fish dish, and balsamic-vinegar-glazed strawberries for dessert.”

Breaking into small groups everyone reviews their recipe and begins preparing their contribution to the meal.

First-year Geisel student Kendrew Wong, who clearly knows his way around a kitchen, is making pesto. “I like cooking and I make dinner for my friends every week, so I thought why not take a course that teaches you about both nutrition and cooking,” he says.

The environment is collegial and fun, punctuated with cheerful bantering with Simons, Geisel’s senior associate dean of medical education, who is busy precisely chopping a variety of colorful vegetables for a lightly dressed Greek salad.

You don’t have to choose between a healthy or tasty meal, you can have both with a little planning and preparation, Simons notes. “Making a healthy, enjoyable meal does require a little skill—I now know how to cut vegetables, without cutting myself,” he says.

The class has shifted the way Simons thinks about eating. Now when dining out, he regularly orders colorful meals and in the spirit of fun, snaps a photo of his food and sends it to Nordgren.

“I think it’s really cool that she’s a pediatrician who went to culinary school and is able to use her passion to help her patients,” says first-year student Jennifer Fleischer of Nordgren as she and Kimberly Betts, a fellow first-year student prepare grilled fish with tomatoes, olives, and capers

Pasta is cooked, nuts are toasted, and the fish is grilled—good cooking doesn’t have to be complicated. The food is plated and everyone tucks into the nutritious meal.

“We have made some delicious food together,” Nordgren says. “I’m so proud of them! I hope they carry what they’ve learned into their personal and professional lives.”

A recipe from Julia Nordgren: Orange-infused Couscous with Summer Vegetables

Serves 4

This is a versatile grain recipe that can be used with couscous, quinoa, or a combination of the two. Feel free to experiment. My local olive oil store sells cranberry-pear vinegar, which I love to use in this recipe. You can easily use white wine vinegar or champagne vinegar.


2 tablespoons blood orange olive oil
1/2 small white onion, diced
1 small zucchini, diced
1/2 red pepper, diced
1 cup couscous
1/4 cup white wine
1 3/4 cup water
1 large orange, zested and juiced
1/4 cup white wine vinegar, or a light fruited vinegar, such as cranberry-pear or orange


Finely dice all of the vegetables and set aside.

Put a pot over medium-high heat. Add oil. When hot, add pepper and onion. Cook for about 5 minutes. Add the zucchini and cook until soft, about 3 minutes more. Season vegetables with salt (to taste). Add grains. Add wine and cook down until liquid is reduced by half—about 3 minutes. Add water, bring to a boil, then cover and reduce heat to low. Allow to steam 10 minutes, or until all water is absorbed.

In a separate bowl, combine orange juice, vinegar, and salt to make a dressing. Set aside. Toast the pine nuts briefly in a dry sauté pan. Set aside. When couscous is done add dressing, season with salt, and top with pine nuts.

Julia Nordgren is a 2013 honors graduate of the Culinary Institute of America. For more information about her work, visit her website or read the article about her time at the Culinary Institute of America in the fall 2013 issue of Dartmouth Medicine.