When chef, author and TV host Devin Alexander first moved to Los Angeles from her small town of Reading, Penn., she was an aspiring screenwriter. She quickly realized her Hollywood writer aspirations weren’t unique, but her cooking was.
Alexander practically grew up perched on kitchen counters, where her two Italian grandmothers taught her how to make homemade pasta and meatballs. She absorbed the way the women were kneading, rolling, seasoning and cooking until, eventually, she began to prepare their recipes for the whole family herself.
She loved cooking and eating such good food, but she struggled with her weight as a teenager. At 15 years old and 200 pounds, she tried all sorts of diets. She didn’t find success until she made healthy substitutions in the foods she ate. “You don’t have to deprive yourself to be fit and healthy,” she told herself, and it’s been her mantra ever since.
While trying to break into the movie industry as a writer, Alexander cooked her signature healthy comfort food at celebrity charity events, where people complimented her again and again on her delicious and nutritious dishes. She decided to change career aspirations and attended Westlake Culinary Institute to become a chef. After her training, she launched a catering business, cooking for celebrities such as Reba McEntire. Her big break came when she landed a role as the health chef on “The Biggest Loser” for almost 10 years.
Alexander wrote cookbooks for the reality TV show and, eventually, penned her own cookbooks. Although she held many titles (author, chef, TV host), there was one title she desperately wanted: mom.
In 2018, Devin’s dream came true when she adopted her daughter from the Los Angeles County foster care system. Now, 5-year-old Cayenne is the one sitting on the kitchen counter learning to cook — and critique — her family’s recipes. At 2, she was creating basic recipes. By 3, she was giving her mom feedback: “This needs more lemon, Mommy.” Cooking with Cayenne has inspired Alexander to get even more creative in the kitchen, making healthy meals and snacks that both adults and children will love.
Her latest book, “The Land of Secret Superpowers: Vegetables,” inspires kids to eat veggies by teaching them about the different “powers” we get from vegetables. Another way to get more vegetables in our family’s diet is by making plant-based substitutions, Alexander says. For instance, she will swap out regular burgers for beef and mushroom burgers or use almond milk over whole milk for her daughter’s cereal or overnight oat cups.
Here, Alexander shares one of her favorite vegetarian entrees that can also be served as a healthy side dish. It’s quick and easy to make, and the whole family will love it.
“Fried” Mushroom Parmesan Bake
Makes 4 servings
2 (8-ounce) packages button mushrooms, cleaned and stems removed*
½ cup all-natural marinara sauce (preferably low-fat, low-salt, no sugar added; Alexander uses Organics pasta sauce.)
½ teaspoon dried oregano leaves
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1 ounce (about ¼ cup) shredded plant-based mozzarella cheese (such as Open Nature plant-based mozzarella shreds)
2 tablespoons all-natural whole wheat panko-style breadcrumbs
2 teaspoons all-natural grated Parmesan cheese
Note: When cleaning mushrooms, Alexander says, don’t run them under water. Instead, peel them or rub them with a damp paper towel to remove any dirt. Mushrooms are like sponges, so if you run them under water, they’ll absorb a ton of moisture. The end result could be mushy or tough.
Preheat the oven to 425°F.
Add the mushroom caps to an 8x3x8-inch glass or ceramic baking dish.
Spoon the marinara sauce evenly over the mushrooms. Sprinkle them evenly with the oregano, followed by the garlic powder. Toss them gently to combine, flipping the mushrooms so they lay stem side down in the dish.
Bake for 15 to 20 minutes, or until the mushrooms are tender and mostly cooked through. Sprinkle the mozzarella, breadcrumbs and Parmesan evenly over the mushrooms. Bake for 4 to 6 minutes longer, or until the cheese is melted and the mushrooms are tender but not mushy. Let them rest for 5 minutes and serve.
*You can save the mushroom stems to eat in a salad, or sauté them and serve over a grilled buffalo steak or other extra-lean steak.