Recently, I went for a run-of-the-mill annual physical. I assumed that over the three years from my previous one, my health could only be the same or slightly worse. Apparently not. I came back with a 230+ cholesterol level. 160 is normal.
“Your heart is going to self-implode,” said my doctor. “You are who Lipitor was made for .”
“But I’m not old enough for a heart attack.”
“It’s not about age. It’s about clogging the drain pipes.”
The discussion continued but my completely irrational response stayed the same. Lipitor was my father’s drug, and I was a young, size 4, exercise fanatic, meditative yoga doer, mother of two. How on earth could I have high cholesterol?
On the follow-up visit, I returned with more sophisticated arguments. The chemicals in Lipitor would hurt my liver, which would in turn reduce the COQ10 to my brain. In other words, blah, blah, blah, covering the unsaid, “Okay, now I’ve thought about this more and I’m even more scared than before.” I walked out the door, sans prescription, the doctor shaking his head.
I frequently revisited that information after that day, pausing to consider it before the first bite of cheesecake or as my chopstick picked up a really lovely fatty piece of roasted pork meat. I even started joking to my husband, “This isn’t good for my heart,” with a proud fist-pound to my chest. He didn’t think it was funny.
And then, one night, I actually got a serious pain, albeit much lower, but of the magnitude I would associate with a heart attack. It was a kidney stone, apparently sent to me to jar me out of my delusion of my infallible health. As it passed, searing me with unspeakable pain, it basically yelled to me, “Yes! If you’re old enough for this, you’re old enough for Lipitor!”
I bought some books on cholesterol.
The evidence cited was conflicting and so I gradually began to concoct a diet that seemed to include the worst in ever theory. Specific eliminations: white flour, white sugar, half of my cheese consumption, fatty meats of all kinds, whole milk, and butter. I was resolved and ready.
So began the hell of finding acceptable foods in China while chasing after two kids under the age of four. Up until that point, I’d always been vaguely aware of the differences in healthy food choices between Whole foods-friendly US and China, but had mostly given in to convenience. So what if the meat had skin on top – the portions are so much smaller. Big deal if I load up the cheese on the macaroni, at least my daughter will eat it. Pork sausage is all I can find over here. I haven’t seen a whole-wheat tortilla since I left in NY in 2009. Over and over, those decisions added up to days upon days started with brioche French toast, finished off with a glass of wine in front of a plate of ricotta stuffed lasagna.
It all had to go.
I began planning better. Prestocking, recipe substitutions, experimentation became the norm. Little by little, small tricks began to work their way through (like my cookie recipe from January!). Turns out, granola actually tastes pretty good with hot water and honey versus milk. Tofu gan (dried tofu) from Carrefour is a great meat substitute. Homemade cilantro pesto takes a boring unappetizing stir-fry to a new more palatable level. Nuts (particularly almonds) are just as good of a snack as cheese. Dried fruit is way better than my four pm chocolate truffle fix.
Pretty soon, it seemed I had a substitution for everything but lasagna. I tried imported low-fat cheese. Yuck. Not a block of soy cheese in sight. No good faux-meat sausages.
“It’s hopeless,” I told my husband after months of experimenting. “Lasagna is and will remain my one vice.”
Then the other day, it was too cold to go out and in search of low-fat ricotta and it dawned on me. I opened up two cans of white beans, pureed them to the consistency of hummus and baked the mixture between layers of eggplant and lasagna noodles, topping only the tippy top of the lasagna with Parmesan cheese for aroma and color.
My daughter nearly licked her plate. My husband ate half the pan. My son couldn’t get enough. Never before had I made lasagna that tasted both delicious and rich but left behind none of the guilt. I tried it again and served guests, I tried it again and wrote it down. I tried it again and made it a staple in our meal rotation.
Now it is one of my proudest “adapting to China” recipes, literally made from and for my heart. My adaptation to Lipitor is still moving slower, but at least this is a start.
3 Japanese eggplants
¼ diced yellow onion
½ cup diced red bell pepper
¼ cup diced celery
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 14oz can diced tomatoes in their juice
2 tablespoons capers
1 tablespoon caper juice
¼ cup pitted black olives, chopped
Fresh parsley, basil, salt and pepper to taste
White bean paste
2 cans cannellini beans, drained and rinsed
¼ cup chicken broth
1 1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese.
200 grams lasagna noodles
Lightly salt the eggplant and leave sit for 10 minutes to draw out the bitterness. Rinse and drain.
Sauté the eggplant, onion, red pepper, celery, and garlic until vegetables start to soften – 3-4 minutes. Add the can of tomatoes and bring to a simmer. Cook for 10 – 15 minutes until eggplant is soft. Add capers, olives and seasonings to taste.
Separately, puree two cans of cannellini beans with the chicken broth. The consistency should be a little softer than hummus. Add more broth if necessary. Salt to taste.
Line a 9 x 12 lasagna pan with lasagna noodles. Cover with half of the eggplant caponata. Add another layer of noodles. Cover with all the bean paste and a half-cup of Parmesan cheese. Add another layer of noodles and cover with the other half of the eggplant caponata. Add a final layer of noodles and cover with the remaining cup of Parmesan cheese. Cover with foil and bake for 20 minutes. Remove foil and bake uncovered until cheese on top begins to brown.
Serves a family of four. Prep and active cooking time is approximately 45 minutes.
– contributed by Rashmi Jolly Dalai. Find me and my children’s books – “Mika the Picky Eater” and “Sasha the Stubborn Sleeper” – at the Shanghai Literary Festival on March 20th, or just find me at www.rashmijollydalai.com .