Food — Eating Your Way Back To Health

Under-the-weather cuisine that may help lift your spirits

By Amy Diaz 

It’s official—this winter we are on our own.

Sure, maybe I never actually got a flu shot in previous years, but it was nice to know that it was there. It was nice to think that I could get one if I wanted it (which I usually did when I was in the midst of a bout with the alien death flu, the one that saps your will to live and is spread by those Typhoid Marys of the modern age—preschoolers).

This year, however, even the delusion of flu prevention has been snatched from us. With the flu shot shortage, we are all on our own to prevent the sneezing, the aches, the cold sweats and the hacking coughs that are as natural to the winter season as the Christmas music and snow plows.

Now there are several ways to go about keeping yourself healthy when all those around you succumb to illness. You could be sure to get enough exercise and vitamins, not overindulge in alcohol, sleep a solid eight hours every night and be vigilant about washing your hands and not touching your face.

Sure, I suppose that works.

Or, and here’s the option I tend to find the most viable, you could walk around with the glow of invincibility, feeling sorry for (and a little smug about) your friends and coworkers who just don’t have your superior immune system. And then—after a few nights of sleeping four hours per night and drinking too many egg nog-tinis—grasp wildly at any old wives’ tales that will prevent you from complete wipe-out by the illness creeping over you.

Option two does usually lead to several days of misery but it involves less in the way of constant effort.

When I begin to first notice the signs of impending sickness, I turn not to rest or to doctors or to preventive medicine—p-shaw, where’s the challenge in that?—but to the kitchen. Something in here—combined, of course, with a fistful of vitamin Cs and some lemon tea—surely will save me, I think.

As nonsensically optimistic as this thinking sounds, it has on occasion worked. I’ve found that certain foods—most of them warm, comforting and unpretentious—have helped to lift my spirits as well as improve my health.

I always start, when I begin to feel run down, with grilled cheese. Toasty, creamy and a bit salty—this dish gives me the desire to soldier through the lethargy. For a serious refueling, there’s black bean soup—full of heat to help sweat out the icks. When even more pepper action is called for, it’s time for big scoops of spicy salsa. When all hope is lost and sickness sets in, it’s all about the soothing powers of aromatic soup. And, for the road to recovery, toast with a bit of green onion to welcome you back to the world of the living.

Keep in mind that I’m not a medical person. I have no background in chemistry and base this theory of the curative powers of food I happen to like anyway solely on the very biased evidence gathered from my own bouts of winter illness. And, ultimately, even when these meals haven’t cured me, they do at least give me one last yummy memory to tide me over until I have the strength to eat again.

The optimists menu for better health

Grilled cheese

1/4 cup grated cheese (Monterey jack, pepper jack, cheddar, sharp cheddar or some combination of these works the best)

2 slices rye bread

2 or 3 thin slices of a large hothouse tomato



Butter both slices of bread. Sprinkle most of cheese evenly across the unbuttered side of one slice. Lay down the tomato slices so that they cover the cheese but overlap each other as little as possible. Sprinkle vary lightly with salt. Sprinkle on the rest of the cheese and pile on the other slice of rye bread, buttered side up.

In a medium hot frying pan, toast for 2 minutes on one side with the pan covered. Flip the sandwich and cover and cook for 1 minute. Flip again for about 30 seconds, then serve with kosher dill pickle.

Black bean soup

1 can black beans

1 can of water

1 to 2 jalapenos (depending on size and your tolerance for spiciness), seeded and chopped

1/3 cup onions

1 clove garlic

1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil


black pepper

2 slices of bacon, ham or pastrami, chopped small (optional)

Coat the bottom of a saucepan over medium heat with 1 tablespoon of olive oil. When hot, sauté the onions and garlic until onions begin to look transparent. Add in the chopped jalapenos. And sauté for about 90 seconds. Pour in the beans and water and stir. Add another 1/2 tablespoon of oil as well as salt and pepper to taste. Add in the bacon or deli pieces and stir. Cover pan and turn heat down to low and let simmer for 20 minutes. Check periodically to adjust salt and pepper and water content (soup should be thick but not refried-bean thick).

Serve in thick bottomed bowls. Sprinkle with cheese (sharp cheddar or Manchego work nicely) and serve with corn bread or warm corn tortillas.

Spicy salsa with warm tortillas

OK, here is where you are being to feel the effects of possible actual illness and so here is where I cheat.

Pour about half a jar of pre-made salsa (Green Mountain Gringo salsa, medium heat, or Sisters Salsa Twice the Spice work nicely) into a soup bowl.

Chop (and seed, no need to burn your tongue off) two jalapenos. Chop fine about 1/4 cup of cilantro. Add to the salsa. Mix in about 1/4 teaspoon of chipotle pepper and the lime juice off half a lime. If the resulting salsa is too liquidy, mix together a bit of tomato paste and lime juice and add it to the bowl.

The result should be spicier than your normal salsa but not so spicy it is inedible (those with sensitive taste buds may want to forgo the chipotle and one of the jalapenos).

Warm tortillas for 10 seconds per side on a medium hot skillet.

Get well soup

Chicken soup for those who hate chicken soup. The longer this soup cooks the better it will taste, so it works best if you’re home from work and have some time to kill.

Fill a saucepan about 3/4 full with water.

Put on medium-high heat.

As water boils, chop 3 to 4 cloves of garlic and one bunch of green onions and add to water.

Chop five full-size carrots into large pieces and add to water.

Wash and add 1/3 cup of snow peas.

Add 1 tablespoon of olive oil and salt and pepper to taste.

Turn heat down and add about 1/4 cup of whole basil leaves.

Cover soup and let simmer on low heat for at least one hour (longer if possible).

The end result is a flavorful, very clear soup that can be strained and poured in a bowl or mug.

Pumpernickel toast with cream cheese and green onion

When grilled cheese is still too much food but you need something with substance.

Heat oven to 375.

Spray a cookie sheet lightly with non-stick spray or grease lightly with olive oil.

Lay down four slices of pumpernickel bread.

Spread each lightly with grilled cheese or with a mild spreadable goat cheese.

Chop about 1/3 cup green onions.

Sprinkle onions lightly over cheese.

Toast for five minutes or until cheese begins to turn a golden color.

- Amy Diaz

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