When actress and model Meredith Phillips signed up for a 20-week culinary course at a Los Angeles cooking school four years ago, she didn’t expect to get a date—let alone a long-term relationship—out of the experience. She just wanted to improve her cooking skills.
Phillips was paired up with Fritz Manger, a film producer, on the first night of class and it soon became clear to both of them that they were cooking up a little more than French Cuisine 101. “Our passion for food turned into a passion for each other,” says Manger. They soon started meeting every Tuesday night before class for an appetizer and a glass of wine.
Four years later, Phillips and Manger still set aside other commitments to spend every Tuesday night together. They test new recipes influenced by the Asian, Indian, and Mexican food culture of their native Los Angeles, indulge their love of fine wine, and savor their time alone. Their tradition even inspired Phillips to write The Date Night Cookbook: Romantic Recipes for the Busy Couple (Terrace Publishing, 2008).
Recently, though, their cooking has taken on even more personal meaning— and their menu choices have become more health-minded: Last year, Phillips lost her father at age 65 to a sudden, unexpected heart attack.
“It’s still difficult to talk about,” says Phillips one recent Tuesday night at the hillside home she shares with Manger in the Santa Monica hills. “He was one of those men who rarely went to the doctor. But if telling my father’s story can inspire others to stay healthy, it’s important to me to share it.”
In the wake of her father’s death, Phillips began to pay more attention to how she and Manger—both in their mid-30s—could adjust both their diet and their lives. While always a good eater (her mom never served processed food), she now recognizes the importance of reducing stress in her life, too. “Fritz and I eat fresh fruits, vegetables, low-fat meats, and a lot of fish,” she says. “And by cooking and eating together we’re relaxing and de-stressing, which is good for our relationship and our hearts!”
Manger is the chop master, who enjoys keeping his knife collection razor sharp. This particular Tuesday—halibut-taco night—he neatly chops avocados, tomatoes, red onion, and jalapeño for a chunky, bright guacamole (his secret ingredient is lemon instead of lime).
Meanwhile, Phillips rinses and cuts the fish into small chunks, lightly dredges it in breadcrumbs, and panfries it in hearthealthy olive oil. She likes halibut for its low fat content and meaty texture, and a mild flavor that takes well to seasoning—both she and Manger love hot spices. “We adore chile peppers,” Phillips says. “They’re good for the heart and get your metabolism going.”
Indeed, recent studies in Australia, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition and the British Journal of Nutrition, suggest the capsaicin in chilies can help boost our metabolic rate and slow the buildup of arterial plaque. “They’re also a great way to boost flavor without adding salt,” she says.
Phillips takes a non-fat Greek yogurt and transforms it into a sauce for the tacos by adding fresh tomatoes, garlic, adobo chipotle peppers, and whipping it up in a blender. The result is a creamy pink sauce that is as light as it is rich. She tops each plate with a cilantro garnish fresh from the couple’s garden.
“If I had written a cookbook before I met Meredith, it would have been called Lard,” jokes Manger as he and Phillips sit down to eat and clink their glasses of Pinot Noir. “But Meredith is steering me in the right direction. I feel better, I have more energy, and I even discovered I like cauliflower!”
Make these tiny tweaks to your cooking routine and you’ll sneak in flavor and variety while cutting out cholesterol, salt, and sugar.
►SPICE IT UP. Pick two or three herbs you like and grow them in your garden or window box. Fresh herbs infuse your cooking with more flavor than salty, fatty sauces or dressings.
►BAKE DON'T FRY. Anything that can be fried can usually be baked too, without as much oil. Try baked yam fries with olive oil, garlic, and fresh herbs.
►SKIP THE SALT. Put the tangy notes of citrus, wine, balsamic vinegar, or vegetable broths to work in place of salt to help manage your blood pressure.
►ADD SOME OIL. Use extra-virgin olive oil instead of butter (or mixed with a small pat). Cooking vegetables in oil is actually better than cooking them dry—the oil helps the body absorb all those fat-soluble vitamins.
►GO WHOLE GRAIN. In addition to standards like whole wheat bread and brown rice, try nutrient-dense grains like bulgur, barley, and oats for variety and a dose of chromium, magnesium, B vitamins, and folic acid.
►COLOR YOUR PLATE. The more colorful your fruits and vegetables, the more cholesterol- regulating phytonutrients and antioxidants they contain.
►SWITCH SPREADS. Instead of cholesterol-laden mayo, try dairy- and egg-free spreads like tapenade, roasted peppers, onions, or even sautéed greens like arugula, collards, or spinach.
►EAT LESS MEAT. Eat grains like quinoa, legumes, and tofu (all high in protein and amino acids) and consider meat a garnish— not the main event.
INDULGE FOR GOOD
Eat to protect your heart by choosing foods that lower LDL cholesterol, says Los Angeles nutritionist Ashley Koff, who lists these five among her favorites:
►RED WINE. The French love saturated fats yet still have low rates of heart disease. The secret may be resveratrol—found in red wine—which is high in antioxidants and believed to reduce bad cholesterol and prevent blood clots.
►BANANAS. Research shows that potassium-loaded bananas may help prevent high blood pressure and protect against atherosclerosis.
►AVOCADOS. High in oleic acid, potassium, and folate, avocados help lower LDL cholesterol, blood pressure, and the risk of heart disease.
►WALNUTS. The omega-3s in walnuts help regulate heart rhythms and prevent heart attacks—and the nuts are high in fiber and protein (a good substitute for animal fats) as well as vitamin E.
►OLIVE OIL. A tasty alternative to polyunsaturated oils, this form of monounsaturated fat can help lower LDL cholesterol—two tablespoons a day may reduce risk of coronary heart disease.