By Jana Soeldner Danger
City & Shore Magazine
During her residency in New York City, Dr. Sonali Ruder, a DO in emergency room medicine, worked long, irregular hours. When she finally arrived at home exhausted, she often flopped down and turned on the TV. “I watched a ton of Food Network cooking shows,” she says.
On a whim, she entered one of the network’s contests, the “Ultimate Recipe Showdown.” She had just returned from a honeymoon in Greece with her husband, Dr. Pete Fontana, so she created a Greek-style dish called Spanakopita Lasagna.
To her surprise, she became a finalist. She didn’t win, but she was hooked.
“I fell in love with food,” she says. She continued experimenting in her own kitchen, and then decided to enroll in culinary school. Her accommodating director at the hospital allowed her to work part time while she attended the Institute of Culinary Education in New York.
For Dr. Ruder, food and medicine complement each other perfectly. “I treated people every day with chronic diseases and I got tired of just writing prescriptions,” she says. “I was more interested in preventing disease and showing patients that we have the power to control our health through diet and an active lifestyle.”
Uniting her love for food with her profession, she began writing a blog called “The Foodie Physician.” Her husband, also an ER doctor, helps. “He does all the behind-the-scenes work,” she says.
After several years of practicing in New York, the couple decided they should try something new. “We wanted a change of scenery, so we picked up and moved to Fort Lauderdale,” says Dr. Ruder, who now works two days a week at Broward Health in Coral Springs in addition to writing her blog. Their daughter Sienna, now four, was born about a year after the move.
Delight, not duty
Improving and maintaining better health through diet, Dr. Ruder says, involves choosing the right foods, avoiding common misconceptions, and making healthful foods attractive and tasty enough so that eating them is a delight rather than a duty.
She dislikes the now commonly used term “Superfoods,” which began as a way to describe nutrient-rich foods that may be beneficial to health and increase longevity. “It’s become a marketing term, and there’s no control over it,” she says. “It’s used to describe whatever is popular right now, but there are other foods that might be just as beneficial that you shouldn’t ignore.”
Foods that contain antioxidants and phytonutrients are thought by many experts to be important disease fighters. Antioxidants are substances that intercept unstable molecules – called free radicals – that cause damaging changes to human cells. Phytonutrients are chemicals that occur naturally in plants to help protect them from insects, harsh sun, fungi and other threats. Consuming them may also help boost the human immune system and prevent disease.
To get the most benefit from these substances, Dr. Ruder says, it is important to prepare fruits and vegetables correctly. Perhaps the worst way is boiling. “It’s better to steam them or sautée them quickly over high heat,” she says.
Fermented products – such as live culture yogurt, sauerkraut, kombucha and miso – also have health benefits. “They aid in digestion, curb inflammation and boost the immune system,” Dr. Ruder says. “Seventy to 80 percent of your immune system is in your digestive tract.”
Cooking at home
Cooking at home can be one way to achieve a more healthful diet. “You can buy fresh, whole foods, and the amount of salt you add at home will not be as much as in a restaurant dish,” she says. “You can use less salt by adding flavor with herbs and spices.”
Read labels and be aware of their meanings. Some words are mostly marketing tools, she says. “There’s no exact definition of ‘natural.’ And multigrain and whole grain are different. Whole grains contain all three layers of the grain and have the most nutrition. Multi-grain can just mean that there is more than one kind of grain in the product, and they may be processed. Look for labels that say 100 percent whole grain.”
The words “low fat” on a label also can be deceptive. To counteract loss of flavor caused by removing fat in a product, manufacturers may add sugar instead. Besides, not all fats are to be avoided. “For a long time, fats were demonized,” Dr. Ruder says. “But a lot of fats, like olive oil, and fats in seeds, nuts and fish, are good for you.”
Don’t replace meals with juice, but smoothies might work, she says. “With juicing, you’re not using the pulp and fiber in the fruit or vegetable, which is what makes you feel full. With smoothies, you throw in the whole thing.”
Even busy people can find time to cook, Dr. Ruder says. “Sit down for an hour at the beginning of the week and plan your meals. It will reduce last-minute runs to the store. Cook enough of a dish to last two or three days, and repurpose foods like chicken breasts into soups, pastas or quesadillas.”
Convenience isn’t necessarily bad. “Avoid processed foods, but it’s OK to take help from the grocery store and use products like pre-chopped vegetables, pre-cooked whole grains in the freezer section, and rotisserie chicken,” she says. “Frozen fruits and vegetables are a great convenience, and they’re usually frozen immediately after they’re picked, while fresh fruits and vegetables may lose nutrients during transportation.”
One important lesson Dr. Ruder learned in culinary school: Make foods look attractive, because then they are more likely to be eaten and enjoyed. “Use different textures, and create color on the plate,” she says. “Roasting vegetables deepens their colors, and blanching green beans and then shocking them in cold water locks in the color.”
Don’t create a flat foodscape by placing everything side by side on the plate. “Instead, create height by layering foods, and use a garnish on top,” she says. “Make salads interesting by adding unexpected ingredients like berries and nuts.”
Dr. Ruder’s Spanakopita Lasagna
1 pound dried lasagna
1/4 cup olive oil, divided
4 Tbsps. butter
4 Tbsps. all-purpose flour
4 cups milk
1/2 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
1/2 tsp. ground nutmeg
2 pounds fresh spinach
1 Tbsp. butter, plus 3 Tbsps., melted
3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
6 scallions, chopped
1/3 cup finely chopped parsley leaves
1 tsp. ground nutmeg
1 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
1/2 pound feta cheese
1 egg, beaten
1/2 cup grated Parmesan
4 sheets phyllo dough
1/2 cup dried bread crumbs
Preheat oven to 350 degrees
Cook the lasagna noodles in a large pot of boiling salted water. Add 1 tablespoon olive oil to the water to prevent noodles from sticking. Cook noodles for about 10 minutes, drain and set aside on a baking sheet. Do not overcook noodles as they will cook more in the oven.
Prepare the Bechamel Sauce
In a saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat. Add the flour and whisk until smooth, about two minutes. Gradually add the milk while continuing to whisk, until the sauce is smooth. Simmer for about 10 minutes until the sauce is thick enough to coat the back of a spoon. Stir in the salt, pepper and nutmeg. Set aside.
Prepare the Spinach Filling
Heat 1 tablespoon of oil in a large sautée pan over medium heat, add half of the spinach, stirring until wilted and tender, about three minutes. Remove the spinach, place in a colander and squeeze out excess liquid, and then roughly chop. Repeat the process with the remaining spinach.
Heat the remaining olive oil and 1 tablespoon of butter in the saucepan and add the garlic. Sautée until fragrant, about one to two minutes, then add scallions. Sautée another two to three minutes until scallions are soft, then add the spinach along with the parsley, nutmeg, salt and pepper. Remove from heat and allow to cool.
Stir the feta cheese and beaten egg into the cooled spinach mixture.
Assemble the lasagna
Coat the bottom of a 13-by-9-inch lasagna pan with a thin layer of bechamel sauce. Arrange four noodles lengthwise on the sauce, slightly overlapping each other. Pour 1/3 of the bechamel sauce over the noodles. Then add 1/3 of the spinach mixture, spreading it out evenly. Top the spinach mixture with 1/4 cup of grated Parmesan. Repeat with two more layers of noodles, sauce, spinach mixture and Parmesan.
For the topping, unroll the phyllo dough on a flat surface and keep it covered with a damp towel so that it doesn’t dry out. Place a sheet of phyllo on top of the lasagna. Brush with the melted butter and sprinkle some bread crumbs evenly. Top with another phyllo sheet, brush with more butter and sprinkle with more bread crumbs. Repeat with the two remaining layers of phyllo. Make sure the edges are nicely sealed with butter so that they don’t curl up during the baking process. Top the final layer with a mixture of the remaining melted butter, bread crumbs and Parmesan.
Bake in the preheated oven for 25 to 30 minutes, being careful not to overcook the phyllo. Remove from oven and let cool slightly before serving. Cut into squares and serve. Makes six to eight servings.
—Dr. Ruder’s recipe courtesy of the Food Network’s “Ultimate Recipe Showdown.”