By Tina Dirmann

staff writer for BCBSLA Foundation

Growing LA’s Marianne Cufone serves up a chocolate treat during the Women’s Wellness cooking class in Algiers.
Growing LA’s Marianne Cufone serves up a chocolate treat during the Women’s Wellness cooking class in Algiers.

What a treat it was to sample all the delicious foods cooked up Tuesday night (Oct. 26) by Growing LA’s Marianne Cufone, a trained chef who leads this New Orleans-based Challenge Grant project aimed at bringing healthier foods to the Big Easy’s residents. Last night’s Women’s Wellness cooking class (offered the last Tuesday of every month at the Algiers United Methodist Church) is part of an on-going series aimed at teaching women how to cook healthier foods for themselves, for their families.

The theme of last night’s dishes: foods that reduce stress and promote relaxation.

Like that sinfully yummy chocolate mousse, made with nothing more than 1 cup of water, whipped into 10 oz of dark (70-85%) chocolate. Top with a sliced strawberry and… Holy, moly, one taste and, well, stress? What stress? Chocolate cures all…

Maya Mae, 3, declares the chocolate mousse a success!
Maya Mae, 3, declares the chocolate mousse a success!

“And dark chocolate is so good for you,” Cufone said. “And only 5 grams of fat. People are always amazed you can make a mousse out of such simple ingredients. It’s like magic when you mix it together. Really amazing taste and really easy to do.”

Yeah, 3 year old Maya Mae completely agreed, as she kept pleading with  her mama for “More please!”

Moving on (yes, Marianne started the class with the desert — gotta love that)… Cufone turned to lasagna, minus the meat but packed with vegetables like carrots, mushrooms, zucchinis, onions and covered with low-fat cheese. Heavenly!

Lasagna, veggie style!

She served that up with a super scrumptious avocado and strawberry salad (I promise, the combo is something to die for), tossed with shallots, slivered almonds and arugula.

“I like to use arugula  because it’s a spicy lettuce, with a little punch,” Cufone said. “And spice is good for your palate. It helps your mouth recognize other flavors.”

Avocado & Strawberry Salad
Avocado & Strawberry Salad

Drizzle with a light dressing (Cufone mixed honey, lemon juice, cider vinegar and oil oil).

And then there was the asparagus… Dabbed in olive oil and seasoned with a little salt (tip I learned at last night’s cooking class — try black salt, an Indian spice that tastes the same as traditional salt but without the sodium, so it’s better for you!), then baked for about 10 minutes and drizzled with balsamic vinegar. I thought it was so great, I kept picking sprigs off the pan and eating them up like french fries! However, Ava Himex, my  fellow cooking class student, wasn’t so sure…

Ava Himex of Gretna bravely tastes her first asparagus. Way to go!
Ava Himex of Gretna bravely tastes her first asparagus. Way to go!

She crinkled her nose and studied the foreign looking eatable for a moment before taking a bite. Then another. No, turns out, not her thing at all…

“I’m here to try new foods,” said Himex, who says her own health has suffered since caring for a husband at home who suffered a massive stroke. “But everyone here usually says, ‘She’s not going to like it! She’s not going to try it!’ But I am trying. I’m learning to eat without grits and make things like vegetable omelettes covered in salsa.”

And brussel sprouts. Seriously… She recently learned she loves them so much, she’s making them at home. Culfone taught her how to make them into a salad -a cold and hot version- during a recent class (see recipe below).

“When I first saw those things, I couldn’t stand them. I thought they stank,” said Himex of her first sprout experience. “But Marianne, she changed that for me.”

Same for participant Rosie Agee, of Harvey, who now snacks on the crispy kale chips she learned to make in class (torn kale, spread on a pan, sprinkled with olive oil and seasoning, like Tony Chacere’s salt-free version, then baked at 375 til crispy).

“I made 15 pans the other day, for people I know, just because,”Agee said gleefully. “They’re crunchy, healthy and delicious.”

And that’s exactly the point, Cufone said, beeming over her star students. “Teaching them how to eat in a healthy way and hope they’ll pass that on to friends and family. This is part of our grant promise — to not only grow more healthy food, but provide opportunities to use it in new ways. And to create new cooking traditions. We have a lot of cooking traditions in New Orleans, but not many of them are healthy. We’re striving to create new traditions for the people in our community in ways that are just as fun, tastes good, and healthy for you, too!”

Marianne Cufone is the project director for Growing LA, executive director for the Recirculating Farms Coalition, an environmental attorney, and a professional chef.



  • 1 pound Brussels sprouts
  • 1 and ½ tablespoons olive oil
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • Kosher or sea salt
  • ground black pepper
  • 1/2 cup chopped nuts (walnut or pecans) or seeds (pumpkin or sunflower), toasted
  • 1/2 cup dried cranberries
  • 1 tablespoon of honey


  1. Shred the Brussels sprouts by removing the core and thinly slicing.
  2. Warm the olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat.
  3. Add the Brussels sprouts, nutmeg, and salt and pepper, to taste.
  4. Cook, stirring, until the Brussels sprouts are bright and slightly wilted, about 3 to 5 minutes.
  5. Add the nuts or seeds and the cranberries and honey, toss to combine.
  6. Serve warm.



  • 1/2 small red onion
  • Juice of 1 lemon
  • 1 teaspoon honey
  • 1 teaspoon whole grain mustard
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 lb of Brussels sprouts (use larger sized sprouts if possible)
  • 1/2 cup finely grated Pecorino Romano cheese
  • Optional – toasted seeds or nuts (I like pumpkin seeds or “pepitios”)


  1. Slice red onion thin then soak in a small bowl of cold water while you prepare the rest of the ingredients.
  2. In a small bowl, whisk together the lemon juice, honey, mustard and a pinch of salt and pepper. Whisk in the olive oil until the dressing is mixed toegther. Set aside.
  3. Remove any bruised outer leaves and slice off most of the hard root end on Brussels.
  4. Shave the sprouts one at a time (or use a Cuisinart). When you’re done, use your fingers to gently separate.
  5. Put the sprouts in a serving bowl and toss gently with the onions (drained) and the dressing.
  6. Mix in the Pecorino Romano, and any toasted nuts or seeds gently.
  7. Salt and pepper to taste.
  8. Serve immediately.