Gold Medal Gourmet
When she's not swimming, Natalie Coughlin is an all-star foodie.
Photography by Stephanie Rausser
Natalie Coughlin holds the world record in the 100-meter backstroke and in August became the first woman to win six medals in a single Olympics. Now the 26-year-old Lafayette resident has a new goal: creating the perfect bruschetta.
“Metro restaurant in Lafayette has the greatest bruschetta appetizer, with goat cheese and figs,” says Coughlin. “I’ve been obsessed with trying to perfect it at home.”
When Coughlin isn’t competing, training, or promoting her swim career, the East Bay native is cooking, reading about, and eating delicious food. Asked about her favorite East Bay restaurants, the dedicated foodie rattles off a list so specific that she’s soon dissecting the ingredients in dishes she loves, such as the crab Cobb at Emeryville’s Townhouse and the corn cilantro pancakes at Inn Kensington. “I’m Rain Man when it comes to food,” she says, laughing.
This enthusiasm for food—combined with her supermodel good looks—has garnered invitations for Coughlin to cook on the Today Show and the Rachael Ray Show. “Rachael Ray has the best backstage food I’ve ever seen,” dishes Coughlin. “Usually, TV shows offer M&Ms and a couple of sodas. Rachael had pea and mint canapés, prosciutto-wrapped shrimp, and delicious mini cherry pies.”
During the Olympics, NBC asked Coughlin to prepare an Asian-themed dish in Beijing. “My go-to recipe is pot stickers,” Coughlin says. “But they said, ‘We’ve already done a pot stickers story.’ So I had to find a new recipe—for Dan Dan noodles—go out, find the ingredients, and do all the prep myself in one day.”
Since she came home from Beijing, Coughlin has been crisscrossing the country, cracking wise with Jay Leno, ringing the bell at the New York Stock Exchange, receiving a Bay Area Filipino of the Year award, and having to answer far too many questions about whether octomedalist Michael Phelps really eats 12,000 calories every day. (Let’s get that one out of the way: Coughlin was fairly disgusted by the media’s celebration of Phelps’ reported fries-and-pizza diet: “I did the math, and 12,000 calories is equivalent to eating 20 Big Macs a day,” she says, shuddering.)
Today, she’s enjoying a rare day at home in her small Eichler-esque house in the Lafayette hills. Her Border Terrier, SheRah, yips excitedly as a team of photographers, stylists, and editors brings a variety of dishes from Metro into Coughlin’s kitchen. “Metro was the first place I went when I got home from Beijing,” says Coughlin, sampling a gnocchi dish.
Coughlin grew up in Vallejo and Benicia, in a small family that wasn’t overly gourmet. “We went to the same restaurant for dinner every Friday and the same café for breakfast after church every Sunday,” she says. It wasn’t until her freshman year at Cal that she discovered her inner foodie. Ironically, it wasn’t Chez Panisse or other Gourmet Ghetto institutions that triggered her gastronomical explorations, but the cafeteria food on campus.
“I hated the dorm food so much that I couldn’t wait to get my own apartment and cook for myself,” Coughlin says. “At first, I could only make crepes, but I started watching cooking shows, reading food magazines, and practicing. And, about four years ago, I really got into being conscious about what I eat, being more aware of organic foods.”
Most days, Coughlin is up at 5 a.m. to watch the sun rise over Mount Diablo while drinking an energy shake. She swims for two hours and has a breakfast of oatmeal or kashi. The rest of the morning is divided between Pilates workouts and cardio training—often running the grueling Lafayette Reservoir ridge trail. When in her hardcore training mode, Coughlin consumes between 3,500 and 4,000 calories per day.
“I train nonstop until noon, until I’m so hungry I can’t stand myself,” she says. “So I wind down in the kitchen. I’ll make myself a turkey wrap or a tuna melt for lunch. I try to have a really good salad with every meal.”
Coughlin subscribes to the organic delivery service Farm Fresh to You and loves the variety of produce she receives each week. “They bring a lot of unusual items, like fava beans and napa cabbage, that I wouldn’t think to cook with. It keeps me creative in the kitchen.” She also grows her own fruits and vegetables in her small backyard.
Her fiancé (and high school sweetheart), Ethan Hall, popped the question under the fruit trees—Meyer lemons, blood oranges, and mission figs—in April. The couple are planning a spring wedding in Napa.
Coughlin and Hall love having dinner parties but don’t cook together much. “I’ll end up criticizing his chopping skills,” she says, laughing. “Due to my OCD, I like to do most of the cooking.”
When her media blitz slows down, Coughlin will get back to training, with her sights set on the London Olympics in 2012. After that, who knows—she’d love to have her own cooking show someday, a program to “appeal to athletes and nonathletes with simple, healthy foods.” And, of course, she’s still trying to perfect her bruschetta.
Natalie Coughlin’s Risotto-style Mushroom Quinoa
Quinoa is a grain-like seed that is very high in protein and extremely hearty—it can be found in the pastas and grains section of most supermarkets. The key to risottos is to constantly stir the pot in order to thicken the dish and prevent the grains from sticking to the bottom.
6 cups chicken or vegetable broth
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 tablespoons butter
2 celery sticks, diced
1 large onion, diced
2 cups cremini mushrooms, diced
1 tablespoon garlic, minced
12 ounces quinoa
1 cup dry white wine
1/3 cup Parmesan, grated
1 tablespoon thyme, chopped
1/2 cup parsley, roughly chopped
Salt and pepper to taste
Heat the broth in a large pot. Keep at a simmer.
Heat a separate large, heavy-bottomed pot over a medium-high heat with the olive oil and one tablespoon of butter. Just before the oil starts to smoke, sauté the celery, onions, mushrooms and garlic until the vegetables are translucent and mushrooms have given off their water. Add the quinoa to the mixture, stirring constantly until slightly toasted (about 2-3 minutes).
Add enough white wine to cover the quinoa mixture. Stir until almost dry. Add 1-2 ladles of the broth, enough to cover, and stir the mixture. Continue to stir and add broth (1-2 ladles at a time) until the quinoa is fully cooked, but has a slight al dente bite. (There will probably be some leftover broth.)
When the mixture is fully cooked, but has some residual liquid, turn the heat off. Stir in Parmesan, thyme, parsley, remaining butter, and salt and pepper. Cover mixture and allow to sit for a few minutes.
Serve with a garnish of parsley and a few shavings of Parmesan.