In the Boca Raton home of Reed Alexander, the kitchen was the place where appetites went to die.
His parents, attorneys who ran individual practices outside the home, were never home to cook. When they were, Reed’s mother, Michele, was usually packing the two of them for Los Angeles where Reed acts and does commercials, most recently as a regular star on the hit Nickelodeon show “iCarly.”
You’ve heard of mothers, grandmothers and great-grandmothers passing down recipes? Reed Alexander had none of that. He comes from three generations of people who love to eat out.
“When I’d ask, ‘What’s for dinner?’ she’d reach for a phone book,” Alexander said, laughing.
He was always pudgy, not fat but not svelte like his “iCarly” costars. And on the set, Alexander felt sluggish, exhausted, constantly reaching for whatever food he could grab on the way to the set or during a break in filming.
All his worries coalesced just weeks later when his great-uncle Jeff Hillman, a man in his 50s, died unexpectedly of a heart attack. He’d had diabetes for years and their family has a history of heart disease.
“To a 14-year-old, ‘diabetes’ and ‘heart disease’ sounds like ‘supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,’ ” he said. “But then we get that call and he dies and it was shocking. And I realized, ‘I’m in the same boat.’ ”
If it sounds implausible that, at 18, Alexander has already authored his first cookbook, “KewlBites,” aimed at simple, healthfully tweaked recipes families can cook together—with recipes he discovered and tested in that once-barely used family kitchen— consider how he got into acting.
While in school plays at the Pine Crest School in Boca Raton, he decided he wanted to pursue acting. So one morning, he Googled Hollywood agents and canvassed them with phone calls. By the time his parents, Adam and Michele Hodkin, got home from work, they had a half-dozen messages on their answering machine and Reed welcomed them home with an adapted version of Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. He was 7.
“He’s always been very savvy, very in touch with the things he wants to do,” Michele Hodkin said.
So Reed (who uses the last name Alexander for work) began to experiment.
He turned the barely used but modern family kitchen into his laboratory. He set out with a simple goal: Every day, try one new ingredient.
One day, it might be cilantro. On another, dragon fruit. He’d bring it home, hit the Internet and experiment with different ways to cook it. He wanted to find the best way to tap into those new flavors. But he also was curious about how to make healthier versions of the food he loved: meatballs, pizza, dumplings.
Since he was too young to drive, he’d ask his mother to stop at Whole Foods for specific ingredients for meals he was concocting. And since she was a novice in the kitchen, he texted her pictures of the ingredients. She texted pictures back.
“It was an adventure,” Michele said. “I actually know how to read a nutritional label now. We learned all about ingredients and portion control. Things we’d never thought about.”
Although he and his parents had been inexperienced in the kitchen, they were schooled in the foodie arts. The family of three traveled two or three times a year, to Europe, South America, across the Orient, the Mediterranean, eating their way across the world.
At home, they were the first to visit new restaurants all over South Florida. (Reed’s favorite haunts are Cafe Boulud, Sushi Yama, Racks, Seasons 52 and Ta-boo.)
They gave their son an appreciation for world culture and that made its way to the plate.
A visit to Hong Kong inspired his vegetable dumplings with lemongrass dipping sauce. Rome introduced him to the biscotti he ate at a cafe overlooking the Colosseum. Sorrento inspired his lemon-almond angel food cake with vanilla bean. Venice, his flatbread pizza infused with a shallot-garlic-oregano olive oil paste he shows how to make. London, the clotted cream, which … er, he’s still working on making healthy. (“Maybe for the next book,” he laughs.)
Every stop awakened a different part of his curiosity in their home kitchen.
As he was tasting a new recipe, he’d run into the family room and yell, “You’ve got to taste this!” Two minutes later, Michele was on the phone with her parents, who live in the same neighborhood, inviting them over for a dinner.
Along the way, Alexander lost 15 pounds as he understood what was in the food that he put into his body. His mother lost 20.
“I was inspired because I was learning, too,” Michele said. “I’ve become a really good sous chef. I know what cilantro is now!”
His enthusiasm has caught on. The Clinton Foundation invited him to develop nutritious lunch recipes across the country with the Alliance for a Healthier Generation — the former President wrote a blurb for his book — and has teamed up with First Lady Michelle Obama in her Let’s Move! initiative to end childhood obesity.
He’s also been mentored by Food Network icons such as Rachael Ray and Ingrid Hoffman even as he continues acting and starts at NYU, where his interests vary from international business to broadcast journalism. (“Oh, my God, I’d love to be the next Anderson Cooper or Wolf Blitzer,” he said.)
Maybe the best unintended consequences of his food science experiments, though, have come at home.
He regularly cooks salt-free dishes for his 96-year-old great-grandmother, Aline Pokrass, who lives in South Florida and is on dialysis. He loves it when his grandmother Caryn Blank calls him out of the blue to mention how delicious his vanilla-bean pound cake is (hint, hint). And his parents have become regulars in the kitchen after work.
“Instead of these things being passed down, I feel like they’re being passed up,” he said.
His most successful recipe, it seems, has been for bringing his busy family together around the dinner table.
From “KewlBites,” by Reed Alexander
YIELD: 3 to 5 servings (2 to 3 sliders per serving)
1/2 cup diced sweet onion
3 tablespoons minced fresh flat-leaf parsley
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
2 teaspoons minced garlic
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
11/2 pounds 90 percent lean ground sirloin beef
3 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon grated Cheddar cheese
10 whole wheat slider buns (if desired, hollow out extra bread)
Toppings of choice, such as lettuce, tomatoes, pickles, onions (optional)
In the bowl of a food processor, combine the onion, parsley, mustard, garlic, salt, and pepper and pulse to combine. Transfer to a large mixing bowl, add the ground beef, and stir until just incorporated.
Divide the meat into 10 equal portions and shape into balls. Make an indentation in the center of each ball with your thumb and fill with 1 teaspoon Cheddar. Cover the cheese with the meat and press down slightly to form a patty.
Preheat the grill to medium or heat a grill pan over medium heat on the stovetop. Lightly coat the grates with olive oil. Grill the sliders until browned and cooked through, 5 to 7 minutes per side. Place the patties on the buns, add toppings as desired, and serve.
Kewl Chopped Guacamole Salad
YIELD: 6 servings
4 ripe roma tomatoes, cut into 1/2-inch chunks
1 large yellow tomato, cut into 1/2-inch chunks
4 ripe avocadoes, cut into 1/2-inch chunks
1 sweet white onion, cut into 1/4-inch chunks
1 bunch fresh cilantro, chopped
Juice of 2 lemons
In a large bowl, gently combine the red and yellow tomatoes, avocadoes, onion, cilantro, and salt and pepper to taste. Add the lemon juice and toss lightly to combine.
Serve for lunch or in a bowl alongside chips for a snack or starter.