WHIDBEY RECIPES | Small changes can add up to a healthy difference

There’s nothing like a good scare to force one to take a good long look at a few little bad habits that may have crept into place while you were coasting along, not noticing.

A daughter and son-in-law were visiting over the holidays and, two days before Christmas, he ended up in the hospital having a stent inserted into a blocked artery in his heart. He is a tall, strapping man, 50-plus years old, always in good health and with a long history of fitness. He’d had a physical exam only three months before, and been declared sound and in fine health, except for perhaps five pounds more than the desired weight for his height and age. He’s a non-smoker, typically an easy-going non-stressed type, so, to say the least, we were all stunned.

He was home the next day, a bit shaken, but feeling all right, and mostly just wondering how it could have happened, with no symptoms or indication of trouble prior to going out to shovel snow off the driveway. After only a few scoops of heavy snow, he felt he was about to pass out and couldn’t breathe.

Fortunately his wife realized something was very wrong and off they went to the emergency room, not without its own perils considering the road conditions. During the ensuing hours, he learned that he had significant plaque buildup, even though his cholesterol levels had never tested out of the “normal” range.

As I said, there’s nothing like a good scare. We spent a considerable amount of time during the remainder of their visit talking about eating habits, and that’s when I, who love to cook with butter and make rich sauces for many things, and whose favorite dessert is cheesecake of any kind, began to consider that perhaps, just maybe, I ought to pay a bit more attention to our daily meals.

It’s not that I’m going to make a big, dramatic change in what we eat. We’re not ignorant of harmful foods, nor are we unaware of how we should be eating. Lots of fruit and vegetables has been our habit for many years, and we’re very fond of beans and rice (one of the healthier combinations you can ingest, by the way), and even though I love to make desserts, I seldom do simply because they’re too tempting and are usually around for three or four days, doing their siren act. And yes, we eat red meat, but not that often, while fish is regularly on the menu.

There are, however, small changes that can and should be made, little things that have crept onto our plates because we think, “Well, it’s not much and just once or twice a week can’t hurt,” etc. etc.

We all know how easy it is to rationalize about what we eat. It’s even easier when you’re working and haven’t the time or energy to spend in the kitchen preparing “healthy” meals, right?

But, the butter and sour cream on a baked potato, well, that has to go. I did without it for years, then somehow the butter crept back on, followed by a dollop of sour cream. Ditto for the lavish amount of butter I usually slather on my morning toast. I won’t miss it if I use peanut butter and/or jam instead, and it’s especially gratifying now that peanut butter has been declared heart healthy.

Bacon? Forget it; we can live without bacon.

Sour cream? Well, maybe I’ll give that “light” or low-fat stuff another chance; same for the mayo. We’ll go back to lemon juice or balsamic vinegar for salad and get rid of the bottle of creamy blue cheese dressing that crept back into our refrigerator.

Ah, but speaking of cheese, what about the cheese? It’s one of my favorite food groups and I’m not sure I can face a day without cheese. Nor, however, can I stand the no-fat/low-fat/”light” composites they try to pass off as cheese in the supermarkets. No, I’ll definitely have to work on the cheese problem.

One small change here, another small change there; we can at least try to mend our habits a bit, hopefully enough to avoid the kind of wake-up call our son-in-law unexpectedly received for Christmas. As for other food vices, I was overjoyed when I read some time ago that coffee, chocolate and red wine are all considered heart healthy foods and should be included in my eating plan. With enough chocolate, coffee and red wine, I may be able to cut way back on the cheese. We’ll see.

There are some small changes, you see, that would simply not be acceptable.

RECIPES

One of the problems with re-inventing favorite foods to deal with making them healthier is that when it’s January, cold and wet, we crave comfort food, something rich and creamy, like macaroni and cheese or meat loaf and mashed potatoes. Low-cal, light and fat free, just doesn’t go down well in January.

Nevertheless, we can try. Here are a couple of comfort foods, modified. Perhaps they can bridge the gap from what we loved to what we need for our own good.

REFORMED MAC & CHEESE

¾ lb. elbow macaroni

2 slices (or 2 oz.) whole wheat bread

1 T. grated Parmesan cheese

¾ t. paprika

1 cup chopped onion

¼ cup flour

2 cans evaporated nonfat milk

1 cup vegetable or chicken broth

3 cups shredded reduced fat sharp cheddar cheese

1/8 t. ground nutmeg

Salt and pepper, to taste

Cook macaroni in 2 qts. boiling water to al dente, 6-8 min. Drain well.

Tear bread into ½-inch chunks. In a food processor or blender, combine bread, Parmesan and ¼ t. of the paprika; whirl until mixture is coarse crumbs.

In a 5-6 qt. pan over high heat, stir onion and 2 T. water until onion is limp and begins to brown; about 4-6 min. Stir in flour and remaining ½ t. paprika.

Remove onion mixture from heat and whisk in milk and broth until smooth. Stir over high heat until sauce reaches boiling point; whisk and remove from heat. Add cheese and stir until cheese is melted. Add nutmeg, salt and pepper to taste.

Add macaroni to the cheese sauce and mix; pour into a shallow casserole and sprinkle with the seasoned bread crumbs. Bake in a preheated 450-degree oven until crumbs are browned, 3-4 min. Remove from oven, allow to stand for a few min., then serve. Serves 6-8.

I rely on soup for a low-fat but tasty meal a great deal; not only is it warming and comforting, it can be the whole meal in one dish, one pot, with perhaps a salad and slice or two of bread, or one of my favorite soup accompaniments, corn bread.

WHITE BEAN SOUP WITH GREENS

8 oz. fresh greens (kale, escarole, mustard, spinach, whatever you like and can get fresh)

1 T. olive oil

1 onion, peeled and chopped

2 cloves garlic, peeled and minced (I use 3-4; use whatever is to your taste)

1/3 cup chopped prosciutto (or thinly sliced ham of choice)

5 cups low fat chicken broth

1 can (15 oz.) cannellini beans, rinsed and drained

Salt and pepper, to taste

Grated Parmesan cheese

Prepare greens: trim, rinse and drain. Cut crosswise into ¼-inch strips.

Heat a 4-5 qt. pan over med.-high heat. When pan is hot, add olive oil and onion; cook, stirring until onion is limp, then add prosciutto and garlic; cook, stirring 2-3 min. Add broth and beans, cover and bring to a boil over high heat. Stir in greens and cook just until greens are wilted, 1-3 min. depending upon type of greens. Salt and pepper to taste.

Ladle soup into warmed bowls and serve, with Parmesan cheese to be added as desired.

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