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Heart-healthy comfort food

February 17, 2023 | Valerie Elwell
Berries and yogurt in a bite-sized walnut crust

Berry yogurt crunches are a nutritious, satisfying, heart-healthy dessert. Photos by Jessica VanRoo

February is American Heart Month, a time to raise awareness about heart disease, which remains the No. 1 killer of U.S. men and women and people across most racial and ethnic groups.

Nearly 700,000 Americans died from heart disease in 2020 — that’s one in every five deaths, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Every 40 seconds, someone in the United States has a heart attack.

The key risk factors for heart disease are high blood pressure, high blood cholesterol and smoking. But other medical conditions and lifestyle choices also put people at a greater risk, including diabetes, being overweight and poor diet.

Eating healthier meals is an important step to improving your heart health, says Katie Rankell, a registered dietitian and program director of the UCI Health Weight Management Program.

"Comforting and nutritious, these heart-healthy dishes are not only delicious, they provide steady energy to help stay on track with exercise and weight-loss goals," she adds.

These recipes, designed to soothe your heart and delight your taste buds, were crafted by Jessica VanRoo, executive chef of the Susan Samueli Integrative Health Institute, part of UCI Health.


Collard Greens Lasagna

Serves 6 (Total cost: $14.56/$2.43 per serving)
Calories: 202 per serving

Lasagna made with collard greens has all the flavor of the traditional dish, but less cheese and fat.

Lasagna made with collard greens has all the flavor of the traditional dish, but less cheese and fat.

Collard greens are another a cruciferous, leafy vegetable. This large group of plants is diverse, each providing strong, unique flavors. It is named after the Latin word for crucifix because the blossoms of these plants resemble a cross.

A recent study noted that cruciferous and leafy green vegetables may benefit heart health more than other vegetable families. Another study found that collard greens improved heart health measures like total and LDL cholesterol, as well as systolic blood pressure.

Collard greens may also protect against cancer and improve bone, eye and digestive health.


  • ½ pound collard greens stemmed and washed (larger leaves are best)
  • 4 ounces skim ricotta cheese
  • 3 ounces low-fat cottage cheese
  • 2 ounces skim mozzarella cheese
  • 2 cups marinara sauce or crushed canned tomatoes
  • ½ pound lasagna noodles (substitute whole wheat or gluten-free lasagna noodles or sliced vegetables like zucchini or eggplant for an even healthier version)
  • 4 ounces freshly grated Parmesan


  • In large pot of salted water, bring collard greens to a boil and cook 2 minutes.
  • Dunk leaves into large bowl of water and ice, remove when cool and dry thoroughly with paper towels.
  • Combine ricotta, cottage cheese and mozzarella in a small bowl, mix well and set aside.
  • Preheat oven to 350 degrees, spray lasagna pan with nonstick cooking spray or coat lightly with oil.
  • Spread 1-2 tablespoons of marinara sauce on pan bottom of the pan and add one layer of lasagna noodles.
  • Spread thin coat of cheese mixture on noodles, followed by a layer of collard leaves and topped with more marinara and a little Parmesan.
  • Repeat layers as needed. 
  • Spread remaining marinara and cheese atop last layer of collard greens, cover with foil and bake 30 minutes.
  • Remove foil and continue baking 5-10 minutes or until browned.
  • Remove from oven, let cool at least 10 minutes before cutting and serving.

Helpful hint: This lasagna can be prepared two days in advance and stored in the refrigerator. Add 5-10 minutes to total cooking time if refrigerated.


Vegetarian Japanese Ramen

Serves 4 (Total cost: $17.65/$4.41 per serving)
Calories: 517 per serving

This vegetarian ramen recipe is made with bok choy, bean sprouts and mushrooms in a Japanese broth called dashi.

Umami is considered the fifth taste in food alongside sweet, sour, salt and bitter. It translates to "pleasant savory taste" and has been described as brothy or meaty. This vegetarian ramen recipe — loaded with bok choy, bean sprouts and mushrooms in a Japanese broth called dashi — serves up umami in abundance.

You can taste umami in foods with high levels of the amino acid glutamate, such as seaweed, miso and mushrooms. Glutamate, the most common neurotransmitter in the brain, also is crucial for healthy bones, muscles, gut and the immune system.

Bok choy is a cruciferous vegetable that contains the essential minerals potassium, magnesium and calcium, which work together to help naturally regulate your blood pressure. Unmanaged high blood pressure is a risk factor for developing heart disease. A type of Chinese cabbage, bok choy is also rich in folate and vitamin B6, which can prevent the buildup of homocysteine — a compound that can damage blood vessels and increase the risk of heart disease and stroke if it accumulates.

Bean sprouts can help regulate blood cholesterol levels, reducing “bad” LDL cholesterol, which causes the buildup of artery-clogging plaque. They also can increase “good” HDL cholesterol, which helps clear fatty deposits and lower triglycerides, which may contribute to a thickening of artery walls. 


Dashi base

  • 2 cups water
  • 1 piece kombu, or sea kelp (2 x 4 inches)
  • 3 dried shiitake mushrooms, wiped or brushed clean

Soup broth

  • 5 tablespoons toasted white sesame seeds
  • 3 tablespoons black sesame oil
  • 10 cloves garlic, finely minced
  • 2-inch ginger root, peeled and finely chopped
  • 8 green onions, thinly sliced, separate white and green parts
  • 3 tablespoons doubanjiang (Chinese broad bean paste, spicy or not)
  • 3 tablespoons white or yellow miso (fermented soybean paste)
  • 3 tablespoons sake (alcohol brewed from fermented rice)
  • 8 teaspoons soy sauce
  • 4 cups unsweetened soy milk (only soybeans and water)
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt, more or less to taste
  • Dash of white pepper

Serve with:

  • 16-20 ounces ramen or shirataki noodles
  • 1 cup bean sprouts, blanched
  • 1 cup cooked assorted mushrooms
  • 4 small heads of bok choy, blanched and halved
  • ¼ cup chopped green onion
  • 2 pieces of Chashu tofu per serving

Chashu tofu (optional)

  • 8-ounce block firm or extra firm tofu 


  • 5 tablespoons soy sauce
  • 2 tablespoons mirin (sweet rice wine)
  • 1 tablespoon honey or maple syrup
  • 1½ tablespoons unseasoned rice vinegar
  • 2 teaspoons avocado oil
  • 1 tablespoon minced garlic
  • 1 teaspoon minced ginger


  • 4 tablespoons soy sauce
  • 1 tablespoon honey or maple syrup
  • 2 teaspoons avocado oil
  • ¼ teaspoon liquid smoke



  • Combine water, kombu and shitake mushrooms in pot and soak 45 minutes.
  • Turn on burner and bring mixture to a boil. As the water is about to boil, carefully remove kombu.
  • Reduce heat and simmer 5 minutes.
  • Remove from heat and set aside.

Soup broth:

  • Grind sesame seeds into fine powder with mortar and pestle.
    (A coffee grinder or high-powered blender works but blend sparingly to avoid making a paste!)
  • Heat sesame oil in a pot over medium heat, adding garlic, ginger and green onion whites when oil is hot.
  • Cook 2 minutes, or until fragrant, then add doubanjiang and miso, stirring constantly to prevent burning.
  • Deglaze the mixture with sake, then add sesame seeds and soy sauce and mix well.
  • Slowly add soy milk to the mixture, stirring to dissolve miso and doubanjiang.
  • Add dashi mixture to the pot, bring everything to a simmer and add a dash of white pepper.
  • Remove from heat and serve over noodles and vegetables.

Chashu tofu (optional):

  • Wrap tofu in paper towels then weight it down with a heavy pan for 10-15 minutes to dry.
  • Cut dry tofu into ½-inch slices, place in a shallow bowl and cover completely in marinade.
  • Add more soy sauce if needed to ensure everything is covered in marinade, allow to sit at least one hour, no more than 24 hours.
  • Preheat oven to 375 degrees, line baking sheet with parchment or foil.
  • Lay tofu slices on sheet and bake 15 minutes, flip tofu slices then bake 15 minutes.
  • Remove from oven and cool for at least 4 hours, preferably overnight.
  • To prepare chashu, preheat broiler, line a baking sheet with foil and coat well with oil.
  • Place tofu slices on prepared sheet and drizzle with half the glaze.
  • Broil 4-5 minutes or until golden brown, watching carefully to ensure it doesn't cook too long.
  • Flip tofu over and drizzle with remaining glaze, return to over and bake until golden brown.
  • Serve with rice or over your favorite ramen noodles.

Berry Yogurt Crunches

Makes 12 bites (Total cost: $9.17/$0.76 per serving)
Calories: 149 per serving (2 bites)

Berries and yogurt in a bite-sized walnut crust

These berry yogurt crunches will surely satisfy your craving for a crispy, creamy, fruity dessert in a bite-sized morsel.

The walnut crust is rich in antioxidants and healthy fats. Studies show these nuts also help lower LDL cholesterol, reduce inflammation and improve blood vessel function.

Berries are considered super food because they are rich in antioxidants and other plant compounds that can prevent cell damage, reduce disease risk and fight inflammation.

Frozen berries provide the same nutrients as fresh ones because they were picked and frozen at their peak. Raspberries, strawberries, blackberries and blueberries each offer different vitamins and minerals, so it's good to eat a variety for optimal health benefits.



  • ¼ cup whole-wheat flour or gluten-free substitute
  • 3 tablespoons monk fruit brown sugar
  • ½ cup walnuts, coarsely chopped
  • 1 tablespoon arrowroot powder or cornstarch
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter or plant-based butter


  • ⅓ cup nonfat Greek yogurt
  • 1 tablespoon honey
  • 2 tablespoons frozen berries, defrosted, well drained
  • Chopped nuts or toasted coconut (optional garnish)


  • Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
  • Combine crust ingredients in food processor and mix until well combined and come together in a ball.
  • Oil a mini muffin pan well and press a scant tablespoon of crust into each cavity.
  • Bake crusts 10 minutes or until golden brown, remove from oven, allow to cool completely then remove from pan.
  • Mix filling ingredients well in food processor.
  • When you are ready to serve, spoon yogurt berry mix into each shell.
  • Garnish with toasted coconut or chopped nuts ,if desired.

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