In December 2007, the unimaginable happened. I lost my best friend, my older sister Micki, the most vibrant, warm, intelligent and energetic person I knew, to a sudden and fatal heart attack at age 53. Right in the middle of her work day. Less than a year later, we lost my mother-in-law, again with no warning symptoms, in much the same way. This was a horrible and startling wake up call about the fragility of life, health, and my genetic predisposition for really bad heart problems. And I learned that heart disease is the number one killer of women in America. From there on out I spent a lot of time reading, hearing from doctors and thinking about how I could help my and my family's health through what and how we eat. Everyone is in agreement that regular exercise is a key part of staying healthy pretty much across the board - I've already been doing that. The food part is more complicated. How to reconcile the French cooking with heart health? Sadly, experts are not decided on the best path and are, in many cases, in complete opposition.
Some of you know that I took many recreational cooking skills classes over the years at L’Academie de Cuisine in Bethesda. I was most inspired by a series of culinary skills classes that covered, in an extremely abbreviated way, the essence of French culinary training. I learned to make creamy, delicious, rich foods such as cauliflower gratin, proper mashed potatoes (use a ricer and LOTS of butter), pate a choux and the like.
I began my journey to find a happy medium, limiting though not omitting, saturated fats (au revoir mashed potatoes with butter and cream), sodium, sugar, white flour, white rice and highly processed products whenever I cook, which I now do most days. We’ve just about given up carry-out. It’s not as hard as it sounds, and when not at home cooking myself, I'm just not obsessive about it. We like to dine out occasionally and enjoy a range of international and local cooking. At home, though, I try to make vegetables and whole grains the basis of our meals. And, yes, I've been dragging my family, which includes a teenaged boy and girl, along on this journey.
My primary goal is to have my family enjoy our dinner, while doing no major harm to our bodies. We are a family that, against the greater tide in our area, eats dinner together most weekday nights. Many weekend evenings we gather together, adults and kids, with relatives and friends to share homecooked dinners. This is home, not restaurant cooking.
I cook with lots of spices, vegetables and grains that may be as new to you as they were to me until a couple of years ago. Give them a try. And then try them a couple of more times. Some will grow on you. Eventually, they may grow on your family, too. I'm guessing that you and your families will not realize the healthier nature of most of these recipes (OK - some of my beloved nieces and nephews always know). And, you will see that I use a little cream or creme fraiche here and there, where it will amp up flavor and mouthfeel. I try to use the least possible amount of the higher fat and sodium items and test the recipes to see where the balancing point falls. Most of all, these are recipes that I hope you can share with your families and friends, healthy, yet luscious, heart-warming and heart healthy. However, there is no magic bullet here, and no guarantees about health - I'm a cook, not a doctor, a nutritionist or a scientist. While I know that bad things can happen no matter what you eat and how much you exercise, this just seems to make sense. Join me for the ride.