Eating well

Healthy choices don’t always mean deprivation

By
January 14, 2008

A few years ago, when I was running a cooking school, I was approached by doctors at the Providence Cancer Center in Portland, Oregon, to teach healthy cooking classes.

Images of steamed broccoli, bland brown rice, and flavorless fish swam before my eyes. The very last thing I wanted to do was cook in a food-is-fuel sort of way. I’d seen the cookbooks, written mostly by doctors and dietitians, that seemed to rob all the passion, flavor, and fun from my favorite pastime. No thanks.

But the fast-talking doctors got through to me. What they were prescribing wasn’t so different from the classes I was already teaching, and “delicious” was the most important part of the treatment; their dietary recommendations, based on the Mediterranean Diet model, were about as yummy as it gets.

And the medical thinking? The idea behind the Mediterranean Diet is to replicate the low rates of cancer, diabetes, and heart disease in Mediterranean countries by eating the traditional foods of those cultures.

Pasta puttanesca is both delicious and healthy.

Based on data from the EPIC (European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition) project, the largest study to date on the relationship between diet and cancer, the Mediterranean Diet proposes that fat (generally in the form of extra-virgin olive oil) can make up 30 percent of the calories in a healthy diet. The diet is rounded out with a wide array of vegetables (especially cruciferous ones like broccoli), whole unprocessed grains, fruit, limited quantities of animal protein (mostly in the form of fish), moderate consumption of wine with meals, ample garlic, and limited dairy (mostly in the form of yogurt and cheese).

Lots of pure foods, fresh fish, and a little vino now and then, all served in the course of a pleasant, lingering meal? It sounded to me like a European vacation, not a diet. And that’s just the point, the doctors said; it’s commonsense eating, not a strict, radical diet. The successful diet, after all, is the one you stay on for life.

So I agreed to teach the classes. But in the process, I had to look anew at how to organize a meal, learn how to cook with whole grains, retool my pantry, and restrict my typical American sweet tooth.

Rethinking food

The students who attended the Food Is Medicine series at the cooking school I ran were wonderful people burdened with cancer. On top of dealing with cancer treatments, side effects, and having their lives turned upside down by the disease, many of them came in confused and panicked by the plethora of conflicting information about diet. Some saw food as the enemy and consequently were malnourished; others had fallen prey to “silver bullet” diets, convinced that carrot juice, for example, was going to save them.

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Thanks to the persistent, passionate doctors, I learned and taught that food is neither the enemy nor the absolute cure. It’s a factor in living a healthy life, and it’s a factor that can be joyful. Imagine a sunny terrace on a Greek isle, where a family gathers in the shade at a table covered with platters of grilled fish, garlicky vegetable salads dressed with great olive oil, and rustic slices of whole-grain bread. The scene sounds nothing like a pharmacy, but it does provide some of the best medicine we know.

Meat as condiment

One of the first things the doctors suggested was that the classes I taught should use meat more as a condiment than an anchor. Dinner as a huge hunk of meat, garnished with a little pile of vegetables, is a common American habit. I turned instead to cultures that generally eat meat sparingly, as part of a vegetable-rich meal, for cooking ideas.

I taught a Moroccan class featuring a tagine, a stew full of zucchini, red peppers, chickpeas, tomatoes, and onions in a spice-laced sauce. The stew itself was quite flavorful; the few pieces of chicken in it were simply part of the whole, not the main event. Similarly, an Italian class featured an entrée of whole-wheat calzones filled with a little fresh Italian sausage and a lot of roasted peppers, eggplant, onions, and tomatoes. A southern French class included fresh grilled sardines with a ragout of roasted cherry tomatoes and green beans.

Taking vegetables from the steamed-naked-lying-there-on-the-plate role to a vital, flavorful part of the entire meal in this way went a long way toward helping me and my students eat the five daily servings of vegetables that the doctors recommended.

Switching to whole grains

The words “whole wheat” on a foodstuff — a box of crackers, a loaf of bread — don’t necessarily mean that the food is healthy, just that the product contains some whole wheat. Smart shoppers, the doctors reminded my classes, look for items labeled “100 percent whole wheat.” With time, most of the students made the transition rather easily.

The next hurdle was cooking with whole-wheat pasta. A hearty whole-wheat rigatoni dish with broccoli rabe that I made for one class had students less than smitten. “It’s so dense and chewy, I don’t think I can change over to whole wheat,” one student confessed. By the next class, I had discovered that more delicate forms of whole-wheat pasta, like linguini and capellini, were more like the pasta we were all used to, especially when treated with familiar elements like a rich tomato sauce with turkey meatballs.

Ditto with the conversion to brown rice. Not all brown rice is created equal. Delicate long-grain rices, like fragrant basmati or jasmine, are far more appealing than sticky short-grain brown rices. When paired with a zippy lentil curry or chicken and broccoli stir-fry with ginger and garlic, brown basmati and jasmine rices became class favorites.

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1. by Matthew Amster-Burton on Jan 14, 2008 at 8:27 PM PST

Have you made dried beans the way Russ Parsons does it? <a href="http://forums.egullet.org/index.php?showtopic=99104”>Here’s a thread about it</a> from eGullet. Basically, no soaking, salt at the beginning, cook them in the oven 90 minutes. Best beans you’ve ever made, I’d wager, and you can completely ignore them while they’re cooking. If more people knew about this, I’m guessing they’d eat more beans.

2. by Liz Crain on Jan 15, 2008 at 1:22 PM PST

I agree -- I had chickpeas prepared this way recently and they were delicious. Thanks for the link.

I’m ready to try whole wheat pasta again too after reading this. I’ll try the thinner varieties suggested. Thanks for the great article.

3. by David on Jan 16, 2008 at 2:23 PM PST

Indeed Olive Oil is the “oil” or “juice” of the gods, but it is difficult to get a fresh extra virgin olive oil here in the States. Olive oil unlike wine does not get better with age, and it ‘oxidizes’ or becomes rancid if conditions are not adequate for the oil, depriving you of the delicious taste and healthful benefits of fresh olive oil (phenols and anti-oxidants). I know of only a handful of places here in Portland that carry fresh olive oil. Do a search for olive oil on PortlandFood.org and you will find a few places that carry it. But olive oil is just a part in the whole range of things that Mediterranean Europeans do to live a healthy lifestyle and stress levels are also a factor.

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