Valentine’s Day is associated with hearts, flowers, candy, and rich meals with loved ones. Like many old holidays, there are various legends about the origin of St. Valentine’s Day. In one story, Valentine was a priest who served during third century Rome under Emperor Claudius II. Claudius II thought that single men made better soldiers than married men, so he outlawed marriage. Valentine thought that this was unfair, so he married young couples secretly. When he found out what Valentine was doing, Claudius II had him put to death. Another legend has it that Valentine was an imprisoned man who fell in love with his jailer’s daughter. Before he was put to death he sent her a letter signed “Your Valentine,” words still used on Valentine’s cards today. Valentine’s Day is about love, and not about rich food or gifts. What better way to say “I love you” than to serve a healthy meal to the one you love. A nutritious meal will warm his or her heart in more than one way. Coronary heart disease is the major cause of death in the United States.
Compared to the general American population, Indian Americans have a fourfold incidence of coronary heart disease despite having fewer of the conventional risk factors such as obesity and tobacco use. A family history of heart disease and genetics may be internal risk factors, while stress, lack of exercise, and a poor diet are external factors that contribute to these statistics. Indians who have migrated to the United States and to urban areas in India have a higher risk of coronary heart disease than their rural counterparts. Genetically linked factors are difficult to control, but external factors such as lifestyle and diet can be changed. Indian Americans will benefit by educating themselves about healthy diet and lifestyle choices. For example, Indian persons who move to the United States often walk far less frequently because motorized vehicles are so convenient in America. Choosing to walk more is something you can do to lower your risk of heart disease. Also, many Indian immigrants work extremely hard to succeed, and this adds a lot of stress to their lives. Stress management can substantially reduce the risk of coronary heart disease. Dietary changes are equally important. Although many Indian Americans are vegetarian, which would suggest low cholesterol levels, this is often not the case. A lacto-ovarian vegetarian diet can be laden with saturated fat from butter and cream. These items are still a luxury in India but easily available to abuse in America. Many Indian Americans are unaware that a meatless diet may still be high in saturated fat, refined foods, trans fat, and fried foods, all of which are harmful to your health.
Heart-friendly foods include all fresh fruits, especially citrus fruits, berries, and pomegranates; leafy green vegetables such as spinach, chard, collards, parsley, and cilantro; whole grains, such as brown rice, and other foods high in soluble fiber such as beans and lentils (dals). In addition, choose foods containing healthy fats such as avocados, nuts, and olives; and polyunsaturated fats such as olive oil, sesame seed oil, and sunflower seed oil. Foods to avoid or eat only in moderation include eggs, red meat, cream, cheese, butter, and ice cream. Also saturated fats from milk, eggs, most meats; trans fats that are found in many processed snacks; hydrogenated margarines and fried foods. Also refined sugars and refined grains such as white flour, white bread, and white rice. Watch out for refined juices and sodas, which are mostly sugar.
Here is a Valentine’s Day menu of delicious Indian recipes for a special lunch or supper that is full of heart-friendly ingredients:
BROWN RICE WITH POMEGRANATE SEEDS OR RAISINS Most city folks in India, and most Indian Americans, prefer the prestigious Indian white basmati rice, valued for its delicate flavor and fragrance. Brown basmati rice is more nutritious and contains more fiber and antioxidants. It is more readily available and cheaper in rural areas of India, but when Indian folks move to the cities or to the United States they often switch to white basmati rice with its lower nutritional value. Organic brown basmati rice grown in the United States also has a nutty flavor and a pleasant unique aroma. Topped with pomegranate seeds or raisins, this rice dish is as attractive and nutritious as it is delicious. 2½ cups water 1 cup long or short grain organic brown rice ½ teaspoon salt (optional) 2 teaspoons oil (optional) ½ cup fresh pomegranate seeds or raisins Boil the water in a large pot. Rinse and drain the rice, and add it to the boiling water. Add the optional salt and oil if desired. Stir once and allow to come to a boil again. Then reduce the heat to moderate and simmer, covered, for half an hour. If using pomegranate seeds, separate the seeds from the fruit and set ½ cup aside. (The rest can be used later in a salad.) Uncover the rice after ½ hour of cooking to check for doneness. By now the water should be almost gone and the grains of rice should be soft but not mushy. If there is no water left and the rice is still hard, add 2 tablespoons of water. Cover and cook for 10 more minutes. Then turn off the heat and keep the pot of rice covered for 15 minutes before transferring to a serving platter. Sprinkle the pomegranate seeds or raisins over the top and serve.
MUNG OR MASOOR DALWITH SPINACH OR CHARD No Indian meal is complete without a dal. Dal is nutritious, and contains large amounts of protein, fiber, and minerals. The practice of milling beans to split them into a “dal” must have been invented by a culinary wizard because split beans are quicker to cook and easier to digest. The consistency of prepared dals varies according to the recipe and its intended use in the menu. A dal can be prepared as thin as a rasam, a thin South Indian consomme that is intended to be served as a first course or, as in this recipe, thick like a porridge. 3 cups water ½ teaspoon salt 1 cup yellow mung dal (split mung) or masoor dal (orange lentils), rinsed and drained 2 to 3 tablespoons olive oil ¼ cup finely chopped onion ¼ teaspoon cumin seeds 3 garlic cloves, peeled and finely chopped fresh spinach, or spinach combined with green or red chard, washed, drained and chopped to measure 3 cups ¼ teaspoon or less cayenne ¼ cup water (saved from cooking the beans or lentils) 1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice ½ teaspoon salt Boil the water with ½ teaspoon salt. Add the mung beans or lentils and cook for 30 minutes until they are soft but not mushy. Drain the water into a separate bowl, and set the cooked beans aside. Heat the oil in a frying pan. Add the onion and cook for several minutes until translucent. Add the cumin and garlic and stir-fry for two minutes. Then add the chopped leaves, cayenne, ¼ cup of the saved water, lemon juice, and salt. Next add the cooked beans or lentils and stir-fry the mixture for several minutes until all ingredients are well-mixed and the liquid evaporated. Transfer to a platter and keep warm until ready to serve.
DATE-AND-CASHEW HALVA WITH BERRIES 2 tablespoons oil 1 cup cashews, chopped coarsely using a food processor or a knife 1 cup date pieces, chopped and measured after removing pits a few pinches of cardamom, preferably fresh ground 1 tablespoon honey ½ to 1 cup chopped fresh strawberries or whole raspberries Heat the oil and add the cashews. Stir-fry for a few minutes until fragrant. Add the date pieces and cardamom. Transfer to a bowl and allow to cool. Add the honey, and mix thoroughly. Form into a ball. Transfer to a serving platter and spread the ball out into a heart shape. Pat the surface to make it smooth. Make a smaller heart in the center with the berries or simply mound the berries on top. Serve chilled or at room temperature.
Shanta Nimbark Sacharoff, author of Flavors of India: Vegetarian Indian Cuisine, lives in San Francisco, where she is a manager of Other Avenues, a health-food store. Her daughter Serena Sacharoff is an illustrator and art student.