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Eating well

(article, Ivy Manning)

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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.

[%image reference-image float=right width=400 credit="Photo © Culinate" caption="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. 

h3. 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.

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.

h3. 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.

h3. 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.

With wheat and rice out of the way, the doctors asked me to experiment with other whole grains. Again I turned to traditional Mediterranean fare, cooking up dishes like minestrone soup enriched with chewy grains of farro, vegetable and beef soup with unpearled barley, and tabbouleh salad made with quinoa (a protein-rich Andean grain) instead of bulgur wheat.

[%image promo-image float=right width=350 credit="Photo © Culinate" caption="Ivy Manning grates fresh cheese over her whole-wheat pasta puttanesca."]

h3. Oil of the gods

Not only does it keep your skin soft and luminous, olive oil can actually help decrease your cholesterol and act as an antioxidant. But after I made an overly pungent vinaigrette with a peppery Tuscan olive oil, I learned that the most expensive olive oil wasn't always the best choice for every dish. 

In my cooking class, a taste test of about 15 olive oils displayed the range of oils on the market. A Spanish tinned olive oil had a sunny, golden flavor that was excellent for cooking, while a deep green Tuscan oil had a peppery bite that was best as a dip for bread or a drizzle over fish. I learned that each oil must be treated like an individual ingredient; these days, I confess, my pantry has no fewer than six different olive oils. 

h3. Vegetable protein, quickly

Eating plenty of fiber- and nutrient-rich beans and legumes is another healthful Mediterranean (and Latin American, and Asian) habit. I’d never been wild about mushy, sodium-laden canned beans, but I felt a bit disingenuous telling my students to always be organized enough to soak dried beans overnight and then boil them for an hour. Preparing dried beans takes forethought and time and, truthfully, most of us don’t have a lot of either.  

Fortunately, I had just purchased a new pressure cooker, a slick Swiss model with multiple safety valves and easy instructions; it banished all those terrible memories of my grandma's cooker and its occasional explosive personality. I discovered that “quick soaking” — cooking beans briefly under pressure, draining them, and then cooking them again under pressure until tender — took about 30 minutes total, instead of the nine hours required with old-fashioned soaking and boiling.

The pressure cooker meant that bean dishes — a salad with plump cannellini beans, tuna, and fennel, a Spanish chickpea-and-spinach stew, a Cuban black-bean chili — could be made and devoured in a two-hour class. 

h3. Sweet endings

Before I met the doctors, I commonly ended my cooking classes with a sweet treat. I wasn't surprised to learn that the doctors were staunchly against using refined sugars. So instead my classes taught that it's perfectly acceptable to end a meal with something naturally sweet, like a piece of fruit, and that chocolate in its darkest form (72 percent cocoa solids or higher) was actually good for you — in moderation. 


h1. Featured recipes


But plunking a big bowl of apples down on the table at the culmination of a gourmet cooking class wasn't going to win me any cooking awards. So for a Moroccan class, I presented a platter of peeled and sliced orange rounds drizzled with honey, orange-flower water, cinnamon, and pistachios. At the peak of berry season, I served mixed berry skewers with a dip made from high-quality melted chocolate. 

In the end, the classes I was so nervous about were the most popular classes I've taught. As for the food, I can honestly say that the recipes I developed for the series (with the guidance of those valiant doctors) were some of the best I've ever written. 

As a matter of fact, I'm still eating that way today. And if a close-minded, cheese-loving, chocoholic foodie like me can change, you know it's got to be good food. Medicine? That's just a bonus.

p(bio). Ivy Manning is a food journalist and cooking instructor in Portland, Oregon. She is the author of The Farm to Table Cookbook.

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