Ever since Galen, the Roman physician, people have trusted their health to doctors- and doctors, at least in the last century and a half, have often deserved such trust. In antiquity it was common for medicine and food to be variants of the same ingredient – certain spices or roots might flavor a stew, and mitigate the symptoms of an illness as well. In the modern era of manufactured pharmaceuticals, antibiotics, and biological drugs, however, health via food has taken a back seat.
Of course, there have been food naturalists, vegetarians, and proponents of secret ingredients in every era. In a way, everyone is his or her own dietary theorist, and our theories are experimentally tested. Anyone who says, “this doesn’t agree with me,” or “I’m allergic to this,” or even “bananas make me gag,” knows what he’s talking about. We’re all scientists in the laboratory of digestion, but that laboratory tends to be ruled not by science, but by taste. What we like often wins over what we should like – even if there are serious consequences, like high blood sugar. Diabetes is one of the most obvious and dramatic instances in which the curbing of taste is usually the only route to better health.
Most of us have a “sweet tooth” and lots more than that. We eat a diet coated in sugar in its many forms – sucrose, glucose, fructose, molasses, honey… under any of its disguises sugar means danger to diabetics – and it’s also the world’s most beloved taste. Sugar, our comfort food, the added touch, the dessert, the treat, is really the beauty queen that upon close examination, shows itself as the skull and cross bones.
Thus the battle for the health of the diabetic body is almost always a struggle against one the most powerful human prerogatives- taste. There have been many attempts to combine taste and health in recipes for diabetics, and one of the most recent is Dr. Rani Polak’s “Delicious Diabetic Recipes, The Gourmet Cookbook for a Healthy Life.” Dr. Polak, physician and a Le Cordon Bleu trained chef, isn’t just offering us another book of lackluster recipes labeled ‘healthy’ for diabetics, that none of us really wants to prepare. He has the credentials and the expertise to attack the taste/health divide from both sides, and he does so with great success.
Each page in Polak’s book is filled with step by step instructions, beautiful photographs, and detailed nutritional information, including caloric, carbohydrate, and fat content. While this nutritional information is prominently displayed along side each recipe, Polak doesn’t suggest a single method of eating, recommend one food over another, or tell you how much fat or carbohydrates you should eat daily. The book has a simple principle: to bring pleasure to cooking, and to make preparing good food easy for everyone, especially for people living with diabetes. Polak says, “Nutritional research is important and definitely guides the contents of this book. However, sometimes too much information causes us to miss the main point: the pleasure of cooking and eating good food.”
Polak’s book is exactly the cookbook I’ve been looking for. It fulfills my needs as a diabetic, as food-lover, and as a busy mother of three looking for healthy and easy meals to serve my family. Dr. Polak kindly answered some questions for ASweetLife so that we could get to know him and his work a bit better.
How did you get started in this field? Which came first – cooking or medical school?
I started my training in medical school and during those years I had many questions about what I would do long-term. Since I didn’t have the answer, I decided to take a break from medical school and to go study cooking. While training as a chef, I realized that, like medicine, cooking can help many people. I didn’t have a specific plan, but I decided to return to medical school and to try to combine my studies.
Can you tell us about the Center for Healthy Cooking at Hadassah Hebrew University Hospital, where you serve as director? Is it for everyone, or only for people with special dietary needs?
The center for healthy cooking at Hadassah University Hospital is the only cooking school in the world that’s located inside a hospital. The center is for everybody, healthy people, young, adults and seniors – anyone who wants to learn how to improve the quality of life by cooking healthier food. We also work specifically with people who have special dietary needs and teach them how to cook food that suits their needs.
Additionally, we work with professionals. We teach chefs how to cook healthier food for their customers, as well as medical providers who can help their patients learn to cook healthier food.
Until I read your book, I’d never thought about the fact that warm desserts require less sweetening than cold desserts. Please tell us about this.
This is very easy to explain. Our tastes are very sensitive to temperature, especially sweetness. Because of that, the warmer the dish, the less it requires sweeteners to get a nice taste. This is only one example of how very simple tips can help people improve their diets and lower their sugar intake. [In Polak’s book, you’ll find a lovely recipe for strawberries in lemon verbena and thyme, with ricotta cheese].
What is your take on artificial sweeteners?
If someone needs a high level of sweetening in order to be satisfied from a dessert, then artificial sweeteners are a reasonable solution. I think that the best way to enjoy a rich flavor is to use spices, herbs and other aromatic ingredients whenever possible.
What are some of your favorite dishes?
I like Mediterranean cuisine, food that cooks with roots, herbs, legumes and fresh meat.
We tested a number of the recipes from Delicious Diabetic Cookbook, and “Thai Beef Salad with Onion and Lemongrass” was a favorite. Thai Beef Salad is a rich and filling meal. The pieces of filet, according to my husband (the resident carnivore) were tender and lean. The flavors in the dish were balanced and delicate and the onions did not dominate, but rather complimented the other flavors, especially the lemongrass.
Another of our favorite dishes was “Sesame and Herb Chicken Fingers”. Finding a dish the entire family – including little children – will eat and enjoy isn’t always easy. I tried these chicken fingers to introduce a non-fried schnitzel alternative to my sons. The kids were won over, and for diabetics, or anyone looking to avoid breaded chicken, fried chicken, or salt, this is an excellent choice.
Sesame and Herb Chicken Fingers
The flaky coating in this dish contains lots of dry herbs and very little salt. You can replace the herbs listed below with your own favorite selection. The Dijon-style mustard helps the herbs adhere to the chicken. Note that some types of this mustard have a grainy texture that is suitable for sauces but not recommended for this recipe which works best with a smooth variety.
10 tablespoons dried parsley
2 tablespoons dried basil
1 tablespoon nigella seeds
1 tablespoon whole sesame seeds
Four 4-ounce chicken breasts, cut widthwise into 1-inch strips
¼ teaspoon Atlantic sea salt
¼ teaspoon ground black pepper
2 tablespoons smooth Dijon-style Mustard
Preheat oven to 350°F and line a baking sheet with parchment paper. On a small plate, mix together parsley, basil, nigella, and sesame seeds.
Season chicken strips with salt and pepper; then brush each strip with a thin layer of mustard. Dredge chicken strips in mixed herb coating to cover both sides. Transfer to baking sheet and bake for 10 minutes, until ready.
Serves 8 / Serving size: 3 pieces