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Cookbook full of heart

Marialisa Calta
United Feature Syndicate
Kate Whitaker/Sterling Satisfying, nourishing and delicious food is the hallmark of Sally Bee's sound, heart-healthy cooking, such as in this ratatouille chicken tray bake.
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A good cookbook can read like a novel, but few read like the cliffhanger that is “The Secret Ingredient” by a British writer named Sally Bee (Sterling, 2010). Her story — left for dead on an operating-room table, suffering from a heart condition so rare that only 30 people worldwide have survived it — is a page-turner. It’s also an appealing cookbook filled with foods that are, as Bee would call them, “nourishing” rather than merely “healthy.” There’s a lot to absorb in this book — life lessons and food lessons.

Sally Bee was 36, the mother of three young children, a writer and television personality when, six years ago, she suffered three major heart attacks within a week; the last was determined fatal by her doctors, who called in her husband to say goodbye to his dying wife. Unaccountably, and against all the odds, Bee survived. It is unclear — even to her doctors — how she did so, but she believes that a healthful lifestyle, including nourishing and delicious food and regular exercise (the “secret ingredient” of the title) is at least part of the reason why.

Bee writes movingly, but not mawkishly, about the importance of her family, as well as the importance of food, fitness and rest. Instead of crowing about her “life plan,” she quietly puts forth her “staying alive as long as possible” plan. She expresses compassion and understanding for others suffering anxiety or depression as they adjust to life as “heart patients.”

She writes intelligently about food, and hits the main points of all sound nutrition writing: moderation, portion control, exercise and a little bit of self-restraint. She includes some red meat, cheese, butter — even a dab of salt — and recommends organic fruits and vegetables.

It would be a person without an appetite who could read her book and not want to make some of her recipes. It would be the hardhearted individual who could read this book and not root for Sally Bee, hoping for a peaceful ending to her story, many years from now.

RATATOUILLE CHICKEN TRAY BAKE

1 lemon

handful of fresh rosemary

sprinkling of fresh thyme

2 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed

4 skinless, boneless chicken-breast portions

1-1/4 pounds potato, cut into wedges

4 leeks, rinsed and cut into four pieces

3 bell peppers — 1 green, 1 red, 1 yellow — stemmed, seeded and chopped

2 parsnips, peeled and quartered lengthwise

2 carrots, peeled and cut into chunks

2 to 3 tablespoons olive oil

1/2 teaspoon garlic powder

1/2 teaspoon celery salt

freshly ground black pepper

1/2 pound cherry tomatoes

Preheat the oven to 400 F.

Zest the lemon, and mix the zest with the herbs and garlic. Lightly slash the chicken breasts using a sharp knife, and rub the mixture all over and into the chicken. Juice the lemon, and set the juice aside.

Put the chicken, potatoes, leeks, bell peppers, parsnips and carrots in a large, deep roasting pan. Drizzle with olive oil and lemon juice, and season lightly with garlic powder, celery salt and black pepper.

Roast for 25 minutes, stir everything around, then add the tomatoes and stir again so that everything browns evenly. Roast for 25 to 30 minutes more, or until cooked through.

Check that the chicken is cooked through by piercing the thickest part of each breast with a sharp knife. The juices should run clear. Serve immediately.

Yield: 4 servings

Recipe from “The Secret Ingredient” by Sally Bee (Sterling, 2010)

CHILI CON HEALTHY

1 pound extra-lean ground beef or turkey

extra-virgin olive oil

1 large onion, peeled and finely chopped

2 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed

2 fresh chilies, seeded and chopped

2 teaspoons ground cumin

1 teaspoon ground coriander

1 teaspoon paprika

pinch of cayenne

1 (14.5-ounce) can chopped tomatoes

1 level tablespoon tomato puree

2-1/2 cups beef stock

freshly ground black pepper

1 (14.5-ounce) can red kidney beans, rinsed and drained

For serving (optional):

2 to 3 cups basmati rice

cooked chopped fresh cilantro

low-fat natural yogurt or creme fraiche

In a large saucepan, dry-fry the meat over high heat until browned. Drain off any fat. Reduce heat to medium-low, and add a splash of olive oil; then add the onion and garlic, and cook gently until softened.

Add the chilies and all the spices, and continue frying, stirring occasionally, for two minutes.

Add the tomatoes, tomato paste and stock. Stir well, and bring to a boil. Reduce heat, and simmer for 15 minutes, or until the liquid is slightly reduced.

Season with pepper, and add the beans. Cover and heat gently for another 30 minutes, adding a little extra stock if needed.

Serve hot, over rice if desired, garnished as you wish.

Yield: 4 servings

Recipe from “The Secret Ingredient” by Sally Bee (Sterling, 2010)

Marialisa Calta is the author of “Barbarians at the Plate: Taming and Feeding the American Family” (Perigee, 2005). For more information, go to http://www.marialisacalta.com.