Heart-healthy cuisine

According to some, Mediterranean meals are among the healthiest in the world.

Squash (photo credit: Courtesy)
(photo credit: Courtesy)
I’ve been exchanging ideas about healthy cooking with Robert Leighton, a “foodie and former chocolate executive with a cholesterol problem.” In his new book, The Kardea Gourmet: Smart and Delicious Eating for a Healthy Heart, which he co-authored with Dr. Richard Collins, the aim is to present healthy eating, “the foundation for long-term health and vital aging.”
“Kardea” means “heart” in Greek, and the authors highlight the traditional Mediterranean eating patterns, “among the heart healthiest in the world,” while correcting some misconceptions about them. Many believe that the Mediterranean diet “is about the generous use of olive oil... While the diet includes some olive oil, lean meats, cheese and other dairy, fish and eggs, true heart healthy Mediterranean eating is plant-based, with vegetables, fruits and grains playing a much larger role than in the standard American diet.”
Acknowledging that for most people a pure plant-based diet is too restrictive, they allow some fish and meat. They provide simple menu-planning tips for the Mediterranean diet, which “starts when you get up and guides your eating throughout the day: • Never eat breakfast without fruit.
• Every meal should have whole grains or vegetables.
• Emphasize fresh and natural, unprocessed foods.
• Enjoy colorful foods, which provide valuable nutrients.
• Avoid giving animal-based foods a starring role – they should be supporting players at best.”
For lowering cholesterol, foods that contain plant sterols, such as almonds, walnuts, apples and bananas, are particularly valuable, as are those that have soluble fiber, such as barley, oatmeal, legumes, broccoli and oranges.
Even healthy food can become harmful if it is not cooked properly: “Cooking intensifies the nutritive value of some foods while making other nutrients more easily absorbed. Yet cooking also can destroy the nutritional value of certain foods.”
High-temperature cooking ruins the nutritional value of food and can generate potentially damaging compounds that come from “well-done, overdone, deep fried meats and the blackening or charring associated with high temperature or direct flame cooking.” Overheated oils and well-toasted bread and other browned carbohydrates can also result in unhealthy elements forming. Therefore, they advocate “cool cooking,” especially the techniques of steaming, stewing, poaching and soup-making.
Leighton and Collins reassure food lovers that there is no need to abandon the great tastes from sautéing and grilling. Instead, use them in “combination cooking.”
“Allow lower temperature cooking methods – lower temperature oven roasting, stewing, steaming and poaching – to do most of the cooking,” they write.
“You might start with a hotter flame to sear and impart a delicious flavor, and finish with lower temperatures. Alternatively, these lower temperature cooking methods can be utilized upfront, finishing with the hotter flame or higher heat.” When barbecuing, first cook the food at lower temperature on the stove, in the oven or on the cooler part of the grill, and finish the food over the hot coals.
Leighton and Collins consider stir-frying an excellent method for cooking vegetables with some meats and fish. Although stir-frying requires high heat, it “occurs in a flash,” and ingredients should be stirred and tossed so they cook without scorching. For longer-cooking ingredients, add liquid after briefly stirfrying and cover so that the food steams.
Water-sautéing is another technique they recommend for vegetables. First you saute onions or garlic in a little oil over moderate heat, and then add the vegetables with a flavorful liquid such as balsamic vinegar, wine or tomato juice; finish cooking in a covered pan. To create a flavorful sauce that takes advantage of the nutrients that escaped into the cooking liquid, remove the cooked vegetables and cook the broth uncovered to concentrate it.
Leighton and Collins make vegan, seafood and meat paella, using nutritious barley instead of white rice. For ratatouille, traditionally made by sautéing eggplant, zucchini, peppers and onions in oil and cooking them with tomatoes, they roast a sliced onion briefly without oil and then bake it with the other sliced vegetables in tomato sauce, adding roasted red peppers, black olives and a little olive oil for extra flavor.
“Cooking should be an opportunity to create something unique and delicious and to relax,” write Leighton and Collins. “Look for a way to make each meal just a bit special... a new spice... or a fruit or vegetable not normally eaten... Each time you prepare a meal, look for something exceptional that will add to the fun.”
The writer is the author of Healthy Cooking for the Jewish Home.
This colorful version of paella is from The Kardea Gourmet.
1 cup well-rinsed pearl barley
2 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
1 small onion, chopped small
1⁄2 fresh red pepper, thinly sliced into rings
1⁄2 tsp. turmeric
1⁄2 tsp. saffron
2 cups water
1 tsp. smoked paprika
1⁄2 cup roasted pepper, cut into wide strips (fresh roasted or jarred)
1 cup peas, fresh or frozen
1 cup cooked chickpeas (optional)
1⁄2 cup white wine
1 cup artichoke hearts, cooked, frozen or canned, quartered (see Note)
1 Tbsp. capers 1⁄4 cup chopped green olives Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
1⁄2 cup fresh chopped parsley
Rinse barley until water is no longer cloudy and runs clear. Set aside to drain.
Heat an ovenproof pan over medium heat. Add olive oil, chopped onion and red pepper rings. Saute for a few minutes. Remove pepper rings.
Add rinsed barley to the pan and saute for 5 minutes, stirring regularly and making sure that barley does not burn or stick to bottom of pan. Add turmeric and saffron, and then 2 cups water to the hot barley. Stir until the yellow color of the spice is dispersed through the pan.
Cover, lower heat, and cook for 25 minutes. While the barley is cooking on the stovetop, preheat oven to 175ºC.
Blend smoked paprika with chopped roasted peppers, peas and chickpeas (if desired); add white wine and then blend into the barley. Layer red pepper rings, artichoke quarters, capers and chopped olives on top of barley. Cover and bake in oven for 20 to 30 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Lightly stir in about half the parsley. Serve sprinkled with remaining parsley.
Note: You can trim artichokes to obtain hearts or simply cook whole artichokes; save the leaves for dipping and use the tender hearts in this recipe. Whole artichoke cooking time varies from 30 to 50 minutes, depending on their size.
Makes 4 servings
Providing a hint of acidity may be the most popular way to give zip to zucchini, whether it comes from fresh lemon juice, good quality vinegar or tomatoes. For this light, refreshing salad, cooked by a method similar to water sautéing, the squash and mushrooms cook briefly in a garlic dressing accented with Middle Eastern spices, which gives them a golden hue. Serve the crisp-tender vegetables cool as a salad or warm with brown rice and a vegetable burger.
225 gr. zucchini or pale green summer squash (kishuim)
225 gr. yellow zucchini or additional green zucchini
225 gr. mushrooms, quartered
3 garlic cloves, minced
2 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
1⁄4 cup water Salt and freshly ground pepper
3⁄4 tsp. ground cumin
1⁄2 tsp. ground ginger
1⁄4 tsp. turmeric (optional)
1⁄2 tsp. paprika
1⁄4 tsp. cayenne pepper, or to taste
1 Tbsp. strained fresh lemon juice
1 to 2 Tbsp. chopped cilantro (fresh coriander) or parsley
Quarter zucchini lengthwise, then cut in 2-cm. slices crosswise to make cubes. Cut yellow zucchini in cubes of similar size.
Put squash cubes and mushrooms in a sauté pan with garlic, oil and water. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Bring to a boil. Cook uncovered over medium-high heat, stirring often, for 5 minutes or until squash pieces are crisp-tender and most of liquid evaporates. Add cumin, ginger, turmeric, paprika and cayenne pepper and stir over low heat for 30 seconds. Off heat, add lemon juice and half of cilantro. Taste and adjust seasoning. Serve warm or cool, sprinkled with remaining cilantro.
Makes 4 servings