IT WAS JUST a typical April week for Mark Talisman. The Sunday bagels had been baked, the elaborate garden that would feed the family through the fall was under way. And Talisman was walking from the Union Station metro stop to his office, the Council of Jewish Federations, at 2nd and Massachusetts streets NE, to get ready for a business trip to Prague in three days.
A short walk, but it hurt.
Like many a high-intensity, type-A, just-past-youth American man, he thought the chest pains were just indigestion. Then he flunked the stress test in his doctor's office.
Talisman gave up smoking his 1 1/2 packs a day instantly and bought five diet books. "The only one that made sense was Pritikin," he said. His cholesterol was over 300, his mother had undergone two bypass operations and, as Talisman was to learn after an angiogram, his heart had two substantially blocked arteries and a third somewhat blocked. In this same year as his 40th birthday and his 10th wedding anniversary, weighing 180 pounds on a 5-feet, 1-inch frame, Talisman found himself in serious trouble, and was not considered a candidate for bypass surgery.
Talisman's life until that point had revolved around growing, cooking, canning, pickling, baking, discussing and eating food. He immediately started on an oil- and fat-free, low-sodium weight-loss diet. The reality, he said, "was just beyond belief."
"I gotta tell you how easy these things are to do when you find yourself in the rough shape I was in. You do it or you die." Survival Techniques
With medication from his cardiologist and assistance in finding salads and other acceptable foods from the American Embassy in Prague ("The normal Czech diet would kill me," said Talisman), he began to severely revamp his eating habits on his travels and at home. No fats, no sugar, no salt, no cheeses, eggs or red meats. A maximum of 1 1/2 pounds of animal protein a week. "I said there's nothing left," Talisman recalled.
He read Pritikin's book over and over, began a gradual exercise program along with the diet so that within six months he was walking two miles every day and could do six miles with no problem. In that same time span he lost 40 pounds and his cholesterol dropped to a steady 200.
And he was back to growing, cooking, canning (not pickling), baking, discussing and eating food, this time Pritikin food. He didn't like Pritikin's recipes, so he started working out his own.
Sunday bagel making resumed, minus the margarine and with skim rather than whole milk. Talisman's formula never did use salt. And added to the bagel making was baguette making with whole wheat pastry flour, an ingredient Talisman says "was made in heaven." He learned to make a cream cheese substitute by draining his own skim-milk yogurt overnight through cheesecloth.
At one emotionally low point, Talisman's friends uplifted him with a potluck Pritikin dinner that started with a gorgeous display of fish tartare surrounded by tiny bowls of condiments: shredded ginger, seaweed, lime, shredded Japanese radish, Japanese horseradish and chopped onion; and ended with a pure'e of boysenberries over fresh fruit. It not only cheered Talisman, it inspired him to the likes of sherbet made from fresh berries with frozen apple juice concentrate. He learned to entertain Pritikin-style. "You don't have to make excuses."
Despite emotional setbacks such as hitting a plateau in weight loss or having to battle with a waiter one more time over sending back a "dry-broiled fish" that showed up swimming in butter, Talisman considers the diet not only a challenge, but fun. He savors a dinner he devised for outdoor grilling:
Take a small, fresh turkey and strip the skin. Pierce an orange and a lemon and put them in the turkey cavity. Start the coals in a covered grill. Make iced jasmine tea, then put the tea leaves on the coals. Grill the turkey, covered. If grilling a chicken, rub it first with garlic or basil.
Talisman's breakfast used to consist of toast or bagel with cream cheese and coffee. Now he has Grape Nuts or shredded wheat with bran, toasted whole-wheat bread, water-method decaffeinated coffee and either fresh fruit or fruit canned in unsweetened juice (his favorite is Safeway's Country Pure, but Libby's Lite, Scotch Buy and Del Monte, among others, are also canned in unsweetened juice, and Diet Delight is canned in water). The next time he went to Prague, he took his own canned fruit with him.
Talisman has turned his diet-exercise program -- and an attempt to reduce stress -- into an adventure. "I'm gambling I'm going to beat the rap."
He has devised basic recipes and variations that allow him to use whatever is best in his garden or on the grocery aisles. He has developed sauces -- low-acid vinegar, mustard, lemon and oregano, for example, varied with low-sodium soy sauce, rice wine vinegar and ginger -- to mix and match for salads, pastas and the like. Animal proteins such as chicken or fish have become for him condiments -- just a few flakes or shreds added to a dish -- rather than central ingredients. He changes a dish from cold to hot, from pasta to brown rice. Every month he makes a pot of chicken broth, which he freezes in different sized containers from ice cubes to quarts, for stir-frying or soup making. He prepared his preserves this year with apple juice instead of sugar. For snacks he sprinkles good paprika and garlic powder on tortillas and grills them in a very hot iron skillet until they are brittle. And he is proud of his results: "My basil chicken is as good as anybody's basil chicken. It's just a different way of arriving at it." Out on the Town Blues
Eating at home, though, is easy compared to eating in restaurants, which Talisman must often do. "I'm sure it's like handicapped people feel," he complained. "It's horrendous what you have to go through for a simple meal." He has learned to give the waiter specific instructions rather than tell him what the problem is. So he says that he wants no oil, fat, sugar, salt, cheese or eggs, and that he wants his fish broiled with nothing or with a bit of white wine, or his non-egg pasta with just steamed vegetables and a wedge of lemon. But then the salad comes with oil and he has to send it back, and the chef and waiter are angry. Or the waiter insists that what he wants is impossible. Or claims there is no salt in a dish when there is. "There's no sensitivity out there, that's the bottom line," declared Talisman. Only 10 percent of the restaurants are compliant, he has found. Among them, fortunately, is La Brasserie, which is just down the block from his office.
Talisman had just returned from New York, where a menu, in beautiful script, invited patrons to ask for anything prepared in whatever way they wanted it. So he determined what ingredients were available from the regular menu, and asked for poached salmon on a plate with the fresh fruit salad and no dressing; just some low-acid vinegar on the side. "It took me an hour, and finally the chef came out," he related. Another agonizing discussion.
"It's just a new style of cooking that's healthy," summed up Talisman, "and to have two or three things on the menu wouldn't kill anybody. From a straight cooking standpoint, what's wrong with that?"
Here are recipes that these days form the mainstays of the Talisman family menus. He emphasizes that they can be infinitely varied, and that these formulas should be used only as examples, to trigger people's minds to invent from there. SHREDDED CHICKEN AND RICE NOODLES (4 to 6 servings) 1/2 cup unsalted, defatted chicken stock* 2 whole chicken breasts, skinned, boned and shredded 1 large onion cut in large dice 1/2 each red and green pepper, cut into medium dice 8-ounce can water chestnuts, drained and sliced 3 carrots, cooked until tender and julienned 3 scallions (including greens), diced
1/2 pound bean sprouts
Chinese rice noodles, for serving Sauce: 3 tablespoons low-sodium soy sauce 1/8 teaspoon grated fresh ginger (optional) 1 tablespoon frozen apple juice concentrate Sweet rice wine (optional)
Heat 1/4 cup defatted chicken stock and stir in chicken pieces. Stir-fry over high heat just until chicken is opaque. Remove chicken and set aside. Add remaining broth to pan and over high heat stir in vegetables in order listed, ending with bean sprouts. Cover and cook 2 minutes, or until layer of bean sprouts is steamed through. Toss all vegetables and combine with chicken in a serving bowl.
Make the sauce by combining low-sodium soy sauce, ginger and apple juice concentrate, and stir to combine. Set aside until ready to serve. Toss rice noodles with sauce and top with vegetable mixture. For variety sprinkle sweetened rice vinegar on top of salad and stir (the rice vinegar is cheating just a little). Serve warm or chilled.
*Note: To defat chicken stock, let it cool in refrigerator. When fat solidifies on top of stock, skim it off with a spoon. Then freeze in small 1/2-cup containers, ice cube trays or other containers useful to you. VEAL SCALLOPINI (SORT OF) (4 servings) 8 thin veal scallops egg whites, beaten stiff Unsalted bread crumbs seasoned with 1/2 teaspoon each, basil and oregano 3 cubes (6 tablespoons) unsalted, defatted chicken stock* 1/4 cup white wine
Lightly combine beaten egg whites and seasoned bread crumbs. Dip scallopini into the mixture to coat well. In a non-stick saute' pan melt stock and add white wine. Gently place coated scallopini in pan and gently saute'. Turn after 4 minutes and cook on the other side 2 to 4 minutes until just done.
Serve with with steamed fresh carrots, green beans and cubed or whole peeled, red new potatoes that have been squirted with fresh lemon juice and sprinkled with some fresh pepper and parsley.
*Note: To defat chicken stock let it cool in refrigerator. When fat solidifies on top of stock, skim it off with a spoon. Then freeze in small 1/2-cup containers, ice cube trays or other containers useful to you. RATATOUILLE (6 servings) 3 tablespoons white wine 1 small eggplant, peeled and diced 1 zucchini, peeled and diced 1 yellow squash, peeled and diced 5 plum or regular very ripe tomatoes 1 teaspoon oregano 1 teaspoon basil 2 cloves garlic, minced
3 tablespoons unsalted, defatted chicken stock* (optional)
Heat wine and 2 tablespoons water in non-stick saute' pan and add vegetables, stirring over high heat for a few minutes until they begin to soften. Sprinkle oregano, basil and garlic over top. Add chicken stock if desired and cover, letting simmer until cooked through. Uncover and let simmer until pan juices reduce and thicken.
Serve over bread or rice, accompanied by a salad of cucumber, onions and steamed green beans tossed with vinegar or lemon dressing.
*Note: To defat chicken stock, let it cool in refrigerator. When fat solidifies on top of stock, skim it off with a spoon. Then freeze in small 1/2-cup containers, ice cube trays or other containers useful to you. BANANAS IN BERRY SAUCE (6 servings) 2 cups boysenberries (substitute blueberries, strawberries or raspberries) 1 to 1 1/2 tablespoons frozen apple juice concentrate (optional) 2 to 4 tablespoons white wine 3 bananas
Puree frozen boysenberries and strain out seeds. Do not add sugar. If sweeter taste is desired, add frozen apple juice concentrate. Pour white wine in non-stick saute' pan and heat. Halve bananas lengthwise and saute' in wine. Pour in boysenberry sauce and heat through. Serve immediately. CRUSTY WHOLESOME BAGUETTE (Makes 2 loaves) 3 cups unbleached white flour 1 cup whole-wheat pastry flour 1/2 cup high-gluten flour 4 tablespoons bran 2 tablespoons (2 packages) yeast 1 cup warm water Cornmargarine, for bowl Additional bran for pan
Combine flours and bran. Dissolve yeast in warm water. (If using a food processor, pour all flour and bran in processor, using metal blade. Pour in yeast liquid. Turn on machine. If dough is too dry, add more warm water; if too moist, add more flour until resulting dough is slightly sticky to touch.) If combining ingredients by hand, stir yeast liquid into flour mixture and add enough additional warm water to absorb all dry ingredients. Knead dough.
Grease bowl slightly with corn margarine and turn dough, coating both sides. Cover and let rise until double in bulk. This should take 1/2 to 3/4 hour.
Cut dough in half and form into 2 long baguettes. Roll outside lightly in additional bran. Slash top diagonally. Dust cookie sheet with bran. Let dough double in size again. Bake at 400 degrees for 1/2 hour or slightly more, until golden brown. CHEESELESS PIZZA (Makes 1 pizza) Dough: 1 1/2 cups unbleached white flour 1/2 cup whole wheat pastry flour 1/4 cup high gluten flour 2 tablespoons bran 1 tablespoon yeast 1/2 cup warm water Corn margarine, for bowl Sauce: 27- to 29-ounce can unsalted tomatoes, crushed 1 1/2 teaspoons dried oregano 1 teaspoon minced garlic 1 green pepper, sliced 10 mushrooms, sliced 1 small sweet onion, sliced Crushed hot peppers (optional)
Combining flours and bran. Dissolve yeast in warm water. (If using a food processor, pour all flour and bran in processor, using metal blade. Pour in yeast liquid. Turn on machine. If dough is too dry, add more warm water; if too moist, add more flour until resulting dough is slightly sticky to touch.) If combining ingredients by hand, stir in yeast liquid and add enough additional warm water to absorb all dry ingredients Knead dough. Grease bowl slightly with corn margarine and turn dough, coating both sides. Let rise until double in bulk. This should take 1/2 to 3/4 hour.
Roll pizza dough onto cookie sheet or pizza pan sprinkled with bran. Let rise again for 10 to 15 minutes. Spread out crushed tomatoes on dough and sprinkle with dried oregano and garlic. Arrange pepper, mushrooms and onions on top of tomato sauce. For a hot pizza, add optional hot peppers. Bake at 400 degrees for 1/2 hour until crust puffs and browns. COLD PASTA SALAD (With Variations) (6 servings) 1/2 pound cold cooked rotini or medium pasta shells 1 or 2 tomatoes, diced 2 to 4 scallions, diced 1 cucumber, peeled, seeded and diced 1 red onion, diced 1 spanish onion, diced 2 green and/or red peppers 2 to 4 red potatoes, cooked and diced 5 ounces cold steamed broccoli, diced 6 ounces steamed green bean, dice Fresh basil to taste, if available 1/4 cup minced parsley For dressing: 1/4 cup low-acid vinegar (balsamic or similar) 1/8 teaspoon dijon-style mustard Pinch oregano 1/2 teaspoon pepper 1 tablespoon frozen apple juice concentrate
Toss all vegetables with cold pasta, adding more or less of each to taste. Mix dressing ingredients together; shake and pour over salad.
Variations: Dice or shred a skinned and boned chicken breast and poach in mixture of 2 tablespoons of white wine, 1 tablespoon lemon juice, 2 tablespoons water and lots of dried basil. Cover while poaching just until poached through. Cool and add to salad.
Substitute salmon filet or cold sole, halibut or combination of fish for chicken and flake cooled pieces of fish over salad.
These can also be served in whole wheat pita breads.