Melissa “Melicious” Joulwan is the author of the popular paleo recipe and lifestyle blog The Clothes Make The Girl and the cookbook Well Fed: Paleo Recipes For People Who Love To Eat. She CrossFits, practices yoga and meditation, eats paleo, and loves Prague, Jane Eyre, and lifting heavy things. After a thyroidectomy in 2009, she became particularly interested in how diet affects hormones, body composition, and mood, and motivation. She is also a retired Rollergirl and the author of the memoir Rollergirl: Totally True Tales From The Track.
Q: How did you get involved in cooking to begin with? Was it something you learned to love early on or did you come to it later?
I was born into a restaurant family. Before you get the wrong idea: We lived in rural Pennsylvania, it was the late sixties, and no one was treating chefs like rock stars.
My grandfather owned The Garfield, one of those shiny chrome diners. My dad ran The Country Squire Restaurant, a combination coffee shop, formal dining room, and motel. I grew up in these restaurants and took my place in an extended family of cooks.
My dad is (mostly) Lebanese, and my mom is (mostly) Italian, with large families on both sides of the equation. Any gathering of the tribes included tables that buckled under the weight of homemade stuffed grape leaves and kibbeh on the Middle Eastern side — or homemade lasagna, meatballs, and cannoli at the Italian family reunions.
My family is happiest together in the kitchen. Cooking—and the associated eating—are the activities on which we all agree. Get us around a stove or a cutting board, and we are the very definition of collaboration. We move in a smooth rhythm, and the right ingredients seem to appear out of thin air. Suddenly, the clove of garlic I need has been perfectly minced, and somehow, the parsley is already chopped. There’s plenty of laughing.
When I switched to eating a paleo diet, it reignited my love of cooking. It’s been a true delight to play around in the kitchen and find ways to adapt family favorites to remove grains, dairy, legumes, and added sugar. Now that I have my blog The Clothes Make The Girl and my cookbook Well Fed: Paleo Recipes For People Who Love To Eat, my family has joined me and are eating more paleo recipes, too.
Q: Why is eating grass-fed meat and sustainably-caught fish different? How does it affect your cooking?
Eating grass-fed hasn’t changed the way I cook so much as it’s changed the way I feel about what I cook. Before I switched to a paleo diet, I didn’t give much thought to where my food originated or how it lived. I bought meat based on price.
Now that I understand more about my health and the health of the animals I eat, I honor those animals. I want them to have a great quality of life, right up to the time they fulfill their purpose and become my food.
Q: Is it just about health? Or is there more to it than that?
Yes, it’s about health but is about more than that, too. Yes, we humans are at the top of the food chain — at least on land where great white sharks can’t get to us. But I don’t think that gives us the right to exploit animals. They shouldn’t suffer to feed us, although I do believe that when we eat humanely-raised, healthy animals, we honor them. They pass their healthfulness onto us, and we are duty bound to appreciate it — both my eating delicious food and by making the choice to purchase only animals that are raised happily and healthily.
Q: How did you learn about grass-fed meat?
I learned about the health benefits of grass-fed meat when I was learning about the paleo diet. And I was very affected by the movie Food, Inc. I saw it at a matinee on a hot, July afternoon, and it changed my life. My husband and I went directly to the grocery store and started researching labeling. We cleaned out our cabinets and started new shopping habits.
Q: Why is it so important to have the right ingredients?
The number one thing we can do for our health is to eat high-quality food. Our health depends on giving our body the best building blocks, and that starts with the best raw materials in the form of grass-fed meat, sustainably-caught fish, and local, seasonal produce. I also feel very strongly that everyone should know how to cook at least three meals they love. The first step in eating well is cooking well.
Q: What are the most important keys to success for the home chef?
Cooking and eating have been elevated to art form in our culture, but I also think that cooking can be fun for regular people. Let the snooty chefs do their thing — we regular home cooks should just make the stuff we like to eat! I think people should give themselves permission to experiment and make mistakes so they can learn what they like and how to create food that sustains them physically and emotionally.
Q: What are your best tips for home cooking?
I have a full-time job, write my blog every day, do yoga three times a week, lift weights twice a week, and love to read. Free time is at a premium, so even though I really do love to cook, I try to minimize my time in the kitchen by doing one big "Cookup" every week. I hunker down in the kitchen for a few hours and make food that will keep us fed for the week so that when it’s time to hustle dinner to the table, most of the work is already done. I can just reheat and serve. I joke that it’s my Paleo Processed Food because once a week, I’m a food manufacturer. This is my best advice for other busy cooks that want to eat healthy, delicious food without spending all their free time in the kitchen.
My other tip is to invest in a few key pieces of equipment that will help you take charge of your cooking tasks: a really good knife that feels like an extension of you, a burly food processor, a reliable non-stick skillet, and a complete set of measuring cups and spoons. With those basics, you can make some amazing food.
Finally, don’t be afraid of spices. I love international food, so my spice cabinet is a little out of control, but it’s also what keeps me from getting bored with my home cooking. It’s like having your own personal food court, only the food is healthy and you know it’s going to taste awesome.
Q: What is your favorite recipe using grass-fed meat?
Hmmm... I’m pretty fond of the Deconstructed Gyros recipe I’ve included here because it tastes like the lamb my dad used to grill for us when I was growing up, and it incorporates my homemade mayo recipe, which is a fairly new discovery for me. I resisted making homemade mayo for a long time, and now that I’ve perfected my technique and ingredients, I love it.