The first time Leslie Eckerling visited her future husband at work, he was up to his elbows in potatoes.
It was 1971, the summer before Gordon Eckerling's sophomore year at the University of Illinois, and he was working as a cook at a Holiday Inn in downtown Chicago.
"I'd met Leslie a few weeks earlier, when I crashed her high school graduation party," Eckerling recalled one recent afternoon as he prepared lasagna in his wife's office in Tustin. "So there I am in the restaurant kitchen, with about 70 pounds of potatoes to peel--a real glamorous job--and in walks this girl I want to impress."
Eckerling shrugged at the memory. Glamorous and impressive it might not have been. But the scrappy premed student deep in spuds couldn't have picked a more appropriate place to court his new love.
Food and cooking are shared interests for the Eckerlings and part of both of their careers. Gordon, a gastroenterologist at Long Beach Memorial Hospital, treats patients with stomach, liver and pancreas problems--most often the result of poor diet. Leslie is a dietitian and cooking instructor.
In the dozen years since they married, Gordon and Leslie have improvised their way through hundreds of recipes, substituting low-fat, high-fiber foods wherever possible while maintaining or improving flavor. Among their frequent substitutions: margarine instead of butter; whole-wheat flour instead of white flour; yogurt instead of cream cheese; egg whites instead of whole eggs.
The Eckerlings are pleased to have passed their healthy eating habits along to their three young children. At home in Tustin, Gordon said, the favorite snack foods are popcorn and apples ("We probably go through a dozen apples a day").
Both busy with their careers, Gordon and Leslie often do a week's worth of cooking on Sunday--baking a turkey that can be nibbled all week, or preparing spaghetti sauce and freezing individual portions. Sometimes, of course, the Eckerling clan goes out to eat.
"Restaurants are kind of tough for us," Gordon said, "because the fat content of the food is very high. If we go to a fish place, I might order a piece of fish, broiled with no butter, served dry, a salad with dressing on the side and a baked potato with nothing on it. The waitress looks at me like I'm crazy! No butter? No sour cream with the potato? What's the matter? This is America!"
Where there's a chicken in every pot--make that a skinless chicken.
GORDON'S LOW-FAT LASAGNA
2 tbsp. olive oil
1 large onion, chopped 2 large cloves garlic, finely cut
1 lb. extra-lean ground beef or veal
1 large can tomatoes
1 medium can tomato sauce
1/2 small can tomato paste
1 tsp. basil
2 tsp. oregano
3 bay leaves (optional)
16 oz. low-fat cottage cheese
8 oz. ricotta cheese
2 egg whites, slightly beaten
cup parsley flakes
cup Parmesan cheese
8 oz. sliced low-fat mozzarella
9 lasagna noodles
In a large pan, cook the garlic and onion in the olive oil until soft. Add meat and cook until browned. Add the tomatoes, tomato sauce, tomato paste, basil, oregano, salt, pepper and bay leaves and simmer for one hour, stirring frequently. After one hour, remove bay leaves.
In a bowl, combine cottage cheese, ricotta cheese, egg whites, parsley flakes and Parmesan cheese. Cook the noodles as directed.
In a lasagna dish, put a layer of meat sauce on the bottom, then noodles (lengthwise), cheese filling, mozzarella cheese. Repeat this, using meat sauce and mozzarella as the top layer.
Bake for 45-50 minutes in a preheated 350-degree oven. Let cool for 10 minutes before serving.