Heart Surgeon Serves Up Healthy Italian Food Tips
Jul 22, 2021 Nicole Levine
In the land of carb counting, a pasta advocate can be hard to find. Look no further than Dr. Alfredo Trento at the Smidt Heart Institute, who did Cedars-Sinai's first heart transplant in 1988 and has loved Italian cooking a lot longer than that.
Dr. Trento grew up in Italy, and the love of his life, Robin, spent much of the first year of their marriage learning about one of his other great loves: his mother's cooking. Versions of those recipes—now with Robin's own flair—still form the staples of their meals today, drawing inspiration from what's in season.
A great meal doesn't necessarily require a trip to the farmers market. Chat with Dr. Trento for a few minutes, and he'll have you scouring your kitchen cupboards for the makings of a mouth-watering meal that's as kind to your heart as it is to your palate.
"Spaghetti is my pasta. It gives you the most possibilities. It stands up to very sophisticated, rich, creamy sauces or with an uncooked vegetable sauce. It's the pasta for all seasons. It goes with everything."
"The beauty of the Mediterranean diet is that you're eating real, delicious food, but it's light in the end," Dr. Trento says. "It's always about the vegetables and the seasonings."
Dr. Trento offers tips for eating Italian food that is delicious and gets approval from his cardiologist colleagues—and shares which noodle is his favorite.
A summer stunner
Dr. Trento learned one of his favorite recipes from a friend's mother, and he says he hasn't tried it anywhere else. He breaks out this recipe when company comes for a summer meal—and he never has leftovers.
The sauce doesn't even require turning on the stove!
First, he makes what he calls a "raw sauce." He finely chops two cloves of garlic, some onion, two stalks of celery, and combines them in a bowl with olive oil and four juicy, cubed tomatoes. Then he adds a handful of Greek olives, capers, oregano, basil and hot pepper flakes. He stirs the mixture until coated with oil and lets it macerate while the pasta cooks. He tosses the vegetables with the pasta and adds in a can of tuna packed in oil—not water, he emphasizes, oil.
"It's one of my favorite summer pastas," Dr. Trento says. "It's very good and very Italian."
Don't discount cans
Dr. Trento loves his garden. In the summer, he plucks zucchini from their vines and tosses them with pasta, roasts them to accompany fish or adds them to rich risotto.
"We always ate seasonally," he says. "We wouldn't have tomatoes in the wintertime for the same reason you wouldn't eat watermelon at Christmas time—it's not ripe."
The exception is canned vegetables. Canned vegetables are often picked at the peak of ripeness and preserved for use year-round. Look for labels with few ingredients and little added salt, and canned produce can be a powerful asset in the kitchen. Canned tomatoes are the key ingredient in the simple, delicious tomato sauce his grandchildren prefer.
Dr. Trento also loves to cook with Italian tuna from a can that contains only the tuna and oil.
Everything in balance
The best dishes have beautifully balanced flavors—a bright hit of acid from a squeeze of lemon, a pleasing burn from well-placed chilis, the richness of grated cheese—with nothing overpowering the taste.
The best ways of eating are much the same. Food is fuel for all, comfort for many and an indulgence sometimes. Committing to a heart-healthy lifestyle can still include a vibrant, luscious menu.
Consider pesto, Dr. Trento says. Pasta tossed with a rich green sauce, grainy with bits of pine nuts and parmesan, is a delightful dinner. It's also made with simple, healthy ingredients: basil leaves, pine nuts, a little grated cheese, garlic and olive oil.
In Dr. Trento's kitchen, olive oil replaces butter in most recipes, and in-season produce is the best inspiration—other than that, though, Dr. Trento doesn't have too many rules.
The perfect pasta
If you're wondering what Dr. Trento's favorite pasta is, perhaps you expected a shape that's only available in specialty shops or freshly rolled out and cut by hand.
His favorite, however, is a noodle common in most home pantries: spaghetti. The tube-shaped penne or corkscrew rigatoni are good options to highlight a special sauce, but for Dr. Trento, spaghetti is the go-to.
"Spaghetti is my pasta," he says. "It gives you the most possibilities. It stands up to very sophisticated, rich, creamy sauces or with an uncooked vegetable sauce. It's the pasta for all seasons. It goes with everything."