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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Wednesday, May 21, 2003

Diabetic diva now cooks in a new key

By April Adamson
Knight Ridder News Service

PHILADELPHIA — She has cooked for Missy "Misdemeanor" Elliot, Mary J. Blige and the Rolling Stones. Everybody knows she makes some mean fried chicken and some hearty potato salad.

In her "spare" time, when Patti La Belle takes off the apron, she divas.

"I feed everybody! Come in the kitchen, I made some food for you to try," said the legendary singer, 58. Wearing a red apron, off-the-shoulder black shirt and tight black pants, she sashayed across the foyer, past a spiraling staircase to the kitchen.

On this day, 12-egg potato salad, one of the gems from her 1999 cookbook "La Belle Cuisine: Recipes to Sing About" (Broadway, $26), wasn't on the menu. La Belle has built a great reputation with her stick-to-your-ribs food. Now she wants to be known for her stick-to-your-ribs healthy food.

Her new cookbook, "Patti La Belle Lite Cuisine: Over 100 Dishes with To-Die-For Taste Made with To-Live-For Recipes" (Gotham Books, $26), hit bookstores nationwide on Mother's Day.

Since being diagnosed with diabetes, the Philadelphia native has overhauled her diet, trading snack cakes for fish and butter-fried for baked — and losing 30 pounds in the process. Her inspiration for change was her beloved mother, Bertha Holte, who died of diabetes years ago.

Recently, La Belle talked about her passion for the kitchen and her commitment to this new way of cooking.

"I am a self-taught cook," she said. "It's relaxing. I like to write songs while I cook, or think of titles. But I do not sing in the kitchen."

Her kitchen is modern, huge and awash in cream-colored Italian tile. Several shelves are lined with dozens of bottles of hot sauce — a favorite that fans present to her, along with flowers, when she performs.

She had prepared chocolate mousse using instant sugar-free pudding, topped with Cool Whip and fresh raspberries for her visitors, along with a pilaf with black-eyed peas and chicken.

She teamed with the American Diabetes Association for many of the recipes in the new book. They are delicious, and it's hard to tell they aren't laden with fat and calories.

"You'll eat this food and you won't feel like it's diet food," she said. "I promise, honey, you won't know the difference."

La Belle has been cooking since she was a child. Her mother, affectionately known as "Chubby," was always in the kitchen.

"I would stay in the kitchen right at my mother's apron and watch her cook. She'd give me a quarter to go outside and play!

"Out back, I had a shed ... and there I'd make up my own recipes and feed them to my dog and cat, " she said, laughing.

La Belle's mother suffered from diabetes; both her legs eventually were amputated as a result.

When La Belle was diagnosed with diabetes while on tour seven years ago, she had gone a lifetime without symptoms. She felt faint one night on stage but thought she was simply exhausted. After a trip to the hospital, she got the news from her doctor.

"He said, 'You are OK, but you have diabetes,' " recalled La Belle. "So I started taking care of myself, seeing a dietitian. I found a way to make chocolate mousse healthy, and I do without my Tastykakes.

"People ask me, and I tell them I am not on a diet. This is how I live now. "

After a few months of taking care of her body — which she says should be treated like "a temple, not an amusement park " — La Belle hardly missed the old foods.

Today, she monitors her daily sugar and salt intake and creates healthy meals by leaving out butter, margarine or Crisco and replacing them with nonstick spray or nothing. She often experiments with recipes, figuring out how to substitute things like smoked turkey for ham or lemon juice for sugar. A favorite: fresh garlic for salt.

The methods can work for anyone looking to boost immunity and eat healthier, she said. "This book is not just for people with diabetes. It's for people with cancer, AIDS — anyone who wants to be on a healthy diet but live the 'Patti style.' "

When she goes on tour these days, she carts along her own pots and pans in a giant trunk, then finds places to plug in her electric burners. It helps her eat better on the road.

When she's not on tour, she's in her kitchen, where she cooks the family's Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners and makes sure she feeds her son Zuri, 28, a Philadelphia music producer. "He doesn't let me cook for him too much. All he eats is pizza — but he loves my chicken, " she said.

"I love to see people eat and smile. When I give this food to people, they don't know it's not the food from my first cookbook. I had two producers here for dinner the other night. They didn't realize they were eating no-fat healthy. "

She said this cookbook left out a crucial reality chapter: cheating.

"It's OK to cheat once in a while, " she said with a laugh. "You can have a day of cheating — or a week. "

Here are a few of La Belle's favorite healthy recipes.

Decadently Delicious Chocolate Mousse

  • 11/2 cups fat-free half-and-half
  • 1 (1.4-ounce) package fat-free, sugar-free instant chocolate pudding mix
  • 1 8-ounce tub frozen light whipped topping, such as Cool Whip, thawed

In a large bowl, whisk together the half-and-half and pudding until creamy, about 2 minutes. Fold in the whipped topping, reserving 1/4 cup for decoration.

Divide the mousse evenly among individual dessert bowls and refrigerate for 20 minutes, or up to 2 days.

Dollop 1/2 tablespoon reserved whipped topping on each serving.

Per serving: 70 calories, 2 grams protein, 9 grams carbs, 3 grams fat, 0 grams saturated fat, 0 milligrams cholesterol.

Choose a white-fleshed tender fish for this one, whatever's freshest.

Succulent Steamed Fish with Broccoli, Mushrooms and Summer Squash

  • 6 4-ounce fish fillets
  • 3/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground white or black pepper
  • 1 tablespoon chopped fresh basil or parsley
  • 1/2 cup thinly sliced broccoli florets
  • 1/2 cup sliced fresh mushrooms
  • 1/2 thinly sliced yellow squash
  • 1 tablespoon reduced-calorie margarine
  • 6 lemon wedges

Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Tear off a sheet of heavy-duty aluminum foil large enough to hold all ingredients comfortably (about 2 feet long) and coat it with fat-free cooking spray.

Put the fish in the center of the foil and sprinkle with half of the salt, pepper and basil or parsley. Top with broccoli, mushrooms and squash. Sprinkle with the remaining salt, pepper and basil or parsley. Dot with pieces of margarine.

Bring together the long sides of the foil and fold down tightly over the fish. Fold up the short sides of the foil.

Put the packet on a baking sheet and bake until the fish is opaque, 18 to 20 minutes. (It's OK to open the packet to check.)

• Per serving: 130 calories, 19 grams protein, 3 grams carbs, 4 grams fat, 1 gram saturated fat, 40 milligrams cholesterol.