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It's never too late to cook and eat healthy

By VICKY VELOSO-BARRERA, The Philippine STAR Published Aug 01, 2023 5:00 am

When summer classes wind down at Tiny Kitchen, my cooking school for kids, I start entertaining inquiries for adult classes. Some want to learn how to cook because they are getting married, others want a new repertoire for their homes.

Two weeks ago I got an inquiry from the mom of an old student; she wanted to learn healthy dishes focusing on seafood, veggies and salads.

“Our bloodworks are not good, even my daughter’s,” she explained to me. 

No matter your age or your previous eating habits, it’s never too late to change your diet and improve your overall health.

This got me very intrigued, because though I cook a lot of healthy meals for my own home it can be a challenge to make these kinds of recipes palatable for people who are used to eating rich, oily, and salty foods.

Add to this a sense of responsibility, that if I could help one family become healthier by teaching them recipes that they will actually enjoy eating, I would have accomplished a lot.

Having been connected to fashion all my life, my goal was always to be slim—to look good in clothes, of course. Health was a secondary issue. I quickly learned to fill my plate with salads and veggies at buffets, for instance. With a full plate, I didn’t feel deprived, then I began to like salads and veggies for their own sake. That it was all healthy was a bonus!

It helped that I grew up with a mom who was figure- and health-conscious as well, enjoying salads, grilled rather than fried food, and pastas with tomato-based sauces. Her home always has fresh fruit and produce from nearby Cartimar. 

Colorful quinoa salad

Pruning dead leaves around her large garden provides her with quite a bit of exercise so she looks really young for her age, younger even than a lot of her former brides. 

With classes on healthy meals cooking starting soon, I quickly set to work quantifying ingredients for many of our family favorites.

Shabu-shabu is one of our go-tos, and I make the stock with a whole chicken simmered with ginger, garlic and onions. The chicken can go on to be served as Hainanese, which is super yummy, but it is the stock that I’m after.

Seafood tostada

I then set up an array of vegetables that must include the cruciferous broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, kale and bok-choy; so named because their sprouts supposedly resemble a cross.

My shabu-shabu offerings must also include carrots, shimeji mushrooms, leeks and baby corn if there are small ones available. Protein comes from tofu, fishballs and thinly-sliced beef brisket (chadolbagi) which I get from my favorite Korean grocery, Shine. Udon and wheat noodles are thrown in for anyone looking for something starchy.

The nice thing about a shabu-shabu setup is that you can also offer your family the option to cook Mongolia barbecue. You will need at least one yummy sauce for this and my sesame sauce which has ginger and honey in it is addictive. No problem getting anyone to eat veggies either way, through shabu-shabu whose broth becomes more flavorful with every added ingredient, or the quickly pan fried Mongolian barbecue.

Another challenge for eating healthy is finding good alternatives to white, highly processed rice. We are not a normal Filipino family that needs to have rice on the table mainly because my kids up grew up eating food from all the world, whose recipes I teach. Much of those meals require no rice at all and we don’t look for it. But that’s not the case for 99 percent of Filipinos.

Even my health-conscious kids don’t like brown rice so as alternatives we use the heritage grain adlai or the protein-packed quinoa. Combined with herbs, onions and leeks plus other tasty additions, we truly don’t miss rice at all. I’m also experimenting with cauliflower “rice” as another accompaniment to saucy dishes.

In my family, the main challenge is my husband who grew up in a family that loves rich, predominantly Spanish food. Vegetables in cocido were often cooked until mushy and when my in-laws were still alive I considered bringing a salad dish to meals at their home so my kids would have something to eat that was more to their palate.

I found that I could get my husband to eat a lot of tabbouleh, which is simply finely chopped onions, tomatoes and parsley (I add bulgur when I can find it). This Middle Eastern side dish is dressed simply with olive oil, salt and pepper and goes with anything.

Many cuisines around the world have delicious vegetable dishes, especially in countries where meat is expensive or prohibited by religion.

For those needing to avoid carbs there are many great recipes from Italy, a country of vegetable lovers. Melanzane parmigiana is like a lasagna where the meaty tasting eggplant fills in for both beef and noodles. They have minestrone, the rich vegetable soup, cheese-filled squash flowers, pesto sauce which can be used on seafood and chicken instead of pasta.

From France we get our souffles and our favorite is a light and airy spinach souffle. India has quite a number of delicious vegetarian dishes such as dal, which is based on lentils and aromatic spices.

We also make a lot of creamy vegetable soups at home which have no cream at all! Carrot, tomato, squash and mushroom are only a few of the options.

To cook with plenty of veggies and seafood, which can be pricey, one really has to look beyond the grocery and, instead, to the markets. Freshness and good prices are the tradeoffs for convenience.

I’m just at the tip of the iceberg here, and if you’re interested in joining my adult classes focusing on healthy meals, they are scheduled on Fridays from 4 to 6 p.m. These are not demo classes where you will watch me cooking; you will cook yourself and take home what you’ve made in time for dinner.

Here’s to a more healthy lifestyle in the months to come! It’s never too late to start.