I don’t envy those whose job it is to make diabetes-friendly eating into something that sounds exciting – or at least worth the time and effort to complete a recipe. The stuff’s got to taste good, the ingredients have to be somewhat familiar; the recipes can’t be too difficult. You don’t want to terrify any newcomers to diabetes, but you’d like to avoid exasperating the old-timers.
Somehow, the hardworking souls who put together this diabetes cookbook made it all work. The book is a joint effort from the American Heart Association and the American Diabetes Association, so while I was eager to try out some of the recipes, I was also slightly wary of what I’d find inside. Would the recipes call for abominations like sugar-free jelly or spray margarine? How much kale would be involved? Did each recipe come with a free lecture from a disappointed endocrinologist and/or cardiologist?
Upon the very first reading, though, it became clear that this is really just a cookbook for people who want to eat healthy, with the added bonus of exchange counts and complete nutrition information for each recipe. There are lighter takes on perennial favorites, like Mustard-Crusted Beef Tenderloin and Chicken Pot Pie, and then there are more adventurous recipes containing things like farro, which – news to me – is an ancient whole grain that’s popular in Italy.
There’s a pretty beefy (heh) vegetarian section, which is where I found most of the recipes I prepared. While I’ve just recently stopped eating meat, I’ve never really liked cooking it myself. (Nothing intimidates me like a whole raw chicken.) Other chapters include Appetizers and Snacks, Breads and Breakfast, Seafood, Soups, Salads, Meats, Poultry and Desserts. The book also details several common-sense guidelines for good health – don’t eat a lot of saturated fat, get some exercise, watch your alcohol intake – and has some sample menus and meal-planning tips. Most of the recipes are low-fat in nature, but it’s not clear if the authors are explicitly anti-fat. There’s a snippet in the introduction about avoiding hydrogenated fats – but nothing is mentioned about fats in general. Plus, there’s canola, corn or olive oil included in a great majority of the dishes.
And if you’re into exchanges, you’re in luck. The book includes exchange information for each recipe, as well as a refresher on how they work and, for instance, how many peanuts are in one fat exchange.
My husband and I started our culinary adventure with Vegetable Stew with Fresh Rosemary. Thanks to a lengthy ingredient list, this one looked challenging on paper, but turned out to be almost as simple as: “cut up a bunch of vegetables and throw them in a pot with some vegetable broth.” We stuck with the red potatoes, asparagus, mushrooms, zucchini, yellow squash, baby carrots and pearl onions that the recipe recommended, but the authors make it clear that almost any vegetable combination will work. Bell pepper, cauliflower, eggplant and bok choy are among the listed alternatives. The only remotely complicated part of this recipe was adding flour to the vegetable broth in the last few minutes of cooking time, and stirring it in to thicken the stew. Two minutes and a sprinkle of parmesan cheese later, and it’s ready to eat.
Not surprisingly, vegetable stew isn’t the most filling meal, but there’s something about sitting down to a bowl full of vegetables for dinner that makes you feel like such a responsible adult. I bolused for the 36 net carbohydrates in the serving I had, but spent the rest of the evening low. Maybe vegetables will cure me, after all.
Next up was Stir-Fry Vegetables and Brown Rice, which took slightly more effort and strategic timing. (The authors describe this one as a “toothsome mélange,” a phrase that I’ll be incorporating into future food discussions as often as possible.) Crushed red pepper, garlic, gingerroot and green onions made the dish spicy and yummy, and the use of frozen stir-fry vegetables gave me a break from feeling bad about my lacking knife skills. The recipe also includes tofu, which I can appreciate from a protein perspective but which didn’t do much for the flavor – or the texture. If I make this again, I’ll probably use edamame or tempeh instead.
Despite the “bed of nutty brown rice,” this dish only comes in at 26 net carbohydrates (or 1 starch). I’m almost embarrassed to admit that I didn’t bolus for it at all, since I was on the low side and had been chasing a toddler around for most of the afternoon. My blood sugar barely budged. Don’t tell anyone.
I’ve never made quiche before last week, so I decided to go crazy and try my hand at Crustless Asparagus and Tomato Quiche. (Spoiler: it worked!) Of all the recipes I sampled, this one was the lowest in carbohydrates, since most of the dish consisted of egg and cheese and vegetables. The process was simple – just a little pan-cooking of asparagus and green onions, some whisking of eggs and milk and mustard, and tomato-slicing – but I second-guessed myself the whole way. There’s nothing I hate more than an underdone egg, so as the dish baked, I monitored the cheesy top crust and consistency on a minute-by-minute basis. I let this one bake about 8 minutes longer than recommended, and it was still a little squishy. I assume that the “crustless” aspect of the recipe is intended to keep the carbohydrate count low, but now I think I know why most quiches have crusts: to soak up all the random juice that collects in the bottom of the dish. The quiche was good, if a little under-salted, but there was definitely a shallow pool of quiche liquid left when I extracted my serving.
Between the relatively low-carb quiche and carb-tastic humdingers like the Cheesy White Bean and Farro casserole (55 carbs), there are all levels of carbohydrate values represented here. And some recipes could even be made more blood-sugar friendly: I imagine you could take the flour out of the stew if you didn’t mind a runnier base, for instance, or eliminate potatoes from some recipes. Many of the meals that are accompanied with a rice or pasta base come with the option of being eaten on their own. I’m assuming this is the authors’ attempt at making the cookbook accessible to more people with diabetes or heart disease. It’s not always easy to make a drastic switch to a low carbohydrate diet.
Surprisingly, the desserts in this book came in on the medium to low end of the carbohydrate spectrum. On the list of Things I Will Never Make are Tropical Lemon Gelatin (complete with sugar-free lemon gelatin, fat-free yogurt and 13 grams of carbohydrates), and Mini Chocolate-Raspberry Shortcakes (fat-free, sugar-free yogurt; 29 grams of carbohydrates). I’d rather have a teeny, indulgent spoonful of full-fat, sugary ice cream than a bucket of sugar-free lemon gelatin.
That said, there are dozens more recipes to be explored and enjoyed in the Diabetes & Heart Healthy Cookbook, and I can honestly say that I’ll likely make at least several more. Recipes like Apple Crumble Coffee Cake, Roasted-Veggie Pizza on a Phyllo Crust, Red Pepper Pilaf and Scalloped Potatoes – and then some – are all on tap for our household.
The best part is, most of it is real, actual food. You could easily host a dinner party and serve a full menu from this diabetes cookbook, and your guests would simply think you were very elegant and talented and health-conscious, instead of assuming you were a person with diabetes and a heart condition who was forcing flavorless grub on all your poor friends. In fact, go ahead and try to do just that. Just let me know when the party is so I can join in, too – I’m always in the mood for a toothsome mélange.
The Diabetes & Heart Healthy Cookbook is available on Amazon.
Jacquie Wojcik has lived with Type 1 diabetes since 1990. She works as an advertising copywriter in Jacksonville, Florida, where she lives with her husband, toddler, and assorted pets. Jacquie writes the blog Typical Type 1. You can follow her on Twitter @badpancreas.