Undergoing chemotherapy is no fun at all, but for someone whose life revolves around eating and cooking, it's a double punishment: You don't have the energy to make anything but the simplest recipes, and you often can't tolerate strong flavors or smells.
Such was the predicament of chef Biba Caggiano, television food show host, cookbook author and owner of Biba Restaurant in Sacramento.
Now 68, she was diagnosed four years ago with breast cancer. She had a lumpectomy, followed by chemotherapy and radiation -- all of which drastically affected her eating and cooking habits.
"As a good Italian, I like my food spicy and assertive," says Caggiano, who was born and raised in Bologna, "and with chemotherapy, I couldn't do that. Your taste buds change.
"So I began to modify recipes, lighten them up," says Caggiano.
Four years later, Caggiano is back to working in her restaurant and is writing a new cookbook. She's also passing along some of her simple recipes for those struggling to stay well-nourished during cancer treatment.
Among her tips:
* Slightly overcook pasta to make it soft for easy swallowing.
* "Anything green is good for you," she notes. To make an easy, creamy pasta sauce, cook broccoli florets or spinach until very soft, then mix with some butter, milk and Parmesan cheese.
* For a nutritious dessert, bake apples or other fruit and serve topped with ricotta cheese sweetened with sugar.
Spinach, Cheese and Pear Salad
This adapted recipe is one of Caggiano's favorite no-cook meals. It is especially refreshing for patients experiencing taste changes because cold foods are often better tolerated. Other soft fruits, such as melon or grapes, can be substituted for the pear, if desired. Add sliced hard-cooked eggs or a little ham for variety.
1 Bosc pear
1/4 pound Swiss cheese, sliced and cut into thin strips
1/3 cup golden raisins, soaked in lukewarm water, drained and dried on paper towels
1/3 cup pine nuts
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 to 2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1 bag (12 or 16 ounces) pre-washed baby spinach leaves
Freshly ground black pepper
Cut pear lengthwise into four quarters, remove the core and cut quarters into 1/2-inch pieces. In a small bowl, combine the pear, Swiss cheese, raisins and pine nuts. Season lightly with salt to taste and add 1 tablespoon of the oil and a few drops of the vinegar. Set aside.
In a large bowl, toss the spinach with the remaining oil and vinegar. Season with salt and pepper to taste. To serve, distribute the salad evenly among the plates and top with the pear-cheese mixture.
Per serving: 380 calories, 14 g protein, 19 g carbohydrates, 30 g fat, 26 mg cholesterol, 8 g saturated fat, 177 mg sodium, 10 g dietary fiber
Recipe tested by Candy Sagon; e-mail questions to firstname.lastname@example.org