Personal Journeys with Gramma

Life adventures, inspiration and insight; shared in articles, advice, personal chats and pictures.

Eating Friends

Once upon a time, my all-time favorite foods in really good restaurants included flaky dinner croissants and filet mignon stuffed with blue cheese, rack of lamb, huevos rancheros with blue corn tortillas, and almost anything with pasta. My weakness was homemade vanilla ice cream under fudge sauce. As a cook, some of my best dishes were coq au vin (chicken with wine and lots of bacon), beef stroganoff, lasagna, and mounds of nachos. And then a cardiologist warned me that I was carrying incurable blockages in my heart. I sought advice from Dr. Dean Ornish’s book SPECTRUM that said someone like me whose entire family sported cases of heart disease would have to nearly eliminate fat—fostered by meat, dairy, sugar, and (sob!) too many bad carbs—to prevent my body from fabricating blockages for me. Yes, Virginia, he was talking about going plant-based. ARRGH!*

The mere word “vegetables” conjured visions of soggy green thingys that tasted worse than the weeds I used to chew from the field beside our house. My mom (bless her soul) was a meat and potatoes cook. Vegetables were necessities she boiled, salted, and we ate—usually purchased in cans but sometimes frozen. Something horrible happens to vegetables to keep them nontoxic in cans. Peas, for example, change color and taste and turn to mush in your mouth. Once I reached adulthood, I swore I would never voluntarily consume canned peas again, and I’ve kept my vow. Even Mom’s fresh salads were nothing to celebrate since they generally consisted of a hunk of iceberg lettuce, some tomato, and a dollop of prepared dressing that felt like mayonnaise in your mouth. So, being sentenced to a life of vegetables felt bleak.

Although I don’t claim to be well disciplined, I am stubborn. I couldn’t give my cardiologist the satisfaction of knowing I’d drop dead shortly after I left his care. So the challenge was to find vegetable dishes that didn’t taste like old grass clippings. First, I eliminated “tastes just like…” foods. No, they don’t taste just like, and somebody has to process them every way but Sunday to approach that goal. Okay, so no imposters. They just make you yearn for the real thing.

If you want to explore delicious plant-based foods, start with dishes that always were made from vegetables—traditional dishes someone’s mom still makes. I began with red curry bowl with tofu from a wonderful Thai restaurant. The flavors took a little getting used to, but then I was ecstatic. Even the green pepper tasted good! Next, I ventured into pho at a local Vietnamese restaurant. Score! Once again, I had the power to construct a soup that was anything but boring or bland. Encouraged, I ventured into Indian food and fell madly in love with vegetable curry—especially the one with cabbage spiced up a little with a medium hot sauce. The Greeks could build a salad that made me want more…salad? More salad? And Moussaka—fabulous! Southwestern dishes based on beans could be tasty, spicy, and filling. Miracles abounded as my tastes adapted. I allowed myself occasional seafood—as in shrimp spaghetti made with zucchini curls (instead of pasta) and spicy marinara, and salmon baked in parchment. My newly retired husband, reluctant at first, became my champion chef, cooking ever better dishes from recipes from Joel Fuhrman or Moosewood or Indian cookbooks. His salads are good enough that I don’t use any dressing at all. Who knew nuts and seeds could be healthy and versatile? (I thought they were bad guys!) We gave up processed foods altogether.

I didn’t begin eating vegetable dishes out of nobility—although I do love animals. I was saving my life because I like living, and it has worked for years. My blood pressure is routinely low, but we still eat too much to be thin. People ask my husband and me how we stay looking young for our ages. I’m not trying to convert anyone. I just want to reassure others who need to turn away from red meat that eating vegetables doesn’t have to feel masochistic. After a time (how long depends on you), meat doesn’t taste good anymore. I’m not kidding. But you have to choose your restaurants and recipes carefully to give yourself choices you’ll love. Vegetarian dishes, like anything, aren’t all winners.

*(Note: Dr. Ornish also recommended regular exercise, a relaxation or meditation routine, yoga or tai chi and communicating honestly with your loved ones. Because of its astounding success rate, his program is backed by Medicare for patients who’ve survived major heart events.)

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